Dancing Dust

Poems by Mollie Caird (1922-2000)

The Mammon of Unrighteousness

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Thrice an eternity God sets a day
When suppliants approach the mercy-seat
Asking for re-admittance into Heaven.
Not through the common rift of Peter’s gate
They come, but straight before the sapphire throne,
For these are spirits who were Princedoms here
But, aeons gone, fell, spiralling the abyss
With Satan’s crew. Among these Mammon came;
He had not writhed or lorded it in Hell
Since his long downfall from the war in Heaven,
But toiled on Earth, serving he scarce knew whom –
God, Man or Satan, or perhaps all three –
Working a dim nostalgic twilit good,
Or sometimes working half-intentioned ill.
Counsels he had to speak in his defence:
The Unjust Steward one, and old Zacchaeus,
And Mulciber, the angelic craftsman, who
Had long ago found his way back to Heaven
Through fashioning fair things for God and Man.
Ranged against Mammon were his prosecutors,
Michael and Gabriel, shining Seraphim,
But two of them, for in the heavenly court
The law of love demands defence shall speak
Three times against the voice of two detractors.
Then spoke the Steward first, a humble man,
A cockney, quick, with a bright sparrow’s eye,
Fool-tolerant but fierce for the under-dog:

"I don’t know how I got to Paradise –
By some queer credit that I never claimed;
I must admit that Number One came first.
(I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed.)

Of course I meant to do myself some good –
My charity has never been much famed –
But others scored as well, now, didn’t they?
(I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed.)

Then when He came along and told my tale
He praised me – me, who ought to have been blamed!
Make yourselves friends like me – don’t ask me why –
(I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed.)

And Mammon here, he was my lord and god-
At least, the only god I ever named,
Till, scruff and breech, I was flung into Heaven,
Where, beg or dig, I need not be ashamed.

Well, there you are – I’m no idealist,
And Milton’s claptrap about precious bane
Seems a bit highbrow and far-fetched to me.
I like that other poet – was it Belloc? –
‘I’m tired of Love: I’m still more tired of Rhyme,
But money gives me pleasure all the time.’
Yet he’s up here, and other I could name
Who had their fun, not always honestly,
Cheated the customs, diddled the tax-collector –
(Sorry, Zacchaeus, nothing personal meant!)
God gave us all our healthy appetites,
So how can giving pleasure be a crime?"

Michael burst forth, his archangelic face
Stern, with the fierce brows knit beneath the helm,
Sarcastic tongue as fiery as his sword:
"What pleasure worth the name can money buy?
These creatures now, in so-called affluence,
Who strike for shorter hours and better pay,
How do they spend their ill-earned salaries?
Their very pop-tunes are a dance of death:

They go to Reno to buy a divorce,
They stake their all in a Derby horse,
They enter quizzes, fill in the pools,
Buy ton-up bikes to murder fools,
And Bingo, Bingo, Bingo still –
If God can't help them, Billy Butlin will.

There's no escape from this tight squirrel's cage,
This round of money chasing crude desire,
Desire, half-slaked, chasing cash again,
No true escape but heart-whole penitence,
And who can find a man repentent, now?

To thread the labyrinth Everyman is bent.
The poisonous beast of sin before his eyes
Towers; he strikes, exultantly he cries:
‘The sword of faith makes me omnipotent!’
He laughs to see the dragon’s dark blood spent
But from the carcass he beholds arise
The phoenix of his pride; then glory dies –
Sword, helmet, shield, alike are impotent.
No valour now, no going on, no blow
In self-defence. But quietly, in shame,
‘I have been here before’, he says, and stands
Aghast, unmanned. Then haltingly and slow,
Taking the silken clew within his hands,
Winds intricately back the way he came."

