Friday 12 March 2010

The Tribunes

The Gracchi: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the brothers who invented socialism. As tribunes of the plebeians - the common people of Rome - the Gracchi attempted to redistribute the wealth of the patricians - the Roman ruling class - among the city's landless citizens. Both brothers were assassinated for their pains. This poem was written in response to the lively exchange between a poet calling himself "Gaius" and the poet/critic, Scott Hamilton, which can be found here.

The Tribunes

My brother, Tiberius, knew them:
seated in the tavern corners,
ostentatious in their borrowed poverty.
(They were all from good families.)

Down among the plebes,
not to talk and argue like free men,
but to observe – at a distance.
Consuming the common man’s dusty world
with the same fastidiousness
as they drained their cups
of cheap wine.

Leaving their tables
just before dawn.
Brushing from stained tunics
the last greasy crumbs of their
symposium populare.

I recall their shadows
stumbling across graffiti-covered walls.
Nervously eyeing the toughs.
(Though they had little to fear from them
– possessing nothing any honest thief
would want to steal!)

Until, safe at last
in their hilltop villas,
nostrils purged of plebeian sweat,
and still tumescent
in the afterglow of danger;
they’d scratch out
their condescending
‘Poems to the People’.


Their cudgels rose and fell
alongside the rest
when the Senate’s fury
felled Tiberius for
daring to distribute
their patrician fathers'
bloated patrimonies
among the wretched
subjects of their

Chris Trotter
12 March 2010 


Olwyn said...

A very moving poem, starkly showing the hatred of justice from some of those who have much to gain by injustice, even if they also enjoy a crocodile tear or two. As a fan of the Greeks, I have to point out that Solon, (Plato's ancestor)established an earlier, but perhaps more modest, redistribution program. He made them swear by the gods to keep his law, and then buggered off for 10 years, saying he was going sight-seeing, so they couldn't lobby him about it.

Chris Trotter said...

A precedent worth reviving, Olwyn!

Rodney, oh Rodney!

Scott said...

I'm afraid your knowledge of the Romans and their literature far exceeds mine, Chris. I do like the Satyricon, though. The classical writers who really do it for me are Greeks - Theognis, Aristophanes, and the pre-Socratics, especially Heraclitus (what a strange genius he was!)

On the question of art and politics, which seems to be raised by the poem and by Olwyn's comment: I agree with EP Thompson and with Marcuse, who argued in their different ways that poetry, and the other arts for that matter, should not try to do what newspaper editorials or posters can do. I think poetry works in a subtler way, on a different part of the brain, and I doubt it can be written to an agenda, or by a committee. Marcuse argued that complete fantasy can be more revolutionary than didactic literature. Geoffrey Hill, who is probably the greatest living English-language poet, says that in our age 'the true poet must be completely isolated'.

Last year I had a protracted argument about this question with a chappy from Chch who thinks that the key to smashing capitalism is abolishing 'bourgeois' art:

Richard said...

Chris - is this a poem about the Labour Party?

Their off shoots the Commo Parties (various)?

But it's never about Maps is it?

Actually it is quite a good poem!