Sometimes, a poem just springs forth into the mind, however good or bad like the springing forth of Athena from the mind of Zeus. This is such a poem, but I’ve thought about it a bit and managed to locate two themes from other works that I suspect contributed to its genesis. The first is the tale of David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament, in which David sent one of his generals, Bathsheba’s husband, into battle so that he would be killed and David could have Bathsheba. My favorite contemporary song, “Hallelujah,” mentions this episode briefly as well. The second work is the tale “Billy Budd” by Herman Melville. In it, a naïve midshipman, Billy Budd, is trapped into a confrontation with Claggart, a scheming superior officer, and accidentally kills Claggart in a fit of justifiable though excessive rage, and is condemned to death. Somehow, I think these two stories came together in my mind and created this poem, which doesn’t exactly match either of them, but has the joint themes of a young officer being shoved into harm’s way, and a devious superior officer who is responsible for this. The poem is cast back in time, which I think is also responsible for the somewhat old-fashioned tone of the remarks about the two main characters, being as Costan might today be seen as a womanizer plain and simple, and Merlu perhaps even a correctly behaving superior who gets the soldier’s mind back on what he is supposed to be there for, however harsh the task or sentence. Still, I think with the tone cast as it is in the poem as written, the readers’ sympathies should rest mainly with Costan. Here’s the poem:
Costan and Merlu
Was what women know as a warm man.
Up to all their wiles and tricks,
Even seeing a few where there were none,
But full of love and joy and yes, laughter,
In the army
They wrinkled their noses up at
When they discussed him,
And more than one thought
His love and attention wasn’t warm
Rather possessive and deigning,
Full of his own self-importance,
And seeing not them.
At the sight of a red petticoat,
Always had a second glance for it
Over his shoulder,
Had the mort arrested
For crimes she’d only thought of committing
And thought disdainfully
Of poor people’s attire,
For modesty had nothing to do
With red petticoats,
And he flattered himself
That he was a modest man.
Costan one evening
Caught up with a lovely young smart thing
And chortled and sang with her
Under the wall, where they sat,
Sharing a bottle and some bread and cheese.
No less forward to impropriety,
But knowing what Merlu wanted,
Carried the news.
The next night,
Costan stood red-faced for reproach
In front of Merlu
Agreeing that yes, he had been most improper,
And bowing his head to anger and what was more,
Envy, though he hardly dared even to himself
Think of Merlu in that light.
Two days later,
There was a wall to storm,
A bridge to take,
And warning his friends to stand away from him,
Lest they too fall into disfavor
With the keeper of the garrison,
Costan accepted the mission
Forced upon him by Merlu,
But eager himself to shine.
The ending was inevitable,
Given Costan’s brave resilience,
And throwing of himself over the wall
Straight into enemy fire.
His loving and noble heart was breached as well,
By cannon fire he’d no way to fend off,
Since all he could think to offer was himself,
His skill with firearms not equaling
His skill with loving negotiations.
That evening, Merlu sat pondering:
What more need he do to preserve
The public order,
What ordinance or regulation pass
To keep his officers and men in line?
As he then stood, just before his window
He looked at another wall, like to the one
Of Costan’s trespass, and on it,
Flaunting bold and red,
As if someone had torn the red petticoats in pieces
And stuck them in place any way at all,
Someone had hastily painted the accusation
“Murderer!” to face his window;
He was startled, and for just a moment
Struck to the heart
That someone had read his thought.
Then, taking on himself once more
The yoke of office,
He sent a man out to clean it off
Or paint over it,
Sure, or no, not sure,
But avoiding the thought,
That someone knew him
Better than he had known himself.
Such knowledge comes too late for regret,
And in any case,
He was persuaded by the experience
That constituted all his life so far
That he was right to act so,
That Costan had been hostile
To the public temper and a danger
To public life.
And after all, once the word was painted over
From the wall,
There was no witness to the crime
And that made all the difference to him,
Though those who knew him sensed a subtle change,
A tension in the command,
As if he was second-guessing himself,
A lack of certainty, a questioning,
A questing for a solution to something
They knew not.
Came the day when he too was ordered over a wall
In front of his troops,
And taking a deep breath, nearly asking himself
If this was the price of it all,
He tried to be valiant, as valiant as he could imagine
Costan had been,
Though when his body came back also shot through,
The women and men of the town
Didn’t mourn him. Instead,
As his shattered body made its way on a stretcher
Through town, his last breath still not drawn,
He heard them saying, “It’s his time!” and laughing,
Someone spitting by his frame,
And “Serves him right!”
“Vindictive peasants!” he thought, and shedding a tear
For his own passing, he died.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/27/17