Nightmare With Angels
by Steven Vincent Benet (1935)
An angel came to me and stood by my bedside,
Remarking in a professional-historical-economic and irritated voice,
“If the Romans had only invented a decent explosion-engine!
Not even the best, not even a Ford V-8
But, say, a Model-T or even an early Napier,
They’d have built good enough roads for it (they knew how to build roads)
From Cape Wrath to Cape St. Vincent, Susa, Babylon and Moscow.
And the motorized legions never would have fallen,
And Peace, in the shape of a giant eagle, would brood over the entire Western World!”
He changed his expression, looking now like a combination of
Gilbert Murray, Hilaire Belloc,
and a dozen other scientists, writers, and prophets,
And continued, in angelic tones,
“If the Greeks had known how to cooperate, if there’d never been a Reformation,
If Sparta had not been Sparta, and the Church had been the Church of the saints,
The Argive peace like a free-blooming olive-tree, the peace of Christ (who loved peace)
like a great, beautiful vine enwrapping the spinning earth!
Take it nearer home,” he said.
Take these Mayans and their star-clocks, their carvings and their great cities.
Who sacked them out of their cities, drowned the cities with a green jungle?
A plague? A change of climate? A queer migration?
Certainly they were skillful, certainly they created.
And in Tenochtitlan, the dark obsidian knife and the smoking heart on
the stone but a fair city,
And the Incas had it worked out beautifully til Pizarro smashed them.
The collectivist state was there, and the ladies very agreeable.
They lacked steel, alphabet, and gunpowder
and they had to get married when the government said so.
They also lacked unemployment and overproduction.
For that matter,” he said, “take the Cro-Magnons,
The fellows with the big skills, the handsome folk, the excellent
scribers of mammoths,
Physical gods and yet with sensitive brain (they drew the fine, running reindeer).
What stopped them? What kept us all from being Apollos and Aphrodites
Only with a new taste to the nectar,
The laughing gods, not the cruel, the gods of song, not of war?
Supposing Aurelius, Confucious, Napoleon, Plato, Gautama, Alexander –
Just to name half a dozen –
Had ever realized and stabilized the full dream?
How long, O Lord God in the highest? How long, what now, perturbed spirit?”
He turned blue at the wingtips and disappeared as another angel approached me.
This one was quietly but appropriately dressed in cellophane, synthetic rubber and stainless steel,
But his mask was the blind mask of Ares, snouted for gasmasks.
He was neither soldier, sailor, farmer, dictator, nor munitions-manufacturer.
Nor did he have much conversation, except to say,
“You will not be saved by General Motors or the prefabricated house.
You will not be saved by dialectic materialism or the Lambeth Conference.
You will not be saved by Vitamin D or the expanding universe.
In Fact, you will not be saved.”
In his hand was a woven, wire basket, full of seeds, small metallic and shining like the seeds of portulaca;
Where he sowed them, the green vine withered, and the smoke and armies sprang up.
In Fact, You Will Not Be Saved