July 14th is Bastille Day, the holiday commemorating the fall of the Bastille prison at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. It is celebrated not only in France but in many French-speaking countries and worldwide as one of the great turning points in history, when monarchs and the nobility were overthrown from their high, commanding perches. The advent of a new kind of capitalist relations between classes led to large-scale industrialization, mechanization, and urbanism. New contradictions emerged.
Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) was a Belgian poet who studied law. He wrote in French and is considered one of the founders of the school of symbolism. As a socialist he was particularly concerned with the impact of urban industrial society on the countryside and the social implications of this development. Written more than a century ago, “Towards the Future” anticipates the ecological crisis that we know today as climate change and the despoliation of the Earth.
Towards the Future
Mankind, determined on a golden destiny,
Have you questioned what formidable force
Has disturbed your colossal powers
Suddenly, in a century?
The impulse to extend knowledge, to find new ways,
Penetrates the massive forest of being like a novice,
And despite some feet struggling through the bushes
Man masters the limitations of his laws.
In entropy, atoms, and dust
Spectacular life is summoned and appears.
Everything is trapped in the infinity of snares
That immortal matter has expanded or reduced.
Hero, guru, artist, apostle, adventurer,
Each in his turn goes through the black wall of the unknown,
Yet thanks to this solitary or collective brain
The new being becomes universally aware.
And it is you, you the cities,
At long intervals, from one end to the other
Of plains and estates,
Who contain in you enough humanity
Enough scarlet strength and new clarity
To inspire with fertile rage and fury
The patient or violent minds
Who remake the rules and impose
Them on the world.
The rural spirit was the spirit of God;
It shrunk from research and revolution,
It failed; and now dies in the shade
Of axle-trees and the fiery harvest of a new solution.
Ruin settles and blows to the four corners
Where winds persist, on the empty plains,
While far away the city extracts as hers
The passion from the agony that remains.
The red factory glitters where once only fields shone;
The floods of black smoke sweep over the church tops;
The spirit of man advances and the setting sun
Is no longer the golden host come to bless the crops.
Will the fields exorcised of their errors,
Their blunders, their horrors, some day create
Gardens to reward effort and labors,
And be cups full of health and pure light?
Will they remake, with the necessary sun,
With the wind, the animals and the rain,
At the hours of wakening and beginning, one
World saved at last from the grasp of the town?
Or will they become the last paradise
Rid of gods and their ominous grip,
Where at dawn or noon, before evening clears, the wise
Ones will come down and dream before they take their sleep?
Meanwhile, life is complete and strong,
A human unrestrained creation;
And rights? And duties? The arbitrary dreams the young
Evolve before the newest aspiration!
Source: The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, 1970.
Photo: Verhaeren painted by Théo van Rysselberghe | Wikimedia (CC)