What is Carl Dennis trying to convey in his poem World History?
In his poem Loss, Carl Dennis expresses his very visceral reservations about the capacity of mankind to inhabit the earth without plunging it into some kind of turmoil:
Be like those angels said to enjoy the earth
As a summer retreat before man entered the picture,
Staggering under his sack of boundary stones.
And, in the following passages from Unfolding, he expresses his pessimism again regarding the plight of the lower classes under the formidable weight of those above them on the infinitely amoral upper rungs of society, albeit with the expression of optimism that seems to hold out hope for redemption:
If there is no spirit unfolding itself in history,
No gradual growth of consciousness
Beneath the land grabs and forced migrations,
The bought elections, the betrayal of trust
By party factioin in the name of progress--
What about spirit in the personal realm
Unfolding slowly inside us, so slowly
That our best days seem like a holding action?
But who's to say what you might notice
If the scroll of the last few months were unrolled
On the table before you, how clear it might be
That your understanding of all your're losing
In losing him has been slowly deepening?
Dennis’s poetry is replete with passages that convey a sort of pessimism regarding man’s interaction with man, but he is not entirely cynical. He is seemingly not of the mind that humanity is prone towards actions that reflect what President Lincoln called in his first inaugural address “the better angels of our nature.” In Native Son, he laments that “in this dark meantime, Satan has taken over.” And so it is with World History, a canvas so expansive that one cannot help but be forlorn about mythical earlier and better times. Dennis is clearly well-read in and sensitive to the vagaries of his subject, and his poem is bleak and pessimistic in his assessment of humanity’s capacity to evolve for the better. Reflecting back on the Great War (later to be designated World War I in deference to the new world war just underway at the time of his birth), Dennis laments the apparent inability of individuals to affect change in the face of the overwhelming might of the great nations in their endless pursuit of war. As he writes in his third stanza:
To wonder, after a month without one convert,
If other people exist, if they share the world
That you inhabit, if you’ve merely dreamed them
To keep from feeling lonely – that’s enough
To make the silence that falls when you stop preaching
A valley of shadow you fear to pass through.
World History begins with Dennis’ reflection on the failure of mankind to lean towards its better angels as Europe moved inexorably towards war – a war grounded in the worst instincts of man:
Better believe ten thousand angels
Can tango on the head of a pin and not feel crowded
Than believe it’s time for the Austro-Hungarian Empire
To teach the Serbs a lesson they’ll never forget
For shooting the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo
Dennis seems to be saying that those seemingly inexorable forces that march towards global conflagration have their roots in the fallacies and moral weaknesses that are prevalent across the ages. When he asks “Will anyone dare to look weak and womanish?” he is issuing an indictment of the world’s leaders, who seek to present themselves as strong and dominant so as not to appear weak and feeble in the eyes of others – a phenomenon that helps drive that march to war. Better to look strong and hold one’s ground rather than posit a more diplomatic posture that invites aggression. Neville Chamberlain’s name is remembered because he dared to hold up an umbrella and suggest that the Munich Agreement he signed with Hitler promised “peace in our time.” That agreement, we all know, invited Hitler’s further advances into other nations and small wars turned into the biggest in history. Dennis again asks rhetorically, “Will anyone be the first to admit what looked before like a little war in the making looks now like it’s going to be a big one?” The First World War (we can call it that now that we’ve had the second one) was a product of individuals fumbling about amidst a continent preparing for major geopolitical transformations.