Atlas, holding up the world on his back. Maybe one of the most striking of the Greek myths. And the most selfless of their heroes, 'hero, hero.'
Here Carol Ann Duffy uses the myth as a personification of the earth and a plea for protecting it. If Atlas could carry the enormous, extraordinary burden of the earth, can we not even uphold our miniscule tasks of caring for it?
Also, as I read this, as is often the case with poetry, it takes on a more general meaning - and speaks of all burdens that we carry - the weight of them sometimes, the impossibility, the unbearable heaviness of being. But just look at the beauty that surrounds these states of burden, its variety and multitude, its surprise gifts and ultimately, 'love's lift.'
Atlas - Carol Ann Duffy
Give him strength, crouched on one knee in the dark
with the Earth on his back,
balancing the seven seas,
the oceans, five, kneeling
in ruthless, empty, endless space
of whale, dolphin, sea-lion, shark, seal, fish, every kind
which swarms the waters. Hero.
heavy to hold, the mountains;
burn of his neck and arms taking the strain –
Andes, Himalayas, Kilimanjaro –
give him strength, he heaves them high
to harvest rain from skies for streams
and rivers, he holds the rivers,
holds the Amazon, Ganges, Nile, hero, hero.
Hired by no-one, heard in a myth only, lonely,
he carries a planet’s weight,
islands and continents,
the billions there, his ears the last to hear
their language, music, gunfire, prayer;
give him strength, strong girth, for elephants,
tigers, snow leopards, polar bears, bees, bats,
the last ounce of a humming-bird.
in infinite, bleak black,
he bears where Earth is, nowhere,
head bowed, a genuflection to the shouldered dead,
the unborn’s hero, he is love’s lift;
sometimes the moon rolled to his feet, given.
(Taken from 'The Bees', Picador, 2011, London)