My Proper Life

To the Reader

I hear you ask, ‘Is this the lot
and such a long time passed?’
Disguise the glum fact I cannot:
the headcount isn’t vast.

I hope you find some poems here,
though little and though late,
which light the mind or please the ear
and have been worth the wait.

You will, if in your mind one stays
after you turn its page,
redeem the outlay of my days
although I took an age.

1.

Elijah

To my father

He sat down under a juniper tree
And wished that he might die.
I am not better than my fathers
Was his complaint and cry.

The story always pleased me as a child.
The way it named the tree —
The particular kind he sat down under —
Started my sympathy.

The phrase itself — not better than my fathers
I never understood.
Admitting such a gauge of our condition
Took me until manhood.

Martha, Mary and Housework

To my mother

The only time you criticised the Word
Was over that story. It was plain unjust that He
Sent Martha away, while Mary sat dreaming and idling all day,
Taking that good part, maybe.
You took Martha’s part, without apology.

The Entertainer

Sometimes, after tea, when my brothers and I
Played in the garden, I sensed at the window
Our parents’ faces, and knew that they were happy.

This made me want to orchestrate the play,
Being the eldest, the impresario,
But still present a seeming spontaneity,

Watchful in case the game flagged or a quarrel broke out.
It mattered somehow to put on a show
Which proved we were that family I’d heard about:

Where parents wash the tea things, talking quietly
And children play as they are meant to do —
Under smiling eyes, under an elm tree.

A Dainty Dish

Iris Origo, in her book The Merchant of Prato, writes:
‘no banquet was complete without a torta
— the “grete pie” of English cooking’, and she cites
a recipe from Libro della cucina del secolo quattordici
‘in which live songbirds were put into a pie
of which the roof had little windows’, adding:
‘“Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before a king?”’

A rhyme I’ve known since ‘Listen with Mother’.
The thought that anyone could be so wicked
as to put a single blackbird, let alone so many, live
into an oven never crossed my mind.
The song was but a foolish thing, a toy.
(Later, I read that the four quatrains may carry
coded references to weightier affairs:
Henry the Eighth, his first and second wives,
the dissolution of the monasteries…)

Our mother had a porcelain blackbird
whose body, sleekly broadening below the neck,
held up the crust of the Sunday apple pie. Rising from the roof,
its vertical triumphing head, with yellow beak
open as if to sing, did not sing as it came to table,
didn’t even whistle, but it did emit
a breath, a jet of steam, and someone hummed or sang
a line or two in all their seeming innocence
until the pie was opened and more steam engulfed it.
We had opportunities enough to comment on the sight,
since apple pie (with blackberries in September)
was the only dish our father — moderate, monogamous —
ever wanted set before him on a Sunday, after the meat.

Thinking about Heaven

I lay, and thought about heaven.
I was eight. The ceiling offered no clue.
The problem was not: Am I going?
But: When I get there, what do I do?

The show, they said, would run and run
Forever. That was my major fear.
However pleasant what you did there was,
How would it feel in its millionth year?

I sensed a nightmare coming on.
The principal task was to comprehend
How big heaven is in time and space;
To size it up from end to end.

I panicked when I saw an endless line
Of rods of time laid whitely in the gloom
Forever and forever; would not say amen
To that infinite horror in the room.

The curtains flickered in the night.
Groaning, I prayed for sleep, which came.
Afterwards, they told me that eternal
And everlasting are not the same,

That heaven is eternal, outside time,
Which measurement of years or miles cannot record.
Later, I had my appendix out
And got a notion of the great reward

As a sort of anaesthetic
And Jesus as the surgeon with the knife.
This model served a stopgap purpose
Until the time came in my life

When the problem didn’t figure any more.
Heaven has receded, but earth designs
Equivalent dilemmas, and the ceiling still
Encodes its messages in cracks and lines.

Mission Sundays

At church, about eight times a year,
a preacher recently returned
from some part of ‘the mission field’
reported on the sacred task of harvesting of souls.
(In deep suburbia, our metaphors evoked the earth beneath.)

Progress was slow. The Catholics in Ireland
stubbornly maintained allegiance to the cult of Mary;
Dublin’s churches, rank with incense, stuffed with painted images,
were dangerous dark places haunted by unhealthy priests.

Nor were the Jews in Whitechapel and Stepney
any nearer to salvation;
God’s own people, they had stopped their ears
and could not entertain the joyful tidings that Messiah had come.

In Africa, the Lord was moving in our generation;
heathen souls in thousands had received the Word
and turned their backs on spirits, stocks and stones.
And yet beware the shade of Islam,
coming like a plague of locusts, blotting out the gains of light.

In China, Godless Communists had driven Christians into hiding;
some had suffered martyrdom. But secretly
(and here the preacher lowered his voice;
the congregation felt a faint frisson)
God’s work was carried on.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were building giant temples in Brazil
and luring poor illiterates into the night of heresy.
The time was short…

And so on while I sat, despairing.
Even as the preacher spoke,
another flock of unsaved souls had closed their eyes
and gone to everlasting torment. What to do?
What use my paltry sixpence added to
the modest cairn of silver on the plate
which travelled, hand to hand and pew to pew,
as strenuously we sang the final hymn?

‘Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain
while all around him waves the golden grain?’

Idler am I, I thought while walking miserably home.
Not out of daring; out of helplessness.

Upturn

To my father at 70

The state wants to check that you’re still safe to drive
so you’re wise to take up gliding. Think of ageing
simply as travel with the extra dimension.

Pause long enough here at the biblical span
to upturn the hourglass, set the bonus years running.

Loop the loop. Think of the past
as the change from your pockets which falls to the grass
when you stand on your head in the park.

Bicycles

A father’s no shield
for his child.
Robert Lowell, Fall 1961

It’s spring of 1962, a Saturday,
I’m with my father on an empty-at-the-weekend train, and full of joy.
We’re on our way to buy a bicycle, my first.

We come back on the same suburban train.
(I know; I checked the number; I am in that phase.)
The bike I chose is blue, and in the guard’s van.
I suggest we get off one stop earlier than planned
so I can try it on the road.
My father is unsure, and then consents.

The hill from Beckenham to Shortlands,
in the valley of the Ravensbourne, is steep.
We’re at the top. He holds the bike.
I mount, and wobble, then shoot off and leave him standing.

At the bottom, I turn round
and watch him running down the hill
and when he’s close enough I see
fear clearing from his eyes.
But I’m all right

and 42 years pass

and we are in a shop in Bedford, buying him a bicycle.
He’s 80, and the old one is beyond repair.
He mounts outside the shop,
adjusts the saddle height,
then says he’ll ride the five miles home
and will I take the car? He’ll see me there.

I follow at a distance, not to seem concerned.
I stop in driveways, watch him wobble on the new machine,
then overtake by half a mile, and stop and wait again. Each time
fear has its hand around my heart.
These roads which once were country now are chock-a-block with metal
and the bends are blind. Each time

he reappears. He is all right.

Great chapters of our lives have opened, closed.
A zero interim. Where but from the man ahead
have I inherited
this instinct of protectiveness for him?

The Walker

Already old when pointed out to me,
he was a special feature of the town:
the grocer’s man (retired). For forty years,
six days a week, he’d walked round villages
and farms, and stood at doors to write down lists
of groceries, the orders for the week:
a woman’s voice, his fountain pen, his book.

This way of getting trade had had its day.
The grocer kept him on to 65,
then told him, kindly, that he’d have to stop.

No longer fit for work, but fit to walk,
at first the pensioner maintained the same
six routes, the same six days, for exercise;
he liked to be outside and on the go.
When modern traffic finally destroyed
his pleasure and his peace, he reckoned up
how many circuits of the small town park
would be an equal distance. There he was:
black-suited, bowler-hatted, keeping count;
an object of amusement to the young.
To those who taunted him, he gave no sign.
To those who greeted him, he raised his hat.

He got to 93 before he died
one morning, pulling on his walking boots.
He’d done some mileage. If he’d been a van
(that ancient first one that my father owned),
his clock would long ago have clicked beyond
the line of nines, then zeroes, back to one.

Crisis? What Crisis?

The world had held its breath, supposedly.
Throughout my teens, when others reminisced
About the week they thought the world might end,
I kept a puzzled quiet, wondering
Where I had been when some had prayed aloud
And some had taken final walks in parks;
Too proud to show my ignorance
By asking them what was this unity in fear
Which I had been excluded from.

One night at university I tracked back
After such a conversation
And came to my appendix operation.

The pain that day; too ill to go to school;
The doctor’s diagnosis and his phone call to the ambulance;
The hospital; the surgeon telling me to count to ten
(I got to three); the ward where I woke up;
And then a week’s — that week’s — recuperation.

Russian ships steamed south towards the waiting silos.
Kennedy sat with his generals. I lay in bed
Without a radio, and read of war in Germany or space
In Biggles and The Eagle. For relief
I laughed at Jennings till the stitches hurt.
The vicar visited. My father came each night,
Afraid for all of us, but saying nothing of it.

By the time the vicar drove me home,
The ships were steaming north, the crisis past.
The conversations I rejoined
Had right-about-turned to the usual.
The world had breathed again, supposedly.

If memory were physical, I’d say
It doesn’t hurt to touch that place in me
Which stirs an ache in others, when I see
Myself tucked up in bed with books to read,
The innocent
As Armageddon came and went.

Away for the Week

The woman owned the house we’d rented, and she wasn’t fooled.
Nineteen-year-olds, two pairs of us, two Woolworth’s wedding rings.
‘At least they’ve made an effort,’ said the bubble from her head.
She showed us round. The only things we cared about were beds.
They didn’t disappoint. Capacious, matrimonial,
They promised joys, attained so far in snatches, for a week.

We chose our rooms. In Angela’s and mine, above the bed,
A lighted crucifix hung ready to invigilate.
Mains power. No switch. You’d think that it would put us off our stroke.
Not so. Its purple glow enrobed two naked Protestants
From England, merely grateful for the contraceptive pill,
But far too coy to leave the light on of our own free will.

The novelty of unprevented sex, and playing house,
And drinking proper Guinness at the shop kept us in town
Most of the week, still just believing that such pleasures were.
Our only day trip was a random tour into the west.
Down every empty lane we took, the fuchsias were in bloom.
We found the sea, saw islands, ate our lunch, and then came back.

As we returned, we passed a ruined chapel in the fields.
We stopped, and walked across to look: an ancient graveyard, stuffed
With bones, confused and visible and sticking from the ground.
So Angela picked up a skull and shin bones to take home.
I used weak words to try to stop her. She would have her way.
I was too much in love to veto this unholy act.
Into the Morris Minor’s boot they went, and home we drove.
She parked her trophies in the house.

We visited Tralee
That night, to see a horror film. It was the Bluebeard myth
As Gothick melodrama: evil doctor keeps a string
Of undead former brides in castle basement; latest bride
Smells rat before her wedding night; calls up her former love
(Discarded by the girl, she tricked by doctor’s wicked lies
And lured by money, which she now regrets); he flies to her,
Kills doctor, ushers former brides into God’s wholesome light
Where magically they come to life again. The End.

The story made a palpable impression on us all,
But most on Angela. ‘The skull and bones,’ — she looks to me —
‘I couldn’t sleep if they were in the house. Please take them back.’

It’s after midnight and I’m trying to reverse the route
We took in daylight. I’m alone. I’m lost. He, she or they
Are clattering in the boot. I find the place at last, by luck.

Full moon on ruined chapel, gravestones and surrounding wall.
Two fields between me and the hallowed ground. I dare not walk.
I swing one gate aside, and roar across the field, then swing
The second gate aside, and roar across the second field,
As fast as ever motor traffic has traversed that land.
Astonished rabbits scatter from my headlights to their holes.

I stop beside the wall, leave engine running, open boot
And hurl the relics somewhere close to where we saw them first.
Then back across the vacant fields, more slowly, less afraid.
I close one gate, two gates, absolve myself, breathe out, drive home.

That night, despite the helping lights from moon and crucifix
Two lovers faced the ceiling, chastened, chaste. On Saturday
Four crossed the country, ringless: Rosslare, Fishguard, London, thence
To places where we were not grown up yet. And she and I
That autumn said goodbye from phones a hundred miles apart.
I closed the callbox door, absolved myself, breathed out, walked home;

No longer in her power, though for ever in her debt.

Away for the Week — One More Thing

‘Now you look like an educated man,’ the woman says.
‘What’s that thing mean? I got it for a present from my sons.
From France.’

I read the motto on the little plate hung on the wall
Of this, the first non-risky bedroom Angela and I have shared
Since we embarked on this, the first discovery of fleshly joy
Of both our lives, now rediscovered nightly — as if we cannot credit it —
In this, the house the woman owns.

In golden letters:
Faire l’amour avec une femme sans ôter sa chemise
C’est manger un orange sans l’éplucher.

‘It means,’ I say,
To love a woman is a joy as sweet
As eating oranges in sunshine.

‘Well that’s nice,’ the woman says, and looks at each of us.
I look at Angela. She’s looking out the window,
Fighting back mirth, and fiddling with the ring she went and bought.

The woman adds, with emphasis, ‘I wish you both that joy yourselves,
And when the children come.’ Outfacing my straight face.

Non Credo

I have said no, on the evidence, and mainly in my strength
Face cheerfully the entail.
Besides, it is a worn out argument to most, not worth
The brain’s energy and the while.
We are material.
The world of matter urgently requires us here.
God is not, and his dad
Was not a carpenter.

I am conscious; consciousness is better than oblivion.
Yet I consent to be nothing
When the time comes; or if, against the odds, there is some transposition,
For that too I am willing.
At least one thing is certain:
No grand examiner will name the good and evil.
Heaven and hell are not.
Hereafter is a level.

Yes, put it down like that. When some mornings bring a loss of nerve,
When suddenly I am surprised by fear,
When the circus of texts and images sees its chance to revive,
That will do for an answer.
We are responsible.
Our actions and our loves will be the verdict on our stay.
If not we, then no one
Makes a difference either way.

Remains

Up on the stretch of chalk down which remains
after the houses stop
before the houses start again
a man is scattering the ashes of his father.

In the distance is himself.
His hand is in his father’s hand.
He likes this upland detour home from evening church:
the up, along and down of it;
the map the harbour, city, island
make for him below. On summer Sunday evenings such as this
the lark song
and the bonfire smoke which drifts from gardens
bring to him the meaning of romance
before he knows the word.

The man is throwing up his father’s ashes
so they catch what little wind there is.
They make brief curtains in the air
and fall to earth to dust the grass
and merge into the colour of the chalk.
Mostly wood and bones, he thinks.
The soft parts will have boiled and rarefied.

The softest part of all — the soul —
has been in heaven since his father died.
His father in the distance is explaining this
and trying to alleviate the only sadness he so far has known:
the possibility that he may lose these Sunday evenings on the down,
the two of them alone; that everything —
the harbour, city, island
lark song
smell of bonfire smoke — will pass away.
‘All this will pass away,’ his father says
and waves his other hand across the scene,
‘but we, the just who live by faith, we will remain.’

He’d rather not consider this too deeply
so his hand renews its grip inside his father’s hand
to still the nag of reason he has heard.

The man upends the plastic urn
and puts it on the ground to clap his hands
so that his father’s last remains may join the earth.
He looks into the distance for his father and himself.
They’ve disappeared.
They must be walking down the avenue of bungalows.
They must be nearly home.
He turns and takes in the familiar view.
New motorway. New high-rise.
But the sunlight on the sea
the lark song
smell of bonfire smoke:
these have not passed away.
They’ve lasted long enough to force
the tears of one for whom the present is
for one for whom the present never was.

Offspring

The first was born at midnight in July
Of 1946, and there was peace.
She lay beside a window in the ward
And saw the dawn, and heard a blackbird sing.
The light grew stronger and the stillness held.
Her future beckoned; she would shape her world.

For those who will insist too stridently
Time’s languid humour keeps its own redress.
She loved her children, and they came to know
Her stringent sets of measures of success
Which, over fifty years, all failed to match.
They made their way in life by minor roads.
Most married wrongly, and she had to watch.
The Gospel she had taught them — which for her
Contained the full sufficiency of truth
For here and for hereafter — most denied.

A blackbird sings at daybreak this July.
In bed at home, she still invests with hope
The sweet, the automatic line of notes
Speaking to her in age as plausibly
As when the song said: ‘Time is on your side.’

Christmas Atheist

The holly from my trees within.
The wood smoke from my fire without.
I leave the house and walk my ground
to take December’s failing pulse.

Quite still. Quite silent. Buzzard. Wren.
This festive walker’s glad at heart
to know with undeluded mind:
there’s human love, and nothing else.

Eclipses

‘“Then shall the sun be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…”’
I know about eclipses from an elder of the church.
He says we should expect the Lord to give these portents now.
God’s people, as in Joel’s day, must daily wait and watch.

I’m in the audience at Stratford. It’s my first King Lear.
Myopic, superstitious Gloucester, troubled at the sight:
‘These late eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good
to us…’ I think: about astrology, Edmund was right.

This cloudless, freezing night in March, I’m gazing at the sky
— at far-flung, automatic bodies falling into line;
the earth, the sun’s dumb slave, in silent mastery of its moon —
and wondering at the workings of the heavenly machine.

I’m not the first, nor best, to press his wonder into verse.
I’m reading disbelieving Hardy, following his thought
that in a motion so ordained and calm, ‘so small a shade’,
can be confined the beauty and confusion we have wrought.

At a Lunar Eclipse — Thomas Hardy

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along the Moon’s meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven’s high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

Birthplace

October sunshine, high on the down;
A view of the city, the harbour, the sea:
The place where I started I cannot disown;
Its marks are indelibly printed on me,
Grown into my flesh as their bearer has grown
Like flukes in the bark of this sycamore tree.

Whatever the healing that knowledge has brought
In banishing nightmares of childish belief;
In spite of my credo of rational thought —
‘Inhabit the days, for the daylight is brief’ —
The marks on my mind from the pox that I caught
Are like spots on the skin of this sycamore leaf.

Self-Portrait

The truth is that I like the face I’ve got, the way it is.
I like the days when mirrors meet me often; take each chance
To check that I can say, again, ‘Not bad for 52,
For 53... You’re looking good since half an hour ago.
The skin below the eyes does sag a bit, it’s true, and yes,
There is some looseness at the neck. So what?’

Cosmetic surgeons’ bright insinuating knives will not
Come near the baggy, lumpy, veiny bits my DNA
Has programmed for me, readying to bud, to bloom each year
I’ve yet to greet. I won’t let Botox grip my features in
A rictus of surprise the more incongruous now that
I find I raise my eyebrows less and less.

And Clarins, Clinique, Garnier, ingenious mountebanks
Who sigh to women that their youth’s a stuff will not endure
Unless they try this stuff of seaweed, cucumber or birch,
Extracted, potted, packaged, branded, sold: don’t ever think
About a range of extra-firming facial masks for me.
(You have? Do me a favour. Save your breath.)

