Saturday, August 2, 2008

Ah, the golden age!

There's a poem I remember vaguely from college about ships. I can't even remember who wrote it. There are three verses. The first begins with something like, "Quinquireme from Ninevah." The second begins, "Stately Spanish galleon." The third begins, "Dirty British steamer with a salt-caked smokestack." (All quotes approximate)
Partly, of course, the poet is in love with language. Partly though, he's contrasting the grace and beauty of the past with the prosaic clunkiness of the present. The quinquireme is carrying precious cargo, ditto the galleon, but the steamer is carrying "cheap tin trays."
Never mind that the quinguireme is being rowed by slaves with the life expectancy of a may fly and the galleon is on its way to Spain with treasure looted from the natives (well, they did give them disease in payment). And never mind that cheap tin trays means everyone can afford one. No, the past was always better than the present -- Those were the days, weren't they Archie?
Both presidential candidates will occasionally want us to go back -- to values, to attitudes, to whatever. Well, I have news for them. Not only can you not go back, you shouldn't want to. Anyone who thinks that the past was better than the present is, how shall I say this---nuts. Think a downtown is dangerous after dark? You should have lived in 18th C London, when gangs openly roamed the streets and going out meant going armed. Think too many people are dying in Iraq? How about 53,000 in three days at Gettysburg? Think modern medicine is bad? Would you like your local barber to bleed you if you're sick? Think we have drug problems? Does the phrase opium den (they were legal) mean anything to you?
The world is, by and large, getting better for larger and larger segments of the population. Those who live in dire poverty now are living about the same way everybody lived 300 years ago, and nearly everybody lived 100 years ago.
'Tain't perfect. But it's chugging along. Let's push ahead rather than dragging back.

2 comments:

bekkieann said...

I had to look it up. Great visualization in each verse.

CARGOES

QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

John Masefield

On both your houses said...

Isn't that a great poem? I love every thing about it, except the fact that it's so distorted.