American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Gurney Halleck

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Gurney Haleck (from the Dunepedia)

I love survivals of forgotten poets in popular culture. This one (it’s two, actually) comes from Dune, which I was inspired to reread by the recent heat wave. Or rather, read for the first time: as a teenager, I found the book too tedious to finish.

One of the characters, Gurney Halleck, is a warrior and troubadour; he serves the House of Atreides. Though played by Patrick Stewart — Capt. Picard — in the David Lynch film, Frank Herbert’s description posits a far less handsome man:

Gurney Halleck strode alone at the point of the crowd, bag over one shoulder, the neck of his nine-string baliset clutched in the other hand. They were long-fingered hands with big thumbs, full of tiny movements that drew such delicate music from the baliset.

The Duke watched Halleck, admiring the ugly lump of a man, noting the glass-splinter eyes with their gleam of savage understanding. Here was a man who lived outside the faufreluches while obeying their every precept. What was it Paul had called him? “Gurney, the valorous.”

Halleck’s wispy blond hair trailed across barren spots on his head. His wide mouth was twisted into a pleasant sneer, and the scar of the inkvine whip slashed across his jawline seemed to move with a life of its own. His whole air was of casual shoulder-set capability.

The character’s name is a compound allusion, derived from the names of two poets with warrior associations: Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867). The associations are particularly fitting with the former, since the real Gurney, a Brit, was a soldier and musician. Halleck, an American, was a clerk and poet, but he wrote one of the more beloved martial poems of the nineteenth-century, “Marco Bozzaris,” a favorite even of Emily Dickinson. (Actually, I don’t know why I say even: Dickinson is a pretty good index of nineteenth-century taste.) The poem is set in the Greek War of Independence, fought against the Ottoman Empire. Bozzaris (also written Botsaris) was a Suliote warrior. Halleck’s poem describes the raid in which Bozzaris fell:

Marco Bozzaris

At midnight, in his guarded tent,
The Turk was dreaming of the hour
When Greece, her knee in suppliance bent,
Should tremble at his power:
In dreams, through camp and court, he bore
The trophies of a conqueror;
In dreams his song of triumph heard;
Then wore his monarch’s signet ring:
Then pressed that monarch’s throne — a king;
As wild his thoughts, and gay of wing,
As Eden’s garden bird.

At midnight, in the forest shades,
Bozzaris ranged his Suliote band,
True as the steel of their tried blades,
Heroes in heart and hand.
There had the Persian’s thousands stood,
There had the glad earth drunk their blood
On old Platæa’s day;
And now there breathed that haunted air
The sons of sires who conquered there,
With arm to strike and soul to dare,
As quick, as far, as they.

An hour passed on — the Turk awoke;
That bright dream was his at last;
He woke — to hear his sentries shriek,
“To arms! they come! the Greek! the Greek!”
He woke — to die midst flame, and smoke,
And shout, and groan, and sabre-stroke,
And death-shots falling thick and fast
As lightnings from the mountain cloud;
And heard, with voice as trumpet loud,
Bozzaris cheer his band:
“Strike — till the last armed foe expires;
Strike — for your altars and your fires;
Strike — for the green graves of your sires;
God — and your native land!”

They fought — like brave men, long and well;
They piled that ground with Moslem slain,
They conquered — but Bozzaris fell,
Bleeding at every vein.
His few surviving comrades saw
His smile when rang their loud hurrah,
And the red field was won;
Then saw in death his eyelids close
Calmly, as to a night’s repose,
Like flowers at set of sun.

Come to the bridal chamber, Death!
Come to the mother’s, when she feels,
For the first time, her first born’s breath;
Come when the blessed seals
That close the pestilence are broke,
And crowded cities wail its stroke;
Come in consumption’s ghastly form,
The earthquake shock, the ocean-storm;
Come when the heart beats high and warm,
With banquet-song, and dance and wine;
And thou art terrible — the tear,
The groan, the knell, the pall, the bier;
And all we know, or dream, or fear
Of agony, are thine.

But to the hero, when his sword
Has won the battle for the free,
Thy voice sounds like a prophet’s word;
And in its hollow tones are heard
The thanks of millions yet to be.
Come, when his task of fame is wrought —
Come, with her laurel-leaf, blood bought —
Come in her crowning hour — and then
Thy sunken eye’s unearthly light
To him is welcome as the sight
Of sky and stars to prisoned men:
Thy grasp is welcome as the hand
Of brother in a foreign land;
Thy summons welcome as the cry
That told the Indian isles were nigh
To the world-seeking Genoese.
When the land-wind, from woods of palm,
And orange groves, and field of balm,
Blew o’er the Haytian seas.

Bozzaris! with the storied brave
Greece nurtured in her glory’s time,
Rest thee — there is no prouder grave,
Even in her own proud clime.
She wore no funeral-weeds for thee,
Nor bade the dark hearse wave its plume
Like torn branch from death’s leafless tree
In sorrow’s pomp and pageantry,
The heartless luxury of the tomb:
But she remembers thee as one
Long loved and for a season gone;
For thee her poet’s lyre is wreathed,
Her marble wrought, her music breathed;
For thee she rings the birthday bells;
Of thee her babes’ first lisping tells;
For thine her evening prayer is said
At palace-couch and cottage-bed;
Her soldier, closing with the foe,
Gives for thy sake a deadlier blow;
His plighted maiden, when she fears
For him the joy of her young years,
Thinks of thy fate, and checks her tears:
And she, the mother of thy boys,
Though in her eye and faded cheek
Is read the grief she will not speak,
The memory of her buried joys,
And even she who gave thee birth,
Will, by their pilgrim-circled hearth,
Talk of thy doom without a sigh:
For thou art Freedom’s now, and Fame’s;
One of the few, the immortal names
That were not born to die.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 25, 2010 at 12:31 am

One Response

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  1. awesome post! very trippy.

    Lanny Quarles

    December 15, 2010 at 7:18 pm


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