James Elroy Flecker made a huge and unexpected leap of the imagination when he wrote ‘To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence. It’s such a well known poem, it’s easy to take it for granted. Oh, that old thing. It’s a bit like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. I remember having to learn this off by heart at Junior School, then being forced to chant it in unison with the rest of my class for some competition or other. Oh, that old thing. Yet when I came across the poem years later, it suddenly struck me – this is really good. Sometimes we need to approach the hackneyed poem, the school-teacher’s favourite, with fresh eyes, and ears.
Why not try it:
It set me thinking, what might a poet think of us, looking back from a thousand years hence. Would there be any record of us at all, or would all trace of us have been buried in some apocalypse? What would it be like, the world he was looking back from? Would it be some kind of technotopia, busy and prosperous, or might he be the last, the only one?
Assuming he had records – that electronic records, books, pictures and music had survived, even – he would be interpreting what he saw through the lens of his own society, and who knows how alien that society might seem to us, or what outlandish conclusions he might draw from such a distance in time.
But supposing he was more or less like us, and his society had at least some common points of reference with our own, what might he think? I am guessing he would be horrified on some counts.
He would be disgusted that we reared other living creatures only to kill and eat them, when our digestive systems were designed to cope with either a vegetarian or a carnivorous diet. You had the choice, he would exclaim, yet you still killed and you still ate. I suspect he would be appalled at our use of animals in experiments and at some of our ancient sports, which involved the hunting and slaughter of wild creatures – the fox and the lion for example – not even for food, but for the thrill of ending a life, the thrill of looking at another creature, in all its living, breathing glory, and in an instant snuffing that glory out.
He would be appalled by our shallow-mindedness. He would wonder how we could possibly be entertained by game shows and talent shows, computer games and social media generally. What were they thinking? Were they thinking?
He would be bemused by our politics – at the never-ending diplomatic games between one country and another, at the never-ending lies, evasions, fixes and deceptions perpetrated by Governments on their own people.
He would be aghast at our inefficiency. How can it be that someone is 15% more likely to die in a British hospital at the weekends because of some ridiculous rota issue? How can it be that old people die alone in dilapidated, underheated houses that nobody ever visited? How can it be that a young woman can die in a ditch beside her dead partner several days after a crash several people reported and nobody attended, because of some computer system malfunction?
He would loathe our perpetual violence against one another, the way we send warplanes to bomb other people’s countries and refer to any man, woman or child who happens to get in the way and be killed or displaced as ‘collateral damage’.
And yet he might find a few things to love.
He might love the way, while Governments bicker and hold endless meetings over how few refugees they are willing to take in, ordinary people go out to meet them with sweets and sandwiches, water, clothing.
He might love our courage in facing a range of appalling diseases that, hopefully, by his time will have been eradicated, with sad reluctance, sometimes, and sometimes with calm resignation.
He might love the way we took to the streets to protest against perceived wrongs in our societies, knowing nothing much would change, whatever we did.
He might love the way we occasionally managed to forget, when faced with the real ‘other people’ in own neighbourhoods, what colour they were, what gender, what religion, and think of them just as people.
He might love our foolishness, the way we liked to dress up for the occasion, our jokes, our weird and eccentric customs, our rituals. He might like the way we wept, watching television, to witness a foreigner’s distress, cheered on the underdog in a tennis match merely because they were the underdog, covered our eyes when the wildebeest was about to be eaten by the lion – again. He might like the way we opened doors for one other, gave up our seats for one other, shepherded old ladies across the road and went to great lengths not to offend one another, even by accident.
He might love our music, and at least some of our art, and be grateful for those few scraps of music, art, architecture, literature and poetry we thought to preserve from those who lived before us.