Michael fell silent then, and all the court,
And the great Judge Himself sat still as stone.
Then Mulciber, whose noble, ravaged face
Is witness of the three worlds he has known,
Spoke, hesitant at first, but passion grew
As he remembered men and man-made splendours:
“When Bach, good, mighty John Sebastian Bach
Sat at his keyboard, did he faintly guess
What price the populace would pay one day
To hear a master play the great D Minor?
Yes, even a saintly master, Schweitzer, say,
Wants tickets at the door – and still they’d come
Whether the money went to good or ill,
Making the Bomb or mending Lamberene.
And how the Hell could Botticelli know,
All in a glory with his saints and Marys,
That Simonetta’s sweet, and, quiet face
Would sell at Christie’s for a cool half million?
Right, then! Let’s give the money back to art,
That sweats for it. Those days were honester
When poets weren’t afraid of patronage
And princes could commission this or that
And no one curl the lip. Must beauty starve?
What sentimental folly can suppose
A symphony grows brighter in a garret;
Or does a man write better verse because
His ribs show and his children have T.B.?

The sun has cast a slanting beam
Across the room; with arms out-thrust
A little child pursues the gleam
Of dancing, insubstantial dust.

He cannot catch the elusive toy,
But, eager-handed and intent,
He tries again with anxious joy,
Caught between tears and merriment.

Thus rapt, he stands transfigured there,
And through his clear eyes shines his soul,
His hand are flowers and of his hair
The sun has made an aureole.

So does the artist try to seize
The airy motes that throng his brain,
Knowing creation’s agonies,
The fierce delight, and fiercer pain.

‘In His own image’ it was said:
The artists like his Maker stands
With God’s own light about his head
And God’s own glory in his hands."

Then gravely Gabriel spoke, but not in anger:
“It will not do, good Mulciber, for men,
All being corrupt, create corrupted art;
The best of it, perhaps, is worth the wage
And toil, but dare you look at all the rest? –
At grisly plastic flowers in soap-flake packets,
At mounds of gimcrack jewels in Woolworth stores,
Secular junk filling their hideous homes
And holy junk cluttering their ugly churches –
These are their joys, when they can spare a thought
From what to eat and drink and wear tomorrow.
Great God alone creates untainted beauty:

Now wood-sorrel and moschatels
Minutely gleam in hidden dells;
By brookside yellow-minted shines
New glossy wealth of celandines,
And silver-flaked anemones
Make dazzling drifts among the trees;
King Solomon
In years long gone
Was not arrayed like these.

The chaffinch and the long-tailed tit
Beak-full between the hedgerows flit
With fragile lichens, feathers small,
Till flawless cup and perfect ball
Fine-bound with cobwebs to the trees
Are swung, fair nurseries, on the breeze;
Not Hiram’s gold
In days of old
Made palaces like these."

Then to Zacchaeus all eyes turned, for he
Was last to speak before the judgement fell:
“Some good he’s done, you must admit some good.
The stiff old man, lonely and deaf, who sits
Watching the television, has a window
Widening his world, and Mammon gave it him.
The young wife, too, harassed with chores and babies,
Can bloom a little since the never-never
Bought her a Bendix and turned back the curse
With Mammon’s help. But we dispute in vain,
For here we know that every earthly good
Is dangerous fruit, and every earthly wrong
Flecked somewhere with the thread of heavenly purpose.
When I was sitting in the sycamore
And God looked up at me, I know that moment
Something enormous. (So did the dying thief,
Who hung for gain upon another tree.)
Was it a sycamore I lodged in? No,
I think it was the tree Yggdrasil, binding
In roots and branches Heaven, Earth and Hell;
And Love I saw: Alpha, Omega Love,
Ever unchanged. Yet I climbed down again
To make a meal for God, the best I had,
No money spared – and He enjoyed His food.
But since old Satan in a serpent’s skin
Wound round that Eden tree, two camps have been
Always at loggerheads: the bons vivants
And puritans creating perpetual stones
Or busy pulling out each other’s motes,
And neither part understanding Love.”

Then on the splendid throne the eternal Judge
Lifted His eyes and spoke to Mulciber:
“Now Mulciber, take Mammon by the hand
And lead him up to Milton’s ivory tower,
And justify the ways of God to John.”
God laughed, and there was holiday in Heaven;
The gemmy parapets and gated pearls
Broke forth with gonfalons and pennoncels;
He laughed, and suddenly the heavenly host
Aflame with music, flowering into joy,
Sang Mozart till the setting of the stars.

Undated but composed 1964-65