Poem of the Week: A Little Catechism of the Devil by Edwin Morgan | Edwin Morgan


A Little Catechism of the Devil

What is a demon? Study my life.
What is a mountain? Go now.
What is fire? This is forever.
What is my life? A fall, a call.
What is the depth? Go now.
What is thunder? Your dry power.
What is the movie? It rolls, it tells.
What is the movie? Under the falls.
Where is the theater ? Under the hill.
Where is the demon? Walk the hills.
Where is the victory? On the high peaks.
Where is the fire? Far in the depths.
Where is the depth? Study the demon.
Where is the mountain? Go now.
Study my life and leave now.

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From the first line of this intriguing and unsettling “catechism,” one can reasonably infer that the demon is the speaker, stating both the questions and the pedagogically correct answers. So the first question for us is the one that starts the poem (“What is a demon?”) and is dodged. We have only a series of selective questions and oblique answers from which to construct a picture. At least we know he’s a teacher demon: he wants to be understood, spread demonic knowledge and be an example for student demons.

The voice sounds robotic: it may be a post-human AI demon, programmed to re-master a nearly devastated planet. The non-sequiturs sometimes suggest that he is still mastering the English language. It’s certainly not big on a clear explanation. But perhaps that makes it all the more appealing to the students it is aimed at.

Much of the imagery is taken from the natural world, and the symbolism of these images is clear. The demon seems to favor mountains, summits and “the depths”: he is perhaps a fire worshiper. One wonders if there is a gap between his ambition and his real power. The answer in the sixth line (“What is thunder? Your power is dry”) is elusive: Has the power become dangerously less by being “dry” – or more powerful?

The demon himself could be identified with Satan (see line four). It could also be a benign demon, or just a neutral force of nature. He is, however, fascinated by two non-demonic human inventions: theater and cinema. These media may have seduced him towards another desire for “victory” and the means to achieve it. The film, after all, has the power to tell its story.

The 15-line catechism is composed of two sonnet-like parts, the first eight questions beginning with “What” and the next six with “Where?” This suggests an outward movement from theory to experience of the phenomena invoked. If the demon has a message, it is that knowledge is acquired by action: study life, then leave now.

Questions beget questions, and the skillful avoidance of direct answers heightens the thrill of interest. Edwin Morgan’s experimental and science fiction poems often imply joyful adventure, boundless optimism. This set of coldly mysterious imperatives leaves us wondering about the nature of the quest, presented in such an urgent and indeterminate way. This repeated call to “get started” somehow implies that human history, even after a disaster, will start over and continue as before, meeting the challenges of its newly elemental setting. We will always want mastery. We will again rush to “leave now”. And maybe Edwin Morgan, in his wisdom, says that’s the only right thing to do. The demoniac is the human.

A Little Catechism from the Demon is published in Centenary Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan.


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