Hypocrite Auteur

By Archibald MacLeish 1892–1982 Archibald MacLeish

mon semblable, mon frère

Our epoch takes a voluptuous satisfaction   
In that perspective of the action
Which pictures us inhabiting the end
Of everything with death for only friend.

Not that we love death,
Not truly, not the fluttering breath,
The obscene shudder of the finished act—   
What the doe feels when the ultimate fact   
Tears at her bowels with its jaws.

Our taste is for the opulent pause
Before the end comes. If the end is certain   
All of us are players at the final curtain:   
All of us, silence for a time deferred,   
Find time before us for one sad last word.   
Victim, rebel, convert, stoic—
Every role but the heroic—
We turn our tragic faces to the stalls
To wince our moment till the curtain falls.

A world ends when its metaphor has died.

An age becomes an age, all else beside,
When sensuous poets in their pride invent   
Emblems for the soul’s consent
That speak the meanings men will never know   
But man-imagined images can show:
It perishes when those images, though seen,   
No longer mean.

A world was ended when the womb   
Where girl held God became the tomb   
Where God lies buried in a man:   
Botticelli’s image neither speaks nor can   
To our kind. His star-guided stranger   
Teaches no longer, by the child, the manger,   
The meaning of the beckoning skies.

Sophocles, when his reverent actors rise   
To play the king with bleeding eyes,
No longer shows us on the stage advance   
God’s purpose in the terrible fatality of chance.

No woman living, when the girl and swan
Embrace in verses, feels upon
Her breast the awful thunder of that breast
Where God, made beast, is by the blood confessed.

Empty as conch shell by the waters cast   
The metaphor still sounds but cannot tell,   
And we, like parasite crabs, put on the shell   
And drag it at the sea’s edge up and down.

This is the destiny we say we own.

But are we sure
The age that dies upon its metaphor
Among these Roman heads, these mediaeval towers,   
Is ours?—
Or ours the ending of that story?
The meanings in a man that quarry
Images from blinded eyes
And white birds and the turning skies
To make a world of were not spent with these   
Abandoned presences.

The journey of our history has not ceased:   
Earth turns us still toward the rising east,   
The metaphor still struggles in the stone,   
The allegory of the flesh and bone   
Still stares into the summer grass
That is its glass,
The ignorant blood
Still knocks at silence to be understood.

Poets, deserted by the world before,   
Turn round into the actual air:   
Invent the age! Invent the metaphor!

Archibald MacLeish, “Hypocrite Auteur” from Collected Poems 1917-1982. Copyright © 1985 by The Estate of Archibald MacLeish. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Poetry (October 1952).


This poem originally appeared in the October 1952 issue of Poetry magazine

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October 1952
 Archibald  MacLeish


A poet, playwright, lawyer, and statesman, Archibald MacLeish's roots were firmly planted in both the new and the old worlds. His father, the son of a poor shopkeeper in Glasgow, Scotland, was born in 1837—the year of Victoria's coronation as Queen of England—and ran away first to London and then, at the age of eighteen, to Chicago. His mother was a Hillard, a family that, as Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren . . .

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