Iphigenia: Politics

By Thomas James Merton 1915–1968
The stairs lead to the room as bleak as glass   
Where fancy turns the statues.
The empty chairs are dreaming of a protocol,   
The tables, of a treaty;   
And the world has become a museum.

(The girl is gone,
Fled from the broken altar by the beach,
From the unholy sacrifice when calms became a trade-wind.)

The palaces stare out from their uncurtained trouble,   
And windows weep in the weak sun.
The women fear the empty upper rooms
More than the streets as grey as guns
Or the swordlight of the wide unfriendly esplanade.

Thoughts turn to salt among those shrouded chairs   
Where, with knives no crueller than pens, or promises,   
Took place the painless slaying of the leader’s daughter.

O, humbler than the truth she bowed her head,   
And scarcely seemed, to us, to die.
But after she was killed she fled, alive, like a surprise,   
Out of the glass world, to Diana’s Tauris.

Then wind cheered like a hero in the tackle of the standing ships
And hurled them bravely on the swords and lances of the wintry sea—
While wisdom turned to salt upon the broken piers.

This is the way the ministers have killed the truth,   
       our daughter,
Steps lead back into the rooms we fear to enter;   
Our minds are bleaker than the hall of mirrors:

And the world has become a museum.

Thomas Merton, “Iphigenia: Politics” from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Copyright 1944 by Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1977)

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Poet Thomas James Merton 1915–1968

Subjects History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Heroes & Patriotism, Mythology & Folklore, Greek & Roman Mythology

Poetic Terms Free Verse


A monk who lived in isolation for several years, and one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton was a prolific poet, religious writer, and essayist whose diversity of work has rendered a precise definition of his life and an estimation of the significance of his career difficult. Merton was a Trappist, a member of a Roman Catholic brotherhood known for its austere lifestyle and vow of . . .

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SUBJECT History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Heroes & Patriotism, Mythology & Folklore, Greek & Roman Mythology

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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