Two Poems

Undelivered letter from the Rev. Charles Smale to The Times, 1874

 

Sir –

We have spent too long debating Darwin in these pages
whose theories, after all, are not incompatible with God
and His ever-unfolding map of history and future,
while that Bulldog, Prof. Huxley, has made grander claims
for Science and, as Carlyle might put it, the Steam Engine
Model of the world. Most recently is his pernicious
suggestion that consciousness is mere epiphenomenon,
no more than the ‘steam-whistle which accompanies
the work of a locomotive engine with no influence
upon its machinery.’

This, Sir, cuts to our very souls,
indeed to the Divine Mind which marshals those souls
towards a greater good: as if neither ourselves
nor our Lord can wield freewill, act on worldly matter,
direct our brute bodies to choose virtue over sin.

A steam-whistle is mere noise signifying nothing,
sending its vapours backwards while the machine
thunders relentlessly forwards; but if our mental
processes are akin to this, how then has
humankind studied anything apart from History,
ever raised our gaze to the future in Prophecy?
How, if Huxley is right, have we invented steam engines,
built cathedrals, penned symphonies, planned an empire?
How indeed have I resolved to write and post this letter?

I eagerly anticipate the future and Prof. Huxley’s answer.

 

 

Note: The quotation is taken from Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and Its History’ (1874).

 

 

 

 

 

Xiuhmolpilli, or The Binding of the Years, November 1507*

After we’d thrown all our idols into the river,
broken up hearthstones, incense burners, furniture,
after the kitchens had been swept and our clothing burnt,
we fasted in darkness and awaited the end of the world.

At dusk the fire-priests, dressed as gods, left Tenochtitlan
silently along the southern causeway towards the temple
and the holy platform at the summit of Mount Huixachtlan.
There they watched to see if Tianquiztli would pass overhead

renewing time and our world for the next fifty-two years,
or if the demonesses would descend instead
to devour us all. Finally we witnessed the stars rise
and pass the meridian. As they travelled to the West

the priest of the Temple of Copulco took the ixquauac
and cut open the chosen boy’s chest. In the cavity
he then kindled a fire with a wooden drill, pulled out
the burning heart and lit a beacon with it which we saw

from far below the Hill of Stars. Hence we knew
that the movements of the heavens had not ceased,
that our beloved Moctezuma’s fears were unfounded,
that our city’s fires would be relit and all would be well.

 

*After Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book 7, c.1585, ed. and trans. Arthur Anderson and Charles Dibble, Santa Fe: University of Utah Press, 2012.

ixquauac          sacrificial flint knife
Tianquiztli       the Pleiades (literally, the constellation of the Marketplace)
Xiuhmolpilli    the Binding of the Years Ceremony, also known as the New Fire Ceremony

 

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.”

 

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