This Sweet Archaic Song

This Sweet Archaic Song

This week’s poem is “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence” by James Elroy Flecker.

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

James Elroy Flecker (1884—1915)

Poem 238. To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.
But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?
How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Mæonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

In these verses, a poet greets another living a millennium later, hoping that whatever the world will become, the things that inspire him will endure through the years to inspire his reader.

In the opening stanza, the poet addresses the reader, saying that although a thousand years may separate them and they cannot meet in person, yet the words of this poem will pass on the message he wants to convey: “my words for messengers”.

The second stanza indicates that though the world may change out of all recognition, with people travelling the seas and sky, and building spectacular homes, the message transcends these mundane matters.

In the third stanza we begin to appreciate the nature of the message—or perhaps it is a wish—that the traditional inspirations for poetry remain true: drink and music, art and love, and belief in some higher power to arbitrate the petty good and evil of the world.

The fourth stanza asks, how can poets survive and thrive? The answer is through their imaginations that are as mercurial as the evening breeze, something that hasn’t changed since the age of Homer (Maeonides being an alternative name for the Greek poet).

In the fifth stanza, the writer of the verse imagines his “unseen, unborn, unknown” friend as a student of English perhaps teasing out the meaning of this poem and reading it aloud in the watches of the night, realising that the writer was a young poet just as they are.

Lastly, the older poet, unable to offer the younger anything of a physical nature, sends “my soul through time and space/To greet you”, knowing that the reader will understand that the writer’s soul is bound up in the words as a kind of gift.

I like this because it reminds me that poetry spans the ages, and that beautiful poems have been written in every era of human existence: the hunting poems of prehistoric times in Africa, the Pyramid Texts written 2,500 years before Christ, folk songs and bardic chants, the epics of Greek, Indian and Chinese writers, the gamut of Western verse beginning with “Cuckoo Song” and the many writers working in their native languages today. We are fortunate to live in a time when poetry is so accessible.


  • Listen to Impossible Paradise’s performance on YouTube.