Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Silent in Siloam

In The White Goddess Robert Graves claims that poets have the power to know the future and also the power to recover the past, and in his poem, “The Fallen Tower of Siloam,” he speak obliquely of this power and rejects its use in practical affairs. Now, first, this tower. Jesus mentions it in a passage of Luke (13:2-4). Some people had approached him and related the execution of some insurgents by Pilate. They were trying to get his reaction. He said:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No: but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?”
The fall of that tower appears to have been a fairly recent current event Jesus expected his audience to know about. Graves used this event to make quite another but, in an odd way, quite analogous point. Herewith the poem:

The Fallen Tower of Siloam

Should the building totter, run for an archway!
We were there already—already the collapse
Powdered the air with chalk, and shrieking
Of old men crushed under the fallen beams
Dwindled to comic yelps. How not terrible
When the event outran the alarm
And suddenly we were free—

Free to forget how grim it stood,
That tower, and what great fissures ran
Up the west wall, how rotten the under-pinning
At the south-eastern angle. Satire
Had whirled a gentle wind around it,
As if to buttress the worn masonry;
Yet we, waiting, had abstained from satire.

It behoved us, indeed, as poets
To be silent in Siloam, to foretell
No visible calamity. Though kings
Were crowned and gold coin minted still and horses
Still munched at nose-bags in the public streets,
All such sad emblems were to be condoned:
An old-wives’ tale, not ours.

A difficult poem with a hard message. It seems to me addressed to poets, not the public. “We were already there,” the poet says. The poet sees the future. For him the tower crumbled to powder before it did; the disaster already surrounded him before it came; he had no need for an architectural committee to asses the visible fissures, the failing foundation—or to mind the glib chatter that took a not-so-serious and therefore satirical note of these signs. Yes. It behooves the poet to be silent in Siloam—except to those who, like him, can smell the air as well. The rest, of course, are preoccupied with those seeking and gaining power, with banks printing money, and the media rechewing the endless cud. The poet is called to the worship of his Muse; it is a higher calling. Silent in Siloam. Hard words… But so are Jesus’ words, addressed to his listeners, suggesting that they repent—or else. What a hoary, almost offensive word that, repentance, in this day and age. And that rapid shift in meaning, there, in that passage, between two kinds of peril: difficult. Difficult like poetry.


  1. If there were repentance, there would be no tragedy, no ironic reversals where the mighty are brought low and the meek inherit the earth.

    Jesus knew it.

    Satire is the poetic mirror of alienation, Irony reflects self-destructive behavior, and the Hero is the real need of every man and women to confront the most difficult thing in the world... which only they may define and meet in combat.

  2. Maybe I got carried away.
    I only wished to say that there is an extremely real sense to the expression that poets know the future.

    The structure of the future will be very much like the structure of the past. Poets are used to building language structures, and are well suited to work around such things.
    Add a little bit of "intuition" and you have a very good presentiment of the future.

  3. I myself thought your earlier observations comments right on...

    I happen also strongly to agree with the notion that "poets know the future." My sense is that this knowledge goes well, well beyond observation (of the past, of projecting the past out) -- plus a little intuition. It's something visceral, tangible, like a sense of smell. But it comes and goes and has a lot to do with a kind of "state" or "trance" ...

  4. I would only add that the poet's ability to foresee the future comes also from his/her perspective, which tends to a bit distant. Observing from a slight distance and with sensitivity, well, that is powerful.

    The applicability of this poem to our current financial world is most interesting...

  5. I have a sneaking suspicion everyone knows the future; it is only the poets who are mad enough to speak about it! The rest of us consider it bad form to speak about such things.

    Visions and things seen! How much of human knowledge comes from visions? The stories of ancient discoveries where the gods reveal some arcane secret of food or metal or animal... those "myths" are pretty good accounts of a visionary experience not restricted to merely the Holy, as it is restricted today, but touching the agriculture, the industry, and all the important events of living things.

    As to the poem, the unseen Tower of Babel stretches over it, with its threat of reversal: men desiring to be on the same height as God driven mad and their Tower destroyed.
    Towers destroy the just and unjust alike. The reversal of fortune - the fall where the mighty tower is brought low - is independent of mens' acts and choices...
    ... unless they choose not to build the Tower in the first place.