No instrument, no poison, nor no cream will tuck or smooth
This riddling record of my life away; make disappear
Its evidence of actions, passions, thoughts, conceived and done
In public, private, secret; wipe the marks of love and lust,
Of laughter, anger, concentration, joy in beauty from
The portrait of the accident I am.

Four postcard portraits gaze across my desk: four great old men,
All heroes of the wooden O, the stage, renowned throughout
The little O, the earth. Why should this minor talent seek
To change his even littler O, his face, when Jonson’s warts
And Beckett’s corrugations, Gielgud’s, Miller’s hairless domes
Are promises of beauty yet to come?

My face I wash with soap to keep it clean. Life does the rest.
One derogation from this strict regime I must admit.
My lover hates the hairs which now accelerate from both
My nostrils. I can see her point. We don’t know where they’ve been.
She clips them for me. They’re the only sign of facial age
The world (except for her) has never seen.

A Child's Farewell

In memoriam Ivor John Richmond, died 6 April 2009
and Daphne Marion Richmond, died 6 May 2009

1.

I told her he had died.
She said he’d gone ahead to his reward,
then calmly turned to telephoning, writing letters,
dealing with the surpluses of other people’s grief.

Their separation was a little month
until I turned to telephoning, writing letters,
dealing with the surpluses of other people’s grief.

To me, their sixty years’ acquaintance was a long road, jointly travelled, at an end.
To them, it was the courting prelude to a marriage
where their spoiled and shrunken bodies would be beautiful again,
as in this photograph I keep deep in my wallet:

field, hedge, sunlight on branches, and the two of them;
he’s laughing at the camera,
she’s riding on his shoulders,
loose skirt sexily hoicked up behind his neck,
hands holding on to handfuls of his thick black hair,
for balance partly, mainly for desire.

2.

And yet I think there was a doubt in her.
He never doubted, never ceased to sing God’s praises, utter in strange tongues,
convinced that when the light of this world failed
the moment’s darkness would be but the blinking of his eyelids
to adjust to greater light. His faith was bottomless.

Her illness broke her slowly, like a torturer.
Please, Jesus, where is God in this? she sometimes wondered.
Should I call this ‘testing’? Just suppose
that all this time I’ve… She refused the thought.
But fear was in the bedroom where her children smiled at her.
‘Open a window, please.’ The night air brought relief.

3.

‘My body’s fine; my mind is shot.’
The theologian/scientist/inventor
asks me how my work is going
how my work is going
how my work is going.
I reply in even tones each time.
I tell him, ‘Dad, suppose you broke your leg
and afterwards you limped. You wish it hadn’t happened
but it’s not a cause for shame.’
He sees the logic, but it doesn’t help.
My mother calls. Straightway he runs upstairs.
I hear their voices, not their words.
He runs downstairs again. ‘Now what was it she wanted?’
I go up to check.

4.

Her mind is fine; her body’s shot.
Head girl/head teacher holds the household reins
as firmly as she used to in her strength.
In bed, she plans the supermarket order (internet),
the pre-cooked frozen lunches order (telephone);
from dozens of mail-order catalogues
she chooses plants and thermal underwear and birthday gifts.
She keeps up correspondence (missionaries from Jordan to Nepal to hearten,
relative in Kent — bad-tempered all her life — to soothe,
and widows scattered over England to supply with news).

Most constant of her duties: give instructions to her constant husband
so the milk will not run short,
the teasmade will be filled,
the back doors will be double-locked at night.
He’s tagged, when out of earshot, by the cordless phones they use as intercom.

I’m sitting with him down the garden on a bench beyond the fruit trees.
Coffee time. A blackbird speaking from the hedge.
He smiles and listens. ‘Now we’re out of range.’

5.

A misery they carried all their married days:
the self-inflicted murder of the happy brain
to set at nought the useful pleasures of this life
before the coming judgement of the unredeemed.

This coloured all, spoiled all. No hope, achievement, love
could live outside that grand delusion feared as fact.
A stupid certainty! My father’s journal:
Daphne doesn’t want to go to heaven
unless she knows that all her children will be there one day.

Don’t tell me, when we scattered ashes, his and hers,
handful after handful given to the air where peewits called
and sky and cliffs and sea observed but kept their distance;
don’t you tell me, as the ashes touched the turf,
that somehow, then or at some day of reckoning,
my parents were or would be somewhere else.

6.

My father’s epigram: ‘The only thing
to do about your parents is forgive them.’
Here’s a child, in homage to his father
stepping back along the separating path he took
to where their ways divided.
He pursues the single pathway further
till it opens on a park, an afternoon.
A man and boy are playing cricket. For the boy
the game is purest happiness, the surest proof of love.
Neither is aware of being watched. The only thing
the solitary spectator, standing there,
can do about the young man playing cricket with his son
is offer, not forgiveness, but his thanks.

Evening Visitor

I met my father’s ghost last night
as I was putting tools back in the garden shed.
He came up through the orchard, hopeful and recognising.
I was in my overalls and so was he.

I said, ‘Dad, what are you doing here?
I thought you didn’t like France:
food too rich, wrong kind of Christianity.
The day we tipped your ashes on the Isle of Wight
I thought that’s where you’d stay.’

He said, ‘My boy, I’ve come to tell you
that I was mainly wrong and you were mainly right,
but only mainly. There is a heaven;
it’s like an autumn morning
when the gentle sun is warm on the face
but there’s a fresh wind too and leaves are twisting in the air
and both kinds of chestnut fall with the stronger gusts,
thumping the grass.’

‘What do you do all day?’

‘We walk about. Sometimes we exchange a word.
Mostly we just smile and wave at a distance,
knowing how agreeable everything is.
John, I’m sorry that I spent so much of my life in fear
when there was nothing to be afraid of.
And because you loved me and I was your dad
I made you fearful too. Now I discover
that there’s all sorts over there:
Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews… every religion,
plus people like you, seekers after truth
not expecting a second innings
and pleasantly surprised to get one.

I want to confess something.
I married your mother so I could have sex without shame
and the price was: belief.
Then the children came, and she and I were happy for a while,
and we were sure we’d found the only truth.
But you grew up and left us, and we couldn’t understand
how most of you could be so casual
about your everlasting souls.

I wish I’d known.’

I said, ‘Dad, I grew up a long time ago.
I stopped being afraid when I was 12.
I remember the occasion. We were in church, the vicar going on as usual,
and suddenly, like a gift, I knew that he and mum and you and I
were tiny, in space and time. That what I was hearing was one voice
and that the world contained a million voices, and always had.
I saw the universe turned inside out.
What I’d thought was everything was only… a thing.
Of course, I didn’t own up to such a revelation at the time.
It would have caused unpleasantness. But later
I couldn’t help it when the great gulf opened out between us.
I told myself it was your problem, not mine.

And I remember another day, when I was 25,
when I kissed you. Not just hugged you in a manly sort of way;
I kissed you. You jumped back about three feet
but you were glad. And after that we always kissed,
like Italian men, and we were easy.

I have to thank you for loving poetry
and for having books of poetry at home for me to wander in,
when you weren’t literary. Why shouldn’t a physicist
quote Matthew Arnold by the yard?
And remember when I took you into hospital
not long before the end? You had two books:
the Bible and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
I said it looked to me as if you were hedging your bets.
We read the whole of the Rubaiyat aloud to each other in the ward.
I don’t suppose St George’s, Tooting had ever heard anything like it.

And I’ve already written (but I’ll say it again)
about the hours and hours you gave me, playing cricket
when I was a boy. They secured our love,
which no amount of strife over religion could dislodge.
I loved you, dad, and because I loved you and you knew it
I haven’t been regretful since you’ve gone,
but I just miss you. There.
Why are you wearing overalls? Do you get issued with them?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I wondered if you needed a hand.
You always used to help me when you were at home.’

I said, ‘You’re a bit late. I’ve more or less finished for today,
but thanks anyway. I’ll be in the garden
these next few afternoons if the weather holds.
Come and see me when you’re free.’ He smiled and nodded,
hesitated, as if he still had more to say,
as if our talk had partly, not completely, satisfied
the longing in him; then he went his way
down through the wood just as the sun
had touched the treetops on the valley’s other side.

Over Tennyson Down

How strange that I, six times a year,
should now fly back and forth
over the place where mum and dad
went courting in their youth
and low enough to fix the spot
where they rejoined the earth.

How strange that they, for sixty years,
believed the simple lie
that death is but the passport to
reunion in the sky
and joyful recognition that
the righteous cannot die.

And were they face to face with God
while we, through darkened glass,
caught only glimpses of the truth
of what had come to pass
as, emptying their plastic urns,
we spilled them on the grass?

My dears, you thought the fable true:
your ashes re-collected,
your youthful beauty formed anew,
your bodies resurrected.
Alas! That I look down on you
is not what you expected.

Internal Eclogue at 60

‘The wind in the oaks is a creature of springtime,
a shaper of clouds as they fly.
The last of the frosts has kept clear of the blossom
and primroses pattern the wall.
Soon the corn will change colour, the summer will open,
and swifts will scream at the sky:
“The living know that they have to die
and the dead know nothing at all.”

The wind in the oaks is a creature of autumn.
The firewood is stacked in the dry.
The weight of my apples has broken some branches —
the excess can rot where they fall.
A child who is 60, who questions the Preacher,
is armoured against the reply:
“The living know that they have to die
and the dead know nothing at all.”’

********

‘Excuse me if I interrupt this melancholy strain;
I feel an urge to bluntly re-acquaint you with the truth.
(You’ve had this weakness for Ecclesiastes since your youth.)
You’ve lived among the lucky. You’ve no business to complain.

Welfare state boy: who can tell? You could have 30 years to run.
You’re healthy, handsome, solvent. Greatest gift of all: you’re loved.
Had pagan gods existed, they’d have seen you and approved.
“Quos dei amant iuvenes moriuntur” — not in your case, son.

So take my tip: shake off those Bible blues — “All flesh is grass” —
and go and mow the lawn — Voltaire’s correct philosophy.
Despite — or should I say because of — our mortality,
I see it didn’t take you long to get your Freedom Pass!’

On His Circumcision

Grazing on-line, I came across a group of males last night,
all Christians, all Americans, determined to put right
a wrong done to their manhood which they saw as child abuse:
entire they had been born, and yet they wanted a prepuce.

This gross intrusion on their persons their attorneys meant
to challenge in the courts and thus to set a precedent
that no-one — even those by holy laws and customs bound —
should be obliged to suffer this humiliating wound.

Their forum offers consolation, counsel, and advice
to those prepared to pay a multi-thousand-dollar price
to plastic surgeons, all acknowledged masters of their art
who would by artificial means re-graft the tender part
onto the stump of flesh from which it was untimely torn.

(And should this seem, they say, a costly sacrifice to make,
what matters comfort or expense, when principle’s at stake?)

I’m neither Jew nor Muslim but, when I was hardly born,
somebody took a knife to me in 1951,
and am I, as this website says, thereby deprived of fun?
How should I know? It may be that a dulling of sensation
enhances carnal pleasure through delayed ejaculation.
I won’t add my name to the list of those who would accuse
the perpetrators of a cut they could not then refuse.
In fact I’m glad I was a neonate when I was nipped,
unlike poor Tristram Shandy, pissing when a window slipped.
The world is woeful. There are battles worthier to win
than one whose cause is but the loss of half an inch of skin.
Marked men we are, but I don’t feel resentful on that score.
If I were boastful (but I’m not) I might say, ‘Less is more.’

Unauthorised Absence

This year, when every fruiting bush and tree has dropped
a circle of its excess at its edge or foot,
which lies, a disregarded feast,
too gross a gift of nature even for the hungriest
or wisest woman, man or beast
to gobble or preserve or (as the squirrels do) secrete
more than a tenth part of, the rest consigned to rot;

this year, while for the fourth or fifth time I’m out
picking blackberries, each of whose inky mass
too easily collapses to a pulp unless
the gentlest grip of thumb and finger is applied:
I’m thinking of my great-grandfather, whom I loved,
who died when I was fourteen, who was born
in Portsmouth in the year the ruling class
had acted (in its celebrated epigram of scorn)
to ‘educate our masters’ — 1870.

His father, a marine, died when the boy was three.
At five, he gained a free place at the naval orphan school.
He learned to read, write, reckon quickly and well,
as those who’d legislated for him would have hoped.
In only one respect his ‘steady progress’ slipped.
On prize day, children who, September to July,
had ‘perfect attendance, perfect punctuality’
were given a certificate. He earned this honour rarely.
On his birthday in October — school day or no —
he was allowed a holiday. His mother wished it so.
She packed his lunch, slipped him a shilling, sent him out alone
to gather blackberries on the marshes up at Farlington,
where they were plentiful and easy to get at, on the flat.
All day he picked and picked, and saw no one.
At twilight he was back, his baskets loaded with the fruit.
She made jam. Some they ate themselves, the rest she sold.

He cultivated raspberries when he was old.
While picking them, he counted each ripe beauty, one by one,
and noted in a book the daily tally.
One day my granny said, ‘Run up the garden, John.
Tell father that his lunch is ready.’
As I began to speak, he raised his hand for me to stop,
mouthing the number he had got to in his head,
and then said, ‘All right, son. I’ve reckoned up.’

If memories are free food from the dead
I am a gatherer who’s glad
of all those I’ve lost count of in my head
and of the power to add.

‘The Leaving It’

When my time comes to ‘shuffle off’, to sling my hook,
to pop my clogs, to contemplate the river’s brink,
to settle my account and close the book,
to make my way through emigration
to ‘the undiscover’d country’ where — it would be nice to think —
they have a well stocked library-cum-lounge-bar in the sky

will I

find consolation as I go ‘into that good night’, good day,
with friends around the bed, drinking champagne,
they out of glasses, I — once more a baby — from a beaker with a straw,
light-headed but still functioning,
the pain kept chemically at bay;

or

with a stream of filthy curses,
final flailings of a drug-befuddled brain
staring at doom,
betray its secrets better hid,
the lid embarrassingly lifted on the id,
causing firm and kindly nurses
rapidly to wheel me to a private room?

The manner of too many deaths I’ve seen suggests
I may be forced to make my last requests
by merest movements: twitchings of an eyebrow,
liftings of one trembling finger somehow signalling assent, dissent.
The watchers over me will ask each other what I meant.

To very few is granted
an exit all of us have thought about and wanted,
the gentlest change of element, of gear:
a ceasing of the heartbeat in mid-sleep,
departure unaware,
the parachutist taking to the steady air,
the swimmer welcomed to the deep, without indignity or fear.

The Plymouth Brethren taught me as a boy
to hope that we, the righteous,
would escape death’s agony and Tribulation’s woe
completely; we’d be ‘taken’ in the Rapture, captured,
caught up, levitated, holy parachutists in reverse,
to meet our Saviour in the atmosphere
(joy unconfined, though altitude unspecified)
and join the resurrected saints who had already died.
And this might happen any time: next week, next year,
tomorrow… What a way to go!
Despite my early tendency to vertigo,
each night I would rehearse the prayer
that I might be included in that hovering in air…

Useless. God wasn’t listening. I knew His wrath
was terrible; to me, it seemed, His ear was cloth.

Well, that’s all finished with. It’s hard now to believe
that I believed it then. I won’t be up there in the ranks,
panoptic, recognising, ‘face to face’. Earthly metaphors
will do for me: clogs, hooks. So when they call my number
(not the roll that’s called up yonder)
for what I’ll have received (I say my grace)
I hope I’ll have enough puff to give thanks.

Prayer before Death

After MacNeice

I’m due to depart: so hear me.
My funeral ship on the slipway is set
   and I shall be carried
      wherever the winds and the tides of unknowing will steer me.

I’m due to depart: surround me.
I have need of the presence of friends
   lest the nearness of death and the breath of its mouth
      on my forehead confound me.

I’m due to depart: behind me
Are the years I inhabited joyfully, I
   who might never have happened at all,
      but I happened, I was, I was glad
         of the gift of the years, O remind me.

I’m due to depart: please read me
Lines from the poets I loved, who could
   sing in a fashion which brought me to tears,
      who got to the point of the thing,
         who would always, I knew and accepted, exceed me.

I’m due to depart: forgive me —
Some token I want that my work was not wasted,
   that words I have spoken or written have lasted,
      that actions I’ve taken for good will outlive me.

I’m due to depart: believe me
When I say that my heartbeat, though faltering now,
   till nearly this moment has quickened with anger
      when greed and stupidity, cruelty, violence swaggered unchallenged.
         That girl on the ground in her blood will not leave me.

I’m due to depart: replay me
One moonrise at midnight, one mew of a buzzard who circles at noon,
   one start of a hare in the wood. All that beauty!
      The places we visited, times we have had:
         one evening, with laughter and wine, is enough.
            The goodness of friendship, the greatness of love:
               life promised me plenty, and didn’t betray me.

Don’t foolishly tell me that out there you’ll meet me.
Launch me and my ship down the slipway. Complete me.

Funeral Oration, by the Deceased

‘Thank you for coming, and in such numbers. I’m hoping that during the next half-hour there will be some weeping and perhaps even a little wailing, but please try to avoid gnashing of teeth now that it’s so hard to find an NHS dentist.

To be departing at a good though not a great age is a bargain I accept cheerfully if ruefully. In these final weeks I have read of children starved deliberately at home in England; and seen a lovely black girl, shot by soldiers, lying in her blood in Haiti. My pain at the end was controlled.

Present today are many who represent the stubbornness of good, the unofficial story, a reason to hope that we may unexpectedly avoid disaster, may even — acknowledging Beckett — step hesitantly towards a world where laughter and tears are inconstant quantities.

Fragile optimism: too many others I have known and been polite to, who have enjoyed success and done little harm in our quiet country and quiet times, would have taken the Stasi’s money in East Germany or supervised the loading of trains at Drancy.

I am glad that throughout life I was stirred by the dash of a hare breaking cover in a wood, by the first primrose beside the road in March or April, by blackbird song, by the sea in all its states and motions.

I had work which satisfied and paid me, and often enough received a signal that it was useful. I have known the bounty of friendship, the giving and taking of it, bulwark against the years. I have entered into love, and remained with her.

So I am grateful to have lived. I go now (I have already gone, to be pedantic) into the certainty of annihilation, unencumbered by fantasies which troubled and prolonged my childhood. I have put away childish things.

Goodbye to you. Enjoy the refreshments in the hotel across the road. I’ve provided champagne. I forget who said (was it Maurice Bowra?), “The only important question to ask about champagne is, Is there enough? There will be enough. Enough.’

2.

To Helen Savva

Hôtel des Medicis

We learn within chance walls to speak
The language of desire. We think ourselves unique.
This sweet code, practised sotto voce, translates ill.
Outside, the only clues we offer are oblique:
Your way of sitting in a café chair, my smile.
The public has no inkling of our skill.

Bons Appétits 1977

A simple formula:
wake up, make love,
ignore the maid who’s knocking at the door
who says she’s cleaned all other rooms, below, above
and cannot wait for us a moment more.

Some time later
stroll out to breakfast in the brown café.
Big coffees, bread and jam and pains au chocolat
will set us up to walk
(the only way to travel)
all over Paris, randomly, all day,
stopping to watch
in every park, on any piece of gravel,
the parties de pétanque at play.

