A New Isaiah Walks the City Streets

Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, “Isaiah” (1838)

Spiritual Sunday

For today’s post I searched for a poet who modeled himself on Isaiah (today’s lectionary reading is 6:1-8) and found one unfamiliar to me. Blogger Niall McDevitt argues that English poet David Gascoyne, author of “A New Isaiah,” is one of the great overlooked poets of the 20th century.

In the lectionary reading, the prophet has a vision of God and hears the call:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; 
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

The anti-fascist Gascoyne wrote “New Isaiah” in 1932, a very uncertain time. Only 15 when he composed the poem, he adopts Oswald Spengler’s view that the West is in decline and identifies with Isaiah. His job is to call things as he sees them.

The poem begins with a vision of London as a spiritual wasteland:

Across the highways strewn with ashen filth
The ragged pilgrims come to the new Metropolis,
That cruel City, built of stone and steel,
where unveiled passions, unashamed crimes,
the windy avenues traverse, where lust
wars bitterly with lust, where naked lights
illumine nightly what the day concealed.

With a teenager’s bravado, Gascoyne regards himself as one of the few who “can read the signs.” Those who see America going through its own decline may find that the poem’s themes hit uncomfortably close to home:

A new Isaiah walks the City streets
with burning coals of fire on his head
who cries his warnings to the careless crowds
who heed him not but arm themselves for wars,
who whet their swords for one another’s blood,
who go a-whoring with their own inventions
deaf to the cries of one who sees their fate:
“As Rome fell, ye shall fall,
as falling ye are now.”

A new Isaiah walks the City streets
with burning coals of fire on his head:
“The world-metropolis is built on dust,
with fruitless labour, by the sweat of lust.

“To dust it shall return nor shall it rise again
till the world writhes in the tremendous pain
of a new birth in a far distant dawn,
nor can you hope to see that new world born.

“You cannot turn to God for there is no God left:
Your God is the Machine, of soul bereft.
Through all the discords of a striving host
the machine drones on, a steel ghost.

“Out of the foul refuse that the mob ignores
old vices rise that no one now deplores.
New Sodoms and Gomorrahs flourish in the dusk
which suck their foul fruit dry and throw away the husk.

“You cannot check the wheel of Fate.
The years are late. The years are late.
The West declines, Metropolis is falling…”
through the loud shade the prophet-voice calling.

The sun has gone. The City’s lights
shine out with fevered brilliance.
When at the last these brilliant lights shall fail
how dark and terrible the Winter night!
E’en now, above the giant roofs
rises a pale and waning moon –

Tis but a few can read the signs.

Isaiah prophesied so that people would wake up, not so that they would give up in despair. I particularly appreciate Gascoyne’s warning against new wars. He may say that “there is no God left,” but God can be found in the spiritual renewal that he calls for. The poem, like the prophet, encourages us to keep fighting the good fight.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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