Hymn to Babel

Hymn of Breaking Strain

Rudyard Kipling
1935

THE careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
‘The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on  the Stuff – the Man!

But in our daily dealing
With stone and steel, we find

The Gods have no such feeling
Of justice toward mankind.
To no set gauge they make us-
For no laid course prepare-
And presently o’ertake us
With loads we cannot bear:
Too merciless to bear. 

The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
‘The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend-
‘What traffic wrecks macadam-
What concrete should endure-
but we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!

We hold all Earth to plunder –
All Time and Space as well-
Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead ‘neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned-
The mighty works we planned. 

We only of Creation
(Oh, luckier bridge and rail)
Abide the twin damnation-
To fail and know we fail.
Yet we – by which sole token
We know we once were Gods-
Take shame in being broken
However great the odds-
The burden of the Odds.

Oh, veiled and secret Power
Whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour
Of overthrow and pain;
That we – by which sure token
We know Thy ways are true –
In spite of being broken,
Because of being broken
May rise and build anew
Stand up and build anew.

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The Tower of Bab-El was not an infinite skyhook reaching into another, spiritual, world. To the Mesopotamians the tower  had temples on top containing the numinous, indwelling presence of the gods. So all towers, however short had Heaven on top. Presumably the height defined the degree of heaven. Else, why build higher? A shorter heaven implies an unseemly democracy of heavens.  This was the civilization into which Abraham was born. At Peniel Jacob saw a ladder that also rose to Heaven and there strove with God..

We build our towers into the sky and place personal temples on top. We hope to imbue our personal temples with the adoration of the millions who see us and usurp the powers of those who built them. Hephaestus and Daedalus never did so well as those for whom their artifacts were made.

    ‘We hold all Earth to plunder. All Time and Space as well….’

The methods by which we make miracles are known to all. The Pieta was just made by hammer and chisel. La Giaconda is just varieties of oily soil on a board. Our towers are rivets and steel and glass. Whence comes the magic?

  ‘Till, in the mid-illusion Of Godhead ‘neath our hand, Falls multiple confusion On all we did or planned-‘

But we who live in the houses of gods know them not. Nor can we keep them. We are unworthy of our homes.

    ‘Oh, veiled and secret Power Whose paths we seek in vain, Be with us in our hour Of overthrow and pain’

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