Back in the hotel at six
make love, and shower.
Then, freshly dressed,
step forth into the hour of the apéritif
on the pavement outside the green bar.
The air is still
the evening luminous with limes in leaf
and we could eat a horse. We will.

Squeezed on to benches, no elbow room to spare,
we dine where once dined Valéry and Gide.
No literary pleasure can exceed
the joy of filets de hareng, steaks chevalins and frites,
Roquefort, apple tarts,
at least two litres of vin ordinaire.
The toilet is listed at the Ministry of Arts.

On to the red bar for several digestifs.
Back to the hotel at two.
No stars, no lift. Creep up ten flights.
Make love, approximately, and sleep,
omitting to turn off the lights.

Repeat this for eleven days and nights.

Such steady pleasures. And such appetites.

Topless is More

How well equipped you look!
You’ve left behind the working year,
its cumbersome cargo.
Just one or two items of mandatory gear:
bikini bottoms, and a book
published by Virago.

Your Morning Yoga

I like to watch you, naked, out of bed
And pointing skyward. You salute the sun
With curtains closed and bedside lamp switched on.

I’m happy that you use the bathroom first.
It gives me precious extra time alone
To play the foetus and deny the man.

I do this every day. So why, today,
Has childish grief invaded my routine
With sudden, useless tears I can’t contain

For thinking of a time, I pray to God
To make it distant, let it not be soon,
When I won’t see you in that pose again?

Strawberries

Feed me strawberries in my mouth
This afternoon of youth.
The sun is hot, the road is clear
And we are heading south.

Feed me strawberries in my mouth:
Food of a long romance.
The corn is ageing in the fields
This harvest time in France.

Feed me strawberries in my mouth.
Agree not to arrive.
I’ll suck them off your fingers’ ends
As long as I can drive.

Sunday Morning

In the simple morning light
I feel your breathing on my arm.
Breath of laughter, voice of charm:
I’m in no hurry. I expect
Your waking kiss,

Claiming many mornings more,
Awake in bed, not saying much,
Relying on desire of touch;
As many yet, I wish, as from
Our first, to this.

Anniversary

The lovely woman with the cold vermouth
Is waiting for me halfway up the stairs.
I’m still distracted by her laughing mouth
This end-of-summer evening, 30 years
Since first she waited where she said she would
And walked beside me to the river’s edge.
We spoke some words which linked our lives for good:
An awkward but sufficient lovers’ pledge.

Tonight, the sullen skies unload their rain.
I turn the lights on and pick out some jazz:
Ben Webster, Stormy Weather. Time to dine,
Or not. The ice cubes in her tumbler shine,
She makes her eyes round in that way she has,
I follow her. Ben plays that strain again.

Confession

When first I said I loved you, I confess I was afraid
of what those words had signed me up to; had I just made
an inadvertent contract which could never be unsigned?

And later, when the statement was a habit of our speech,
I still kept an escape clause, for my comfort, out of your reach
in a locked drawer of the cabinet of my secret mind.

It stayed there for years, as insurance, a hedge for my bet,
as if, after the swoon of our life together, I might yet
fall to earth with a bump, and rub my eyes, and need to get out.

In your mind, from the start, our claim on each other was free.
You had no foolish phobia about being stuck with me
and with the unlooked-for luggage which love brings; no nagging doubt.

What was I so afraid of all those thousands of spendthrift days
when people had long ago joined our names up in a phrase
and we smiled for the camera, an item, a couple, a pair?

Did I seriously imagine some truer life elsewhere?

I don’t recall.
There is no paper in the drawer.
There is no truer life I’m looking for.
Before it gets too late, my darling,
may I again just state
how much, imperfectly, I love you, luggage and all?

Rendezvous

When, after this long time together, I’m standing waiting for you in a square,
and knowing you’ll contrive to turn up late,
preferring me to be there first, preferring not to wait alone
and I not minding, I quite liking letting slip
these minutes of my life, now here, now gone,
because, I hope, I have so much of it to spare:
the waiting brings a quickening of heartbeat
for the moment when we’ll meet as in the early days,
when I would fix my gaze upon you, coming through the crowd,
an almost stranger in a public place,
looking about you, searching for me; then your recognising face.

CDs

Pick out Debussy this evening;
Do it for me.
Watch with me, love, as the sunset
Torches the sea.
Sometimes I get sentimental,
Weighing the years.
Pour us a drink as the nocturnes
Bring me to tears.

Bring on Ravel, now the moonlight
Bleaches the sand:
Music to waltz to — so shall we?
Give me your hand.
No-one will play for us later;
Later is soon.
One two three, heavily, lightly,
Under the moon.

The Stalker

An angled rain goes darting
into our tousled lawn.
The six-week drought is over.

The hare who crops the grasses
is questioning the air,
his ears erect for danger.

My slow steps down the garden
at length disturb the hare.
He looks, and does not linger.

The hour-long downpour passes.
Shadows are reborn.
The sun brings forth a reader.

The reader is my lover.
She lounges in a chair,
her feet up on another,

as when our love was starting.
Thank God she didn’t scare
when first I went towards her.

One in a Bed

‘A marriage is that state where man and wife
are each prepared to swear the other party snores.’
My love, this is no legal separation, not a cause
for weeping and for lamentation if your breath of life
drives me to seek the blessed silence of a distant room.
Pay no attention to Ecclesiastes; in our case
desire not fails, it’s simply put on hold; that’s no disgrace.
We know what Marvell says: there’s no embracing in a tomb,
and so goodnight; our parting’s au revoir and not adieu.
When morning comes, I’m coming back to you.

Three in a Bed

Last night I came to bed and found, to my great pain,
another with you in our sheets. I am to blame;
night after night I’ve sat up reading while you’ve lain
and lonely shivered. Want of comfort overcame
at last your long, too much assumed, fidelity.
I’ve had my head in Homer. You, Penelope,
having rebuffed all rival suits, have had resort
to this… this… I must call it… thing. And I had thought
that I was all you needed as a source of heat.
I was your male equivalent of Abishag.
Age is upon us when, to warm you, I compete
with water boiled and bulging in a rubber bag.

Shadows are Ageless

Shadows are ageless. These that we throw
this evening on our walk are those we threw
when first we walked — ‘walked out’ — together. Now, as then,
the setting sun exaggerates our differences
but silhouettes forgive, ignore the work of time.
And they do well, in that, whatever mirrors,
disappointing flatterers, may say,
this simple light effect maintains the greater truth:
black on a ground of gold, as constant as our hearts.

Our Time

There was a time when I was not.
A time will come when I won’t be.
Between these aeons, there’s a dot,
a microscopic speck. That’s me.

What biochemical event
how many billion years ago
began the process that has meant
that when I say, ‘I love you so,’

those vowels and consonants affect
the air, your eardrums and your brain
in ways the higher intellect
cannot sufficiently explain?

The heart’s a bit of pumping gear.
It’s prone to blockages and leaks.
Some other force must engineer
that flush of colour in your cheeks:

some impulse, some primaeval need,
before we learned to stand up straight,
implanted in the human breed
so I don’t have too long to wait

for your familiar reply,
‘I love you too. I love you more,’
which grants me courage to defy
the dark behind, the dark before.

Laughing over Books

She’s up there in the bedroom, reading in bed.
She likes the horizontal; she’s enclosed.
He’s down here by the fireside in his usual chair.
He shuns the horizontal; needs an upright back.
Adjacent, both are far away in books
as evening tends to night, the day becomes the morrow.
Rarely, in the silence, upward or downward,
the one sends laughter softly to the other,
and each is grateful for the unintended gift,
the overflow of pleasure from the reader’s mind.

Tracks

An out-of-season Monday, and the beach
as far as we can see is ours alone.
October sunshine burnishes the waves;
the wind flicks up their fringes as they break.
We’re at a time of life which comprehends
that days like this are precious things to hold
and not to use as inexhaustible.
The tracks we made when walking up the beach
it pleases us to notice, walking back.
The tide is rising. Briefly, they were us:
apart, together. Never out of touch.

3.

The Season Shifts

Groups of birds at evening
form and fall
along the housetops
they speed
where inconstant, late
days of April in the nervous year
await the breaking
of the bud, the spring’s call.

The effort of the sap mis-
takes, it dies
and nothing yet relaxes
in the shut ground.
Songs of birds at evening
form and fail
along the housetops
they drown
in continuous, broad
rain from indifferent skies.

May the first and second are still
days of rain and wind
not what
ballad-mongers had in mind, who paced
down drovers’ ways
to market meetings
through the beastly
plague- and pox-racked
greenly maiden land.

On May the third, two lines
of planes at last unpack
in slow explosion
on the air some
millions of leaves.
Each is a damp and burning thing.
Together they shine
the length of the street shouting with birdsong
that the spring is back.

Jewish Funeral

In memory of Rachael Farrar, teacher

The wide field north of London slopes to woodland.
The little digger waits, its job half done.
The tolling voice, in English and in Hebrew,
Consoles the living: life and death are one.

The sentences and prayers, like these gulls inland,
Are tousled in the wind and flung away.
She said she knew her spirit wouldn’t travel:
The afterlife’s a comfort and a lie.

Her teacher’s talent was to spot in learners
The impulse of a nameable idea.
She helped them name it, and the knowledge given
Was something she denied had come from her.

The coffin settles by its chance companions.
The clay is rattling on the wood too soon.
The London children who have cause to thank her
Are walking in their thousands round the town.

After a Quarrel

She sat on a bench in the freezing night, in the rain.
He stood a hundred yards away, and watched her back.
They had cursed, driven the last oaths in the language
into one another’s brain.
Now one dilemma faced them both:
how to step across the concrete, forgive, be forgiven,
get in the warm again, but not do it first.

Second Chance

The last, slow train from Guildford
Is creeping through the night.
She reads her smart French novel
In the dim and flickering light.

Her smile, on me once only,
Is slow to turn away.
Dare I interrupt the book?
What can I find to say?

Too soon, with creaks and flashes,
The train’s at Waterloo.
I’m wishing that I’d said to her
What faint hearts never do.

She walks straight on before me
Down the platform, through the gate.
She grows small across the concourse
As my hopes I terminate.

In wretchedness I wander
Through long tunnels of the mind.
If I had asked her out for lunch
She might not have declined.

The last, slow train to Edgware
Is following its breath.
I stand, a world away from love,
A step away from death.

I board, turn round — and see her.
‘Please, is this the Barnet train?’
Then my face she recognises
And jumps on, and smiles again.

Thames Between Greenwich and the Tower

Gun-metal grey, the river fills its channel
all the afternoon. It hasn’t finished yet.
It climbs the mosses on the warehouse walls.
Each flight of river stairs is drowned.

The southward swerve, the confidence,
the creature’s own instinctive grace.

I’ve seen it in all lights today.
Today is March, and every season’s miniature
has trafficked and paraded in the sky.
We’ve been through murk, hail, pelting winds
and suddenly a summer evening, so it seems,
where steady light stands blandly on the buildings.

At noon, two stumps of rainbow came and went,
set in a frame the slack commercial water,
bits of a geometric whole
whose bridging section was invisible.

Before the docks were built, uncorseted
the river would in season flood
the easy margins of its marsh.
They wharfed it in, made it work.

Three noisy centuries ran by. Now every reach is idle.
Ratcliffe and Rotherhithe, Surrey Docks, London Docks: idle.
Three centuries crowned a few with wealth
argosied here from all the earth;
millions whose names have been forgotten
lived their side of that hard bargain.

Bypassed and unprofitable, the river’s feathers ruffle,
change from grey to blue. The level tide slides seaward.
The day has turned its coat the final time
(I think) and left the bright side out.

The Fall from National Esteem of a Poet Laureate

Not long before he died, Sir John
on prime-time television spoke
a word not in the lexicon
of nicely brought-up English folk.

The viewers were appalled. They knew
that other poets curse and swear
— a godless, socialistic crew —
but not the nation’s teddy bear.

And later in the series, he
made matters worse when he averred
he had not done sufficiently
the act to which the word referred.

Unhappy is the laureate’s lot!
His function is to celebrate
the deed by which we’re all begot
but as performed by heads of state:

I mean, commemorate in rhyme
its prelude at the altar stair;
then, after an appropriate time,
its outcome as a sceptre’s heir.

Worse were Sir John’s official toils;
his by-appointment pen was forced
to brown-nose various junior royals
who married, reproduced, divorced.

Amid this rife fecundity
it’s not surprising he was vexed;
his life, he told us on TV,
had under-served the over-sexed.

Too late to remedy the lack;
a dead-end job, a paltry wage
(a hundred pounds, a butt of sack) —
the f-word was a cry of rage,

however ruefully expressed,
of one who knew the days were gone
when he might hope to be undressed
by tennis girls who turned him on.

Bequest

In memory of Frederick Seymour, 1895–1981

No conversation needed or desired.
I’m in the ward each evening, just to sit.
His occupation is to breathe, and mine
To listen for his voice inside my head.

The voice remembered likes to stick to facts.
He made a choice quite easily one day:
I went down to the office to recruit.
Mornington Crescent. Then I went straight back

And told my mother that I’d volunteered.
She was upset. But I was right to go.
If I had waited till they called me up
I never would have lasted like I did.

On Vimy Ridge, the doctor’s orderly,
He sewed them into blankets, corpse by corpse.
We took their boots off, and their I.D. chains,
That’s all. I saw their faces. Bits of boys.

The voice resists grandiloquence. It speaks
Of perks and pains — I got the better food
‘Cause I was looking after officers.
The tin hats made my hair fall out in weeks.

He lasted till a shell undid his leg.
The wound was bad enough to bring me home.
They drained the pus for ages, bowls of it

From where the shrapnel nestled in the thigh

And lodges there tonight; a flake of iron
Which cooled first in a factory in the Ruhr
Now shivers with the rest of him inside
The shiny silver bag he’s swaddled in.

Not long ago, at home, he handed me
A standard issue army greetings card,
Address and message legible but faint,
The Allied flags still bright in coloured inks.

My darling Dolly, my first chance to write.
Arrived quite safe in France on Monday last.
Am hoping you are well. Yours ever, Fred.
Goodbye dear
— like an afterthought, beneath.

The censor had approved these sentiments
And left his purple mark accordingly
But insufficient postage had been paid
By sender, and the message was delayed.

Poor thing, she had to wait three months for this.
I kept it when she died. Look after it.

No conversation needed or desired.
I’m in the ward each evening, just to sit.

Pretty Polly Put the Kettle On

Take me home with you, please, Pretty Polly!
Our courtship has lasted too long.
I know you so well from a distance
that my hopes of a meeting are strong.

I spy you at Underground stations
while waiting for trains to come in;
you’re wearing the sheerest of nylon
on your salmon-pink acres of skin.

You’re immaculate here at Embankment
on the safe other side of the track;
No man will cross over to touch you
till the lucky bill-sticker comes back.

I think I can read the intention
behind these displays of your charms.
No matter which station I’m watching you at
you’re inviting me into your arms.

No I’m not! I’m the composite fancy
of some men in a marketing team.
They sat round a table and made me;
their image, their product, your dream.

And I have one distinct disadvantage
at the end of the length of your stare:
this form is a giant illusion;
I’m not, in reality, there.

But I’m still coming home with you, Polly!
I’m too much in love to desist.
Oh please ask me up for a coffee;
let me show you you really exist.

I could help you take off all that nylon
far away from the Bakerloo Line.
I’d be yours, unvoyeuristically, Polly, I would
and you’d be, unsynthetically, mine.

Express Dairy

I walked home from the station, silent street, sweating night.
A milk float hummed towards me, doing 40, quite a sight.

The milkman wore his firm’s peaked cap, his own bare chest.
The woman sat beside him, blouse open, baby at breast.

They passed, and their mixed laughter echoed along the street.
There was no milk on the back, not at this hour, in this heat.

Smokers at Greater London House, Camden Town

The cheerful addicts gather in a ring, pass packets round, share lights.
They stand beneath the beauteous façade of Greater London House:
Egyptian/deco/polychrome, restored. The offices within
are smoke-free zones. The comrades represent a perfect irony,
in self-inflicted exile from the same — then unpartitioned — space
where formerly Carreras manufactured Black Cat cigarettes
in quantities sufficient to reduce Britannia’s breath to gasps.

A pair of black cat-statues, one on each side of the central doors,
completes the group; brand icons once, recast and reinstated now
as cats for cats’ sake, emblems of pure style; immune to irony,
immune to sympathy for those to whom the Black Cat brought no luck…

Pyjama’d, wheezing, leaning on the sink, he coughs his morning phlegm.
They took away one lung, so walking’s painful — she must have a smoke.
Drowning in air, he needs the oxygen — they fit the mask — too late.

The information of more recent years seems not to worry these,
our happy, kamikaze few, who hug their bodies, underdressed
for wet December twilight, toe their stubs out and go in again.

The cats are sleek with raindrops. Commerce? Art? It’s all the same to them.

Him Indoors

His body failed.
Enraged, he sat at home,
unshaven in his dressing gown,
and issued orders to her failing mind.

Her hourly shopping trips were gasps for air.
The wine or peppermints or cake he wanted
gave her the excuse.
She brought the items back in ones and twos.

His last unclouded faculty,
the power of speech, he used to scorn her
for forgetfulness. He hit her from his chair one day:
milk chocolate, not plain.

She ran the gauntlet of the sympathy and gossip
down the street and at the checkout.
Chocolate. Milk chocolate. Milk chocolate.
Around her eye, the wound enlarged her shame.

It was a second marriage for them both.
The plan had been to make new starts
in London, in retirement. Concerts. Plays.
Their best feet forward. Positive. And then.

Two Trees 03/04

Rowan’s rash of berries in December:
Easy pickings for a pair of blackbirds.

Next door, next year’s mimosa buds hold fire.

Snowdrops

The northern year has rounded its dark cape
and pays out light in bonuses too mean for human eyes to note.
The sun has not been seen for days,
which pass us by without a recognising glance:
identical, anonymous.
There is no hope this side of Candlemas

except that snowdrops in the park are facts which work in these conditions.
It’s a month since they received earth’s first, faint, unmistakable instruction:
they must show themselves, resign themselves to soak, to freeze,
to sleep in snow, to break their necks on air, face ruin
weeks before the distant, gaudy date of spring’s inauguration.

Here are the results, and here, and here again:
the new year’s first accomplishment,
heads grouped and bowed and (not that it was asked for)
nodding their assent.

The Mimosa Tree

Mimosa buds hold fire, they hold it, then
Explode into the first three weeks of March.
The tree is coming to maturity.

The equinoctial gales, on cue, blow hard
For two days and a night, and snap the trunk.
They make a road block of the yellow cloud.

How sharp can be bereavement of a thing
When all it leaves to love are blossom stains
Which run in rain in a diminished street.

Rough Winds

We parked the car
and ran across the street into the house
in wind and hail.

A dinner later,
calling our goodbyes across the still, dark street
we found the car
enrobed in blossom, bumper to bumper, lamp-lit…

Embellishment too early snatched
from branches which had just this week
expressed their flowers.

