Once upon a time when I was old

Old World

by Charles Simic



I believe in the soul; so far

It hasn’t made much difference.

I remember an afternoon in Sicily.

The ruins of some temple.

Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.


The olives and goat cheese tasted delicious

And so did the wine

With which I toasted the coming night,

The darting swallows,

The Saracen wind and moon.


It got darker. There was something

Long before there were words:

The evening meal of shepherds . . .

A fleeting whiteness among the trees . . .

Eternity eavesdropping on time.


The goddess going to bathe in the sea.

She must not be followed.

These rocks, these cypress trees,

May be her old lovers.

Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.



Such a droll opening line, classic Simic.


I believe in the soul; so far

It hasn’t made much difference.


Lest anyone think he’s being earnest, he covers up lickety-split with a world-weary shrug. What me, ache for transcendence? I was just kidding! Scratch a cynic, as they say.


The “Old World” of the poem’s title does double duty here. There’s the old world of Sicily, where the speaker sits among the ruins, eating and drinking. And there’s the really old world, the world before temples were built, the world before words. The world of the eternal, if you have faith it exists and go back far enough.


The speaker imagines the life of the shepherds and then of the trees and rocks, perhaps once men themselves. He’s chasing time farther and farther into prehistory (where the soul was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be), even as he is stuck in time. The afternoon turns to evening, the decay of the temple mirrors his own, and he will age to the point where the poem begins, where his beautiful picnic is a long-ago memory.


The funny thing is, as much as he longs for eternity, or at least a glimpse of eternity, eternity seems to be equally interested in him, as if a massive Peeping Tom were checking in on the little people—


A fleeting whiteness among the trees . . .

Eternity eavesdropping on time.


It’s the dance of the mortals and the immortals, as old as gods seducing men and then turning men into trees for daring to look upon their beauty.


That’s as far as I got with it. It’s a complicated poem. Your take on it is appreciated.


*****This is the last of the Simic series. I’ve finally depleted my supply. On Monday I’d like to start posting your entries in the Poem Elf Ten Year Anniversary Project. I’ve gotten a handful of wonderful submissions. I’d love to have enough to fill out the month of May. Link here for guidelines and here for suggestions. Send your photos to thepoemelf@gmail.com.


Go forth and poem-elf!





  1. nition

    I first read this poem in a poetry anthology called Staying Alive, by Neil Astley. I always thought that the “fleeting whiteness among the trees” was the moon. That great celectial sphere never changing while the world of men careens onward. Eternity eavesdropping on time.

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