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Charles Maurras (1868-1952) was a highly influential French poet, essayist, and political journalist. He edited the rightist paper Action Française, and was a member of the French Academy. He wrote that the most important event in his life was an epiphany at the Parthenon in 1896, where he came to a full realization of the incalculable value of European civilization, and the need to defend it against all enemies, political and ideological.

The pure air of a mild Aegean day—
Through the peristyle light filters, falls
Here where Athena, gold-and-ivory,
Held weaving, war, and wisdom in her hand.

From this marble shell I look and see
THE GODS THEMSELVES, formed out of moving clouds,
Utterly lucid, blue-white of the sky.
Look up! Look up and see the gods! I cried,
But Saul of Tarsus knew his business well
And thought his thoughts without a moment’s pause;
GOD HIMSELF in earthly, vibrant colors
Passed over like a comet in its course.

What have I to do with these disputes,
Hebraic wranglings over the unknown?
This littoral favors clustered grapes and olives
And habits of the clear Ionian mind—
Not the arid desert’s thorns that thrive
Where raving winds sweep, harsh and biting, through
Wastes wailing with the cry of nomad blood-debt.
Here the soritical aqueduct, and not
The mute intuition of a lone oasis;
We breed ontology, and may hell take
Hallucinators of apocalypse.

Anthropos provides supreme proportion:
The human form in compass, square, and circle
Drawn in Vitruvian analogy—
Hands and limbs and eyes and golden brow,
Vision and versatility conjoined.
The strictly chastened geometric line
Proceeds from an imagined, unseen point
That reason postulates, and then confirms.
Columns, arches, and the written word
Echo what is planned out and approved.
I saw Apollo’s cool and measured hand
Turn in reflection of all I had seen,
For here in Hellas, intelligence is keen,
Unlike the quaking, superstitious world.

Beyond these limits, barbarism reigns:
Nomads scrubbing sticks to start a fire,
Fetishists huddling round the smoking embers
Urging them to flame with half-choked breath
As hatred smoulders in the stomach’s pit—
Stupidity and enthusiasm rule,
The hunchbacked brain, the epileptic leap,
The tom-toms and the chipped flint arrowheads.

Here in Athens, at the Parthenon,
I see the focal point of what we are—
Reason and balance, order and control:
The lighthouse in the all-surrounding dark.
Only within this city’s circumscription
Dare we raise our eyes to the Divine.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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11 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    As an accomplished classicist, you understand as well as any and better than most how far we have fallen from the Golden Age of Greece. Though they were pagans, they understood and exemplified godly virtues in ways rarely in evidence today. Yes, we had our Renaissance, but that was centuries ago, and was a recapitulation of what the ancient Greeks had somehow produced pretty much ex nihilo.

    I am curious why, in stanza 5, line 2 you used the word “scrubbing” instead of “rubbing,” which is the normal expression, as in starting a fire by “rubbing two sticks together.” I will tell you this: It’s not easy to do — that’s why they invented lucifers.

    Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Dear Kip —

    Many thanks. I was thinking that if no comments came up after ten hours, I should post the words “Sounds of crickets chirping.”

    Yes, I hesitated about using “scrubbing” instead of “rubbing.” But there is a good reason why I chose the former word. The consonant cluster of /scr/ has a harsh and nasty phonic tone to it. I wanted it to emphasize the vile barbarism noted in that penultimate section of the poem, where Maurras describes the savage non-Western world.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Yes, Joseph, the scr consonant cluster does indeed seem to inhabit some “nasty” lexemes in English. “Scruffy,” “scream,” “scrap” and “scrofula” come immediately to mind.

      Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, your poem is quite breathtaking in its rich array of language, its use of poetic device to create an aural marvel of a piece, and most of all, its message which tugs at my heart in a society now seemingly blind to beauty and the significance of our culture and history.

    I particularly like the the musicality of terms such as; “mute intuition of a lone oasis” with its exceptional use of consonance and assonance. And, thank you, C.B., for asking the scrubbing/rubbing question. I often use sound to emphasize a message in my poetry and relate wholeheartedly.

    As for the “crickets chirping”… just to let you know, when I am humbled by the sheer magnificence of a poem, I often feel my comments will somehow undermine the poet’s efforts… I’m thinking this now, and only hope I’ve managed to get half of what I feel across.

    Thank you for your superb poem and your inspiration.

    Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Many thanks, Susan. And the phrase “mute intuition of a lone oasis” was pure inspiration, and came to me in a dream.

    “It is true indeed, that given all the years of its existence, the Parthenon does not require anything of us. It is we, who require the Parthenon’s help to continue to evolve in our lives.”

