A Worker Reads History

A Worker Reads History

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years’ War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

–Bertolt Brecht

13 thoughts on “A Worker Reads History

  1. Max

    It seems that we tend to attribute great feats of human accomplishments with singularities. For what reason? To embellish a mythical time of history in order to more easily grant folk hero status to these individuals? Because it is easier to establish Christopher Columbus Day instead of Christopher Columbus and His Fleet of 10 Ships Day?

    Nice poem.. brings up good points..

  2. apciv Post author

    Hi Max. The great man theory of history works as a kind of shorthand for a much more complicated set of events. It also performs a vital ideological function: it re-enforces individualism. There’ll be more stuff up in a week. Peace.

  3. dilan sanjeewa

    Bertolt Brecht was a famous German writer and dramatist. He was the founder of the epic-theater. Almost all his works of literature bring political and social massages to the audience and he is perhaps a communist. He tries his level best to reveal the bitter hidden truth of the society. Thus, he played the role of a social reformer and was a controversial literary figure.

    This poem A worker reads history by Bertolt Brecht reveals his boundless compassion to the working class people. We always boast our history mentioning the names of great kings and their marvelous creations but no one bothers to speak about the labourers who shed their sweat for these creations.

    “Who build the seven gates of Thebes?”
    “The books are filled with names of kings”

    It is the working class people who made all these creations of great emperors and kings. No emperors could invade a country unless the soldiers fought for them. No kings could build a great wall or a city unless the carpenters and masons provided their labour.

    But it is ironical when only the names of kings and the people of higher ranks are written in the books. It is a great injustice. They must be appreciated and valued for their labour.

    This poem has grater relevance to the modern society as well. The buildings constructed by working class people through their own funds and taxes are declared open by the presidents, prime ministers and other higher class authorities. Their names are written in the monuments in memory of them. No one values the labour rendered by working class people. Hence, the poem deals with a socio-political theme. It deals with the theme o f social injustice against the working class people and the political theme of invisible power of the rulers.
    The tone of the poem is highly critical as it directly refers to world reputed and renowned rulers like Julius Caesar, and great Alexander and the world famous creations such as seven gates of t Thebes and the great wall in China.

    “who build the seven gates of the Thebes”?
    “In the evening when the Chinese wall finished”
    “where did the masons go”?

    The tone of the poem is very critical. The poet arises the public awareness and brings wisdom to the reader.

    The language is quite effectively used in the poem. The poem is full of retherotical questions which instill to the mind of the reader to question themselves whether they are right or wrong over their judgment. Thus, it has attributed a dramatic quality. At the end we also have so many particulars and so many questions on the victories and creations written in the history.

    1. student of kalutara balika

      without leadership and power any one does not do the best creations so power of that great people must be talk.so there is two aspects in this poem.so we cant forsake kings as it we cant forsake workers. so we must talk about these two sides.

  4. Student in Joseph Vaz College Wennapuwa...

    When we talk about the writer….. He is the closeset equivalent of Great Shakespeare…. The poem itself is filled with rhetorical questions…. What does Brecht really wants us to get…. Think a bit…..

  5. liya

    The sacrificial life of the workers are not mentioned. But the kings who gave the command are great in the history.So I do not agree with this.

  6. Nawamini Dissanayake

    this poem shows us how do a worker worried about the searching of the history.he represents the All workers’ class.everywhere,specially in history,leaders were only mentioned,not the servants.I think that servants are very useful than the leaders.this poem commenting on it very critically.

  7. arghya mozumder

    injustice made out to the working class is exposed in ironical language and our theory of history is questioned.The subaltern view of history is put forward in rhetorical manner.workers create history but their contribution is deliberately overlooked

  8. S.L.Jayasinghe

    strong leadership is necessary for the success of a work. but it is the working class who makes the great people’s leadership fruitful. so they must not be forgotten. at least the history must say “young Alexander conquered india with the aid of his army.” so I agree with the idea of this poem.

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