How Hard Is It to Keep from Being King When It's in You and in the Situation
The King said to his son: “Enough of this!
The Kingdom’s your to finish as you please.
I’m getting out tonight. Here, take the crown.”
But the Prince drew away his hand in time
To avoid what he wasn’t sure he waited.
So the crown fell and the crown jewels scattered.
And the Prince answered, picking up the pieces,
“Sire, I’ve been looking on, and I don’t like
The looks of empire here. I’m leaving with you.”
So the two making good their abdication
Fled from the palace in the guise of men.
But they had not walked far into the night
Before they sat down weary on a bank
Of dusty weeds to take a drink of stars.
And eyeing one he only wished were his,
Rigel, Bellatrix, or else Betelgeuse,
The ex-King said, “Yon star’s indifference
Fills me with fear I’ll be left to my fate:
I needn’t think I have escaped my duty,
For hard it is to keep from being King
When it’s in you and in the situation.
Witness how hard it was for Julius Caesar.
He couldn’t help himself from being King.
He had to be stopped by the sword of Brutus.
Only less hard it was for Washington.
My crown shall overtake me, you will see:
It will come rolling after us like a hoop.
“Let’s not be superstitions, Sire.” the Prince said.
“We should have brought the crown along to pawn.”
“You’re right,” the ex-King said, “we’ll need some money.
How would it be for you to take your father
To the slave auction in some marketplace
And sell him into slavery? My price
Should be enough to set you up in business—
Or making verse if that is what you’re bent on.
Don’t let your father tell you what to be.”
The ex-King stood up in the marketplace
And tried to look ten thousand dollars’ worth
To the first buyer coming by who asked
What good he was he boldly said, “I’ll tell you:
I know the Quintessence of many things.
I know the Quintessence of food, I know
The Quintessence of jewels, and I know
The Quintessence of horses, men and women.”
The eunuch laughed: “Well that’s a lot to know.
And here’s a lot of money. Who’s the taker?
This larrikin? All right. You come along.
You’re off to Xanadu to help the cook.
I’ll try you in the kitchen first on food
Since you put food first in your repertory.
It seems you call quintessence quintessence.
“I’m a Rhodes scholar—that’s the reason why.
I was at college in the Isle of Rhodes.”
The slave served his novitiate dishwashing.
He got his first chance to prepare a meal
One day when the chief cook was sick at heart.
(The cook was temperamental like the King.)
And the meal made the banqueters exclaim
And the Great King inquire whose wok it was.
“A man’s out there who claims he knows the secret.
Not of food only but of everything.
Jewels, horses, women, wine, and song.”
The King said grandly, “Even as we are fed
See that our slave is also. He’s in favor.
Take notice, Haman, he’s in favor with us.”
There came to court a merchant selling pearls,
A smaller pearl he asked a thousand for,
Al larger pearl he asked five hundred for.
The King sat favoring one pearl for its bigness.
And then the other for its costliness.
(He seems to have felt limited to one),
Till the ambassadors from Punt or somewhere
Shuffled their feet as if to hint respectfully,
“The choice is not between two pearls, O King.
But between peace and war as er conceive it.
We are impatient for your royal answer.”
No estimating how far the entente
Might have deteriorated had not someone
Thought of the kitchen slave and had him in
To put an end to the King’s vacillation.
And the slave said, “The small one’s worth the price,
But the big one is worthless. Break it open.
My head for it—you’ll find the big one hollow.
Permit me.” And he crushed it under his heel
And showed them it contained a live teredo.
“But tell us how you knew,” Darius cried.
“Oh, from knowledge of its quintessence.
I told you I knew the quintessence of jewels.
But anybody could have guessed in this case,
From the pearl’s having its own native warmth.
Like flesh, there must be something living in it.”
“Feed him another feast of recognition”
And so it went with triumph after triumph
Till on a day the King, being sick at heart
(The King was temperamental like his cook,
But nobody noticed the connection),
Sent for the ex-King in a private matter.
“You say you know the inwardness of men,
As well as your hundred other things.
Dare to speak out and tell me about myself.
What ails me? Tell me. Why am I unhappy?”
“You’re not where you belong. You’re not a King
Of royal blood. Your father was a cook.”
“You die for that.”
“No, you go and ask your mother.”
His mother didn’t like the way he put it,
“But yes,” she said, “someday I’ll tell you, dear.
You have a right to know your pedigree.
You’re well descended on your mother’s side,
Which is unusual. So many Kings
Have married beggar maids from off the streets.
Your mother’s folks——“
He stayed to hear no more,
But hastened back to reassure his slave
That if he had him slain it wouldn’t be
For having lied but having told the truth.
“At least you ought to die for wizardry.
But let me into it and I will spare you.
How did you know the secret of my birth?”
“If you had been a King of royal blood,
You’d have rewarded me for all I’ve done
By making me your minister-vizier,
Or giving me a nobleman’s estate.
But all you thought of giving me was food.
I picked you out a horse called Safety Third.
By Safety Second out of Safety First,
Guaranteed to come safely off with you
From all the fights you had a mind to lose.
You could lose battles, you could lose whole wars,
You could lose Asia, Africa and Europe,
No one could get you: you would come through smiling.
You lost your army at Mosul. What happened?
You came companionless, ut you came home.
Is it not true? And what was my reward?
This time an all-night banquet, to be sure,
But still food, food. Your one idea was food.
