Saturday, 16 April 2016

Francis Brett Young: Bête Humaine


Riding through Ruwu swamp, about sunrise,
I saw the world awake; and as the ray
Touched the tall grasses where they dream till day,
Lo, the bright air alive with dragonflies,
With brittle wings aquiver, and great eyes
Piloting crimson bodies, slender and gay.
I aimed at one, and struck it, and it lay
Broken and lifeless, with fast-fading dyes . . .

Then my soul sickened with a sudden pain
And horror, at my own careless cruelty,
That where all things are cruel I had slain
A creature whose sweet life it is to fly:
Like beasts that prey with bloody claw . . . Nay, they
Must slay to live, but what excuse had I?


Young had a remarkable and productive life, despite ill health. Born in the same decade as Eliot and Pound, he remained an out-and-out conservative, as this poem shows. The sentiment is a fine one (making it useful as a school text centuries ago) but the language and over-explicitness rob it of any life. What makes this piece interesting is the directness of the opening lines: there's the sense of a true poem aborning until we get to grasses dreaming and Lo.