Up All Night

What is this blackbird doing, singing all night long,
Night after night, as if deceived by streetlight?
Urban blackbirds should have worked it out by now:
The night is not the real McCoy in town,
But lesser day, prolonged by artifice.

Perhaps the ancient Manichaean blackbird brain
Commanding song or silence, forced in modern times
To bathe in pools of compromising light by night,
Has, under Darwin’s laws, adapted and evolved
Into a shades-of-greybird brain today.

This blackbird likes to party, never mind the hour.
Its stamina has kept me nightly company
And neither it nor I is worried that, at dawn,
When, as I used to think, God cries, ‘Cue blackbird!’
It and I may well, displeasing God, have gone to sleep.

Aloft

The unison of wing beat as the birds take off,
To wheel in hundreds, linked by silent knowledge,
Leaving me standing, face up, wondering
Why, and why now, and how do they all know?

Divorcees

The place where was their marriage is a one-time battle zone
to which sometimes the former combatants return
for there are children
therefore money conversations, visiting arrangements, school occasions,
in the teen years an emergency from time to time —
a motor accident, or drugs.

The former combatants approach the place, and aim to be correct,
to stick to practicalities
but then a chance remark misunderstood renews old anger;
battle is rejoined.
The combatants can’t help themselves.
Some outer force, they feel, provokes this reflex of destructiveness;
the need in each to do the greater hurt

until banality restores their manners.
One or other needs to go.
A child is waiting in the car
so they conclude their necessary business, and withdraw.

Resettlement of shifted dust.
The battle zone is neither less nor more
a site of desolation than before.

Small Moment on the Great Western

It’s Paddington to Bristol on the straight fast line
Through a green morning, doused with the night’s rain.
A broken sky maps out the Wiltshire plain
By sectors of cloud and patches of sunshine.

Distracted reader, learn to read it right.
The common pattern of an English spring
Is briefly on show, there for the noticing:
Its promises and doubts, and then the spill of light.

She who had Loved Horses

She who had loved horses knew her time had come
and now, as she lay dying, the last two in her keeping,
who would outlive her, as they knew, came sidling
up the back field, as they never did, to the window to stand
and attend her spirit until it leapt beyond
them and the place and took its straight line to the sun.

The Innocents

Two innocents,
in no sense favoured,
short on looks and wits;
both sets of parents dead,
alone and separate,
they lived on benefit and cleaning jobs for cash.
The village kept an eye.
It told itself
that villages are good at looking after weaker brethren,
idiots they used to call them,
kept from harm, from doing harm.

One Sunday they were seen together holding hands.
The village grinned behind its hand
but on the whole approved
and turned up in large numbers at the wedding.
These are enlightened times. Why not?

At the village hall
there was appalling dancing
and refreshments.
Women stroked the woman, telling her
how gorgeous she was looking.
All the guests were thinking: how much do they know?

They went by train to Blackpool for a fortnight’s honeymoon

except that after two days they were back.
She had her leg in plaster
and they wouldn’t say

but later, one or other must have said.
The story was:

they had arrived. Were shown their room.
They stood.
She said, ‘You have a bath while I unpack.’
When he had gone (no ensuite here)
a naughty, lovely notion came to her.
She took her clothes off and put on a dressing gown.
She padded down the corridor.
The sound of running taps.
She nerved herself
and tried the handle of the bathroom door.
Unlocked.

The room was full of steam, but she could just make out
her naked male, his back, his rump.
She stole across the room and slipped her hand between his legs.
‘Jingle bells,’ she sang/said.
The face which turned and stared was someone else.

She fled.
No scream would come,
no thought of where her bedroom was,
she ran downstairs, and stumbled, tumbled,
broke her leg and landed in a heap
in front of a surprised receptionist.

Her husband
in the other bathroom
in a state of sweet anticipation
heard a knock.
‘Your wife has had an accident.’
He went down to his trembling bride.
The ambulance was there.

The village was agreed:
the least successful honeymoon on record.
But the plaster came off six weeks later. From that day
the marriage was a love match though she limped.

Cross-Channel Ferry

‘Il connut la mélancolie des paquebots.’

A husband sat at dinner with his wife
And watched the passage of the level sea.
The girl who served them served his fantasy:
Tight skirt, white shirt, the à la schoolgirl tie.
She knew she could disarm him with her smile,
And did, and still did later as he queued
To buy his wife her half-expected gift:
The perfume she assured him that she loved.

Outside the shop, he stood and tried to peel
The price off cleanly with his fingernail.
A woman of his age was watching him —
The incomplete, well-meaning English male.
He caught her knowing eye. Its sympathy
Provoked his laughter and a train of thought:

We mostly don’t get what we want. But then
Fidelity is best. But time is short
And lust at sixty is lust none the less
For being futile, and ridiculous.

A Song for England

To Stephen Eyers

The Rev. Donald Allister of Cheadle refused the request of Victoria Williams and her fiancé that the hymn Jerusalem be sung at their wedding. His defence of the decision was that the words of the hymn were too nationalistic. (He also forbad I Vow to Thee My Country, for the same reason.) On 11 August 2001, the letters page of The Daily Telegraph contained nine letters debating Mr Allister’s action.

‘Absolutely right decision,’ writes the Reverend Andrew Price.
‘Christian principles of marriage; sober, dignified advice
To be found in Cranmer’s Prayer Book, that’s what these young people need;
Not the musings of a mystic without benefit of creed.’

Mr Morley’s language makes the views of Mr Price look wet.
Blake for him’s as dangerous as ‘deranged heretics’ can get.
‘Theologically, Jerusalem is nonsense, total rot.’
And did those feet…? The answer’s clear to Morley. ‘They did not.’

Mr Lennox thinks it helpful to insult the virgin pair.
‘Quite unsuitable for marriage, in a church or anywhere.’
Why does Lennox push them down the path of immorality?
‘People like them only know the hymns they pick up on TV.’

*********

Feeling better, gentlemen, delivered of such fine tirades?
Listen to a soft reply from this side of the barricades.
Fellow Englishmen, for love of England, where we all belong,
Some of us would like that poem to become our nation’s song.

We think it would do much better, as a national cement,
Than the set of crude commands, prosodically incompetent,
Sending God about his business, Union Jack stamped on his brow
(Written for a German monarch), which we have to stomach now.

*********

I should like to wish the couple in their early married life
All the happiness we know that William Blake had with his wife.
Grains of sand contain whole worlds for those with inner eyes to look.
Liberated souls can have the joy of sex without a book.

*********

This year Christ came, incognito, stepping on to Cornwall’s shore
As the legend says he might have done two thousand years before.
Much had altered, so he noted, as he moved around the land:
Not ungreen, and not unpleasant. Twenty centuries he scanned

Sitting in a pub one evening, with the papers and a beer.
Ireland, Palestine… and then he saw the letters quoted here.
Echo of raised voices, was it, faint across the interim,
Sneering, knowing, briefly caused the countenance divine to dim?

The Squirrel and the Conkers

The squirrel grasps a conker in her hands.
Its supersize is disproportionate.
How great the prize, how small the gatherer!
She twists it round to get a better grip,
the way a learner driver turns the steering wheel.
Head up, right, left, alert to every threat,
the squirrel has a choice: to eat, or store?
She makes the choice, and now she needs her hands to run.
She gets a purchase on the conker with her teeth.

I’m straying close to cute photography.
Invent a caption, reader, for the postcard, as she
dashes up an ash tree to a hole
where once a branch was lopped. Two seconds in there,
out again, and down. Straight to a second conker:
same manoeuvres, different stratagem. This time
the hands are high-speed shovels scattering the earth.
She drops the conker in its grave, and covers it.

When hunger bites this winter, will she hesitate
or go unerringly to food stores, just as eels
find river mouths? Have unreflecting beasts
autistic memories?

She picks up conker number three
at random from the heap which last night’s storm threw down.
Now she rewards herself, from hands to mouth.
Her leavings, in this time of surfeit,
fleck her belly and her feet.

Why do I see benevolence and charm
in actions driven by necessity,
by certainty of death should these provisions fail?

Why should I feel this autumn sunshine blesses me?
The brain is smiling, so the face must smile.

Desolate

She tries to strike with him the flint of eyes.
He makes sure to withhold from her his glance.
Each occupies a separate dull place
And their free actions brought them to this pass.

They chose to marry, chose to speak the words,
Repeated as it were a playground verse
Whose questions and replies are sound, not sense,
To be unspoken without consequence.

She knows this, as she contemplates her loss,
Alone in the spare room, gazing at space.
The lack of tenderness, the want of joy:
No heartless social law took these away.

She knows this, and the knowledge is the pain;
No-one to call on, no-one else to blame.

Arts Minister Briefs Journalists

Press Conference: Department of Culture, Media and Sport, 26 January 2006

‘I know of nothing uglier
than random groups of disused shelters at the edge of towns:
workshops closed up, but open to the elements through rows of broken windows,
   cracked asbestos roofs;
a 1960s blue-brick signal box, abandoned;
the tiny office where the weighbridge man no longer sits awaiting custom;
an orphan Portakabin on a square of tarmacked land where nothing else is;
each group adorned with spray-can tags, as if the artists thought that they were
   spoiling something.
No. The awfulness of such non-places is, looked at another way, magnificent.
These are the Tracey Emin’s beds of outer-urban planning, on display to anyone
   with means to travel on the trains.

It is the English genius
To have created such a wealth of truly vile, disgusting, filthy holes, which,
   disappearing up themselves, emerge into a new dimension.
We’ve achieved all this without recourse to Continental theorising. Not our style.
   We English are, above all, practical.
And, if we have a fault, it’s this: unlike our Continental friends, we don’t sufficiently
   congratulate ourselves on national achievements in the arts,
Including those, as here, brought into being with no conscious effort.

That is why
I am today announcing an initiative
To catch the fragile qualities of England’s after-zones before they’re lost for ever.
It will be light touch: a coat of polyurethane all-weather lamination; fencing; an
   admissions turnstile; nothing more.

However, given that the number of these sites of Special Suicidal Interest is large,
There may be downward pressure on our spending plans elsewhere.

I’m happy to take questions. Yes? One over there.’

Home-thoughts, from Home

Now and in England April stirs allotment plots
and folk come out to rotavate
and stand about comparing methods, sharing seedlings, hope.

This husbandry is not for want of food.
The money value of the work would come to pence per hour
and Budgen’s is ten minutes’ drive away,
where stuff is cheap, and plentiful, and ready washed. But not the same.
And pride in cultivation is a stubborn good.

I’m standing in the middle of the village.
Say, five hundred houses here. Say ten, all old, have charm.
Each dwelling sports its super-sized and differentiated wheelie bins.
Ranch-style and bungalow accrete, accrete.

The ditches by the crossing roads are full of water,
polystyrene, metal cans and plastic bags —
these last despite the prevalence of wheelie bins.
Don’t get too misty-eyed about it.
I expect that, since a place has been here,
less persistent waste has washed along these ditches
to the stream whose name is in the Domesday Book.

Most of the villagers are mechanised and godless
on this holy Sunday morning, but, surviving, just,
amongst an old or odd enthusiastic remnant,
is belief. I spot them, slipping in in ones and twos,
prompt for ten-thirty, or eleven, as announced,
to structures which compete in bleakness:
Methodists, Salvation Army, Baptists
and a sect so rare it scorns a label.
In the village hall eight Catholics are gathering.
The parish church attracts a dozen
to a nave without a tower since the gale
of eighteen-nine decapitated it.
Its milky flints are patched with orange brick.

These people’s differences were vital, mortal, once.
Sure of the bliss to come, and of themselves, men howled
in the cathedral city of this diocese
to feel their foot-soles boil and blacken;
loved ones prayed to Him to take them quickly;
executioners with kindness had explosive handy.
When the burning stopped, a congregation weekly prayed
— for centuries! — that everlasting souls in other congregations
might at last repent their error and be spared the burning.

In the remnant, faintly, some retain
the reason why such differences matter.
But they matter less to Hodge, who’s in his four-by-four
(made in Korea), on his way to town, to B and Q
for paint for the extension, than the shades
he’s just been mulling over on the colour chart.

The Co-op’s busy. Shoppers stagger under tons of newsprint.
Cooking at the Royal Oak (not open yet) is Thai.
A boy is running to the playing field,
the hero written on his shirt an African
who shoots and scores two hundred miles away.
What matters distance when your dad has Sky?

I’ve done the circuit of the village.
Now I’m looking at a railway bridge without a railway
and beyond to ploughed and saturated fields
which, when it’s drier, will, I see, be dosed
with nitrate of ammonia shipped in
from Lithuania in great white sacks.

Amid the sorrow of the broken-down embankment,
in between fly-tippings, through the dead and trampled bracken,
cherry, gorse and blackthorn struggle into flower
and — would you credit it? — a chaffinch sings
atop the lamp-post, not on the orchard bough,
in global, comfy, brutish England — now!

Car Wash

I’m at the car wash with six cars in front of me. I have the radio. No hurry.

Twenty minutes later, I approach the outside gang.
Four men converge with sponges, heavy-duty soap and purple squirt for hubcaps.
For a time I can’t see out. I’m in a shady, trusting world of grey-white bubbles.

Pressure hoses douse me clean. The outside windscreen gleams. The usual line the
   windscreen wiper leaves has disappeared.

The voices of the men are Eastern European. That is all I know.
The one who does the corner by the driver’s door looks in. ‘All right!’ he shouts.
   I give an upward nod, and smile.

Now I advance towards the inside gang.
They’ll vacuum the seats and carpets, Windolene the inside glass, spray fake
   fruit-blossom polish on the fascias.
I get out and stand aside and look around.

An Evening Standard article, proclaiming this The Best Hand Job in London
   has been stuck up on the office door.
Across the ceiling of the shed are zig-zag lines of plastic Union Jacks.
I shout, ‘All right!’ whenever someone shouts, ‘All right!’ at me.

The boss comes to collect a ten-pound note. I give him two pounds more.
‘The lads!’ I shout. He thanks me. Then he stops, and listens. ‘What is that?’

The music from my radio, released through all five open doors, is climbing over
   held high notes of vacuum cleaners, bass of traffic hum, the intervening cries of
   work.

‘Dvorák!’ I answer. Slight pause. ‘Czech composer!’ ‘Yes,’ he shouts, ‘I know!’
We stand and pay attention to a rising tune on violins,
Repeated. Somewhere, something is remembered, out of reach.
He looks at me. His face is working. Then he turns his head.

The men have finished and they put the music back into its box.
They signal that they’re ready for the next.

In a Station of the Underground

The young man, dreadlocked, in his too blue uniform
is reading Homer.

The night wind splashes rain across an empty concourse
to his cabin door.

Five minutes till the last train comes. His shift
is almost over

and, judging by the pages he’s got left,
he’s nearing Ithaca.

The Twelfth of July

The holidays are here, most of his friends
have got away to France or Italy
to do the things that holidaying people do
in countries which gave up religious wars some time ago.

But he’s stayed on, patiently living through
the build-up to the rite of dominance
enacted every belle saison on this side of the waters.
He’ll take a break in Donegal in August.

Now, of an afternoon of heat, he’s driving home
at ease in the lanes he knows, an elbow out the window,
until he meets a road-block manned by boys.
He slows and stops. One juts his head in. ‘Name and business, mister?’

This mister’s business, all his life, has been
to fetch and carry ordinary hope from side to side,
to take down barriers a notch, a notch.
The words form in his mind, ‘Get out the fucking road
or else…’ But one says, ‘Let him pass, hi.
The oul’ fella walks the dog across his field.’
They drop the rope and shift an oil drum.

Driving on,
the thought which hurts him with a hurt he’ll have to overcome
is that his neighbours’ children have the confidence
to strut with sticks and challenges the land he shares;
that prisoners of history so narrowly confined
can be so sure they speak and act as freed men.

Big day today for boys not going anywhere.
Big night tonight, the highlight of their year:
a bonfire on a bit of tarmac outside Antrim.

At Cross Keys

To Peter Logue

Just when we thought we’d leave, the penny whistle started it
and all of us who’d been half hoping all the evening
turned our chairs half round and paid attention.

The main event — two flutes, a banjo and a bodhran —
kept it up, unflagging, for three hours. In between each tune
a quick discussion, nodding of the heads, and on.

Ice on the roads outside. Mist rising from the Bann.
Within, the curtains closed, the coal fire leaping
and the whole thing happening unplanned

yet riding on consent between the players and the listeners,
the compact we had entered into, there and then:
acknowledging a rarity the room contained.

It broke up about two, with handshakes, hearty thanks.
The drink was in me. I could hear myself.
My English accent felt like nakedness.

Peter, thank God you knew the place. Thank God we ventured out
to seek a bit of music on a Saturday.
The night’s coincidences added up to grace.

Embracing on Escalators

Couples travelling on escalators are more likely to embrace
(whether they’re teenage lovers or old flames or just husbands and wives)
than when they’re standing on the pavement or in a park or at some other level place.

There are two reasons for this. First, escalators offer to their over-busy lives
a non-optional and prolonged pause (as long as they stand on the right),
a reminder that the hopeful traveller is happier than the traveller who arrives.

Secondly, many loving and faithful couples are of uneven height.
For them, love-making in bed, depending on the position they like best,
may not involve much facial contact, whatever its genital delight,

with one face squashed uncomfortably against the other’s heaving chest,
the other buried in a pillow, keeping going with blocked airways and sightless eyes.
(Despite these disadvantages, such couples often achieve climax, and afterwards rest.)

Even the public shows of affection which lovers of mismatched size
allow themselves on pavements or in parks or at other level places must employ
stooping and stretching movements, physical strains which compromise

the pleasure in embracing which equal-statured couples can enjoy.
But on the escalator, all is changed! For once neither low nor high,
these erstwhile awkward partners see a different girl, a different boy,

a new angel! They are the favoured ones now. Around them, north and south, fly
other pairs of carnal angels at the same unhurried pace,
each on an equal footing as mouth encounters mouth and eye meets eye.

The Lake Poets

There’s a certain sort of poetry whose production I’d love to curb:
the sort that gets written at venues where the surroundings are truly superb.

At Annaghmakerrig in Monaghan they run all kinds of courses
for artists in need of a pick-me-up for their failing inner resources.

The landscape is stunning for miles around, with lakes and drumlins a-plenty:
it’s just the job for the journeyman whose tank is running on empty.

My friend took a party of teachers there for a session of in-service training.
The weather wasn’t so great that day; it was misty and cold and raining.

It was all going well when a man burst in — the manager, visibly stressed;
he was sorry to interrupt the course, but he had an urgent request:

‘Does anyone own a red Vauxhall? Would you move it, for Jesus’ sake?
I’ve a roomful of poets next door. It’s blocking their view of the lake.’

Hares at Aldegrove Airport

An early flight from London on a crystal day in March.
The English coast near Liverpool, the Isle and Calf of Man,
the Irish coast by Strangford Lough. A change of engine note,
the swift descent across the little fields, Lough Neagh ahead,
a bump, the sharp deceleration, taxi to the runway’s end,
a U-turn, taxi back toward the terminal.

