The Clipped Stater
by Robert Graves
(To Aircraftsman 338171, T.E. Shaw)
King Alexander had been deified
By loud applause of the Macedonian phalanx,
By sullen groans of the wide worlds lately conquered.
Who but a god could so have engulphed their pride?
He did not take a goddess to the throne
In the elder style, remembering what disasters
Juno's invidious eye brought on her Consort.
Thais was fair; but he must hold his own.
Nor would he rank himself a common god
In fellowship with those of Ind or Egypt
Whom he had shamed; even to Jove his father
Paid scant respect (as Jove stole Saturn's nod).
Now meditates: 'No land of all known lands
Has offered me resistance, none denied me
Infinite power, infinite thought and knowledge;
What yet awaits the assurance of my hands?'
Alexander, in a fever of mind,
Reasons: 'Omnipotence by its very nature
Is infinite possibility and purpose,
Which must embrace that it can be confined.
'Then finity is true godhead's final test,
Nor does it dim the glory of free being.
I must fulfill myself by self-destruction.'
The curious phrase renews his conquering zest.
He assumes man's flesh. Djinn catch him up and fly
To a land of yellow folk beyond his knowledge,
And that he does not know them, he takes gladly
For surest proof he has put his godhead by.
In Macedonia shortly it is said:
'Alexander, our god, has died of a fever;
Demi-gods parcel out his huge dominions.'
So Alexander, as god, is duly dead.
But Alexander the man, whom yellow folk
Find roving naked, armed with a naked cutlass,
Has death, which is the stranger's fate, excused him.
Joyfully he submits to the alien yoke.
He is enrolled now in the frontier-guard
With gaol-birds and the press gang's easy captures;
Where captains who have felt the Crown's displeasure,
But have thought suicide too direct and hard,
Teach him a new tongue and the soldier's trade,
To which the trade he taught has little likeness.
He glories in his foolish limitations:
At every turn his hands and feet are stayed.
'Who was your father, friend?' He answers: 'Jove.'
'His father?' 'Saturn.' 'And his father?' 'Chaos.'
'And his?' Thus Alexander loses honour:
Ten fathers is the least that a man should prove.
Stripes and bastinadoes, famine and thirst -
All these he suffers, never in resolution
Shaken, nor in his heart inquiring whether
Gods by their fiats be self-accursed.
Thus he grows grey and eats his frugal rice,
Endures his watch on the fort's icy ramparts,
Staring across the uncouth leagues of desert,
Furbishes leather and steel; or shakes the dice.
He will not dream Olympianly, nor stir
To enlarge himself with comforts or promotion,
Nor yet evade the rack when, sour of temper,
He has tweaked a corporal's nose and called him 'cur'.
His comrades mutinously demand their pay--
'We have had none since the Emperor's Coronation.
At one gold piece a year there are fifteen owing.
One-third that sum would buy us free,' they say.
The pay-sack came at length, when hope was cold,
Though much reduced in bulk since its first issue
By the Chief Treasurer; and he, be certain,
Kept back one third of the silver and all the gold.
Every official hand had dipped in the sack;
And the frontier captains, themselves disappointed
Of long arrears, took every doit remaining;
But from politeness put a trifle back.
They informed the men: 'Since no pay has come through,
We will advance from out too lavish purses
To every man of the guard, a piece of silver.
Let it be repaid when you get your overdue.'
The soldiers, grumbling but much gratified
By hopes of a drink and drab, accept the favour;
And Alexander, advancing to the pay-desk,
Salutes and takes his pittance without pride.
The coin is bored, to string with the country's bronze
On a cord, and one side scraped to brassy smoothness;
But the head, clipped of its hair and neck, bears witness
That it had a broad, more generous mintage once.
Alexander, gazing at it then,
Greets it as an Alexandrian stater
Coined from the bullion taken at Arbela.
How came it here among these slant-eyed men?
He stands in a troubled reverie of doubt
Till a whip stings his shoulders and a voice bellows:
'Are you dissatisfied, you spawn of ditches?'
So he salutes again and turns about,
More than uncertain what the event can mean.
Was his lost Empire, then, not all-embracing?
And how can the stater, though defaced, owe service
To a power that is as if it had never been?
'Must I renew my godhead?' But well he knows
Nothing can change the finite course resolved on;
He spends the coin on a feast of fish and almonds
And back to the ramparts briskly enough he goes.