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(Note: contains mild profanity).

    For Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb,
And the children of Daraa, Syria

Varus, old boy, it's been a dreadful year,
A dreadful decade; three sons all turned traitor
(That bitch's kids and scheming Antipater)
Those Persian spies, sedition far and near,
And then this endless, torturous disease --
Seized on by those revolting Pharisees
Who dared to challenge me: King of the Jews!
(With pus and gout it's hard to still look regal.)
...They soon were caught, of course. How odd they'd choose
To perish over one more Roman Eagle.

And that insidious December plot
Hatched by the rebels down in Bethlehem.
Of course we made short work of most of them,
But captured the ringleader kids and brought
Them back; it wasn't hard to make them sing.
I knew it -- treason, and some upstart king
They'd schemed to crown! What, Varus, was my error?
I, I, their cherished monarch, who rebuilt
Their Temple; kept them safe from crime and terror!
(I hope, before they died, they felt some guilt.)

…They'll have their new king ere the year is out.
Worms gnaw my flesh, the bitter end now nears;
Fool Antipater in his dungeon cheers,
And in the streets deluded masses shout
For some long-promised Savior of their land --
(On them you'll have to use a heavy hand).
Now go: find those the people most esteem,
Bring them to Jericho; they'll share my doom,
And all shall see the tears for me that stream
In loud lament. And write upon my tomb,

Here lies King Herod, Great Basileus:
Famed, feared, much honored, and much loved by us.

Historical notes:

Varus: Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BC to 9 AD), a Roman general under Emperor Augustus, was most famous for losing three Roman legions in the disasterous battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Before this unfortunate end to his career (and life), however, Varus served as governor of Syria during the last years of King Herod's reign, and was known for his harsh rule and heavy taxes. When messianic anti-Roman revolts erupted after King Herod's death in 4 BC, Varus did indeed "use a heavy hand", crucifying over 2000 Jews in retaliation.

King Herod's sons: King Herod had at least nine sons, and five daughters, by eight different wives. His family, though large, was not a happy one: he executed his own wife Mariamne I in 29 BC, as well as her two sons in 7 BC and his first-born son Antipater in 4 BC (shortly before his own death) on charges of attempting to murder him. By his death, the royal succession was in such a mess and Herod had changed his will so many times, that Caesar Augustus point-blank refused to confirm it, instead splitting up Herod's kingdom between three of his remaining sons.

King Herod's disease: Nobody is quite sure what King Herod died of, but the symptoms sound atrocious: worms, incontinence, gangrene, fever, itching and bad breath to boot. Some experts suspect kidney disease complicated by Fournier's gangrene.

The Pharisees and the Roman Eagle: In the last months of Herod's life, a group led by two prominent Pharisees -- named Judas and Mattbias -- took advantage of Herod's illness to pull down a Roman Eagle he had set up over the front door of the Temple in Jerusalem (contrary to Jewish religious law). They were caught, sentenced to death and burned alive.

King Herod's last wish: King Herod did indeed command, in his last days, that "all the most illustrious men of the whole Jewish nation" be brought to Jericho and imprisoned there, to be slain after his death so that there would be loud displays of weeping. Fortunately, the final part of this wish was not carried out and the men were instead freed.


Cross-posted from For background on my Advent Canticle project, see

All Advent Canticle entries are available here: Archive of Advent Canticles

To existing readers of this blog: For various reasons, I'm now attaching brief titles (mostly first lines) to my entries. Nothing else has changed: the series is still running one per day and all the Advent Canticle entries are still available here.

Originally posted to Green Canticle on Thu Dec 06, 2012 at 07:14 PM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Anglican Kossacks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Zow. Even infested with Republicans, the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    2thanks, SchuyH

    present times are much preferable.

    A shocking comparison, now and then, is a good thing.

  •  Did (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eowyn9, linkage, SchuyH

    you write this? It is pretty cool. Unless you are a present-day Syrian.

    •  Yes -- it is part of a series I'm writing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Andrew F Cockburn, SchuyH

      based on Advent (both the Biblical story, and events in our modern-day world). In the end the series will have 25 poems, published one per day until Christmas.

      I felt that the character of King Herod pretty precisely lined up with the behavior of modern dictators seen today, like Bashar al-Assad. Historical scholars are divided on whether the Bethlehem Massacre (described in Matthew 2) really happened -- but it certainly fits right in with what we know about Herod. He was horrible.

      This poem, in particular, was inspired by Iyad el-Baghdadi's excellent Arab Tyrant Manual (tweeted during the events of the Arab Spring last year). Somehow, dictators always seem to act alike.

