Saturday, November 21, 2015


The Epigrapher

E.J. Pratt (1882-1964), "The Epigrapher," Complete Poems, I (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), pp. 91-92:
His head was like his lore — antique,
His face was thin and sallow-sick,
With god-like accent he could speak
Of Egypt's reeds or Babylon's brick
Or sheep-skin codes in Arabic.

To justify the ways divine,
He had travelled Southern Asia through —
Gezir down in Palestine,
Lagash, Ur and Eridu,
The banks of Nile and Tigris too.

And every occult Hebrew tale
He could expound with learned ease,
From Aaron's rod to Jonah's whale.
He had held the skull of Rameses —
The one who died from boils and fleas.

Could tell how — saving Israel's peace —
The mighty Gabriel of the Lord
Put sand within the axle-grease
Of Pharaoh's chariots; and his horde
O'erwhelmed with water, fire and sword.

And he had tried Behistun Rock,
That Persian peak, and nearly clomb it;
His head had suffered from the shock
Of somersaulting from its summit —
Nor had he quite recovered from it.

From that time onward to the end,
His mind had had a touch of gloom;
His hours with jars and coins he'd spend,
And ashes looted from a tomb, —
Within his spare and narrow room.

His day's work done, with the last rune
Of a Hammurabi fragment read,
He took some water spiced with prune
And soda, which imbibed, he said
A Syrian prayer, and went to bed.


And thus he trod life's narrow way, —
   His soul as peaceful as a river —
His understanding heart all day
   Kept faithful to a stagnant liver.

When at last his stomach went by default,
   His graduate students bore him afar
To the East where the Dead Sea waters are,
   And pickled his bones in Eternal Salt.
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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