The Unknown Citizen: poetry and sculpture

I’m grateful to a friend for reminding me in an email this morning of a Brecht poem I haven’t read for ages:

A Worker Reads History by Bertold Brecht

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.

Looking for the text of the Brecht poem, I chanced on this by Sahir Ludhianvi (1921 – 1980) a popular Indian poet and lyricist for Bollywood movies. It develops the same theme of timeless works of art crafted by nameless men and women hidden from history:

The Taj Mahal  by Sahir Ludhianvi

For you, the Taj may be a monument to love;
you may adore this lovely spot
but, darling,
let’s meet somewhere else!
In such royal places,
we – the poor?
Regal opulence seen every which way,
two poor lovers – here?
Really out-of-place!
Sweetheart, under this so-called symbol of love,
if only you’d seen the vulgar splurge of opulence.
Charmed you may be by royal mausoleums,
if only you’d thought
of our own dismal homes!
Countless millions are in love;
who can say their emotions aren’t real
just because they, like us, have no means
to put up an advertisement?
These mausoleums, these arrogant forts,
these pillars of royal eminence, these lush gardens:
In these very flowers and vines
runs the blood of our own ancestors, my love.
Don’t you think they must also have been in love,
the people whose art and skill
made this monument so beautiful?
They and their loved ones now lie nameless,
in unmarked graves,without a single candle
yet lit for them.
These gardens, by the Jamuna,
this palace, the embroidered doors, walls and niches–
that’s just how an emperor,
using his wealth and power,
mocks the love between us destitutes.
Could we meet somewhere else, darling ?

Translated by Riz Rahim

Reading these lines reawakened a memory of Shelley’s Ozymandias, his meditation on hubris and the transience of power and glory, which also has an anonymous sculptor carving the face of  the mighty ruler. Ozymandias was another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. Shelley paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue: King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works. This statue of Ramesses in the British Museum may have inspired Shelley.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And then I stumbled on this poem by Ionna Warwick that continues the theme into modern times. Warwick was born in Poland and has lived in the United States since she was 17: “There’s no escaping the fact that I had history for breakfast. It was dramatic enough to be growing up under a Communist dictatorship; on top of it, I heard many stories of World War II. There was no getting away from history. I got to see the ruins of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw – and I don’t mean in a photograph or a movie. I never sought out history; it was the stuff of nightmares I continued to have long into adulthood”.

These images are of the destruction of the Stalin Monument in Budapest, erected in 1951 and destroyed during the Hungarian Uprising in October 1956, when the statue was demolished, leaving only the boots.

Stalin’s Moustache by Ionna Warwick

In Warsaw near the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldier,
in a treeless square,
there used to scowl a bronze
statue of Felix Dzierzhinski,
founder of the Cheka,
the Bolshevik Secret Police.
His nickname was
“Bloody Felix.”

Before the solemn unveiling,
someone had managed to paint
the statue’s hands blood-red.
When the string was pulled,
the dignitaries gasped:
the blood of his victims seemed to drip
from Bloody Felix’s hands.

The speaker on the podium
began to stutter.
The military band
struck up, then stopped;
feebly began again.
To patriotic chords,
the string was pulled back.

Fifty years later, ten thousand
people jammed into the square
to watch the demolition
of the statue of a mass murderer.


My cousin Ewa told the tale
of yet another fallen icon:
a giant statue of Stalin,
the tallest in the world.

Taller than the Statue of Liberty,
the dictator darkened the sky
at the joining of two great rivers:
the Volga and the Don of Cossack fame –
his “sneer of cold command”
staring down the starving Ukraine.
The empty
multi-story pedestal still stands.

Stalin was toppled into the water –
shallow enough, they say,
that from the cruise boats one can see
his colossal face.
Ewa was on one of those boats.
At the sight of the pedestal,
all rushed to the deck.
Ewa said, “From where I stood,
I only caught a glimpse
of Stalin’s moustache.”

She giggled. She must have told
this story countless times.
We sat around the table smiling,
sipping home-made hawthorn wine.


So many heavy statues.

Huge posters like holy icons
carried in May Day parades.
In store windows instead of goods,
portraits of Marx and Engels
draped in red flags.

Stalin’s moustache.

It stained the walls,
it used to grow in the streets.

Stalin’s Boots in Statue Park (Szoborpark), Budapest. This is not an accurate copy of the original but an artistic recreation by sculptor Ákos Eleőd.

The image of Stalin’s moustache reminded me of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip’, from this poem that has become known as The Stalin Epigram, written in November 1933, which led to his arrest by the NKVD :

We Live Without Feeling by Osip Mandelstam

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

Translated by W. S. Merwin

And finally, returning to the theme of the anonymous citizen and the modern state, here’s Auden in 1939:

The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378: This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

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