Observations both Literal and Inferred on The Course of Empire, 1833-36, by Thomas Cole


The Savage State

THE foreground is dark, sublime, and savage.
Storm-clouds roll up towards the right. The ledge
reflects the setting or the rising sun.
The turquoise waters crash; the storm’s not done.
One bounding buck leaps over a green creek.
One brutal hunter, chiseled like a Greek
stone statue of a herculean man
wields a long-bow in his outstretched left hand.
There’re tee-pees and a fire on the right:
a semblance of domestic warmth and light
in this emergent, Paleolithic state,
wild and rough and rugged, if irate.
Adam, out of Eden, with all his kin,
who Cole paints as a white-skinned Indian.




The Pastoral or Arcadian State

LIKE the storm, Cain’s gone, that murderous rover.
The land is cleared, trees are felled, the clover
and grass (that terrestrial plankton) grow
naturally, unlike the crops we sow.
The rain, the sun, the fertile loam nurtures
this Neolithic town’s verdant pastures.
They raise white sheep, white togas women wear;
a man is plowing with an ox; the air
is post-storm fresh; an old man pokes at dirt
sagaciously while Holy Fire’s girt
by a Doric, crude columned-thing atop
the plateau where the tee-pees were. They stop
their running over land: They build some boats
as leisure, love, and calm seas raise their hopes.




The Consummation of Empire

PAST’RAL simplicity—for Classical
complex white structures—’s doffed. Symmetrical
domes gilded with gold and marble lambent,
Corinthian columns— Caesar planned it.
It’s glowing whitely. It is beautiful:
The ferns in urns. Doubtless reputable
drapers who sell the sails and fabric pink,
peachy, purple, and soft like silk, I think
are rich. They all are. There is a statue.
The bay is like a mirror. The sky is blue.
The fountain signifies outpouring wealth.
But the staid rock seems leery of their health:
their excess leisure which turns into sloth,
lust, gluttony. Their mouths begin to froth.





IT’S not Sublime; it’s Death; it’s Terrible!
It’s the augured Sickness transmittable
because of myriad sins rife in this world:
Greed, pride, envy, wrath, are all here unfurled,
as barbarians in Viking-like ships
storm and raid and plunder! Red fire rips
through Caesar’s City while the sable smoke
billows up toward the leaden sky! The yoke
of slavery is imminent for those
who aren’t raped and drowned. The indisposed
take their own lives, jumping into the sea.
The rock still means: Immutability,
as compared to evanescent mankind
who winds itself up, if only to unwind.





THEN it’s over; it’s evening. The doves hoot
in the sagebrush, tangled thickets, then scoot
with iridescent necks up to some spot
where they now nest amidst the marble’s rot.
The air breathes well. The Romantic ruins
are consumed by ivy, moss. Coy bruins
slink down from the high hills to roll the stones
of ancient relics looking for old bones
to gnaw on, grubs, or leftover honey,
not caring one hair for all the money
bestrewn upon the dirt. The placid sea
reflects the moonshine. This is how it’ll be
when the Flood ebbs, when Life begins again.
Dame Nature is a swift Custodian.


Reid McGrath is a poet living in the Hudson Valley of New York.

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