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A poem for the people

There is a role for artistic expression and "speaking our heart" in the soul work of community and city building. Too often we reduce all civic activity to policy, process and implementation, forgetting the human element that gives activity in the public square meaning, purpose and spirit.

This is a mistake. Civic life dies without the creative spirit which can be expressed in song, art and writing such as poetry. The "father of democracy" who happened to also be a lawmaker and military man, Solon, was also a poet. In c. 580 BC he penned this poem and ode to the Constitution and the character of his people.

Never will our city be destroyed by Zeus' decree,

Nor by the will of the bless'd immortal gods,

For, born of a potent father, great-hearted guardian

Pallas Athena spreads her hands o'er our city

But, by money seduced, the Athenians themselves

Seek mindlessly to corrupt the great city,

Joined by the iniquitous schemes of their leaders,

Who from arrogance great woes shall suffer:

For they understand not how to restrain gluttony,

Nor best to order their feasting in quiet.

Sparing neither sacred ground nor public goods,

Greedily they steal from the one place or the other.

They fail to protect the rev'rend temples of Justice,

She who notes silently the "what is and what has been ,

Who in time shall come exacting retribution.

Behold, an inex'rable harm visits all Athens:

To vile slavery is she swiftly progressed,

Which rouses up from slumber civil strife and war

War that wipes out for many their cherished youth;

Now our much-loved city is soon worn down by faction,

While the wicked stir them to confrontations.

These evils ensnare the whole people; but the poor,

Many of them, depart to a foreign land,

Plundered, and bound up in shameful fetters.

[For the slave's yoke bears all other wickedness.

Thus does the public evil come home to each of us:

Straining, the courtyard gates no longer hold fast,

The evil leaps o'er the high walls; it finds everyone,

Even him fleeing to the inmost chamber.

This my soul commands me teach the Athenians:

A bad constitution brings civic turmoil,

But a good one shows well-ordering and coherence,

As it puts shackles 'round about wrong-doing

It smoothes out the rough; it checks greed, tempers hubris,

And withers the fruits of reckless impulse.

It takes crooked judgments and makes them straight,

Softens arrogant deeds, halts seditious acts,

And ends the bile of grievous strife. And so under it,

Everything for mankind becomes whole and wise.

Have you written a poem for your people? For your community? What are you waiting for?


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