“Our Nice Concern”: Moral Certainty in a Weary World

29 Aug 2009

 

stgeorgedeadsolderWith CIA interrogation techniques still in the news, this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay could have been written today. It beautifully captures the conflict between the need to defeat the enemy and the concern over what we may become in the process, especially when the enemy is Hate personified. It ends in a prayer, the supplication of someone who is trying to do the right thing, but knows and respects human frailty.

I find the date particularly interesting — a time when the world seems to have been guided by a compass that we look at now with a kind of nostalgic envy.

 

Not To Be Spattered By His Blood
(St. George Goes Forth to Slay the Dragon — New Year’s, 1942)

Not to be spattered by his blood—this, even then,
This, while I kill him, even then, this, when I slice
His body from his head, must be my nice concern.

This, while I kill him, whom I have hated purely and with all my
      heart, for he is evil,
This, while he dies, for he will strive in death, for he was strong
(I say “was strong,” for I shall surely kill him; he is numbered
Already with the dead) .

Yes, although now with all his shining scales, the one above the other
      fitted in symmetrical
      —Oh, in most beautiful—design, he moves,
And his long body undulant is looped in many loops most powerfully
      flung from side to side over the world—
Yet is he numbered with the dead, for I shall kill him surely.

Not to be spattered by his blood—this, while I kill him,
Must be my mind’s precise concern.

Though the dungeons be empty; though women sit on the door steps
      in the sun
And sigh with peace, because they fear him no more—because they
      fear no one;
And old men in their rocking chairs sing;
And strangers meet in every street of the world and greet each other as
      friends;
And people laugh at anything—

Not here my mission ends.
I must think of my return.
I must kill him with gloves on.

For Hatred is my foe, and I hate him and I will kill him—but oh,
I must kill him with gloves on!

Not to be spattered by his blood—for what, should he be slain,
Done to death by my hand, and my hand be stained
By him, and I bring infection to city and town
And every village in our land—for he spreads quickly—
What then, shall we have gained?
Why then, I say, sooner than that, why, let him live, and me
Lie down!
For it is fitter that a beast be monstrous than that I should be.

Not to be spattered by his blood! —For I know well
What I must conquer.
Can I with seething hatred kill him, and return
And be myself, hating no man,
Once he is dead?

Yes. With God’s help, I can.

Not to be spattered by his blood—Oh, God,
In the great hour of my supreme engagement,
Wherein, by Thy just will
And with what strength and skill I can to the endeavor call
I slay our common foe
(For Evil didst Thou never love),
Lest in the end he triumph after all
And what I all but died to kill
Loop his length still
Over the world; lest I inherit
Most hated Hate, and be his son in spirit;
And Evil in my veins froth, and I be no one
I ever knew—Oh, God, lest this be done,
Bless Thou my glove!—
This one!
And watch that in the moment of my supreme encounter I wear it, I keep
      it on!

Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head.

 

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