Saturday, March 31, 2012


At Marathon

Guy Davenport (1927-2005), At Marathon, in Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), p. 25 (line numbers added):
Marianne Moore saluted the battlefield.
Her frail hand at the brim of her hat
round as a platter, she stood at attention
in her best Brooklyn Navy Yard manner,
or as years before she and Jim Thorpe        5
raised the school flag at Carlisle.
Here in long scarlet cloaks the ranks
advanced with ashlared shields, singing
to the thrashed drums and squealing fife
the pitiless hymn of Apollo the Wolf,        10
spears forward, horsetails streaming
from the masked helmets with unearthly eyes.
The swordline next and the javelineers,
More red cloaks, Ares wild in their blades.
The javelins whistled up like partridges        15
flushed in a brake and fell like sleet.
The Persians bored in, an auger of hornets.
The Greeks flowed around their thrust
as fire eats a stick. Wise to the ruse,
the Persians pulled back to the sea        20
and made hard in their ships for Athens,
which, the Greek army there on the plain,
lay naked to their will, tomorrow’s victory.
But the Greeks were there on the morrow
to cut them back. They had run all the way        25
from Marathon, twenty miles, in bronze.
Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-five
years ago. There are things one must not
leave undone, such as coming from Brooklyn
in one’s old age to salute the army        30
at Marathon. What are years?
Marianne Moore (1887-1972) toured Greece in 1962 with Frances and Norvelle Browne. This poem apparently commemorates a visit by Moore to Marathon during this trip. Davenport's arithmetic (lines 27-28) would thus be approximate, as the Battle of Marathon took place in 490 BC.

Moore taught athlete Jim Thorpe (1888-1953) at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (lines 5-6). I haven't seen Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler, "Impostors and Chameleons: Marianne Moore and the Carlisle Indian School," Paideuma 33 (2004) 53-82.

At first line 8 ("ashlared shields") struck me as a bit odd, as ashlar is cut stone, and shields aren't made of stone, but on the other hand a phalanx of soldiers carrying shields might resemble ashlar masonry.

Line 10 ("the pitiless hymn of Apollo the Wolf") presumably refers to the paean, although if one can trust W. Kendrick Pritchett, "The Marching Paian," in The Greek State at War, Part I (1971; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 105-108, there is no evidence that the paean was sung before the Battle of Marathon.

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