“How are they down, how have they fallen down – Those great strong towers of ice and steel…”

In the late 1940’s Thomas Merton published his complicated poem Figures For An Apocalypse.  One of the sections of the poem is entitled “In the Ruins of New York“.

While the whole section concerns a great downfall, a city and way of life overturned in materialism, there are some striking lines which – when isolated – call to mind the horror of 11 September 2001.

Oh how quiet it is after the black night
When flames out of the clouds burned down your cariated teeth,
And when those lightnings,
Lancing the black boils of Harlem and the Bronx,
Spilled the remaining prisoners,
(The tens and twenties of the living)
Into the trees of Jersey,
To the green farms, to find their liberty.

How are they down, how have they fallen down
Those great strong towers of ice and steel,
And melted by what terror and what miracle?
What fires and lights tore down,
With the white anger of their sudden accusation,
Those towers of silver and of steel?

From Figures For An Apocalypse, VI – In the Ruins of New York (1947) by Thomas Merton

I have posted this excerpt on 9/11 occasionally, since 2005 when I first inserted it into a WDTPRS column for The Wanderer.  Inevitably someone will sneer that Merton wasn’t saying this or that, blah blah blah.  Yes, critics, we all know that.  Take your meds and breathe calmly.  Merton was not a “prophet”, anticipating an act of terror. 9/11 was not an “apocalypse” except for those who went to their Judge that day.  Islamist terrorists were not executing the just judgments of God on the United States: they were agents of Satan.

The poem does not line up perfectly with the events of 9/11, but poem imagery is, for me, evocative.

The whole poem, even just the section of “In the Ruins of New York” is worth your time.  Merton paints the ugly with beautiful images.  Other moments of his poem are now striking, given the global economic downturn and hard days we will be facing because of imprudence and greed.  Consider this:

“This was a city
That dressed herself in paper money.
She lived four hundred years
With nickels running in her veins.
She loved the waters of the seven purple seas,
And burned on her own green harbor
Higher and whiter than ever any Tyre.
She was as callous as a taxi;
Her high-heeled eyes were sometimes blue as gin,
And she nailed them, all the days of her life,
Through the hearts of her six million poor.
Now she has died in the terrors of a sudden contemplation
– Drowned in the waters of her own, her poisoned well.”

But now the moon is paler than a statue.
She reaches out and hangs her lamp
In the iron trees of this destroyed Hesperides.
And by that light, under the caves that once were banks and theaters,
The hairy ones come out to play….

The hairy ones come out to play…

Sts. Nunilo and Alodia, pray for us.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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3 Responses to “How are they down, how have they fallen down – Those great strong towers of ice and steel…”

  1. MarkJ says:

    On my “Verse-a-Day” desk calendar, which I received as a gift at least 20 years ago, the verse for September 11 has seemed, since that fateful day, prophetically appropriate:
    If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven and will forgive their sins and will heal their land. – 2 Chronicles 7:14
    Let us pray for all Americans, that we will indeed seek the face of the Lord and humbly repent of all our sins. Only then can we truly be healed…

  2. Mother says:

    So very poignant
    Thank you, Fr. Z.

  3. mburduck says:

    Father Z.,

    As a native of NYC, I must say that your post made me weep.

    As a professor of literature, I must say that once again a poet has hit the nail on the head.