A courtier speaks to Ch’in Shih-huang-ti, ca. 210 B.C.
Highness, the former walls were helpless. They
stood alone in the middle of small fields
protecting nothing. A single peasant’s holding
engulfed each one as it ran briefly, straight
from noplace off to noplace, with ruinous steps
of broken stone at both ends. Only head-high,
without the towers, gates and towns of your great wall,
they stuck where they were, never rising over hills
or curving through valleys: nothing but shoddy masonry
and a mystery: who built them, how long ago,
what for? They seemed to have no role but balking
the reaper and the ox; their bases made
islands in the flashing scythe-strokes, where wild flowers
and shrubs sprouted.
So all the people praise you
for burying such walls and their memory
in your vast one, which joins them, stretching far
beyond where they once crumbled to hold your Empire:
a wall which therefore can never have an end
but has to go on extending itself forever.
How useful, how cogent your wall is: a pale
for the civilized, a dike against the wild people
outside, who trade their quiet human blood
for the rage of gods, tearing men to pieces,
throwing them, watching them fall. In burying
those little walls, Lord, you have covered our shame
at our ancestors, best forgotten, whose mighty works
were so pointless, or so pitiably useless.
Was all their effort so that daisies could grow in fissures?
So that some human work would rise over the flats
and weather till it seemed not human? Only
so that something of ours could be like trees and rocks:
docile-seeming, yet sullenly opposed
to use, and when compelled, only half serving,
reserving from the functions that we give them
a secret and idle self. The peasants would make
lean-tos for cattle against those walls: they served
for this alone.
Now scholars, Lord, are saying
the gods are not bulls and cows. That in ancient times
we herded these animals to keep from starving
and going naked, and so came the old custom
of thinking them gods—from dependence. In my youth,
I know, the peasants said just the opposite.
Worship came first. The awesome bull and cow
were gathered to be adored more easily,
till people noticed how they let themselves
be driven and penned. Next came the first murders
against these gods, and the careful observation
that they stood to be killed. And so their cult became
contempt of beings that would live with us
and submit to our crimes and hunger, and we began
to breed them. That is why, the farmer says,
cattle are honoured, murdered, eaten, cherished
with labour that makes him their slave, and that is why
in summer he exults in blood, but shivers with fear,
with exhausted terror and regret, and sinks into
stunned revelry all winter, eating the salted meat,
getting children, his house closed up with snow,
himself awake as if he slept, living
as if he had already died, and rich, happy
as if he were a buried worm.
then, Highness, the fat flaccidity of cattle?
Myself, I don’t like to wonder anymore.
I only hope lifelong service earns what I ask:
the command of some far bastion on your wall
where it curves out into the unsettled wastes
beyond any field, and the barrenness inside
is indistinguishable from that without.
This is the reward and end of life I want:
to be a point, though infinitely small
and far from you, in that wide circle centred
on your great self. I see myself arriving
to take charge of my troops. I look down from the tower:
bare plains, outcrops of ice and rock, vast restless
stirrings of grey grasses and dark-veined overcast,
the cold wind’s hissing. Year after year the same,
waiting for an assault that never comes,
straining to glimpse our naked enemies
creeping blended with their stony soil: nothing
but legend, it may be. Maybe a morning
will rise when, waking, I find that I’ve forgotten
which way is north, and can’t tell if I am turned
outward to danger or inward, Highness, to you.
The sun invisible, a murky light diffused
throughout featureless cloud, and the wall so long
no curve appears—it seems to stretch out straight
endlessly east and west: what clue will there be
which way to face my people for the attack?
It will be crucial then to show no doubt.
My orders, I vow, though ignorant, will be crisp.