Tuesday, October 20, 2020

'The Deadline Governing Joy and Woe'

One might forgive the flood of invective washing over us if it were more amusingly composed. I enjoy a good ad hominem donnybrook as much as the next guy, but exchanging tired obscenities is no substitute for a satisfyingly vicious insult. Take an entry from Evelyn Waugh’s diary dated March 1964: “Randolph Churchill went into hospital... to have a lung removed. It was announced that the trouble was not ‘malignant’. ... I remarked that it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.”


In his final collection, The Darkness and the Light (2001), Hecht included a two-part poem titled “Lapidary Inscription with Explanatory Note.” Here is the first section:


“There was for him no more perfect epitaph

Than this from Shakespeare: ‘Nothing in his life

Became him like his leaving it.’ All those

Who knew him wished the son of a bitch in hell,

Despised his fawning sycophancy, smug

Self-satisfaction, posturing ways and pig-

Faced beady little eyes, his trite

Mind, and attested qualities of a shit,

And felt the world immeasurably improved

Right from the very moment that he left it.”


Note how the insult is clearly aimed at a specific individual and yet has broad applications. You’re likely to have already thought of someone on whom it could be pinned with perfect justice. The Shakespeare line is spoken by Malcolm in Act I, Scene 4 of Macbeth.


Hecht died on this date, October 20, in 2004 at age eighty-one. Speaking of lapidary inscriptions, carved on Hecht’s headstone at Bard College are lines from the final stanza of “Death the Poet: A Ballade-Lament for the Makers” (Flight Among the Tombs, 1996):


“Archduke of Darkness, who supplies

The deadline governing joy and woe,

Here I put off my flesh disguise

Et nunc in pulvere dormio.”


The Latin tag, used as the concluding line of each of the poem’s four stanzas,  is a variation on Job 7:21: “ecce nunc in pulvere dormiam et si mane me quaesieris non subsistam.” In the King James version: “And why dost thou not pardon my transgression, and take away my iniquity? for now shall I sleep in the dust; and thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be.”


Thomas Parker said...

My favorite execration in verse is this, from Thomas Lovell Beddoes:

Bury him deep. So damned a work should lie
Nearer the Devil than man. Make him a bed
Beneath some lock-jawed hell, that never yawns
With earthquake or eruption; and so deep
That he may hear the devil and his wife
In bed, talking secrets.

Faze said...

When it comes personal attacks, nothing tops Rebecca West's brutal profile of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon". She makes such a powerful case for his being an irredeemable SOB, that you're almost rooting for him to be assassinated, even though you know it will start World War One and leave civilization in ruins.