By: Stephen Vincent Benét
December 22, 2022

A (pro- or anti-) science-, mathematics-, technology-, space-, apocalypse-, dehumanization-, disenchantment-, and/or future-oriented poem published during sf’s emergent Radium Age (c. 1900–1935). Research and selection by Joshua Glenn.

AI-assisted illustration by HILOBROW

It rained a lot that spring. You woke in the
And saw the sky still clouded, the streets
     still wet,
But nobody noticed so much, except the
And the people who parade. You don’t, in a
The parks got very green. All the trees were
Far into July and August, heavy with leaf,
Heavy with leaf and the long roots boring
     and spreading,
But nobody noticed that but the city
And they don’t talk.

         Oh, on Sundays, perhaps you’d notice:
Walking through certain blocks, by the
     shut, proud houses
With the windows boarded, the people
     gone away,
You’d suddenly see the queerest small
     shoots of green
Poking through cracks and crevices in the
And a bird-sown flower, red on a balcony,
But then you made jokes about grass
     growing in the streets
And gags and a musical show called “Hot
     and Wet.”
It made a good box for the papers. When
     the flamingo
Flew into a meeting of the Board of
The new mayor acted at once and called
     the photographers.
When the first green creeper crawled upon
     Brooklyn Bridge,
They thought it was ornamental. They let it

That was the year the termites came to
     New York
And they don’t do well in cold climates —
     but listen, Joe,
They’re only ants, and ants are nothing but
It was funny and yet rather wistful, in a way
(As Heywood Broun pointed out in the
To think of them looking for wood in a steel
It made you feel about life. It was too
There were funny pictures by all the smart,
     funny artists
And Macy’s ran a terribly clever ad:
“The Widow’s Termite” or something.

         There was no
Disturbance. Even the Communists didn’t
And say they were Morgan hirelings. It was
     too hot,
Too hot to protest, too hot to get excited,
An even African heat, lush, fertile and
That soaked into bone and mind and never
     once broke.
The warm rain fell in fierce showers and
     ceased and fell.
Pretty soon you got used to its always
     being that way.

You got used to the changed rhythm, the
     altered beat,
To people walking slower, to the whole
Fierce pulse of the city slowing, to men in
To the new sun-helmets from Best’s and
     the cop’s white uniforms,
And the long noon-rest in the offices,
It wasn’t a plan or anything. It just
The fingers tapped slower, the office-boys
Dozed on their benches, the bookkeeper
     yawned at his desk.
The A.T.&T. was the first to change the
And establish an official siesta-room;
But they were always efficient. Mostly it just
Happened like sleep itself, like a tropic
Till even the Thirties were deserted at noon
Except for a few tourists and one damp
They ran boats to see the big lilies on the
     North River
But it was only the tourists who really
The flocks of rose-and-green parrots and
Nesting in the stone crannies of the
The rest of us had forgotten when they first

There wasn’t any real change, it was just a
     heat spell,
A rain spell, a funny summer, a
     weather-man’s joke,
In spite of the geraniums three feet high
In the tin-can gardens of Hester and
New York was New York. It couldn’t turn
     inside out.
When they got the news from Woods Hole
     about the Gulf Stream,
The Times ran an adequate story.
But nobody reads those stories but

Until, one day, a somnolent city-editor
Gave a new cub the termite yarn to break
     his teeth on.
The cub was just down from Vermont, so
     he took his time.
He was serious about it. He went around.
He read all about termites in the Public
And it made him sore when they fired him.

So, one evening,
Talking with an old watchman, beside the
Raw girders of the new Planetopolis
(Ten thousand brine-cooled offices, each
     with shower)
He saw a dark line creeping across the
And turned a flashlight on it.

        “Say, buddy,” he said,
“You’d better look out for those ants. They
     eat wood, you know,
They’ll have your shack down in no time.”

        The watchman spat.
“Oh, they’ve quit eating wood,” he said, in a
     casual voice,
“I thought everybody knew that.”

        —and, reaching down,
He pried from the insect jaws the bright
     crumb of steel.

— Stephen Vincent Benét’s poem “Metropolitan Nightmare” (1 July 1933 The New Yorker). Its first publication date has also been given as 1927. Note that Benét’s 1937 story “The Place of the Gods” (vt, “By the Waters of Babylon”) is a proto-Kamandi Ruined Earth story about a tribal adolescent boy who explores the ruins of a vast destroyed city he calls “newyork” (ie New York).


RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF POETRY: Stephen Spender’s THE PYLONS | George Sterling’s THE TESTIMONY OF THE SUNS | Archibald MacLeish’s EINSTEIN | Thomas Thornely’s THE ATOM | C.S. Lewis’s DYMER | Stephen Vincent Benét’s METROPOLITAN NIGHTMARE | Robert Frost’s FIRE AND ICE | Aldous Huxley’s FIFTH PHILOSOPHER’S SONG | Sara Teasdale’s “THERE WILL COME SOFT RAINS” | Edith Södergran’s ON FOOT I HAD TO… | Robert Graves’s WELSH INCIDENT | Nancy Cunard’s ZEPPELINS | D.H. Lawrence’s WELLSIAN FUTURES | & many more.


Poetry, Radium Age SF