Posted by: Tom Triumph | August 27, 2011

152. Hangman: Maurice Ogden

Stumbling upon “First They Came For The Jews” by Martin Niemöller, I realized I had not read it since seeing it as a poster on the door of an office in college. Then, like many things from college, it faded away (Hey, I remember the ’80’s). Paraphrased from time to time, I had not seen the entire quote published until I came across a site connecting seven poems with seven paintings.

Excited at such a find (seven lessons, all laid out!) my enthusiasm diminished when I found myself tepid about the art and questioning if the “poems” were, indeed, poetry (and I have a low bar). I didn’t think Niemoller was even claiming it to be a poem. A quick search on Wikipedia uncovered a) an interesting story about how the victims in Niemoller’s quote changed depending on when and where he spoke, and b) the poem “Hangman” by Maurice Ogden.

While it’s not a poem, Niemoller’s work is worth posting. Below it is more about Ogden:

First They Came For The Jews
Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

You can visit this, the art attached to it, and six other linked pieces at this site from The International School for Holocaust Studies. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum talks about the changing victims here. Of course, Wikipedia has info, too.

Ogden’s poem is actually about McCarthyism, which followed on the heels of the Holocaust. Not as deadly, but the same basic blueprint. Here’s a film version from 1964. An animated 11-minute film was made by Les Goldman and Paul Julian, and narrated by Herschel Bernardi. The film was a co-winner of the Silver Sail award at the Locarno International Film Festival. For those who remember filmstrips, the quality will be comforting. I wonder if the clip was itself filmed with a handheld camera?!


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Here, too, is a PDF file of a lot of questions that break down the poem. It’s a great springboard.

All of this is for you to build community. I could say more, but as a teacher I’m sure you know your resources and what needs to get done for your students to feel safe and learn.

Hangman
Maurice Ogden

1.
Into our town the Hangman came,
Smelling of gold and blood and flame.
And he paced our bricks with a diffident air,
And built his frame in the courthouse square.

The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,
Only as wide as the door was wide;
A frame as tall, or little more,
Than the capping sill of the courthouse door.

And we wondered, whenever we had the time,
Who the criminal, what the crime
That the Hangman judged with the yellow twist
of knotted hemp in his busy fist.

And innocent though we were, with dread,
We passed those eyes of buckshot lead —
Till one cried: “Hangman, who is he
For whom you raised the gallows-tree?”

Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye,
And he gave us a riddle instead of reply:
“He who serves me best,” said he,
“Shall earn the rope of the gallows-tree.”

And he stepped down, and laid his hand
On a man who came from another land.
And we breathed again, for another’s grief
At the Hangman’s hand was our relief

And the gallows-frame on the courthouse lawn
By tomorrow’s sun would be struck and gone.
So we gave him way, and no one spoke,
Out of respect for his Hangman’s cloak.

2.
The next day’s sun looked mildly down
On roof and street in our quiet town,
And stark and black in the morning air
Was the gallows-tree in the courthouse square.

And the Hangman stood at his usual stand
With the yellow hemp in his busy hand;
With his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike
And his air so knowing and business-like.

And we cried, “Hangman, have you not done
Yesterday, with the foreign one?”
Then we fell silent, and stood amazed,
“Oh, not for him was the gallows raised.”

He laughed a laugh as he looked at us:
“Did you think I’d gone to all this fuss
To hang one man? That’s a thing I do
To stretch a rope when the rope is new.”

Then one cried “Murder!” and one cried “Shame!”
And into our midst the Hangman came
To that man’s place. “Do you hold,” said he,
“with him that was meant for the gallows-tree?”

And he laid his hand on that one’s arm.
And we shrank back in quick alarm!
And we gave him way, and no one spoke
Out of fear of his Hangman’s cloak.

That night we saw with dread surprise
The Hangman’s scaffold had grown in size.
Fed by the blood beneath the chute,
The gallows-tree had taken root;

Now as wide, or a little more,
Than the steps that led to the courthouse door,
As tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,
Halfway up on the courthouse wall.

3.
The third he took — we had all heard tell —
Was a usurer, and an infidel.
“What,” said the Hangman “have you to do
With the gallows-bound, and he a Jew?”

And we cried out, “Is this one he
Who has served you well and faithfully?”
The Hangman smiled: “It’s a clever scheme
to try the strength of the gallows-beam.”

The fourth man’s dark, accusing song
Had scratched our comfort hard and long;
“And what concern,” he gave us back.
“Have you for the doomed — the doomed and Black?”

The fifth. The sixth. And we cried again,
“Hangman, Hangman, is this the man?”
“It’s a trick,” he said. “that we hangmen know
For easing the trap when the trap springs slow.”

And so we ceased, and asked no more,
As the Hangman tallied his bloody score.
And sun by sun, and night by night,
The gallows grew to monstrous height.

The wings of the scaffold opened wide
Till they covered the square from side to side;
And the monster cross-beam, looking down,
Cast its shadow across the town.

4.
Then through the town the Hangman came,
Through the empty streets, and called my name —
And I looked at the gallows soaring tall,
And thought, “There is no one left at all

For hanging, and so he calls to me
To help pull down the gallows-tree.”
So I went out with right good hope
To the Hangman’s tree and the Hangman’s rope.

He smiled at me as I came down
To the courthouse square through the silent town.
And supple and stretched in his busy hand
Was the yellow twist of the hempen strand.

And he whistled his tune as he tried the trap,
And it sprang down with a ready snap —
And then with a smile of awful command
He laid his hand upon my hand.

“You tricked me. Hangman!,” I shouted then,
“That your scaffold was built for other men…
And I no henchman of yours,” I cried,
“You lied to me, Hangman. Foully lied!”

Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye,
“Lied to you? Tricked you?” he said. “Not I.
For I answered straight and I told you true —
The scaffold was raised for none but you.

For who has served me more faithfully
Then you with your coward’s hope?” said he,
“And where are the others who might have stood
Side by your side in the common good?”

“Dead,” I whispered. And amiably
“Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me:
“First the foreigner, then the Jew…
I did no more than you let me do.”

Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
None had stood so alone as I.
The Hangman noosed me, and no voice there
Cried “Stop!” for me in the empty square.

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Responses

  1. really good poem


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