Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Likelier Story

More than a year ago on this blog, I commented on a recent film, The Valley of Elah, that used the David and Goliath story to underpin its narrative of the murder of an American soldier after his return from the war in Iraq. I wrote of how the metaphor might've been a more accurate account of our misadventure in Iraq if the U.S. Army had been cast as Goliath: "The film allows us to infer the identity of its David and its Goliath. But as America's wars dwindle towards their close, I am left to wonder that maybe Goliath has slain David this time, and that the Philistine is us."

As we all know by now, the Hebrew account of that contest has David, the shepherd boy, prevailing over the giant Goliath. It is such a memorable story simply because of the unlikeliness of the outcome - the opposite would've been far likelier. Little did I know but from the trenches of the Great War, Robert Graves anticipated my reversal of fortune by nearly a century.

Goliath and David

(for D.C.T., killed at Fricourt, March 1916)

Yet once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from the brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
That he's killed lions, he's killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But . . . the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.

Striding within javelin range,
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of length:
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then . . . but there comes a brazen clink,
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath's shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David's last.
Scorn blazes in the Giant's eye,
Towering unhurt six cubits high.
Says foolish David, "Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I'll not yield."
He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that's broke
The skull of many a wolf and Jesse's flocks.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout; but David, calm and brave,
Holds hid ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for beauty's overthrow!
(God's eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre-cut
"I'm hit! I'm killed!" young David cries,
Throws blindly forward,
chokes . . . and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

from Fairies and Fusiliers, 1918

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