My luck to have a starboard window seat.
Indifferent, it seemed, to aircraft and their noise,
a dozen hares were boxing on the grass between the runways.

Hares were carriers of light for Eostre, goddess of the dawn.
She gave her name to Easter.
On the full moon stands a hare who holds an egg.
The females biff the males.

All useful background. But to see them there, that morning,
going at it just as they’re supposed to: wonder was enough.

The Vernacular

‘You remember that business. It was in Charlie Haughey’s time.
There was a plan to build a big extension to a creamery in Cavan.
No-one wanted it, except the owners and developers
and certain politicians: snouts in troughs all round.
The local Deputy was Minister for… I forget what now;
he’d a snout as long as any.

John McGahern lived nearby. He organised a protest.
One, the thing would be an eyesore.
Two, the extra run-off would pollute the lake.
And three, the plant already had enough capacity.
Next thing you know, it’s in the papers, there’s a whiff of scandal
(not for the first time), and the matter comes before the Cabinet.
Haughey asks the Minister to comment on the case.
They’re sitting there. The minute-taker’s pen is poised.
“I’m very sorry, Taoiseach,” says your man.
“That fucking writer cunt above has them all ris.”
The minute-taker puts his pen down. All the Cabinet is looking at their boots.
And Haughey coughs and says, “Well, let’s move on.”’

A Gift from David Hammond

David Hammond gave me this one day: the night before,
he’d attended a wake. It was all carried on
as tradition required: the open coffin, the handshakes,
the quiet sad words, tea and whiskey and bread and butter.
Except that, as the centre of attention,
the deceased had competitors: two bonny baby boys, twins,
in a double pram, their shy proud parents standing either side.
An excess of cooing and clucking, admiration,
approval of the given names, until an old farmer,
who had managed cattle all his life, approached.
‘Boys, are they?’ he asked the father, who smiled and nodded.
And the old man followed up with, ‘D’you plan on keeping both of them?’

The Least You Can Say

What was there to say at the wake
when the man in the coffin on view
(the coffin lid propped at the wall)
had had, as the mourners well knew,
no virtues to speak of at all?
What minimum tribute to make?

No guest in the house felt inspired
to bestow on the dead, who, in life,
had been bigoted, humourless, mean,
harsh on his children, cold to his wife,
now thankfully passed from the scene,
the praise that good manners required.

The silence weighs down like a cloak
but for coughing and shifting of feet,
each visitor dumb where he sits;
till a neighbour gets up from his seat
for a cigarette. ‘Well,’ he admits,
‘he certainly knew how to smoke.’

Tribute

In memoriam Sue Goldie, 1939-2010

‘My golden girl has gone.’ Mike gave me that first line
the Monday morning when he phoned. The afternoon before
she’d travelled quietly beyond us. In his voice
I heard the full acknowledgement of absence, loss.

No poem, eulogy, not music even is equipped
to make of absence, presence; to restore the loss.
We’re here to bolster with our love those most bereft,
and with what instruments we have, to say:

We knew a woman rare in beauty, great of heart.
No truer spirit of conviviality
inhabited the earth; no-one more open-handedly
imparted gladness. She was laughter given flesh.

Sister, mother, lover, wife and friend:
she lived life as intended, to our benefit;
and children in their thousands whom she taught
are living tributes walking in the world today.

If memory needs something physical to cling to, it could be:
her eyes, in which the light of holiday was always shining;
or her hair, an outward glory of her nature, which was golden.

‘For this Relief, Much Thanks’

High-minded, gloomy critics have been heard to say
that modern poetry’s descended to the sewer;
that poets courting popularity today
fill up their lines with matter noxious and obscure.
This lyric will confirm those Jeremiahs’ fears
in praising Bazalgette, the prince of engineers.

Noble Sir Joseph: every time I flush the loo
I fondly think of you, whose genius has meant
that I’m not wading daily in a foetid brew
expelled from London’s bladder and its fundament.
Shit happens, as it must; your tunnels have embraced
our city’s Stygian floods of stinking human waste.

We rightly laud the works of Barry, Scott or Wren,
whose towers, domes and spires connect us to the sky;
yet sturdy structures hidden from the eyes of men
may stand and serve the public good as worthily.
Grand, soaring buildings should arouse our proper pride
but calls of nature cannot meanwhile be denied.

Wren’s famous epitaph we know: ‘If you require
a monument, look round’ — a great man’s lofty boast,
commanding us — us lesser mortals — to admire.
Too modest is the tribute to Sir Joseph’s ghost:
‘Flumini vincula posuit’ imperfectly explains
the debt we owe to his two thousand miles of drains.

His shrine by the Embankment should, in stone, have said:
‘He banished squalor, put to flight the noisome stench
of piss and ordure. And he marked a watershed;
the Thames is now a river, not a toilet trench.
From death by cholera he rescued London Town.
If monument you seek, you Londoners, look down!’

Sunny Morning in the Park

A Christian men’s group sits cross-legged on the grass.
They pray for guidance in their study of God’s word.
Two groups of alcoholic men have made a start
on lager (extra strength), got from the Turkish shop.
The roses that my taxes pay for line the path
where laden shoppers, light of step, greet me with nods.
The child who rides the roundabout appeals in vain
for admiration from his parent, on the phone.
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright… a luminance
inhabits these. The ordinary transfigured, blessed.

Learning to Whistle

Walking in the park, I came up behind a boy
— of nine or ten — learning to whistle.
A tuneless tangle of notes
and breath where notes should have been.
I slowed my pace, and followed him,
since I was suddenly that boy
— of nine or ten — learning to whistle.
Such patience! And the need to be alone.
What is it in the brain
that teaches tongue and lips
the small adjustments
— infinitely small and deftly quick —
that turn a tube of air to music?
Beethoven’s Fifth, the Marseillaise,
the theme tune to The Archers:
I can do them all!
A talent once learned, never lost,
and disregarded till the boy I once was
is there ahead of me,
rehearsing alone in the park.

Quintet

Applause. The players sit, and settle. Pause. And then
a quick acknowledgement of eyebrows, and begin.

It always takes a while for time to leave the room:
for music only, and its makers, to remain.

But leave it does, and here, I see, first cello
wears a beatific smile, as if possessed by ghosts
of genius inhabiting her trembling fingers,
visitors unbidden whom she gladly hosts.

Schubert’s String Quintet in C is serious:
first violin has worked her face into a frown,
prising the clearest truth she can from lines of code.
The five unite, the one divides, and we are one

with them, within the music, in the silences
the other side of music. In their give-and-go,
their nods and glances, each one guards apartness
and surrenders to entirety. And this is how

they turn our various, distracted minds, and lead them,
willing and intent for now, deep, deeper, down
swimming in wells of sound at once familiar
and, as they plumb the furthest mysteries, unknown.

In Memoriam Stephen John Eyers, 1943-2016

To say it briefly, my best friend has died.
And I have no defence, no refuge from the fact,
except that, this side of the great divide,
my portion of our love is still intact.

Socialist in politics and humanist in faith,
he ‘dwelt in possibility’, so that his mind
perceived in history’s best moments pointers,
not anomalies, despite their brevity:
Winstanley’s Commonwealth, the Communards,
the days of Barcelona ’36 or Britain ’45
were bold illuminations of the good society
on which he fixed his stubborn, hopeful eye.

We were two Hampshire boys, lapsed Protestants,
both gaily on the run from all that nonsense:
sin, guilt, sexual shame — the whole bang-shoot of lies.
A true adherent of ‘the mystery of things’,
he saw the sacramental in the ordinary.
He lived as if our purpose here is joy.

He was a teacher for whom ‘teach’ and ‘learn’ are synonyms.

The passing months do nothing but lay bare my loss
and Christmas only plays again the scenes I miss:
our greeting on the phone, a thousand times, if once —
my ‘Stevie!’, his ‘Hello, dear boy!’ — call and response;
David and Jonathan, our frank, unshaven hug.
He lies in earth in Surrey, where the Diggers dug.

4.

Snake by the River

Swimming upstream, in the deep part they have dammed,
I am a white fish nosing and breasting,
Largest and noisiest of the river animals,
With distinctive bum which bounces up and down.

At such well publicised approach, the other creatures
Minutes ago found hideouts in the weeds
And now they squat there, silently wondering
While the commotion incautiously proceeds.

Only, on a low scoop of willow branch to water,
Unperturbed, and hanging in the medium between
The branch and the stream, the green bank
And the leaf-shadowed air, here is a green snake,

Looped and lank, careless as the afternoon,
Careless who passes, what their purposes.
By acknowledgement, he unhooks an eye, one.
Three times the tongue moves; each within time’s merest section.

The white fish abandons his disguise, stands
Up to his thighs in the river, and a moment
Of pure surprise, of frank, transparent fear,
Shocking like new cold water, overflows him.

The string of bubbles from the mud around his feet,
The Malaga-Madrid, shrieking across fields,
A man who passes singing on his bike
Invade the moment, fix it, it is now,

It is done. But, for a moment, the water,
Handling the white thighs of the standing man,
Has linked him to the body of the snake
Where it dips its curl of smudged green inches in

And, when the human stare and the snake’s eye
Meet in the air, the moment’s tension
Has held them both still, as mutually they weigh
Their sense of danger, and of recognition.

Familiarity Need Not Breed Contempt

Man and woman come and go together
over the field and around the house
for a full hour every evening.

Their tasks are fixed. He attends to the pig;
she is to and fro with buckets from the river
for watering the flowers.

His back to her, lifting and stooping, speaks familiarity
and when he turns he will see her back
bent over tin cans of geraniums
and now and then his glance encounters hers.
But they are business-like, and do not linger.

Once only, I heard laughter and caught them
between the red blooms, in the corner by the door.
He waited over her, mocking and calling
with high-voiced, sung words, over and over.
She, half humoured, made as if to go, yet still
drew the moment out, expectant,
faltering between the man who waited, and the flowers.

Sketches in Andalucía

Mountain Drive at Night

The horses stand lop-limbed and grey in the depth of the night.
They graze at the summits of mountain passes
where pasture is scabby and where few come.

Their heads, attentive for a moment to our lights,
their hollow sides, the angles of their bones, are ancient.
These harsh lines were drawn in ochre on cave walls.

Their silence and stillness are deeper than to be dazzled
by bright velocity which races where the years have stayed.

Stones at Ronda la Vieja

Some centuries ago, men gathered up these stones
in great white heaps, to clear a field.

Some centuries before, the Romans came
to slaughter and subject
and when the necessary blood had stained the ground
to sit back on this height, survey this new patch of their map,
these miles of blonde dry earth and olives, sunlit empty distances.

What had they come to conquer?

Still, they sharpened swords, bred exiles, built a theatre.
We send our speeches to the tiers of seats
where grass cushions a long play.
The fashioned stones repeat. We speak again. Repeat.

A man has stopped two horses and a wooden plough
between the dry earth and the damp, halfway along a furrow.
He is absent.  Noon and silence.  Staring at the ground, the horses,
patient, motionless,
attend the man’s return
to haul his brief damp trail through broken Roman stones.

New Calf

You wonder how, two hours ago
such a beast of muscle and bone
got out of his mother
without gashing her wider.

She leans her long side against the wall
breathing and resentful.
Afterbirth, membrane and blood
hang to the ground.

She wishes no more of this burden.
When he leans under to suck,
unpractised, he bites.
She kicks with her knee.

The farmer interposes his morality
thumps the cow
holds the calf’s head so he sucks gently.

Her eyes are large with the indignity.

We Came with the Rain

Triacastela, province of Lugo, Spain

We came with the rain
down from the hills where nobody came
to the market-day crowd in the village, quick openings of umbrellas,
wet faces calling over the street,
crowding into bar entrances, doorways,
the whole place jangling with the people and the storm.

Inside the bar, all tables occupied, they talked.
But talked says nothing of
that leaning into each other with hope,
lavish in utterance, equal in response.
We shouted for our drinks
and watched the room fill with the sound

and then we left.
We were fast-moving people in a place
where value is retained
who had a programme of our own construction for the day
who let our own inertia override,
which I regret.

The afternoon has left, indelible in memory,
those faces, laughing, rained on,
exalted in communion; and then an eagle, up the road an hour,
back among high hills and in sunlight,
who, startled in his steady occupation of the air,
moved up a gear, and up, and out of sight.

Animal Rescue Squad

To Paul Halley

To begin with an apology, other poets
have told of animals they’d found at night on roads,
dead, wounded or frightened, and of what they did.
As subject matter it comes ready made
and dangerous for that: an open goal, easy to miss.

Nonetheless. Three a.m., a Massachusetts country road,
the black heap in the headlights is a foal, collapsed.
The two of us get out and, nervous of country things,
we study it, we fear its legs are broken.
To our relief it stands up. It falls down again.
It is terrified of us, of what has happened,
and then we work out what has happened.

Thirty feet of steep and muddy bank above the road
a stallion and a mare rush in anxiety
behind a fence which leaves a foal-sized gap
between the barbed wire and the sloping ground.

There is the problem. Something quickly should be done
in case a truck comes charging round the bend
the other way, without the stretch of straight road we have had.
Maybe we should wake the farmer. Here I make
one more apology, to Massachusetts farmers,
I am sure a gentle kind of men
but stereotypes are powerful at night
and films we’ve seen about America
have snarling dogs and shotguns blazing down the drive.
Better to face the horses.

But a foal is quite a weight.
We heave it upright, haul it off the road,
point it at the bank. In no mood to co-operate,
it acts the awkward baby, determined to fall down.

The method of ascent: man A has the animal
by the belly, proffered forward and upward. Man B
is pushing at the haunch and fetlocks of man A.
Soon our casual wear is all messed up, man A tastes grass,
the octoped, hard breathing and backsliding, mounts.

Mare and stallion have been watching this
and he is frantic, straining at the wire.
Disaster threatens if he breaks the fence.
But the posts hold, we get within his reach,
his long head comes at me and I am glad
to feel his tongue apply its sputum to my face and hair.

We’re not there yet, because the foal for once
refuses to fall down beside the wire.
We push it over, shovel it under,
and still it needs another lift and stagger
to the flat bit in the middle of the field.
Effusive is the right word for the stallion’s thanks now,
lathering me further; but the mare is circumspect.
The smell of strangers on her young is strong.

Men A and B hold on to one another
and their unfit hearts hurt. Emergencies like that
don’t happen every night, and we are glad our headlights
found the creature first, not just because a truck,
taking the bend now, breaks the silence and the dark.

Sketches in Tuscany

Val di Chiana

Dawn behind the hills.
The motorway bears traffic
up and down the spine of Italy:
only and constant troubler of the silence.

Now the cocks and dogs begin
to populate the morning
round a hundred tangent farms.

And the early local train
limps on its track.

At last the sun itself
pumps up and blazes
at the valley’s lip.

Feast of the Assumption

In the campanile, not much ology:
a four-way discord swinging and clapping.
Not much Protestant this bank holiday.

Before Mary was the Queen of Heaven is
and hangs and heeds the clamour from the square stone tower,
three parts full, an outline only, unnoticed.

Soup to Nuts

She, half his height, and hobbling, and wall-eyed.
He was to her, she told the whole town square,
A species of the pig-like kind.

This, as if it brought him information,
The man stooped to receive without reply.
She hauled the species to the bar.

Whether it was drink, or the cool in there
Or the act of the woman who kept the place
Or whether their habitual way:

Without strain we heard, she loved him so well,
Ten minutes later as they crossed the square,
He was to her, her caramel.

Under Mount Amiata

Two clouds, two puffs of smoke, surmount
Mount Amiata. All the rest is blue.
The caterpillar tractor ploughs the hillside
whose three stripes, in gentle differentiation, show:
the hours the ploughman put in yesterday;
this morning’s work, increasing;
and the stubble still to do.

Ristorante La Porta, Monticchiello

About to enter, we stand back as two Americans emerge:
he vast, she continental. Doorways were not made for such as these.
They photograph a pretty child, insistently, as if it were
a sample of the local fauna. ‘So much for a light lunch, then,’
she says to him, and yawns, and stumbles off towards the waiting bus.

The Italian Family at Lunch

Six months of total drought have done their work.
The scrubby oak beside the road
sports a full crop of dead brown leaves.
The branches on this pair of cherry trees
carry a remnant only
and their trunks are paddling in the dust.
The files of olives and of vines
look well enough, made for this kind of thing,
but certainly the yield will now be less
than normal, and that will put up prices.

It is equal with the maize crop down the hill,
drying out too quickly, low on bulk.
Heavy rain at this end of the season
is no good either, because of the rot.
The variation in the prices
is always a problem of the small grower;
it is a matter for the government.
We have too this problem of the government
or, to speak precisely, of the absence
of the government, because for weeks now
they have not managed to agree in Rome.
Politics in Italy are complex.
Finally who knows what is the future?
I judge that we are not significant —
it is the Superpowers who decide.
The Superpowers are certainly a problem.

Another problem is Ramina, who
will not behave, and insists to throw sand
in her cousin’s eye, and will do so.
Ramina, ma Ramina!

No, the drought
is much worse in the south, you know, much worse.
In Sicily they are locking up the wells
and guarding them all night with the revolvers.
There is no water. It is very grave.
The south has always so many problems,
the worst of all, the unemployment.
You see, in Torino, in Milan
they make these robots and these new machines
that do the work of ten men in a day.
The people have no jobs. They go to France,
to Germany, to England, it is no good.

Ramina now has managed to provoke
the silent cousin to retaliate.
The women mop up the ensuing noise.
The men reach to their pockets for a smoke.

After the war a few years, I remember
they had the money from the Marshall Plan
and everywhere was building.
Fifty, sixty men for one palazzo.
Now you pass the building site,
you see ten, six men
who move the handles on the new machines.
My son is at the university,
is studying to be an engineer.
When he has diploma, he is not sure
if there will be a job for him. You see,
in Italy we have these kind of problems.
It is a matter for the government
but… I have said already.

The ice-cream which Ramina has received
has made her good, the cousin equally.
The table on the terrace
matches the discussion in disordered elegance
and noon and afternoon change places in the sky.

The Italian Family at the Seaside

You like the view? There was a time
from Genoa to Sicily was all like this:
Mediterranean bush, the small clear bays.
Now we make a short descent by these steps.
Attention to them. For an August Sunday
is not too bad here. There are some little clouds
and many people do not like to climb.

Accordion music from a radio
drifts down the beach, piano, forte, with the wind.
Here is a strong sense of the group famiglia,
of portioning of space, and then a gap
and then another portioning.
We’ve come equipped, munitioned for the day,
and soon our parasol extends the fungoid rash of parasols
each marking out a parish round the bay.

Ramina is the first to change, bypassing
the adults’ antic wriggling with towels
and, finding an alcove in the rocks,
proclaims herself a mermaid. Papa suggests she
inflate the dinghy with her mermaid’s breath
rather than loud-hailing the whole beach.
She does as she is bid, and soon
the little siren launches on the sea.

