The Evanescent City

by George Sterling (1869–1926)

Great on the west, ere darkness crush her domes,
    Wine-red the city of the sunset lies.
Below her courts the mournful ocean foams;
    Above, no foam of cloud is in the skies.

Awhile I stand, a dreamer by the deep,
    And watch the winds of evening sap her walls,
Till ashen armies to the ramparts sweep
    And seas of shadow storm the gleaming halls.

So dies that far magnificence of light,
    A conquered splendor on a crumbling pyre,
’Mid fall of crimson temples from their height
    And ruined altars yielding up their fire.

So fades that city, one with all that finds
    The nameless road that Beauty takes at last—
One with her dust upon the twilight winds
    And all her music mingling with the Past.

“Farewell!” I whisper low—then thrill to see,
    Unseen till now, eternal and afar,
Soul of dead day and pledge of peace to be,
    The tranquil silver of the evening star.…

And even thus our city of a year
    Must pass like those the shafted sunsets build,
Fleeting as all fair things and, fleeting, dear—
    A rainbow fallen and an anthem stilled.

A rainbow fallen—but within the soul
    Its deep indubitable iris burns;
An anthem stilled—yet for its ghostly goal
    The incommunicable music yearns.

Only for Beauty’s passing shall we trace
    The heavenly pathway that her feet have trod;
Only at her departure seek her face—
    We that shall find it not this side of God.

Sterling composed this poem for the closing of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which ran from 20 February until 4 December 1915.  The poem, which had first appeared in Sunset magazine, was published in a beautiful commemorative edition with “illustrations after photographs” by Francis Joseph Bruguière and “a cover in color after the painting by Will Sparks.”  You can find the book in the San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library, although the library’s copy has been rebound and unfortunately lacks the color cover.  You might like to take a virtual tour of the exposition—the evanescent “city of a year”— and see it for yourself.

Sterling, George.  The Evanescent City.  (San Francisco:  A. M. Robertson, 1915).

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