16 March 2007

Salamis

The stories we are told feature rich muscle boys
(you bulk up big if you spend each day in the gym),
who with swords, spears, and suchlike murder-toys,
and after chanting their great battle-hymn,
proceeded to show invading foes the joys
of battling men with huge reserves of vim.
At least that is the tale that we've been told,
it's hoary now and certainly very old.

So they were brave, and they stood at the pass,
and their press spokesfolk knew how best to spin
the story, so that when they lay dead in the grass
they scored a kind of virtuous late win
and who says otherwise is condemned as an ass.
So others fought with them at that grave hour,
but from the page their efforts we will scour.

And when some fellows make a picture show
to hearten friends and remind them of brave deeds,
we see these heroes bathed in the noble glow
of men who had transcended human needs;
they fought in honour, trading blow for blow,
planting our liberty (or at any rate its seeds).
That's not what really happened there, of course,
but someone thinks we need a fellow on a horse.

Now freedom's a thing which no good man will lose
but with his life itself, or so it has been said;
there are some fellows (no names now) who'd choose
thralldom instead since it beats being dead.
But they're the folks whose path we cannot use,
and so we cut the cord and burn the thread.
We'll laud our heroes to beyond the skies,
though, frankly, we'll have to spin lots of lies.

But we're told nothing of the humbler type
the artisans and craftsmen, the hoe men
come from their fields, and boats, and ripe
with honest sweat, to take up the old job again.
without histrionics, screams, or other tripe,
the just ask where to row and pull and when
to drop their oars and grab their spears and swords,
common they are, but they fight as well as lords.

Sure, you can write an epitaph or two,
name heroes, speak of mothers' quick-dried tears;
allow their actions to pass in full review,
and speak about them all for years and years.
Until no one will ask 'what did they do?'
but think of how they conquered all their fears.
They're large now that they were in real life,
each of them a hero, even to his wife.

But Aechylus tugged on a long wood oar,
he saw a battle and he took his part.
His play's the thing, it will not lull nor bore,
he was the master of the playwright's art.
There's blood indeed, offstage, and guts, and gore,
but still the enemy's shown to have a heart.
He took his place, beside the common folk,
who fought together to resist the yoke.

The moral here, if I'm allowed to preach,
is not that epitaphs are no great guide
(or that their job is to instruct and teach),
we know they fought by the mountain's side
knowing that victory was past their reach;
we know that they took the most somber pride
in holding on even well past the breach.
It's certainly a major point of honour,
if you fight on knowing that you're a goner.

We're fed on lies proclaimed historic fact,
we're told that we should honour these brave souls;
we're told to exercise restaint and tact,
acknowledge that these men had noble goals.
We can't our praise and honour now retract
although their bodies have been cast in holes.
It angers us, though, that the rich and proud
should have their virtues so proclaimed aloud.

Victory came from quite ordinary chaps,
men who did their jobs, and then went home;
we don't see their burials marked on any maps,
no one in their honour has put up any dome.
They ran their race, they reached the final laps,
but they didn't stray or run or roam.
Instead they fought just to defend their land,
victory came from the hard rowers' hand.

2 comments:

Serge said...

I take it you too didn't care much for a certain movie with an all-numerals title, eh?

FSJL said...

You could say so!