Dark, shelving sharply, easy to swim in,
it makes me feel a stylist, strong enough
to pass this headland, check the other bays,
get out to where that great big yacht is parked,
half blocking our view to Capraia.
Stop at the yacht. Stop somewhat short of the yacht;
the naked woman diving off the stern,
climbing the ladder, diving in again
creates a widespread parish round herself.
Desire’s quick traveller goes tug, tug
under water from the parish boundary.
I didn’t ask to be disturbed (we both might say).
Look the other way. Look at the tower atop
the headland where the Grand Duke of Tuscany
kept watch for pirates, or look over to Elba…
Able I am not, not to see
her form so nude and active in the light.
Well, says the belly, try an easier appetite —
what about some lunch now? Make a line of straight strokes landward,
think only of movement, think of nothing.

Ramina, bouncing on the inshore waves,
says she wants lunch brought out to the vessel.
Unlikely, I suggest. But would she like a tow?
Bargain accepted, we beach together.

Since thirty years now I am coming here.
Before, the water was so beautiful and clear.
There was all kind of wreckage on the bottom
left over from the battles round this coast.
The Pisans and the Genoese fought
over there, towards Gorgona —
that was the end of Pisan naval power.
Later, when Ferdinand was tired of pirates
he brought them to engagement here,
in front of us, and won a victory
and forty thousand prisoners
who built Livorno for him. In this war past
a German submarine was blown up there,
where you were swimming by the yacht. You have enjoyed your swim?
You can swim here in October, in November,
it is warm enough. — Ramina, per piacere,
please be good. No, for one hour you cannot go
into the water. You will risk the cramp. —
Rosa and I, in 1950s,
have walked with tennis shoes around the rocks
back to Livorno. It is not so far.

A Sunday drowse
descends upon this popular republic of the sand.
Choked with the sand, with the gear of their trade,
lie dead submariners, and Moors,
Pisans whose power was on the wane,
near to us, beyond the edge;
in drowning mostly ignorant
how that act mattered to the play for lordship
which their masters made.

Beside the Sea, the Sea

Thessaloniki —
March sunshine and the slap of water on the wharf.
The sea is full of fish, in swift grey shoals,
right here, below me. And the same sea
is full of filth as well: oil slicks, sewage, cola cans.

Aegean, myth-bearer, what a state of shame we’ve brought you to,
slopping our mess, sporting our brand names!
Aegeus in his grief would not have thrown himself in here.

To make amends for this gross injury
we face a Heraklean task, yet one
within our common capability:
we clean up our act. Placate Poseidon. Hope to God
the shoals of swift grey fish hang in there till we do.
If not (it is no myth) — catastrophe.

Vision

Symbolic as a dream (but it was real) I saw this:
a confluence of rivers in a plain
minutes before the early January dark.
I stood on a high place. To the west,
the sun filled up a band of open air below the cloud, above the land.
It rained in straight ropes. To the east, a rainbow,
linking flags of earth, contained my shadow.
The countryside below blazed indigo.
Five minutes this presented tableau held.
As it began to die, the light picked finally
on one white building, huge, and generating power.
Its poisoned onion was the ultimate illuminated thing before the night.

Sins of the fathers will be visited.
In judgement over lone and level sands
of nuclear desert, stand the visitors,
the children’s children, witnessing the sight:

distended sun
denatured landscape
evil water-course.

A Kingfisher in August

Swim down towards the bridge for half an hour.
Stillness and heat are in this green river.
Your mind is free. Now flip on to your back
To see the alders, leaning from the bank,
Descending to you. Close your eyes. The leaves
Print shadows on the light behind the lids.
The river bends, the children’s voices
Playing on the sandbank now are hushed.
There is only you, and a breeze in the alders
To tell you something you already know
About an older and a calmer world
Than that you move in most months of the year.
Pay the breeze attention while you drift and float.
The office babble of July regains
Full volume in September. Listen and
You won’t hear either. You are out of reach.

Summer has prevailed at last, and in this state
Of solo contemplation, suddenly
You have an escort in a blur of wings:
Midnight in daylight. Back and forth he skims,
Adornment, outrider; and the bird men used
To hunt, stop up and murder in his hole
Is now your guarantee of passage
On the river, your free right to drift and float.

And when you reach the bridge, he’s with you still,
Your own wild mascot, as you stand and shake
The water from your skin, and feel the sun
Burn your good flesh. Here they won’t come looking
For you or for him. Now they can’t touch us.

Liberation

She’s come back for her stuff, and for her children’s stuff.
It’s dangerous to be here, so she moves at speed
Around the house she hasn’t entered for a week,
Since they escaped. He might come back. He might have tired
Of seeking consolation in the local bars,
Of getting men on stools, with nothing else to do,
To see his point of view. On each trip to the car
With bedding, clothes and toys, she checks the empty road.

She’s hunting in the living room for photographs
Of her the child, at home with mum and dad and cats,
Of her the teenage star of school productions, her
On holiday near Pisa, by the sea, with mates
And boys, the year before she met him. Here they are
And there she is, or was. She liberates a few.
A sack is slumped against the television set.
She looks. ‘Wank videos,’ she mutters, and she turns

And there he is. A silence. And her hand goes straight
Up to her throat to feel the place, still tender, where
He touched her last. ‘Don’t think you frighten me,’ she says
And walks straight by him to the car. He makes no move.
She drives away, and suddenly a rush of joy
Invades her, gaining speed between the winter fields,
Though it has been so long since she has tasted it
That now she tastes it it is hard to recognise.

As Anacondas Go

The anaconda is regarding me from up that tree
With merely intellectual interest. The enormous bulge
Which quadruples its girth part way along the heaps of coils
Which occupy the sagging branches of the tree is proof.
An anaconda isn’t one for snacking between meals.
Obesity is not a risk it runs. Our guide would guess
It won’t be in a mood for eating for at least a week.
‘What does it eat?’ I ask. ‘Oh, meat in general,’ he says,
‘Though probably,’ – he sizes up my lanky frame – ‘not you.
You’d be too big. It’s only small as anacondas go.’

Our very small canoe makes progress through the flooded grove.
I’m glad I’m big as tourists go. I’m hoping not to meet
An anaconda here who’s hungry and who isn’t small
As anacondas go. The guide has brought a hunting knife
Which is, I see, quite big as weapons go for self-defence.
My wish not to be squeezed out of my middle-sized dear life
Is, out of all proportion to the way things go, immense.

The Interior Life of Insects

The house is full of insects, arrived by accident
Through open doors and windows,
Up drainpipes, between floorboards, down the chimney.

Once in, they are diminished, out of the element
Which set their brains aflutter
And drove them, until now unquestioning, to do or die.

Soldiers astray, lacking commanders, some set forth on silent
Route marches over featureless walls,
Their hopeless mission: to regain known territory.

Others stand immobilised for hours at a fixed point
In a trance of indecision,
The print of information fading from the memory.

In all of them, sooner or later, fuel and force are spent,
They drop down and disintegrate
And get swept up. Always the last to fall, the manic fly

Launches and relaunches for its proper continent,
Draining its reserves of energy
To make the light the air, its day lucky.

A Vase of Marigolds

To Anne Seeley

Nothing fancy:
Some brilliant late summer flowers
Are printing their shadows
On ceiling and walls
And shifting the prints with the passage of hours.

There you have it:
The working of time and of light
On the flowers you put
In a place I would see,
To signify friendship, to nudge me to write.

Cruelty

The wren in the hedge pipes alarm. It’s only me.
But the fly by the window-catch is in agony
At the spider’s touch, trussed up, buzzing its last.
The wren and the fly must know fear, the spider be hungry
In the order of things. The universe keeps watch.
We have made sense of this, and so has poetry.

Go bigger, and no-one makes sense, and nor does poetry.
We hardly explain to ourselves our own sorrow,
Let alone others’ suffering, silenced by distance.
How can a watchful universe allow
Twenty thousand human deaths in Turkey
In an earthquake? It is beyond me, and so

I felt more for the toad I trod upon last night.
It made no movement at the light I shone.
It brought the blood of kindness pursing from my heart
As I stooped to see the damage I had done.
What could I do? Nothing, and walk away.
Be glad that in the morning it had gone.

Twenty thousand Turkish bodies crushed. What can I do?
I can telephone some money, I can trust
That some practitioner in the world’s prose,
Unphilosophical, with no time to waste,
Will help the innocent to bear the unbearable.
But the order of things? More the nature of the beast.

Prepare for Landing

The plane banks, straightens, banks. The captain’s voice:
‘…a lovely day in Cape Town. On your right
Is Table Mountain, and below us here
A view of Robben Island in the bay.
We have enjoyed your company, and bid
You all a proud South African farewell.’

How many years did planes bank, straighten, bank
And pass the dreadful place with nothing said?
‘…a lovely day in Cape Town. On your right
Is Table Mountain, and below us here
A view of Robben Island in the bay.
You can just glimpse our future president,
Whom one day we shall always have admired.
We’ve done our best to break him and his kind.
He’s at his morning exercise down there,
Surviving, hoping, husbanding his strength.’

The man beside me, flying home, promotes
The island’s ‘fascinating history’.
He has been kind enough to share, all night,
His knowledge of the country: what to see,
Which districts to avoid, what wines to try.
In desperation I was forced to write
And, when he asked me what it was, feign sleep.

Forgive, forget?
Oppressors grant themselves amnesia
By sole permission of the blessed fact
That the oppressed forgive.

My Proper Life

Economy for twelve hours overnight
Means total loss of feeling in the legs.
Tray tables back, seats up, good children all,
We fill in customs declaration forms,
My biro prodding anaesthetic knees.
I reach Profession. Hmm. What am I, now
I don’t go to the office any more?
I hesitate and then put Writer. There.
I hope I’m not required to furnish proof.
‘A list of publications, sir, perhaps?
A volume in your bag? No? I’m afraid…’

I get in with no trouble, and I’ve made
A kind of declaration to myself.
‘I’ve just retired, and nothing’s stopping me
From doing what I always said I would:
Write poetry. And face the awful fact
That I might fail, might be embarrassing,
Might make my friends seek kindly things to say
About the latest package in the post
I “hoped they might enjoy”. So take the risk,
Embarrass if you have to, what the hell.’

The legs are back in gear. The ears have popped
And all is ultra-clear and strange to sense:
The nosing rental car, bright light, warm wind,
November in the southern hemisphere.
Good child turned truant in my middle age,
I see that I’ve been looking out for signs,
For slip-roads to my proper life, for years.

Chapel of Rest

In memoriam Albert Penhouët, 1931-2004

I never saw you, living, in a suit, my dear old friend
and here you lie, all buttoned up in single-breasted beige,
white shirt, dark tie, prepared by other hands to say goodbye.

Your own hands – builder’s, gardener’s hands – show forth their healed-up cuts
and calluses to contradict the attitude of prayer
they’ve been forced into to console us that you’ve gone somewhere.

You had no truck with that. For you, to work was not to pray.
I found you harvesting potatoes one Assumption Feast
and made a joke about you working on a day of rest.

You stopped, and said, ‘I don’t believe. I never go to church.
In my philosophy we’re born, we grow up, fall in love,
we work, enjoy ourselves, and help the people we can reach.

We hope to live a good long time. That’s it. And then we die.
The spuds are small this year. Too little rain in May and June.
But it’ll make them tasty. Bring the barrow over here.’

Today, no object in the room commemorates that speech.
The crucifix and candles offer comfortable lies
in case we can’t abide the truth you faced with open eyes.

Cut Cornfield

Stop at the gap as you pass, and size up the field.
Its shape is not a figure in geometry.
To follow its containing bank — bushes and trees
atop the others’ work of raised-up earth and stones —
would be a half-hour walk. At this time yesterday
it held its yield of barley, grey with readiness.
The combines lit and cut the crop all night, droning
and ceasing at the edge of earshot in our dreams.
The bailers crossed the same ground all today, and now
the evening sees me counting up the rounded bails,
tight in their plastic, spaced and settled where they dropped.
Beyond a hundred, I lose sight and count of them
in distance and the shallow water of the sun.
The men have gone to spend their Saturday; machines
to cool and click in yards. The local moment lasts
until I break it, and drive on. The others stay,
unhurried, on eternal holiday, to watch
the failing sunlight and the rounding of the moon.

Evening Swim

I throw myself into the sea, for joy.
The crowds have gone.
These shallows hold the day’s heat.
Properly afloat, I point myself into the rush and roar of waves.
I know and override the reflex fear,
emerge into the colder, darker water
where the proper swimming starts:
a steady breast stroke. Take a breath. Head under for two strokes,
and up, and breathe, and under for two strokes, and out and out.

I stop and turn to face the shore.
How distant seems the playtime fuss of breakers here.
How even more remote my solitary car, across the beach, above the dunes.
The grown-up ocean thrills and carries me.
I’m strong. I’ve been this far before. I’m tiny in the deep.

The inward swim, the same procedure: arms and legs
are confidently forcing water backwards, minute after minute.
Stop again. I’m tired now, and breathing hard.
The waves, the shore, the dunes, the car
have all stayed where they were.

Trust to your strength. Increase the rate. Head under for two strokes,
and up, and breathe, and under for two strokes…
I’m spending energy so limbs and lungs are burning
but no progress. I am far from joy, as cold and doubt approach me.
Am I strong? What is this unaccustomed feeling
as my body loses power and my breath is ugly snoring
from a mouth so stretched to gaping that I swallow water
and its sour arrival makes my stomach flinch?

Try not to panic. Stop once more. Cease swimming for a while.
Perhaps a shoreward drift will catch you, reel you in.

That life could end this easily.
He died of carelessness.
Police, alerted, found the little pile of clothes, the towel, the car key. Obvious.
Informed the next of kin.
Increased by one the count of summer drownings.
Later, down the coast, the sea coughed up a pustulating mess.

I hang there, waiting on the sea’s caprice,
out of my element and mortally alone,
my fellow humans – all six billion of them – elsewhere.

The day I learnt to read.
My birth year and my death year on a stone.
The time I held her in a field of sunflowers.
The time I made her angry and she ran along the shore ahead of me.

Perhaps the shore is closer than it was?
Encouraged, I begin to swim again. This time I’m travelling.
Relief adds purchase to my strokes.
Head under, one stroke, two strokes, up again and breathe. And in and in.

I’m near the waves, I’m in their gravity,
one covers me, it spins me round,
I’m happy to be helpless as my head hits sand.
The wave recedes. I try to stand. The next one knocks me down.
I stand again and, stumbling, gain the land.

Bent over, hands on knees, I puke up water, groaning,
empty but of gratitude. The pride is out of me.

The footprints from the shoreline to my clothes: unsteady, wandering.
These seabirds are my only witnesses.
I dry and dress myself, and climb the wooden steps up to the road.

I open all the windows of the greenhouse car
and head for home. The pride is sneaking in.
Ascending through the gears, I plan my story
as the blessed breeze I might have missed is ruffling my hair
and crystallising salt on sun-tanned skin:
I did enjoy my swim. The sea was warm. The waves were fun.

29.12.08

This fleeting privilege at freezing twilight:
bright Jupiter, and Venus, and the last new moon of the old year,
assembled where the vivid afterthought of the departed sun
is losing its prismatic contest with the night.

Near Olmi-Cappella

In Corsica, the sun is strong
at midday in the last days of October:
old man determined to be young.

We sit all afternoon, the only customers,
outside the mountain restaurant.
Around us chestnut leaves drop, one by one.

The long meal closes. Coffee chills quickly
now a hill obscures the sun;
but the signora brings the grappa bottle on,

entrapped in solid ice, and in the ice
the flowers and fruits of spring and summer
reignite the seasons gone.

Vacheries

‘How are you keeping, double four nine five?’

‘One mustn’t grouse as long as one’s alive.
I know it’s only milk that we produce,
but still one likes to feel that one’s of use.
It’s better now the cooler weather’s here.
Don’t you agree, four two eight three my dear,
that summer is unbearable? The flies,
disgusting creatures, crawling in our eyes;
the dry grass, tasteless; no shade in the field;
and then the farmer moans about our yield!
He’s just a brute, that man, all take take take;
and stingy, with his low-grade cattle-cake —
an insult. When it comes to quality
I know a thing or two. He can’t fool me.

You see poor four six nine eight over there?
Don’t say I told you this: she’s in despair
and here’s the reason — it’s a frightful shame.
This morning, when our lord and master came,
he found her number badge and bent her ear.
I heard him tell her (I was standing near):
“If you don’t pull your socks up and lactate,
I see your future on a dinner plate.”
Can you imagine it? So coarse! So rude!
I’m not surprised it’s put her off her food.
She says her life’s just not worth living now.
She’d rather get it over with, poor cow.
What can one do? The bar code doesn’t lie.
She’s heading for that cowshed in the sky.
One can’t but feel a certain sympathy.

And how’s life treating you, four two eight three?’

Voyeur

I’m drinking on the terrace of a hotel in Bangkok.
Across the street, six girls are lounging, laughing in a flock,
sure to command attention and prepared to advertise.
Beyond my strength, the self-denial to avert the eyes
and so, in those rare moments when no traffic’s in the way,
I gaze in admiration at the talent on display.
Sweet birds of youth, this flirting hour the street is your domain;
don’t mind an old spectator who’s got beauty on the brain.

The Squirrels and the Nut Trees

Red squirrels here in Brittany are shy.
But I saw five at once the other day
engaged in brazen daylight robbery.

The walnuts and the hazelnuts were ripe.
The squirrels got at them by aerial leap
from overhanging oaks, bridging a gap

which you would think required the power of flight.
Never a false move. Every judgment right.
A season’s harvest picked off, fruit by fruit,

to be secreted in the neighbour’s wood.
And I, indulgent victim of this raid,
am rich in nut trees, poor in nuts, and glad.

In an Angle of the Wall

Here in an angle of the wall this April day
I’m waiting for each dawdling cloud to shift with the wind
and let the young year’s sun get to work on clay
housed in three pullovers but still thin-skinned.

Leaf-making, precocious last month, is on hold
and the blossom is over-committed, perhaps,
with the ground ungiving and the air cold
though the sunshine is forceful in the clouds’ gaps.

So it goes, back and forth, the season’s trial of strength
whose timing is doubtful but whose outcome is known.
Spring lurches on unevenly as days increase in length
and hope, in spite of evidence, is bred in the bone.

An Argument of Fowls

The great gold crane presides an empty building site
this evening as the light fails. On its overreaching arm,
locked until morning, gather starlings in their thousands, each
a separated dot of black,
finding its own place on the fretwork,
plain to see against the backlit wash of sky.
Collective noun for starlings? Fifty years ago
I learnt it as a truth as solid as
the capital of Ecuador, the crops
principally grown in Thailand and Cambodia,
the product of twelve twelves.

                                                    A murmuration.
And a source of wonderment, that word!
Its length. Its difference from its duller fellows — herds and flocks.
The teacher loved it too. It was her chance
to lead us boldly into criticism, aided by a term
yet more exotic, liquid on the tongue
and bound to feature in the spelling test next week:
that ‘murmuration’ was a case of onomatopoeia
was as sure as Quito.

