American Poetry 1922/Roast Leviathan

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American Poetry 1922
Roast Leviathan by Louis Untermeyer

ROAST LEVIATHAN

Old Jews! Well, David, aren't we?
What news is that to make you see so red,
To swear and almost tear your beard in half?
Jeered at? Well, let them laugh.
You can laugh longer when you're dead.

What? Are you still too blind to see?
Have you forgot your Midrash! . . . They were right,
The right goyim with their angry stones.
You should be buried in the desert out of sight
And not a dog should howl miscarried moans
Over your foul bones . . .

Have you forgotten what is promised us,
Because of stinking days and rotting nights?
Eternal feasting, drinking, blazing lights
With endless leisure, periods of play!
Supernal pleasures, myriads of gay
Discussions, great debates with prophet-kings!
And rings of riddling scholars all surrounding
God who sits in the very middle, expounding
The Torah. . . . Now your dull eyes glisten!
Listen:

It is the final Day.
A blast of Gabriel's horn has torn away

The last haze from our eyes, and we can see
Past the three hundred skies and gaze upon
The Ineffable Name engraved deep in the sun.
Now one by one, the pious and the just
Are seated by us, radiantly risen
From their dull prison in the dust.
And then the festival begins!
A sudden music spins great webs of sound
Spanning the grounds, the stars and their companions;
While the cliffs and cañons of blue air,
Prayers of all colors, cries of exultation
Rise into choruses of singing gold.
And the height of this bright consecration,
The whole Creation's rolled before us.
The seven burning heavens unfold. . . .
We see the first (the only one we know)
Dispersed and, shining through,
The other six declining: Those that hold
The stars and moons, together with all those
Containing rain and fire and sullen weather;
Cellars of dew-fall higher than the brim;
Huge arsenals with centuries of snows;
Infinite rows of storms and swarms of seraphim. . . .

Divided now are winds and waters. Sea and land,
Tohu and Bohu, light and darkness, stand
Uptight on either hand.
And down this terrible aisle,
While heaven's ranges roar aghast,

Pours a vast file of strange and hidden things:
Forbidden monsters, crocodiles with wings
And perfumed flesh that sings and glows
With more fresh colors than the rainbow knows. . . .
The reëm, those great beasts with eighteen horns,
Who mate but once in seventy years and die
In their own tears which flow ten stadia high.
The shamir, made by God on the sixth morn,
No longer than a grain of barley corn
But stronger than the bull of Bashan and so hard
It cuts through diamonds. Meshed and starred
With precious stones, there struts the shattering ziz
Whose groans are wrinkled thunder. . . .
For thrice three hundred years the full parade
Files past, a cavalcade of fear and wonder.
And then the vast aisle clears.

Now comes our constantly increased reward.
The Lord commands that monstrous beast,
Leviathan, to be our feast.
What cheers ascend from horde on ravenous horde!
One hears the towering creature rend the seas,
Frustrated, cowering, and his pleas ignored.
In vain his great, belated tears are poured—
For this he was created, kept and nursed.
Cries burst from all the millions that attend:
"'Ascend, Leviathan, it is the end!"
"We hunger and we thirst! Ascend!" . . .

Observe him first, my friend.


        God's deathless playthings rolls an eye
        Five hundred thousand cubits high.
        The smallest scale upon his tail
        Could hide six dolphins and a whale.
        His nostrils breathe—and on the spot
        The churning waves turn seething hot.
        If he be hungry, one huge fin
        Drives seven thousand fishes in;
        And when he drinks what he may need,
        The rivers of the earth recede.
        Yet he is more than huge and strong—
        Twelve brilliant colors play along
        His sides until, compared to him,
        The naked, burning sun seems dim.
        New scintillating rays extend
        Through endless singing space and rise
        Into an ecstasy that cries:
        Ascend, Leviathan, ascend!

God now commands the multi-colored bands
Of angels to intrude and slay the beast
That His good sons may have a feast of food.
But as they come, Leviathan sneezes twice . . .
And, numb with sudden pangs, each arm hangs slack.
Black terror seizes them; blood freezes into ice
And each angel flees from the attack!
God, with a look that spells eternal law,
Compels them back.
But, though they fight and smite him tail and jaw,
Nothing avails; upon his scales their swords

Break like frayed cords or, like a blade of straw,
Bend towards the hilt and wilt like faded grass.
Defeat and fresh retreat. . . . But once again
God's murmurs pass among them and they mass
With firmer steps upon the crowded plain.
Vast clouds of spears and stones rise from the ground;
But every dart flies past and rocks rebound
To the disheartened angels falling around.

