July 17, 2015

Old Gods


Owls — they whinny down the night;
Bats go zigzag by.
Ambushed in shadow beyond sight
The outlaws lie.

Old gods, tamed to silence, there
In the wet woods they lurk,
Greedy of human stuff to snare
In nets of murk.

Look up, else your eye will drown
In a moving sea of black;
Between the tree-tops, upside down,
Goes the sky-track.

Look up, else your feet will stray
Toward that dim ambuscade
Where spider-like they trap their prey
With webs of shade.

For though creeds whirl away in dust,
Faith dies and men forget,
These agèd gods of power and lust
Cling to life yet —

Old gods almost dead, malign,
Starving for unpaid dues:
Incense and fire, salt, blood and wine
And a drumming muse,

Banished to woods and a sickly moon,
Shrunk to mere bogey things,
Who spoke with thunder once at noon
To prostrate kings

With thunder from an open sky
To warrior, virgin, priest,
Bowing in fear with a dazzled eye
Toward the dread East —

Proud gods, humbled, sunk so low,
Living with ghosts and ghouls,
And ghosts of ghosts and last year’s snow
And dead toadstools.

        It’s poetry time again, and this dark piece is by Robert Graves.  Graves is primarily known as the author of I, Claudius and other historical novels.  I’m not sure when he first wrote the poem, but he revised it heavily around 1938, and I believe this is the later version, which I think is indeed better.  (You can find the other version on the web, too.)  He had a special interest in Classical mythology, but I don’t know that this poem conjures up the gods of Olympus for me.  The gods here in the wet woods are even older, although they could include Pan, Bacchus, Selene, Medusa, as well as any prehistoric gods of dark power.  As a fantasy poem, I find its imagery very evocative.

[Picture: Satyrs, linocut by Sarah Young (Image from Sarah Young’s web site).]

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