Bierce (1842-1914) was unsentimental, critical, sardonic, and lucid when sappy, romantic sentimentalism was at its most popular, a trait that has kept his writing (along with that of Melville [ LINK
], who had to be rediscovered, and a few others) current while consigning many of his more popular contemporaries to dust in recent years. It also earned him the nickname "Bitter Bierce," notable because his criticism was said to make or break a writer's career. His civil war diaries (he was an officer) provide one of the most widely-known and journalistic commentaries on the war. Best known for his Devil's Dictionary,
his poetry is likewise outstanding. Below are a few prominent examples.
It is pleasant to think, as I'm watching my ink
A-drying along my paper,
That a monument fine will surely be mine
When death has extinguished my taper.
From each pitiless scribe of the critic tribe
Purged clean of all sentiments narrow,
A pebble will mark his respect for the stark
Stiff body that's under the barrow.
Thus stone upon stone by reviewers thrown,
Will make my celebrity deathless.
O I wish I could think, as I gaze at my ink,
They'd wait till my carcass is breathless.
The Valley of Dry Bones (1896)
With crow bones all the land is white,
From the gates of morn to the gates of night.
Picked clean, they lie on the cumbered ground,
And the politician's paunch is round;
And he strokes it down and across as he sings:
"I've eaten my fill of the legs and wings,
The neck, the back, the pontifical nose,
Breast, belly and gizzard, for everything goes.
The meat that's dark (and there's none that's white)
Exceeded the need of my appetite,
But I've bravely stuck to the needful work
That a hungry domestic hog would shirk.
I've eaten the fowl that the Fates commend
To reluctant lips of the People's Friend.
Rank unspeakably, bitter as gall,
Is the bird, but I've eaten it, feathers and all.
I'm a dutiful statesman, I am, although
I really don't like a diet of crow.
So I've dined all alone in a furtive way,
But my platter I've cleaned every blessed day.
They say that I bolt; so I do---my bird;
They say that I sulk, but they've widely erred!
O Lord! if my enemies only knew
How I'm full to the throat with the corvic stew
They'd open their ears to hear me profess
The faith compelled by the corvic stress,
(For, alas! necessity knows no law)
In the heavenly caucus---'Caw! Caw! Caw!'"
And that ornithanthropical person tried
By flapping his arms on the air to ride;
But I knew by the way that he clacked his bill
He was just the poor, featherless biped, Dave Hill.
The Passing Show
I know not if it was a dream. I viewed
A city where the restless multitude,
Between the eastern and the western deep
Had reared gigantic fabrics, strong and rude.
Colossal palaces crowned every height;
Towers from valleys climbed into the light;
O'er dwellings at their feet, great golden domes
Hung in the blue, barbarically bright.
But now, new-glimmering to-east, the day
Touched the black masses with a grace of gray,
Dim spires of temples to the nation's God
Studding high spaces of the wide survey.
Well did the roofs their solemn secret keep
Of life and death stayed by the truce of sleep,
Yet whispered of an hour when sleepers wake,
The fool to hope afresh, the wise to weep.
The gardens greened upon the builded hills
Above the tethered thunders of the mills
With sleeping wheels unstirred to service yet
By the tamed torrents and the quickened rills.
A hewn acclivity, reprieved a space,
Looked on the builder's blocks about his base
And bared his wounded breast in sign to say:
"Strike! 'tis my destiny to lodge your race.
"'Twas but a breath ago the mammoth browsed
Upon my slopes, and in my caves I housed
Your shaggy fathers in their nakedness,
While on their foemen's offal they caroused."
Ships from afar afforested the bay.
Within their huge and chambered bodies lay
The wealth of continents; and merrily sailed
The hardy argosies to far Cathay.
Beside the city of the living spread---
Strange fellowship!---the city of the dead;
And much I wondered what its humble folk,
To see how bravely they were housed, had said.
Noting how firm their habitations stood,
Broad-based and free of perishable wood---
How deep in granite and how high in brass
The names were wrought of eminent and good,
I said: "When gold or power is their aim,
The smile of beauty or the wage of shame,
Men dwell in cities; to this place they fare
When they would conquer an abiding fame."
From the red East the sun---a solemn rite---
Crowned with a flame the cross upon a height
Above the dead; and then with all his strength
Struck the great city all aroar with light!
I know not if it was a dream. I came
Unto a land where something seemed the same
That I had known as 'twere but yesterday,
But what it was I could not rightly name.
It was a strange and melancholy land,
Silent and desolate. On either hand
Lay waters of a sea that seemed as dead,
And dead above it seemed the hills to stand.
Grayed all with age, those lonely hills---ah me,
How worn and weary they appeared to be!
Between their feet long dusty fissures clove
The plain in aimless windings to the sea.
One hill there was which, parted from the rest,
Stood where the eastern water curved a-west.
Silent and passionless it stood. I thought
I saw a scar upon its giant breast.
The sun with sullen and portentous gleam
Hung like a menace on the sea's extreme;
Nor the dead waters, nor the far, bleak bars
Of cloud were conscious of his failing beam.
It was a dismal and a dreadful sight,
That desert in its cold, uncanny light;
No soul but I alone to mark the fear
And imminence of everlasting night!
All presages and prophecies of doom
Glimmered and babbled in the ghastly gloom,
And in the midst of that accursèd scene
A wolf sat howling on a broken tomb.
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