Warren’s “You Emperors, and Others”

Apparently concerned "Promises" may have given too optimistic view of human nature, Warren returned to old themes in "You, Emperors, and Others." In fact, the section begins with a series of poems entitled "Garland for You," you being, apparently, we, we the readers, and, thus, the series is an exploration of human nature. It's not a pretty view.

I liked this opening sequence better than anything in this section, but my favorite poems are those that open and close the series, "Clearly About You," and "The Self that Stares." The simple fact that the poem begins with the epitaph from an unknown Roman citizen suggests that Warren is attempting to diagnose human nature itself:

I. Clearly about You
-On tomb of Roman citizen of no historical importance, under the Empire

Benefac, hoc tecumferes.

Whoever you are, this poem is clearly about you,
For there's nothing else in the world it could be about.
Whatever it says, this poem is clearly true,
For truth is all we are born to, and the truth's out.

You won't look in the mirror? Well-but your face is there
Like a face drowned deep under water, mouth askew,
And tongue in that mouth tastes cold water, not sweet air,
And if it could scream in that medium, the scream would be you.

Your mother preferred the more baroque positions.
Your father's legerdemain marks the vestry accounts.
So you didn't know? Well, it's time you did-though one shuns
To acknowledge the root from which one's own virtue mounts.

In the age of denture and reduced alcoholic intake,
When the crow's dawn-calling stirs memory you'd better eschew,
You will try the cross, or the couch, for balm for the heart's ache-
But that stranger who's staring so strangely, he knows you are you.

Things are getting somewhat out of hand now-light fails on the marshes.
In the back lot the soft-faced delinquents are whistling like snipe.
The apples you stored in the cellar are acerb and harsh as
The heart that on bough of the bosom all night will not ripe.

Burn this poem, though it wring its small hands and cry alack.
But no use, for in bed, into your pajama pocket,
It will creep, and sleep as snug as a field mouse in haystack,
And its heart to your heart all night make a feather-soft racket.


I suspect the opening stanza grabbed me before I had a chance to truly realize what the theme of the poem was because, for me, at least, the best poetry is always clearly about "me," not just because I'm self-centered, though I probably am, but because the best poetry is about human nature itself and because I'd like to believe that poetry, and art in general, does a better job of revealing truth, whatever that may be, then anything else.

By the second stanza, I'd begun to have some doubts whether Warren's vision of truth and of "me" really coincided with my view. Still, I have little doubt that there are certain "truths" about myself that I really don't want to see. It's not too difficult to imagine, considering the current state of world affairs, that our forefathers may, like ourselves, have had some questionable motives for what they did.

By the last stanza Warren is right on, because I do want to deny that this is what I'm like, but he's equally right that at moments, in my worst nightmares, I do fear my own motives.

The sequence ends with an equally chilling vision of human nature, rounding out the vision shared in the first poem:

VIII. The Self That Stares

John Henry said to the Captain, "A man ain't nothing but a man."
A folk ballad

Have you seen that brute trapped in your eye
When he realizes that he, too, will die?
Stare into the mirror, stare
At his dawning awareness there.
If man, put razor down, and stare.
If woman, stop lipstick in mid-air.
Yes, pity makes that gleam you gaze through-
Or is that brute now pitying you?
Time unwinds like a falling spool.
We have learned little in that school.

No, nothing, nothing, is ever learned
Till school is out and the books are burned,
And then the lesson will be so sweet
All you will long for will be to repeat
All the sad, exciting process
By which ignorance grew less
In all that error and gorgeous pain
That you may not live again.
What is that lesson? To recognize
The human self naked in your own eyes.

There is undeniably a part of us, a physical self, perhaps even a "brute," though I'll admit to being a little more accepting of the physical side of myself than Warren seems to be, that is terrified by death. And certainly when the thought of death arrives, it's difficult not to feel at least a little "self-pity." And at my age, time does seem to unwind "like a falling spool."

Having taught 30 years, I can certainly believe that "nothing, nothing, is ever learned/ Till school is out and the books are burned," though I'm not at all sure that Warren is really referring to "school" here, unless all of life can be seen as a form of "schooling." Is it death itself that will make us long for all the "excting" mistakes in life that, despite the pain they caused, made us just a little smarter and gave life its meaning.?

In his introduction, Harold Bloom said, "At their strongest, Warren's poems win their contest with the American Sublime and find a place with Melville's best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant, Emersonian tradition." While I'm not sure it's a compliment for a poet's poems to be compared to Melville's poems, at his best, Warren does seem to offer the same kinds of insight into the frailties of human nature that Melville does.

What do you think?