None but a cook’s son could be so food-minded.
I know your father must have been a cook.
I’ll bet you anything that’s all as King
You think of for your people—feeding them.”
But the King said, “Haven’t I read somewhere
There is no act more kingly than to give?”
“Yes, but give character and not just food.
A King must give his people character.”
“They can’t have character unless they’re fed.”
“You’re hopeless,” said the slave.
“I guess I am;
I am abject before you,” said Darius.
“You know so much, go on, instruct me further.
Tell me some rule for ruling people wisely,
In case I should decide to reign some more.
How shall I give people character?”
“Male them as happy as it is good for them.
But that’s a hard one, for I have to add:
Not without consultation with their wishes;
Which is the crevice that lets Progress in.
If we could only stop the Progress somewhere,
At a good point for pliant permanence,
Where Madison attempted to arrest it.
But no, woman has to be her age,
A nation has to take its natural course
Of Progress round and round in circles
From King top Mob to King to Mob to King
Until the eddy of it eddies out.
“So much for Progress,” said Darius meekly.
“Another word that bothers me is Freedom.
You’re good at maxims. Say me one on Freedom.
What has it got to do with character?
My satrap Tissaphernes has no end
Of it with his Grecian cities
Along the Aegean coast. That’s all they talk of.”
“Behold my son here with his lyre,”
The ex-King said. “We’re in this thing together.
He is the one who took the money for me
When I was sold—and small reproach to him,
He’s a good boy. ‘Twas at my instigation.
I looked on it as a Carnegie grant
For him to make a poet of himself on
If such a thing is possible with money.
Unluckily it wasn’t money enough
To be a test. It didn’t last him, out.
And he may have to turn to something else
To earn a living. I don’t interfere.
If want him to be anything he has to.
He has been begging through the Seven Cities
Where Homer begged. He’ll tell you about Freedom.
He writes free verse I’m told, and he is thought
To be the author of the Seven Freedoms:
Free Will, Trade, Verse, Thought, Love, Speech, Coinage,
(You ought to see the coins done in the Cos.)
His name is Omar. I as a Rhodes scholar
Pronounce it Homer with a Cockney rough.
Freedom is slavery some poets tell us.
Enslave yourself to the right leader’s truth,
Christ’s or Karl Marx’, and it will set you free.
Don’t listen to their play of paradoxes.
The only certain freedom’s in departure.
My son and I have tasted it and know.
We feel it in the moment we depart
As fly the atomic smithereens to nothing.
The problem for the King is just how strict
The lack of liberty, the squeeze of law
And discipline should be in school and state
To insure a jet departure of our going
Like a pip shot from ‘twixt our pinching fingers.”
“All this facility disheartens me.
Pardon my interruption; I’m unhappy.
I guess I’ll have the headsman execute me
And press your father into being King.”
“Don’t let him fool you; he’s a King already.
But though almost all wise, he makes mistakes.
I’m not a free verse singer. He was wrong there.
I claim to be no better than I am.
I write real verse in numbers, as they say.
I’m talking not free verse but blank verse now.
Regular verse springs from the strain of rhythm
Upon a meter, strict or loose iambic.
From that strain comes the expression strains of music.
The tune is not that meter, not that rhythm,
But a resultant that arises from them.
Tell them Iamb, Jehovah said, and meant it.
Free verse leaves out the meter and makes up
For the deficiency by church intoning.
Free verse, so called, is really cherished prose,
Prose made of, given an air by church intoning.
It has its beauty, only I don’t write it.
And possibly my not writing it should stop me
From holding forth on Freedom like a Whitman—
A Sandburg. But permit me in conclusion:
Tell Tissaphernes not to mind the Greeks.
The freedom they seek is by politics,
Forever voting and haranguing for it.
The reason artists show so little interest
In public freedom is because the freedom
They’ve some to feel the need of is a kind
No one can give them—they can scarce attain—
The freedom of their own material.
So, never at a loss in simile,
They can command the exact affinity
Of anything they are confronted with.
This perfect moment of unbafflement,
When no man’s name and no noun’s adjective
But summons out of nowhere like a jinni.
We know not what we owe this moment to.
It may be wine, but much more likely love—
Possibly just well-being in the body,
Or respite from the thought of rivalry.
It’s what my father must mean by departure,
Freedom to flash off into wild connections.
Once to have known it, nothing else will do.
Our days all pass awaiting its return.
You must have read the famous valentine
Pericles sent Auspice in absentia:
For God himself the height of feeling free
Must have been His success in simile
When at sight of you He thought of me.
Let’s see, where are we? Oh, we’re in transition,
Changing an old King for another old one.
What an exciting age we live in—
With all this talk about the hope of youth
And nothing made of youth. Consider me,
How totally ignored I seem to be.
No one is nominating me for King.
The headsman has Darius by the belt
To lead him off the Asiatic way
Into oblivion without a lawyer.
But that is as Darius seems to want it.
No fathoming the Asiatic mind.
And father’s in for what we ran away from.
And superstition wins. He blames the stars.
Aldebaran, Capella, Sirius
(As I remember they were summer stars
The night we ran away from Ctesiphon),
For looking on and not participating.
(Why are we so resentful of detachment?)
But don’t tell me it wasn’t his display
Of more than royal attributes betrayed him.
How hard it is to keep from being King
When it’s in you and in the situation.
And that is half the trouble with the world
(Or more than half I’m half inclined to say).”