  •  Thank You ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Scheduled to be Published on Street Prophets.


    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 12:25:10 PM PST

  •  This is really beautiful. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eowyn9, SchuyH

    Reminds me of W.H. Auden, a little.

    •  Well-spotted -- I was wondering if/when (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      someone would pick up on this :) Yes, I've been very much influenced by Auden, especially his later work. I love and admire the way he was able to speak in a very fresh, original way, using traditional verse forms and meters without sounding trite or hackneyed. I think my favorite poem by him (tricky to choose!) is the little-known Under Sirius - though Friday's Child and the Shield of Achilles stick out in my mind as well.

      •  For anyone who's interested, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        •  A quote from Under Sirius (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          (just for a taste of it)

          "How will you answer when from their qualming spring
          The immortal nymphs fly shrieking,
          And out of the open sky
          The pantocratic riddle breaks -
          ‘Who are you and why?’"

          Great stuff :) (You can tell I'm an enthusiast).

      •  Oh EXCELLENT. :D (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Eowyn9, SchuyH

        I think it was the subject matter combined with the style that put me in mind of his "For the Time Being."

        ... damn, "Friday's Child" is good.  The others too, but that one struck me particularly.  Auden does keep coming back to belief and unbelief, doesn't he?

        •  Wow - Auden fan though I am, I never even (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          realized this existed! Thanks for the tip. I'll have to go track it down.

          Yes, belief and unbelief -- combined with a willingness to look directly at, really, the worst of human nature (and the suffering that it causes) and to ask how (if a good God exists) he/she/it could allow this sort of suffering. The central question of human existence, perhaps.

          I also love the way Auden mixes this great, vast sweep of poetic vision with the tiny, almost mundane details of how events (Nativity) affect the very "ordinary" lives of the people they touch. With the Nativity in particular, we are so bombarded with all these glowy, glittery, halo-ed scenes that it's easy to forget that these events (if they did happen as described in the Gospels) happened to real people, just like us, in our own world.

          And of course there's his amazing use of language, particularly unusual vocabulary...and his ability to find JUST the right word that conveys exactly the shade of meaning (or several meanings) that is needed...

          What can I say? I love Auden. :D

          •  Fair warning: it's LONG. (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Eowyn9, SchuyH

            Fifty pages, in the standard-paperback-sized book of Modern Poetry I have next to my desk.  It's more of a cycle than a single poem.

            And yes, re vast sweep of poetic vision married to tiny mundane details; he writes about that in "Musee Des Beaux Arts", come to think of it.

            Also mastery of language yes, and also a certain mastery of the dramatic understatement, which is hard to pull off.

            •  I also love his ability to seamlessly blend (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              different times, places, cultures and mythologies, and yet to do it so subtly that one doesn't even really notice at first. It's a very organic and eclectic style of could say "postmodern", but without the show-off-ness of much writing that labels itself postmodern.

              And the conversational tone of much of his poetry. He never (or rarely) feels like he's talking AT or lecturing the reader. It's like he's sitting down with you, across the table, and having a casual chat over a cup of tea...

              And yet it all rhymes, scans and is breathtakingly beautiful! An amazing paradox.

              •  It's Modern, is what it is (0+ / 0-)

                (... and I may never forgive that period for labeling itself "Modern", for the confusion it's caused later students who consider the Modern period part of increasingly bygone history.  Did they seriously think nothing was going to come after them?)


                but anyway yes; that conversational tone is a hallmark of the Moderns, and it profoundly annoyed a lot of old-school poets back when it was an innovation.

                And I do love the eclecticness (eclecticism?) of the subject matter too; T.S. Eliot did that even more so.  Playing Spot-The-Reference with "The Waste Land" can take days.  (Moment of smug: when we studied it in my First-Year English seminar, I spotted one reference that the professor had never noticed in twenty years of teaching that poem.)

                •  That's awesome - what was the reference? (0+ / 0-)

                  I like T.S. Eliot as well, but I need to be in the right mood, or I begin to find all the external references irritating. Auden slips them in seamlessly; Eliot makes a point of letting them clash and collide. I am not a big fan of his earlier work, am still lukewarm on the Waste Land, but I love, love the Four Quartets.

                  •  I know what you mean (0+ / 0-)

                    about needing to be in the right mood, but when I am in that mood there is nothing like Eliot for it.  Usually either The Waste Land or Prufrock.

                    The line was "Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night," right at the end of Part II.  It's a direct quote from Hamlet; Ophelia says it, in the scene where she's gone mad.

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