Theodosian Walls

Cowering before Achilles and his bronze-breasted Greeks,
Troy’s sacred towers are not so sacred now,
ground down to the mud of Hissarlik.

The walls of Byzantium stand more or less intact,
decorous yellow masonry decorated
with courses of red brick, like the veins of Vesalius.

Four stooping towers are inherited by a fifth
with a gaudy appendix scar, a sixth toppled on itself,
another with a brooding vaginal interior

where a peasant farmer scratches out dusty crops
on the plain between inner and outer wall.
The towers juddered down the withered valley

of the Lycus, now a hot boulevard where Urban’s cannon
reduced the walls to dust, down, down to the Golden Horn,
passing the insignificant sally port, the Keroporta,

shyly concealed by a tower, forgotten and left open.
The Turks were within.
The emperor stood glittering with three companions,

defending an inner gate — his cousin Theophilus,
the Spaniard Don Francisco, and John Dalmata.
Theophilus yawled for death and vanished into the Turks.

Dark as leather, already chiseled like a mosaic,
the emperor removed his insignia and shouldered into battle.
Then he became dust, and less than dust.

William Logan


Author: William Logan

William Logan, poet and critic, teaches creative writing at the University of Florida. His most recent book of poems is Madame X (Penguin). His reviews appear in The New York Times and New Criterion and elsewhere.

4 thoughts on “Theodosian Walls”

  1. The central pleasure in this poem seems to me to be the unresolved tension between its two presentations of mortality. I like the fact that the poem seems to undercut its own conclusion.

    The contemplative speaker, standing before the partly dilapidated defensive walls of Istanbul now being crowded by modern growth, pauses to recall the death of Constantine XI during the great siege of 1453.

    The poem’s last line suggests the grim finality of death, actually trumping the Genesis notion of the brevity of life (as a cycle from dust to dust) with the assertion that the dead are “less than dust.”

    But that assertion comes paradoxically after, and because, the poem’s speaker and its reader are reminded of a heroic account of Constantine and his companions on the occasion of their deaths. The men are not merely remembered, they are remembered as heroic figures boldly fighting to the death.

    Being remembered five hundred years after death, being remembered as courageous and dauntless, is in fact about as close to immortality as a mortal can expect. The endurance of the mythy death account of Constantine XI and his companions narrows the last line’s reference to dust to mere literal truth.

    Constantine is not quite dead if we today think of him as half vulnerable human, half as memorial artistic rendering in a heroic posture, as he “shouldered into battle”

    “Dark as leather, already chiseled like a mosaic”

    Constantine seems like Achilles himself, half man and half god.

    At this moment the poem’s speaker, more conscious of the death scene than whatever surrounds him in this Istanbul street, expresses an awe and excitement that belies the poem’s more contemplative opening. His neutrality edges briefly to a tone more suggestive of the breathless urgency of a BBC historical documentary by Simon Schama or Niall Ferguson.

    That is quite a change. The opening of “Theodosian Walls” is anti-heroic, a grim reminder that the once mighty walls of Troy no longer exist.

    The first line’s energetic grandeur and elevated language, with its Homeric epithet, “bronze-breasted Greeks,” and the trope of the walls cowering (as Trojans once cowered) deflates in the second line to an anti-heroic bluntness that will itself yield in four or five stanzas to awe.

    The deflation from the first line to the second, and from the second to the third, is marvelous. This poem, unlike most meditations, seems to end where it began, but with less certainty.

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