    –Charles Maurras

    Reply
  5. Margaret Coats

    I see and admire the Parthenon in the first stanza here, but after that, this difficult, demanding poem seems all Maurras homme–complex, influential while evolving, love-hate figure that he was. You say, Joseph, that the barbarism portion of this piece describes the savage non-Western world, but “hatred smoulders in the stomach’s pit” applies to Maurras himself on more than one level. His intelligence was keen, and he surely lacked a “quaking, superstitious” soul. But like too many proponents of Western culture, for most of his life other things were too important for him to raise his eyes to the Divine. Long-dead gods, re-created in our own images, absorb us, and leave us with no answer when the bullhorns shout, “Western Civ has got to go.” This is no reflection on you, or even much of one on Maurras, who struggled with his demons on major issues that few are willing to confront. You present the man exceedingly well.

    Reply
  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Don’t get me angry, Margaret. It’s not safe. Maurras was an agnostic, but he is a monumentally heroic figure. He knew that the very essence of French identity was inextricably entwined with its Catholicism, and despite his personal religious doubts he fought fiercely to defend that identity against the same enemies that we face today. And what did the bloody, swiving Vatican do? IT STABBED HIM IN THE BACK, and destroyed the only effective rightist organization in France at a crucial period in European history. The stench that emanates from the Vatican today comes from precisely that same class of sail-trimming liberal prelates who engineered the blatantly political condemnation of Action Francaise. These were the same class of morality-mongering clerics who destroyed Parnell in Ireland, just because he had a mistress.

    I’d trade every single damned Novus Ordo bishop in our church for ONE Charles Maurras.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      And if the other side were willing to make that trade, then you would certainly have gotten the better part of the deal. I completely empathize with your pain, because betrayal is a theme that’s running rampant in today’s culture. Where is “the seed of vengeance with its red cathartic claws” when we most need it?

      Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    My comment on the poem is fair, Joseph. You as author have presented Charles Maurras at a decisive point in his life, and chosen to fill your presentation with material relating to his search for the Divine. In your reply to my comment, you bring forward prime examples of those whom I criticize for placing politics above the spiritual dimension of our civilization, and who thus fail in their duties toward God and toward Western culture. As for Maurras himself, I will not call him an agnostic. He was a baptized and confirmed Catholic who never apostatized. As you say, he honored the Faith he did not practice during much of his life, and I will merely add that he reverted to Faith and practice near his life’s end. He may have been ill served by those responsible for the care of his soul, but although pastors and heroes bear significant responsibility, we each answer for ourselves.
    Thank God for granting him time to use as he himself chose for the grace of a good end.

    Reply
  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    No one said that your comment on the poem was unfair. It’s your commentary on Charles Maurras himself that raises my ire.

    The faith or non-faith of the man was only an issue between himself and God. (Even Voltaire had a deathbed conversion.) And whether Maurras nurtured any “hate” is also a private matter, though I would add that hate is absolutely essential in effective real-world politics, as we are all going to find out very quickly in the next four years.

    You seem more exercised by these personal elements in the man Maurras, rather than in facing the scandalous short-circuiting of Action Francaise by a small-minded and stupid Vatican — a Vatican more interested in sucking up to an anticlerical French government in 1926 than in supporting a vigorous and vital renewal of integral nationalism that thousands of French and Francophone Catholics supported.

    Cardinal Billot resigned his red hat and retired when Pius XI came out with this pointless and destructive condemnation. At least there was one courageous member of the hierarchy.

    Reply
  9. Margaret Coats

    You write a poem imagining the interior thoughts of a man at a significant moment of his life, and expect little interest in personal elements? I am in fact more interested in those than in the later unjust actions of ill-judging enemies. Sorry to have raised your ire, as this is unlikely to do anyone any good–but you are raising mine by likening the latter life of a man I do admire to that of Voltaire.

    Maurras and you and I all received a slap on the face from a bishop to remind us that necessary confession of our Faith might involve suffering. We were all taught precepts of the Church as the minimal practical ways in which confession is expected–and each of these little more-or-less public confessions is something good, by which we can receive God’s grace, increase our merit, and develop virtue.

    As for the failures of Churchmen in 1926 or at any other time, what do you want me to say? You should know how I think of them, and know as well that I don’t speak about them with the same language as you. Let me be a useful contrast. Above, I have already spoken of them as failures in duties to God and to Western culture. Surely we both recognize the hierarchy of the Church as persons bound by their ordination to defend the very bases of civilization.

    Reply

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