                                     The Boke of Saint Albans,
printed 1486, collects the phrase (with scores of others,
as ‘a Cherme of Goldefynches’, ‘an Exaltying of Larkis’).
It uses the old form ‘stares’ for starlings.
We children didn’t know how many centuries had passed
since starlings first had been supposed to murmur as the night comes on.
And yet the evidence I hear this evening, as the night comes on,
is contrary: not murmuring — that quiet conversation of familiars —
but angry squawking in the way antagonists
will interrupt each other’s sentences, their voices
climbing over one another, bullying the audience,
insisting on the satisfaction of the final word.

Will this — I fall back on the default noun (the duller fellow)
for a group of birds — will this great flock of starlings
take advantage of the steady, leafless, metal bough
extended from a sudden trunk
to roost in, high above the planes and sycamores?

I have my answer in the almost dark.
Collective nouns (those friends I used to think that I could trust)
may fail me, but collective memory — the unschooled,
common mental property of crowds — endures.
The animals make wing down to the trees in clouds.

After ‘After Apple-Picking’

‘My [lightweight, three-piece] ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still’
and Robert Frost and I
have these two things in common: we write (he wrote) poetry
and we have (he had) apples by the ton.
Saint Martin’s summer’s sun
has blessed my harvesting, and now illuminates
dozens of wooden boxes, plastic crates
dotted round the orchard on the hill
and left until tomorrow to be barrowed in and stored.
Like him, I’m glad,
in a way, to see the business over with, to be allowed to stop.
One can get bored
admiring each warm, individual beauty in a massive crop.
He said he had
‘ten thousand thousand’ grade-one fruit;
in other words, ten million — a figure I’d dispute
but poets will and should exaggerate.
We’ve both had vintage years, at any rate.
And now the problem starts;
it’s always like this when a bumper season ends.
How many apples can I palm off on my friends,
make chutney of, turn into pies and tarts?
How long, oh Lord (till Christmas?) must we eat stewed apple (laced,
I will admit, with Calvados)
at lunch and dinner every day
in order not to feel a sense of loss
that one of Your free gifts has gone to waste?

It is, I know, effrontery
to bracket in a poem Robert Frost and me.
But let the minor poet have his say.
Robert, your talent is the ripest specimen a summer’s light achieves.
I’m up the ladder, on the topmost rung. It’s out of reach.
Mine’s green and runtish, low down, hidden in the leaves.
Yet we are each
wealthy this evening as we sit and write indoors.
Sleep well tonight, ‘whatever sleep it is’. One final piece of cheek:
I bet you, any day this sunlit week,
I’ve handled apples just as big as yours.

After Apple-Picking — Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Chorus of the Guardian Cats of Montmartre Cemetery

For Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe

‘Visitor with guide and camera, welcome to this solemn place.
Do not think of us as feral as you snap our feline grace.
We fulfil a sacred duty, guarding those who in their day
laid at France’s feet their genius, and now offer her their clay.
Politicians, writers, painters, dancers, physicists here lie
high above the roofs of Paris, staring blindly at the sky.

You who come to render homage to these close-assembled greats,
(Plan du Cimetière to aid you), reading out their names and dates,
have no inkling of a power you would envy if you knew:
we are quadruped clairvoyants; we can see their spirits too.

******

A to Z, Ampère to Zola, Berlioz to Offenbach,
Degas, Heine, Fratellini flaunt their talents after dark.

Adolphe Sax, the late lamented, blows the horn that he invented.
Georges Feydeau, doyen of laughter, entertains the crowd hereafter.
Glimpsed beneath the evening star, La Dame aux Camélias.
Truffaut, as the light grows dim, re-releases Jules et Jim.
When the constellations peep, we observe Nijinksi’s leap.
Tristesse born of lost caresses Dalida in song expresses.

Residents of every section of this municipal ground,
in collective resurrection fabled shades abound.
Stripped of all but heart and soul, they play their parts; and we patrol.

******

Hark! The closing bell is ringing. Make your way back to the gate.
Don’t regret your forced departure. Paris’s delights await.
Death is long. Here we’ve been keeping watch since 1825.
As you head off to the Métro, aren’t you glad you’re still alive?’

The River

Impossible to verify its one and only source:
a trickle here, a darker patch there in the grass
in upland country, on a bald plateau,
a trace squeezed out of rock, the mountain’s bulk.

It may be, once, that transhumancing shepherds knew.
There is a place, a mile or two below its origin,
where one might say for certain, ‘This is it.
This is the course to which the other courses
will contribute, will be tributaries,’
though a man’s hand easily might dam its flow.

Racing past the first abandoned farmhouse,
bounding on beyond the village where the road starts,
gathering recruits, the stream requires a bridge and has a name.
It’s on the map. Its cuts and curves are deeper
and its pace more dignified. It puts on weight.
The towns it passes are its progeny.
The squared-off, fertile fields to right and left
owe everything to this broad beam of water,
thing of use, this quiet and obliging beast of burden.
Men’s hands, time and time again, have dammed its flow.
Its economic virtues overtake its lyrical.

In some part of its thwarted, interfered-with brain,
the creature has a memory, a long way back,
of when it roared, and playfully destroyed,
of when, at whim, it granted or withheld,
when men bowed down and prayed
and sacrificed that which they least could spare
in hope to earn the favour of a god.

The light of reason since has overtaken faith.
Its final service rendered, unresistingly
the animal gives up its great and broken heart
into that greater element
which no idea, no ingenuity has overtaken, yet.

Partridges in September

These partridges, released on Tuesday
so that men on Sundays now the autumn’s here
can mooch about and shoot them,
must, after months of cosseted confinement,
be — what? terrified? exhilarated? baffled?
They precede me on the road, putting a brave face on it,
an urgent delegation late for an appointment.
I slow the car to walking pace.
They quicken theirs, but slightly; dignity’s to be preserved.
We could be here all morning. I’ve been here before.
It’s only when their walk becomes a trot
and then a scamper, frankly fugitive,
that they will take the aerial route to save themselves.
Have centuries of firearms taught them
that they’re safer on the ground?
I’m in no hurry, and a minute passes
as my silly anxious escort runs before the chariot.
At last I’ve had enough; a change of engine note, my gathering speed,
and up they rise, compelled to demonstrate
a risky, last-ditch talent which you sense they’d rather hide.

‘Architecte!’

A French provincial town. The railway station. Rain.
The TGV of course will show its snout on time
so I’ve two minutes to record just this:
the woman in the block across the tracks
has placed her elbows on the railing of her balcony.
She stares ahead. Our lady of the flowers
is what Corbusier’s civilising dream comes down to:
only her geraniums give hope.

Short and Sweet

October’s here; it’s time for fond farewells
to these I’ve gorged on all too briefly in September:
golden mirabelles.

In Cléguer Cemetery

Here in an avenue of stones
Algeria’s local veterans
take leave of one of theirs.
In not quite military lines
they stand, flags dipped. The priest intones
appropriate rapid prayers.

Though matters of small note have filled
the peaceful years since they were called
to make light of their lives,
in these who did as they were told
when young and strong, the stubborn pride
of fellowship survives.

The coffin slots into its grave.
Old men are harder to deceive.
They know they lost that futile war.
They furl the flags and seek the bar.

The Plough

The night is clear. I’m looking up
at seven stars which form a group,
the first my father pointed out:
‘Those are the Plough.’ Which they were not,
as well I knew, but metaphors
are good for recognising stars.

Until today I didn’t know
that some stars making up the Plough
are further from each other than
they are from us — our earth, our sun.
From someone out there’s point of view
we’re in a constellation too.

What other trigonometry
do they employ to map the sky?
How must our glimmer look to them
and by what reassuring name
might they in metaphor relate
their handled world to spots of light?

Bright Eyes

The owl that calls and calls and, pausing, calls again
is speaking to me, as I fancy, lying here,
the bedroom and its furniture made pale and strange
by patination borrowed from a hanging moon.

How lovely the night is! Creeping out of bed,
I pad downstairs, open the door, and stand like Adam
on the spiky lawn, where dew is gathering.
Somewhere, at the edge of earshot, under lights,
a combine makes short work of one more wheat field.
Stars are myriad but shy, outfaced by moonlight,
as the bird who summoned me repeats herself
once, twice — ‘to-wit, to-wit’ — then hesitates,
suspicious of a foreign presence on her ground.

A minute passes. Now the overarching oak
releases her, my fellow vigilant,
bright-eyed Athena, wings outstretched,
who sails straight by my upturned wondering face
and down the silver valley till I’ve lost her
and I wait, and then… ‘to-wit, to-wit… to-wit’
as Adam shivers with a sense of benefit.

Wind-blown acanthus

The man was nearly blind; in six months would be dead.
I led him to the decorated chapel door.
Five hundred years had worked to soften and abrade
the clean, sharp patterns chased there by the mason’s blade.
He knew his stuff, though; with enquiring hands he read
the granite and, greeting an old friend’s face once more
after long absence, ‘Wind-blown acanthus,’ he said.

Epithalamion for Alix and Ben

On the occasion of their wedding in Perth, Western Australia

Poets have performed at weddings
Since the ancient Greeks.
But it’s still a risky moment
When the poet speaks.
Some too solemn; some too silly;
Some whose rhyming creaks.

Thank you, Ben and Alix, that you
Let this foreign poet in.
Will you take two words of counsel
From a licensed larrikin?
One is sober; one is silly;
With the sober I’ll begin.

In the art of long-term loving
Both must say their word.
It takes two for conversation;
Neither is preferred.
Be yourselves; but let the line where
Self and other meet be blurred.

That’s the sober thought; and here’s the
Irresponsible advice:
Live beyond your income (mostly);
Life is more than price.
Let your laughter be the coin you
Never sacrifice.

I have done; so, with these others,
Playing our supporting parts
To the leads you take as you
Enact the union of your hearts,
I say: may your life, now joined,
Transcend the joy in which it starts!

With love
John Richmond

Paul, I should like…

To Paul Ashton

Paul, I should like, one June, to fly with you once more
From Zurich to Lugano in that little jet
Just when the morning sun has gained and overshot
The valley’s eastern brim, so that our silhouette,
Chasing the torrent, bounding over fields of light,
Is fugitive as thought along its vivid floor.
A giant’s thumb and finger gave the impetus
We’ll feel inside this lemon pip’s straight streak due south.
Great naked brutes of mountain heads will force our path
Below, between them, frowning on our trespass.

And Elise will serve us champagne and cheese straws —
Elevenses, or pre-apéritifs
And we will smile in grateful disbelief
That such a moment, here again, is ours.

5.

New Style

Pope after pope has been aware that something must be done.
An ancient problem, worsening each year: the calendar
Is straying from the sun. The vernal feast of Easter drifts
By tiny steps away from spring, towards the days of heat.

Pope Gregory is in his study with astronomers.
Their chief is Clavius the Jesuit, whose voice escapes
His lifetime’s training in restraint. ‘The remedy is here,
Your Holiness,’ (he drums a paper) ‘by God’s help, at last.’

Pope Gregory’s left hand shifts slightly. He is listening.

‘Cut ten days from 1582,’ says Clavius.
‘Observe the saints’ days lost the day before or after. Then,
In three of every four years which conclude the centuries
To come, omit the leap year. But retain the extra day
In 1600, and the year 2000, and so on.
The leap year (brainchild of an older Roman!) was indeed
A fine invention in its time, though not quite fine enough.’
He pauses for effect. ‘Thus will the calendar remain
Obedient to the sun for longer than three thousand years.’

Pope Gregory is satisfied. ‘Prepare a Bull,’ he says,
‘And show me when it’s written. Thank you, Christoph, gentlemen.’

The Bull is posted on the internet. I’m reading it
On leap year day 2000. It contains this very date,
The day that I am living in, foreseen, committed to:
An act of faith in reason… History unmakes itself,
The known reverts to the unknowable, and Clavius
Is pointing out to Gregory a detail in the text.

‘Your Holiness, the Day of Wrath may intervene before
The date here written. In that case, Almighty God will see
We have not sought to hasten His return before His will.’

The Pope is thinking that the wisdom of astronomers
(And Jesuits) has not always been welcome to the Church,
But says aloud, ‘We wish it to be printed. Bring our seal.’

The Searchers

Cannibal seeks meal for special friendship.
Pensioner wants doll to be his wife.
Friendly girl needs escort for Barbados.
Widow longs to make new start in life.

Widower, who lost his wife to cancer,
Writes to say he truly understands.
Escort is already in Barbados;
Chalet on the beach, time on his hands.
Doll asks gentleman to make her British;
She will send her photo for keepsake.
Meal would like to meet before committing;
Cooking’s such a major step to take.

Cannibal agrees to meet — in secret;
Eating meal’s a risky thing to do.
Pensioner is thrilled by lovely photo;
Maybe he can make doll’s wish come true.
Friendly girl, who has a better offer,
Won’t be in Barbados after all.
Widow thanks the writer for his kindness;
Leaves her number, should he care to call.

Widower is plucking up his courage;
Turns from the computer to the phone.
Escort in Barbados leaves the café,
Feeling unattractive and alone.
Doll needs money, sponsor for her visa
And mister please when is the wedding date?
Meal has finger on apartment buzzer;
Still in time to choose another fate.

Dreamland achieved! Vast, secret playground
Where perfect strangers huddle and conspire
And millions of tense, two-fingered typists
Edge towards enactments of desire.

Leda Ponders Yeats’s Sonnet

My thighs were loosening, in his account;
As if, after some struggle, I began
To overcome my terror of the swan
And please it in the role of willing mount.

My cunt was dry. The chafing made me bleed.
There was no feathered glory, no consent.
Its penis was its blood’s blunt instrument
And blood was all that issued from the deed.

The poet asks if I, the raped, put on
The knowledge with the power of the beast
While it was in me. Did I get the taste
For knowing what the creature had foreknown?

Had ever screams been strangled in his throat,
He would have had his answer as he wrote.

Leda and the Swan — W.B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                       Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

The Prisoner

I try to make my mind a whitewashed wall
But memory defaces its expanse.
Each human sound which penetrates the cell
Recalls the roar my voice excited once.

I spoke, and hopeless people’s hopes were stirred.
In province after province, speech by speech,
I earned the acclamation of the crowd.

None could deny I had the leader’s touch;
To get the leadership was easy. Then
The hard task came: to form a single force
Where local law and loyalty had been.

Our kindred had a prior claim on us.
Despite the government’s barbarity
Our fellowship in arms was incomplete.
Why is the use of fear the only way?
I made examples, which I now regret.

Throughout the shifting motives of the time,
I pleaded with the soldiers to keep sight
Of our idea. I told myself its flame
Burned still in each day’s orders.

I found out
That nearest friends are false, and here I am.
I try to keep my mind a private room
But politics come picking at its lock.
So far from battle drifts the battle smoke.

New Year’s Day 2005, at the Window

Only the date distinguishes the day.
I’m looking back and inward, and I see
How habit scores its ever deeper track
Each year across the country of my years.
There go the footprints of a private man
Of middle age, to whom life has been kind.
I earn well, eat well, take my holidays.
I’m loved within the circle of my friends,
Unknown beyond. Beyond, I’m one of those
Whose task it is to populate a world
Which others make. Which is the stronger force.

                            *********

The stronger force flows from America.
Two months ago, its people cast their votes
And most preferred stupidity and might
To lead their nation at a time of war.
They chose the men who, once upon a time,
Had been their present enemy’s best friend;
Who’d raised him up; who’d done a deal with him
Which paid and armed him while he gassed and shot
His citizens; who’d looked the other way;
Who’d thought, ‘He’s not a loony with a beard.
At least he wears a business suit. At least
Iraq is not Iran.’ And that was fine.

Fast forward 20 years. A day of blood.
A new sensation for America:
Invasion of the homeland. Death close up.
The murderer is not available
But righteous retribution will be swift.
A scapegoat must be sought. Who is to hand?

Stupidity and might had just the man:
Their former payroll thug, who long ago
Had ceased to play the part assigned to him;
Who’d made them wish they’d never done that deal.
His crimes were now embarrassing: why not
Pin one crime on him that was not his own?

Agreed.                
                 The children of America
Flew out to bomb the evil-doer’s land,
Requiting death in bringing greater death
Until the land was free of him. Each time
The carriers of death in freedom’s name
Were killed themselves, stupidity and might
Spoke to the nation in a solemn voice:
‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the families
Of heroes who will not have died in vain.’
At times like these, they found democracy
A useful word to say. The folks at home
Would know their children’s deaths had been the price
Required of them to build a better world.
They could continue to salute the flag,
Repeat the wish, ‘God bless America!’
In pride and grief. Stupidity and might
Then led the singing of the battle hymn

In which I joined. My taxes did their bit,
With Britain’s little wagon firmly hitched
To boss America’s avenging star.
My country’s children went along to kill
And to be killed themselves. I helped to burn
A baby and to amputate a limb.

                            *********

I want true liberty to put down roots
In all the places where it is not yet.
I doubt the blood we’ve spilled will speed its growth
In countries which have felt our wrath. I fear
The opposite: theocracies of old
And newer thugs will take their chance to thrive,
Glad of our dreadful gift: a cause for war.

How could I not prefer to see Iraq,
Instead of counting corpses, counting votes?
Alas, the papers will be totted up
Before the bodies. That is not the choice.
Our leaders urge us to acclaim, in unison,
The latest convert to democracy.
Let my voice sound one of the jarring notes.

                            *********

The short day closes, and the sky has cleared.
I’m looking out and upward. Lines of birds,
Impelled, unhurried, hold their homeward course.
High up, from west to east, a vapour trail
Marks and divides the blotting-paper air.

                            *********

America and Britain, you will pay a price
Above the one you think you’ve settled on. Beware.

Epiphany 2006

The year is only nearly new.
The house is plain once more.
My life so free and prosperous:
I thank you, luck of draw.

Just as we tire of feasting
Here comes another feast.
Messiah has been recognised
By Gentiles from the East.

To set beside the tributes
My holy book records
My only contribution is
These inexpensive words:

In Israel, would-be Palestine,
Iraq, Afghanistan,
The evidence is scanty
Of the brotherhood of man.

When Christians, Muslims, Jews exchange
Their gifts of hate and fear
And not a token truce detains
Destruction’s working year;

When Herod and the priests compete
To bring the greater grief
By lust for land and power,
By perversion of belief;

When love your neighbour as yourself’s
A thought best left unsaid;
When mothers only have their tears
To wet their baby’s head;

This much we see, by reason’s light,
And not a guiding star’s:
The madness in religion
And the wickedness in wars.

The caravan has packed and gone,
Gone home another way.
For now, the wise men see no point
In lengthening their stay.

Wedding Party

The village wedding guests will not forget
their children charred and broken where they lie.
We haven’t won the war on terror yet.

Terrors by night, a gunship and a jet
have handed down destruction from on high.
Bewailing witnesses will not forget.

The pilots thought their planes were under threat
from rifles fired for joy into the sky.
These tribal customs haven’t died out yet.

A military statement of regret
will not bring back the apples of their eye
to folk who trust in God not to forget.

The act has made of boys whose cheeks were wet
God’s warriors whose holy rage is dry.
We haven’t cured this twisted thinking yet.

Beheadings posted on the internet?
What savages these people are, we cry.
The warriors are sworn not to forget.
We’ll stay the course. The job’s not finished yet.

