For Louis Pasteur

By Edgar Bowers 1924–2000 Edgar Bowers

“Who is Apollo?” College student

How shall a generation know its story   
If it will know no other? When, among   
The scoffers at the Institute, Pasteur
Heard one deny the cause of child-birth fever,   
Indignantly he drew upon the blackboard,   
For all to see, the Streptococcus chain.   
His mind was like Odysseus and Plato   
Exploring a new cosmos in the old   
As if he wrote a poem—his enemy
Suffering, disease, and death, the battleground   
His introspection. “Science and peace,” he said,   
“Will win out over ignorance and war,”   
But then, the virus mutant in his vein,
“Death to the Prussian!” and “revenge, revenge!”

How shall my generation tell its story?   
Their fathers jobless, boys for the CCC
And NYA, the future like a stairwell
To floors without a window or a door,
And then the army: bayonet drill and foxhole;   
Bombing to rubble cities with textbook names   
Later to bulldoze streets for; their green bodies   
Drowned in the greener surfs of rumored France.
My childhood friend, George Humphreys, whom I still see
Still ten years old, his uncombed hair and grin   
Moment by moment in the Hürtgen dark   
Until the one step full in the sniper’s sight,   
His pastor father emptied by the grief.   
Clark Harrison, at nineteen a survivor,   
Never to walk or have a child or be   
A senator or governor. Herr Wegner,   
Who led his little troop, their standards high   
And sabers drawn, against a panzer corps,   
Emerging from among the shades at Dachau
Stacked like firewood for someone else to burn;   
And Gerd Radomski, listening to broadcasts   
Of names, a yearlong babel of the missing,
To find his wife and children. Then they came home,   
Near middle age at twenty-two, to find   
A new reunion of the church and state,   
Cynical Constantines who need no name,   
Domestic tranquility beaten to a sword,   
Sons wasted by another lie in Asia,   
Or Strangeloves they had feared that August day;   
And they like runners, stung, behind a flag,   
Running within a circle, bereft of joy.

Hearing of the disaster at Sedan
And the retreat worse than the one from Moscow,   
Their son among the missing or the dead,   
Pasteur and his wife Mary hired a carriage   
And, traveling to the east where he might try   
His way to Paris, stopping to ask each youth   
And comfort every orphan of the state’s   
Irascibility, found him at last
And, unsurprised, embraced and took him in.   
Two wars later, the Prussian, once again   
The son of Mars, in Paris, Joseph Meister—
The first boy cured of rabies, now the keeper   
Of Pasteur’s mausoleum—when commanded   
To open it for them, though over seventy,   
Lest he betray the master, took his life.

I like to think of Pasteur in Elysium   
Beneath the sunny pine of ripe Provence   
Tenderly raising black sheep, butterflies,   
Silkworms, and a new culture, for delight,   
Teaching his daughter to use a microscope
And musing through a wonder—sacred passion,   
Practice and metaphysic all the same.
And, each year, honor three births: Valéry,   
Humbling his pride by trying to write well,   
Mozart, who lives still, keeping my attention   
Repeatedly outside the reach of pride,   
And him whose mark I witness as a trust.   
Others he saves but could not save himself—
Socrates, Galen, Hippocrates—the spirit   
Fastened by love upon the human cross.

Edgar Bowers, “For Louis Pasteur” from Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Copyright © 1997 by Edgar Bowers. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Edgar Bowers.

Source: Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)

 Edgar  Bowers


Edgar Bowers was born in 1924 in Rome, Georgia and earned his BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Drafted into the army during World War II, he was active in the de-Nazification of Germany, and was stationed for a year at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s retreat in the Alps. After the war, he earned his MA and PhD from Stanford, where he studied closely with Yvor Winters. Both his experiences of Europe during the war . . .

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