The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Memorial for the City” is a four-part meditation of 147 lines dedicated to the memory of Charles Williams, the English Christian theologian who died in 1945. The “City” of the title is all cities as they aspire to become “the City of God,” as in the epigram quoted from Juliana of Norwich (c. 1342-1420).

Part 1 takes the view of a crow alternating with the lens of a camera; neither the animal nor the machine recognizes a spiritual dimension. Their view is that of Homer (c. eighth century b.c.e.), who narrated a world without the “meaning” of history since Christ. A crow can sit atop a crematorium and not care what is burning, in the same way that a camera can cover a battle without passion. Events of destruction and despair simply happen, from burning towns to weeping town officials. Natural beauty is the continuing, indifferent landscape for human suffering—the result is a deceptive picture of reality.

The Roman poet Vergil (70-19 b.c.e.) marked the period of transition from pre-Christian to Christian Rome. That city is in ruins after the devastation of World War II, but its destruction does not produce in us the grief of ancient Greeks. Pagan and Classical culture is history as “a chaos of graves”; the present state of postwar Europe suggests a future of “barbed-wire” stretching ahead without end. In concentration camps for prisoners of war and displaced persons, we bury the dead and bear misfortunes with a fortitude that we do not understand.

The second part catalogs Christian history to explain the present refusal to despair. Emperors and popes struggled with...

(The entire section is 688 words.)