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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Each part of “Memorial for the City” is composed of a different verse form: first is an irregular, measured verse in three stanzas rhyming only on concluding couplets; second are nine regular, unrhymed stanzas of seven lines each; third are five regular, rhymed stanzas of six lines each; fourth are eighteen long, unrhymed lines, each line a completed sentence, most beginning with “I.”

This variety of verse forms reinforces the variation of history, a main subject of the poem. Yet the primary device for developing the poem is an ironic use of metaphorical images of sight: from the balancing of crow and camera, with their cold, two-dimensional views of a static nature, to the mocking mirror between viewer and the Image of Adam, to the mirrors and photographers of Metropolis. One must break through the animal view, the mechanical vision; one must look past the mirror that reflects, to find the constant Image of impersonal Adam shared by all humanity.

The central symbolic image examined through the eyes of the crow, the lens of the camera, and in the reflection of history’s mirror is the City. The poem marks the changing character of cities by abstracting a representative feature of the city at each significant phase of its development, turning that feature into an epithet, and capitalizing both epithet and city to suggest a personified entity: thus, European history is a movement of changing characters, from the “Post-Vergilian City,” to the “Sinful City,” “Rational City,” “abolished City,” and, beckoning all, the city Adam awaits, “the City of God.”

An effective way to identify each city with its special historical era is to cite a person whose life contributed a particular quality to mark the city. Pope Gregory identifies the city in the sixth century; Martin Luther names it in the sixteenth century; and Mirabeau transforms it in the eighteenth century. Persons of history, however, become mixed with characters of myth, legend, and literature in the last section of the poem: from Prometheus to Captain Ahab. Such devices shape a poem of dense allusion to a history more product than producer of imagination.