‘The City of Orange Trees’ by Dick Davis is a detached commentary on human civilization’s decadence.
A medieval Persian scholar who expressed a commitment to the ideal of civilized life, Davis has written this poem, I think, to demonstrate the inevitability of society’s destruction because of mankind’s addiction with materialism.Beginning the poem with an aphorism which declares that a city is about to self-destruct, Davis condemns lives which have become materialistic, demonstrates how complacence is the seed for their destruction, and later on introduces an intellectual, a diplomat, who read the aphorism, and on whom the fate of this city now hinges. With degeneration of human creativity as one of his main themes, Davis uses a particular city, the City of Orange Trees, as his setting.His symbolic diction goes a long way in emphasizing the ostentatious lifestyles of its inhabitants, with the titular ‘orange’ first of all referring to gold, or success, since oranges are valuable gifts in many cultures.
While ‘conspicuous luxuries’ imply that the people flaunted their possessions, and were rather superficial, the fact that they couldn’t bear to be live with anyone other than ‘slaves, musicians, wives… indicates that they needed to be surrounded by obsequious serfs, meek individuals, who neither force nor challenge the people to expand their horizons, to look beyond mere possessions and actually use their potential.
Davis’ uses structural and stylistic techniques to reinforce the message of his diction. In ‘slaves, musicians, wives…
‘, for example, the asyndeton and ellipsis suggest that these are only three in a long list of sycophants.A similar list in ‘comfort, gardens, literature’ (things the people are distracted by), contains trochees which put emphasis on the nature of these items, and underscore the lavish, decadent lifestyles they lead. When he states that these ‘safe lives / grow lax’, he uses two spondees consecutively, which is a deviation from the iambic style of the poem, and hence we are told more forcefully that these people have become lazy, satiated by their luxuries and neglectful of protecting themselves.This protection, we later find out, will be required in the face of Tamburlaine, ‘The world conqueror’, a historical figure renowned for his appreciation of art and literature and for his ruthless militant ways.
This is revealed in the third to last line, with a list, ‘barbarous, impatient, vain’. The asyndeton yet again suggests that these unpleasant characteristics are just the tip of the iceberg. Tamburlaine obviously wants to capture this city and loot its corpus of aesthetics. The people, however, seem oblivious to their fate.
One of Davis’ key ideas is that such indifferent attitudes have been cultivated through generations. Hence, his use of ‘the child’, followed by ‘children’s children’, and ‘three generations’, all refer to the deterioration that has been taking place through generations. What I find particularly striking is that Davis doesn’t use the common word ‘grandchildren’, opting instead for ‘children’s children’, which not only stands out because of the repetition, but also makes clear the inter-generational link.The point Davis is getting to is probably that three generations have been inculcated to believe in ‘aesthetics’ and ‘luxuries’, and thus the ‘zeal for conquest, prayer’, has decayed.
I think ‘prayer’, the apposition for ‘zeal of conquest’, means a yearning for purity and inner salvation, something that children have actually come to deride as senseless, because in the next line Davis writes that ‘the child / mocks pieties he cannot feel’.Not only can the child not understand spirituality and religion, two things that define human existence and establish its superiority over other living beings, but they actually dismiss them as things of the past, as phenomena that have nothing to do with their own lives. This concern over cultural decline is characteristic of Davis, who has always been an advocate of cultural diversity and tolerance, a facet demonstrated by the fact that he is a British poet who lived in Iran for many years and now translates Persian.Having established that this city is done for, Davis proceeds to tells us that the first sentence, ‘The city filled with orange trees / is lost’ is actually something that the ‘Heir to three generations’ learning’ read and felt was inevitable.
This ‘heir’, Davis discloses, is going to negotiate with Tamburlaine for peace. He is probably an intellectual, because he has all this knowledge with him, and, in addition, he has written a ‘masterpiece’. The biggest clue to his intellect is the fact that, upon reading the aphorism, the man realizes that it ‘fitted what he knew’.This means that he knew the city of orange trees would collapse, that the people’s materialism has heralded ‘ruinous punishment.
‘ In fact, the tense in which the first four stanzas is written, present, suggests that things are happening just the way someone had portended them to happen. This is especially conspicuous in the line ‘The sword / falls and the plundered city burns’. Such a sanitized, detached description of the decimation of an entire city could be possible only if the describer knew that it was going to happen.Indeed, the apathetic, emotionally-uninvolved tone that notes a sword falling and a city burning suggests that these are just a part of a sequence of things that have been predestined.
A last note on the intellectual – he is portrayed as a person with refined taste, because silk rustles as he moves. ‘Rustled’ is somewhat mimetic, and creates an audible image of the man rising and turning. The meter, normally a rigorous iambic tetrameter, seems to impart a sense of dignity and refinement to this character.However, in ‘turning’, it changes to a trochee, and thus simulates an actual change in the man’s position.
Now he isn’t just a collector of information – he is an activist, who must ‘parley now for peace’ with Tamburlaine. Davis doesn’t reveal the outcome of this negotiation, and instead chooses to end the poem on a note of suspense, and more so dread, because Tamburlaine is given the epithet of ‘world conqueror’, which is unambiguous in its meaning that even the City of Orange Trees is part of the world, and hence it will be conquered.