The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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In the opening song, the Leader, unidentified, describes the foaling of a colt under bronze tree leaves. A passing Stranger places bitter berries in the Speaker’s hands. The Speaker’s exclamations evoke far-off provinces, the call of a trumpet, and winged movement. From the bronze tree comes a great noise, forces of life and death expressing themselves, as the Stranger beckons to roads leading to unknown destinations.

In canto 1, the Leader recounts how, with honor and dignity, he founded his law and built a primitive society in a coastal region, not yet knowing the name of the sun but realizing the potential of humanity to dream of achieving glory. The Leader declares that he will spend one more year among his followers, not because he wishes to trace towns along the sloping landscape but because he desires to live in the community he created. The Leader communicates the aspirations of his people, spiritual and eternal, to strive to discover the unknown, to uncover the cosmic forces that feed humanity’s desires. He repeats his intent to stay for one more year among his own, although recognizing that his glory is upon the seas.

In canto 2, the Leader and his followers walk along slopes covered in the linen of the Greats, exposed to the air. The Leader speaks of a man’s desire for a woman and her daughter, a primordial impulse liberated by a sea breeze that blows inland, scattering the linen like a priest torn into pieces.

In canto 3, at barley harvest, the Leader recounts how visiting foreign dignitaries ate at a table at his door. The Assayer of Weights and Measures, with the remains of insects and bits of straw in his beard, returns after surveying the flora and fauna of the region. A society that is no longer nomadic is being founded. Illuminated by the Sun’s power, the natural order is challenged by the newly organized forces of civilization. The Leader speaks of the danger of illusion, of questioning the reality of things. As a man of action, the Leader condemns idle contemplation of one’s sadness and begins to specify the members of this new society: princes, ministers, captains, priests, grammarians, and tailors. Finally, the Leader, enveloped by the strong smells of the world around him, condemns the contemplation of death in the present.

The founding of the City, built of stone and bronze, is described by the Leader in canto 4. No longer surrounded by encampments on the hills, the unidentified port city receives tall ships laden with grain. However, in the midst of the bustling activity, a dead ass floats in the port’s dead water, a sign of the stagnation and destruction that might befall this civilization. Blacksmiths, mules, bankers, the druggist’s wares, festivals, and tumults are contrasted to those who, keeping watch on the hillside, refuse to become part of the City. A dealer in flasks like his father, a sole man strides forth toward the beginning of the desert.

Following the foundation of the City, the Leader feels the need of solitude and the desire to depart in canto 5. Squadrons of stars beckon to him, and at dawn the Stranger of the opening song reappears, and the colt, born in the opening song, nuzzles its chin into the hands of a child. The sudden presence of the Stranger, embodiment of transcendental forces, suggests the imminent departure of those wishing to continue their nomadic discoveries.

The Leader, now a powerful military governor, enjoys omnipotence and triumph against invading forces. In canto 6, a call to the horsemen, now dismounted among the crops, is heard. Future expeditions to impoverished, weakened countries are near at hand.

The Leader describes the ephemeral nature of civilization. In canto 7, all is transient; of this the Leader is acutely aware. Like camels, hills march in silence toward this civilization, kneeling at the plains as a beckoning force. Evoking deserts, they invite nomadic wanderings. Voices proclaim the erection of protecting walls as the shadow of a great bird,...

(The entire section is 1,104 words.)