“Beleaguered Cities”

A Poem from My Latest (Re-)Discovery

A Poem from My Latest (Re-)Discovery

On August 4, I wrote a Serendipity posting entitled In Praise of the Short Biography. It was around then that I began reading F. L. Lucas’s In Search of Good Sense: Four Eighteenth Century Characters—Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell, and Goldsmith. I have now finished the book and fallen quite in love with it. Lucas is the ultimate classicist: There is not even the slightest whiff of the postmodern about him.

I actually find that quite refreshing. Lucas died in 1967. In the early 1960s, he was a name to be reckoned with. I read and loved his book Style while I was in High School, and it had (I hope) a beneficial influence on my own writing style.

Having rediscovered him by sheer chance (scanning the literature stacks of L.A.’s Central Library), I want to read some more of his work in he next year. Below is his most famous poem, entitled “Beleaguered Cities” (1929):

Build your houses, build your houses, build your towns,
Fell the woodland, to a gutter turn the brook,
Pave the meadows, pave the meadows, pave the downs,
Plant your bricks and mortar where the grasses shook,
The wind-swept grasses shook.

Build, build your Babels black against the sky—
But mark yon small green blade, your stones between,
The single spy
Of that uncounted host you have outcast;
For with their tiny pennons waving green
They shall storm your streets at last.

Build your houses, build your houses, build your slums,
Drive your drains where once the rabbits used to lurk,
Let there be no song there save the wind that hums
Through the idle wires while dumb men tramp to work,
Tramp to their idle work,
Silent the siege; none notes it; yet one day
Men from your walls shall watch the woods once more
Close round their prey.

Build, build the ramparts of your giant town;
Yet they shall crumble to the dust before
The battering thistle-down.

As one who has spent many years visiting Mayan and other ruins, I find Lucas’s poetic vision to be profound. He is, after all, a scholar of Classical Greece and Rome who is familiar with many of the ancient sites.