A pause.
The angel host withdraws
With empty boasts throughout its sullen files,
Suddenly God smiles. . . .
On the walls of heaven a tumble of light is caught.
Low thunder rumbles like an afterthought;
And God's slow laughter calls:
"Behemot!"

        Behemot, sweating blood,
        Uses for his daily food
        All the fodder, flesh and juice
        That twelve tall mountains can produce

        Jordan, flooded to the brim,
        Is a single gulp to him;
        Two great streams from Paradise
        Cool his lips and scarce suffice.

        When he shifts from side to side
        Earthquake gape and open wide;

        When a nightmare makes him snore,
        All the dead volcanoes roar.

        In the space between each toe,
        Kingdoms rise and saviours go;
        Epochs fall and causes die
        In the lifting of his eye.

        Wars and justice, love and death,
        These are but his wasted breath;
        Chews a planet for his cud—
        Behemot sweating blood.

Roused from his unconcern,
Behemot burns with anger.
Dripping sleep and langour from his heavy haunches,
He turns from deep disdain and launches
Himself upon the thickening air,
And, with weird cries of sickening despair,
Flies at Leviathan.
None can surmise the struggle that ensues—
The eyes lose sight of it and words refuse
To tell the story in its gory might.
Night passes after night,
And still the fight continues, still the sparks
Fly from the iron sinews, . . . till the marks
Of fire and belching thunder fill the dark
And, almost torn asunder, one falls stark,
Hammering upon the other! . . .
What clamor now is born, what crashings rise!
Hot lightnings lash the skies and frightening cries

Clash with the hymns of saints and seraphim.
The bloody limbs trash through a ruddy dusk,
Till one great tusk of Behemot has gored
Leviathan, restored to his full strength,
Who, dealing fiercer blows on those last throes,
Close on reeling Behemot at length—
Piercing him with steel-pointed claws,
Straight through the jaws to his disjointed head.
And both lie dead.

Then come the angels!
With hoists and levers, joists and poles,
With knives and cleavers, ropes and saws,
Down the long slopes to the gaping maws,
The angels hasten; lacking for the starving
Chosen of God, who in frozen wonderment
Realize now what the terrible thunder meant.
How their mouths water while they are looking
At miles of slaughter and sniffing the cooking!
Whiffs of delectable fragrance swim by;
Spice-laden vagrants that float and entice,
Tickling the throat and brimming the eye.
Ah! what rejoicing and crackling and roasting!
Ah! How the boys sing as, cackling and boasting,
The angels' old wives and their nervous assistants
Run in to serve us. . . .

                             And while we are toasting
The Fairest of All, they call from the distance—

The rare ones of Time, they share our enjoyment;
Their only employment to bear jars of wine
And shine like the stars in a circle of glory.
Here sways Rebekah accompanied by Zilpah;
Miriam plays to the singing of Bilhah;
Hagar has tales for us, Judith her story;
Esther exhales bright romances and musk.
There, in the dusky light, Salome dances.
Sara and Rachel and Leah and Ruth,
Fairer than ever and all in their youth,
Come at our call and go by our leave.
And, from her bower of beauty, walks Eve
While, with the voice of a flower, she sings
Of Eden, young earth and the birth of all things. . . .

Peace without end.
Peace will descend on us, discord will cease;
And we, now so wretched, will lie stretched out
Free of old doubt, on our cushions of ease.
And, like a gold canopy over our bed,
The skin of Leviathan, tail-tip to head,
Soon will be spread till it covers the skies.
Light will rise from it; millions of bright
Facets of brilliance, shaming the white
Glass of the moon, inflaming the night.

So Time shall pass and rest and pass again,
Burn with an endless zest and then return,
Walk at our side and tide us to new joys;

God's voice to guide us, beauty as our staff.
Thus shall Life be when Death has disappeared. . . .

Jeered at? Well, let them laugh.



This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1977, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 30 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.