The Zealots

Sure of their rightness, and their righteousness, they kill.
To them, the blood’s well spent. Its creeping tide sustains
a purity of energy within their brains,
the undistracted operation of their will.

We are their enemy, the doubters, we who see
survival in the strength of hybrid, motley things;
the rage from which their readiness to murder springs
is fuelled by contempt for our uncertainty.

Reluctant we may be, yet we must take a stand
against their zeal, must find a single voice to say
that various is what we are, how we shall stay,
that certainty in their terms desolates a land.

Confessors of all sorts have stirred the mob before.
Our unity in difference, our faith in thought,
the patient force of reason: only these may thwart
the soldiers of the inquisition at the door.

At a Banking Crisis

The houses of usury go to the wall.
The higher the fliers, the broader the sky
And gravity’s merely a force to defy.
How could they have known that their engines would stall?

The pilots are limping away from the crash.
The crimes they committed they stoutly deny
(The bolder the gambler, the bigger the lie);
And could we oblige with the loan of some cash?

Magnificent men in their money machines!
We feel in our pockets and fish out some change.
The ways of the Lord (that is Mammon) are strange;
And we’re all of us dead in the long run, said Keynes.

Her Night Thoughts

The love he rarely brings me,
differently and long,
I keep here in a chamber
whose lock and key are strong.
No other song
rhymes with the songs he sings me.

The moments of our meeting
are brief and widely spaced;
our slow anticipation
has never been misplaced.
Lovely each taste
of joining and completing.

Tonight, when sleep deserts me
and solo thoughts are free,
I re-enact the pleasures
we take in company.
The more I see,
the more the absence hurts me.

How may I rediscover
my easiness of mind?
I turn the key and open
the chamber I designed;
wherein I find
a rhyme left by my lover.

The music of the verses,
their movement and their sway,
perform this token service:
to shorten the delay
until the day
for which my mind rehearses.

Too Much History

First there were only voices, and the use of memory.
Then paintings on cave walls. Later,
when cities grew by rivers, and the merchants needed
something more permanent than simple trust,
pictures in miniature were proofs of contract.
So history began in the making of marks,
the blunt reed impressing the raw clay;
deliberation in the rows and columns of dark shapes
staining the pale ground of a scroll, a codex, book;
the chisel on the stele lauding the mighty.

Printing loosened, not the scribe’s grip on the pen,
but the scribe’s master’s grip on his domain.
Yet for centuries more, the living,
looking back towards the country of the dead,
had meagre clues only as to its inhabitants:
writings, images, monuments.

Now, in a blink of time,
we have the means to tell all to the future.
Five hundred years from now, historians
and citizens in search of entertainment
will replay our every move — our working, sporting, mating,
killing one another — perfectly in focus, to the life,
our accents visiting their ears like ancient music.

There will be too much history for those remote spectators.
Glutted with information, they will turn away
from their exquisite screens, to seek relief
in that day’s small events and unobserved routines.

The Rescuing of Starfish

After ‘The Star Thrower’ by Loren Eiseley

A little girl was running up and down the beach.
Her task: the rescuing of starfish, two at a time,
from hundreds stranded where the tide had left them.
Her journeys lengthened as the minutes passed.

Taking his daily walk along the hard wet sand,
a man stopped to admire her energy and work.
‘If I don’t do this, they will die,’ she told him, breathless.
He smiled, but said, ‘Look at them; there are hundreds.
How can you make a difference?’

Pausing just long enough
to wave the two she held in front of her, she said,
‘I’ll make a difference to these two.’ Off she ran.

As John Donne Tells Us…

‘No man is an island’; and no man wrote a truer word.
The human continent’s a reciprocity of need.
In his conceit we’re Europe: manor, clod or promontory.
Yet each piece of the continent, each man’s ‘part of the main’,
is governed by a monarch who divides and rules the brain
as reason, dreams and appetites contest supremacy.
No one of these prevails, nor yields. No truce will be agreed
until the bell which ‘tolls for thee’, and you hear not, is heard.

Pleasure’s Bargain

After Donne’s ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’

True, madam, true: only a fool would try
to imitate John Donne in poetry.
And I’m that fool. The lapse of centuries
has not reduced the power of strip-tease
to hold a lady’s visitor in thrall.
Too slowly, yet too fast, your garments fall;
you toy with my desires, you draw my eyes
‘above, below’; my rising fancy tries
to peep through those adornments which remain
and, in my mock frustration, I complain
I don’t know if my libido’s compelled
the more by what’s displayed or what withheld.

The sequence of disrobing Donne sets down
— the girdle first, the breast-plate, busk, the gown,
the coronet, hose, shoes — differs not much
from what my mistress knows I like to watch.
For ‘busk’ read ‘basque’; for ‘breast-plate’, ‘bra’; I know
that girdles now come later in the show.
The gowns you wear (petite) enlarge my lust
and, what is more, they won’t drag in the dust.
I am of Cromwell’s party, don’t forget;
your queenly beauty needs no coronet.
Some difference there is, your lover thinks,
between the great and minor poets’ kinks.
For me, no carnal pleasure can compare
with that supplied by flimsy underwear.
Donne reaches climax through full nudity:
‘Off,’ ‘Off,’ ‘Make shift to shift that shift,’ cries he.
Your latter-day but no less ardent John
prefers you with your shoes and stockings on.

‘America! my new-found-land’, ‘My Mine’:
he, libertine (but soon-to-be divine),
saw sex in terms of England v. the Rest;
he plundered her as soon as she undressed.
We know where such equivalences led:
the rape of nations, and the millions dead;
the victor’s excess of testosterone —
‘I come, I see, I ravish, and I own.’
(Or should ‘I come’, instead of first, come third?)
Madam, you ravish me by deed and word.

Forgive that sudden change of tone of voice;
sometimes a poem’s not a poet’s choice.
Now you are nearly naked, but not quite,
undress your man, and take your own delight.
Don’t be ‘My Mine’, be mine; this bargain’s made
between two friendly countries, as fair trade.
These couplets ended, you and I are free
to couple for our pleasure, equally.

To His Mistress Going to Bed — John Donne

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime,
Tells me from you, that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew   
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know,
By this these Angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
    Licence my roving hands, and let them go,   
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
    Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a Gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we   
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence.
    To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

Good Friday, 2013. Driving Westward

After Donne’s ‘Good-Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’

Lately the lover, shortly to be priest,
although ‘my Soules forme bends toward the East’,
his horse’s head faced firmly to the west.
‘Pleasure or businesse’ called him, he confessed,
despite the new ‘devotion’ he had learned
to One who suffered while his back was turned.

And is ‘mans Soule’, as he proposed, ‘a Spheare’,
subject to sudden lurches of career
as other spheres exert their influence,
distracting reason by the lure of sense?
(His light of reason was the fire of faith,
sparked by ‘a Sunne’ who, setting, banished death.)
I would say yes; and we part company
only in this: reason and sense for me
act on the soul merely within the skull.
I know no other, outer Agent’s pull.

Donne knew an Other; in his memory
he sees Christ in His bloody agony,
‘Made durt of dust’, that sinners might be clean.
His mind relives the drama of the scene —
darkness at noon, the cracking of the rocks.
He argues for his faith by paradox.
The hands that ‘tune all spheares’, so wide their ‘span’,
though ‘peirc’d with… holes’, still play upon this man;
in him, the Master of the universe
is dextrous in resolving Adam’s curse.
On this ‘good’ Friday, best and worst of days,
with reins and whip in hand the rider prays
the All-in-All who made Himself as nought,
consenting to be mocked and flayed for sport,
to scourge his back to make his sickness whole.
Christ’s gravity is hauling in his soul.

He cantered and I drive through Warwickshire
this evening in the hesitating year,
both heading into Wales’s baffled spring.
What comfort can a real sunset bring
now God is dead and shut up in the tomb
and it is hard to say, ‘Thy kingdom come,’
even for one who, to his soul, believed?
And yet — his final paradox achieved —
if ‘Soules’ be ‘Spheares’ and rolling westward, we
will come at last to that from which we flee.

Good-Friday, 1613. Riding Westward — John Donne

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

Penelope was Right…

‘Many and many a dream is mere confusion,
a cobweb of no consequence at all.’

So why do I lie here,
too warm and lazy still to enter on the day,
interrogating dreams which seemed completely clear
when I was active in them, just a blink ago?

Why did I grandly, foolishly agree
to take the part of Hamlet in the play
and then not learn the lines? Some deep anxiety
still living in me, surfacing in sleep? I don’t think so.

Why was I making love to her,
a former colleague I admired
but haven’t seen for years
and never, honestly, desired?
How come she suddenly appears,
instead of scores of others I’d prefer? How should I know?

What am I doing in this factory shed
building a motor engine, piece by piece?
Why am I wearing purple dungarees?
Outside, impatient clients wait. Progress is slow.

Penelope has dreamt that twenty geese
have come to feed on grain beside her house.
A mountain eagle swoops and kills them all.
She weeps. The eagle flies back to explain:
her noble spouse will soon rejoin his bride;
the suitors soon will meet their bloody fate.
And yet she’s doubtful when she wakes and sees
‘the geese in hall, still feeding at the self-same trough’.

It’s plain enough. Her dream’s a portent. Mine are just a mess.
I’ve no idea what’s happening in my nether brain:
recycling centre? off-site archive? rubbish pit?

I have a friend who dreams he’s being crucified.
To add to his distress,
someone is throwing something at his back.
He turns his head — not easy on a cross —
and sees his mother, hurling lumps of shit.

Now that’s what I call symbolism. That’s what my dreams lack.
Nights never bring me meanings ready-made
and mornings only puzzlement and loss.
My dreams are fleeing guests: ‘So sorry we can’t stay.’
Before I’ve run the bath, the actors fade
and by the time my teeth are clean, they’ve passed away.

The quotations are from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey.

Clouds

Constantly inconstant, merely water in air,
obedient to wind, they drift or stall or race;
obedient to temperature, from hour to hour
their passing presences disperse to empty space.

We try familiar comparisons; we say
they’re formed of cotton wool, or curdled cream, or lace.
We liken them to animals or continents.
We spy in them a sailing ship, a giant’s face.

We seekers of resemblances are like the clouds.
The force that drives the living planet drives us on.
We move, we change; we briefly catch the watcher’s eye.
Unique we are, and insubstantial, and soon gone.

Out of City

Where is it leading, this unlovely highway,
potholed main drag, bruised and beaten track?

Across the river, to the city limits.
Onward to the mountains or the sea.

Where are they going, these encumbered travellers,
saying little, never looking back?

As if they knew. They only know the city
which was theirs is not theirs. So they flee.

What might they hope for at their destination?
Simple safety and a queue for bread.

Will acts of special kindness in this crisis
ease the hardship of the road ahead?

Unfortunately not. The human virtues
falter in conditions of distress.

What is the meaning of this mass displacement?
Search for it in human wickedness.

The Spider on my Copy of The Origin of Species

I swat the little creature with an idle hand.
It’s hard enough, God knows (He does?), to understand
the patient man’s great temple-shaking argument —
its beauteous intricacies equivalent
to those he found in barnacles or in sweet peas,
in growth of coral reefs, the work of worker bees —
without distractions to my barely-coping brain.
Where was I? Concentrate. But here it is again!
I’ve read one paragraph, on pigeons; in that time,
by downward abseil and retracing upward climb,
it’s back where first it suffered the mysterious blow,
its travelling as rapid as my reading’s slow,
and goes about its lawful business, unafraid.
Well, let it be, and serve as living visual aid.
Spin out your steel, my murderer; ensnare your prey.
This book’s an iron Bible you and I obey.

A Hope Denied

It started when Mohamed set himself alight:
a blaze of rage, ignited by a single spark.
That hopeful flame now gutters, and the scene is almost dark
and heroes who, these thirty months, have dared to claim the right

to certain simple freedoms, which they briefly won,
are robbed of them by two kinds of barbarian:
the one loud-hails perversions of the word of God to man;
the other needs no mouthpiece but the yawning of a gun.

Legacy

What if, one day no different from the others
which in their trillions have come to pass
and passed away since energy’s first flare,
since the Creation, Introit of the Universe,
Big Bang, whichever myth you find consoles
the brain hurt by considering such distances;
what if, like morning mist in warming air,
we humans were one day to disappear?

I mean just us, the planet’s alpha males.
All other life remains. The species which stood up now falls
in some unique pandemic, or takes off into the sky —
a comprehensive Rapture which forgives us all.
The place we tended, forced and plundered echoes still
to calls of birds and beasts. Goldcrest and whale,
the rarest rhino and the common fly,
by us unhindered and unhunted, multiply.

Crops ripen till they rot where they were planted.
Blackened acres, bent before the wind,
are choked and toppled as the wilderness invades.
The work of centuries of our improving hand,
the grains return directly to the ground
where year by year they take their failing stand
against the vigour of uncultivated seeds.
Bramble and fern infringe the country roads.

Our settlements are silent, monochrome in dust,
their signs and images obscured, the meaning lost.
The tattered flags have nothing more to say.
Patiently, sunlight and rain, heatwave and frost
dismantle every structure we have built and leased
and grant their freehold to the dispossessed:
to creatures, plants and mould. A thousand years’ decay
matters not much, is but the twinkling of an eye

except for this: the brews we now distil
to vaunt our mastery of nature spill
and burn into the world we’ve left. An age-long harm
is done, unless some microbe, finding to its taste
the morsels of our stubbornest perverted waste
can make a supper of it, which may be the last
meal taken in the earth’s allotted time
until the sun consumes it and annihilates our crime.

Drummer

The boy enlisted, as he thought,
to serve his country’s good;
but violence that we export
returns to source in blood.

Stock tributes to his sacrifice
we piously repeat.
It’s drummer boys who pay the price
for drums their elders beat.

Fabbro contro Falso

In Italy, in Dante’s time, the lawyers’ clerks
filled up the spaces at the ends of judgments, deeds and wills
with sonnets or with chunks of longer literary works
to thwart the later introduction of fake codicils:
professional scribes’ forgeries appended
to parry or pervert the force intended
by careful phrasing in the body of the text.

And Dante’s verses were employed as padding
against the practice of malicious adding.

Imagine it: a wealthy litigant has vexed
the patience of the court, and lost his case. In seething rage
he’s flicking through the document confirming his defeat.
He finds ten tercets from Inferno on the final page.
He scans the visions of a cosmic dreamer,
the strange new numbers of the terza rima,
and sucks his teeth, and thinks of other ways to cheat.

Inauguration Day: January 2017

After Robert Lowell

A braggart, whom we thought absurd,
a master of the wounding word,
combining vanity with hate
is now Commander of the State.

Democracy’s a savaged plant.
The credulous, the ignorant,
who trust in God, forgive his sins.
America’s worst angel wins.

The plant is bleeding from its stump
as the Republic summons Trump.
Doyen of feral billionaires,
he lifts the hand that grabs, and swears.

Cold tears are leaking from the sky.
How sure success is when you lie!

6.

Victor Hugo — Tomorrow, at dawn…

Tomorrow, at dawn, as the countryside whitens,
I shall leave. You’re waiting for me; I know.
I shall go by the forest, I shall go by the mountain.
I can’t stay away any longer.

I shall walk with my eyes closed in on my thoughts,
Seeing nothing beyond, hearing no sound,
Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed,
And sad. Day for me will be like night.

As golden evening falls, and distant sails
Make for Harfleur, I won’t be looking.
When I arrive, I shall place on your tomb
A posy of green holly and of heather in flower.

Demain, dès l’aube… Victor Hugo

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.

Victor Hugo — The Retreat from Moscow

It snowed. Their very victory had brought on their defeat.
For once, the eagle bowed its head. Dark days! In slow retreat
from smoking Moscow, emperor and men recrossed terrain
whose only feature now was snow: white plain, then more white plain.

A brief thaw, and an avalanche of water. In the spate
none knew his leader nor his flag; no-one could separate
the army’s centre from its flanks. How had it come to pass
that yesterday’s proud columns were today’s disordered mass?

The opened bellies of dead horses sheltered wounded men:
the only refuge on the road. The snow set in again.
Beside deserted bivouacs, the silent, frozen ghosts
of buglers, upright in the saddle, occupied their posts,
their copper instruments glued fast to mouths of stone. The sky
dropped cannon-ball and shell, mixed with its own artillery
of snowflakes, deathly white, which settled on the grenadiers,
who trembled as they marched, absorbed in private thoughts and fears,
their grey moustaches trimmed with ice.

Across the unknown lands
the north wind and the driving snow chased barefoot, starving bands
of former warriors, and broke their hearts. They were a dream
they’d wandered into, in the mist; a mystery, a stream
of shadows under leaden sky. The utter loneliness!
The sky’s revenge: a mighty army in a wilderness,
enwrapped in snow — a silent shroud the elements have sewn.
Each man imagined he was dying; knew he was alone.
Here, in a fateful realm, two enemies pronounced their curse.
The Czar was one; the North another, which was worse.

Gun-carriages chopped up for firewood; cannon thrown away;
men lying down to die; this was a mob, confused, astray,
in headlong flight, their bleak processions swallowed in the waste.
The folds and bulges where the snow had seemed to drift embraced
whole regiments. The fall of Hannibal was on this scale.
Attila left behind such dreadful scenes: the wholesale
rout of wounded, dying men, on stretchers, barrows, carts; the rush
to cross the bridges; death by suffocation in the crush.
Ten thousand closed their eyes to sleep; a hundred saw the day.

Great Marshal Ney, whom once an army followed, ran away.
He haggled with three Cossacks for his watch.

And every night
the French imagined Russian soldiers harrying their flight.
They grabbed their weapons. ‘Who goes there?’ In nightmare fantasies
came squadrons, whirlwinds of wild men, whose terrifying cries
were like the calls of bald-head vultures, harbingers of doom.
In panic one whole army fled, and vanished in the gloom.

*****

The emperor surveyed the scene, as if he were a tree,
a giant oak, about to taste the axe. Catastrophe,
the fatal axe man, who had spared his greatness until now,
had climbed up on him. Now he shuddered as each severed bough,
his officers and men, crashed round him one by one. He watched them die.

He paced inside his tent. A remnant of his company,
who’d loved him, trusting in his destiny, stood by outside.
Fate had betrayed him, surely. To and fro they saw his shadow stride.

Within, Napoleon was dazed and pale. Perhaps this was not fate?
Perhaps — he knew not what to think­ — he had some sin to expiate?
The man of glory trembled as a sudden unaccustomed dread
assailed his soul. He turned to God in anguish. ‘Lord of Hosts,’ he said,
‘is this my punishment, to see my legions scattered on the snow?’

He heard his name called in the dark. A voice said, ‘No.’

L’Expiation — Victor Hugo

1.

Il neigeait. On était vaincu par sa conquête.
Pour la première fois l'aigle baissait la tête.
Sombres jours ! l'empereur revenait lentement,
Laissant derrière lui brûler Moscou fumant.
Il neigeait. L'âpre hiver fondait en avalanche.
Après la plaine blanche une autre plaine blanche.
On ne connaissait plus les chefs ni le drapeau.
Hier la grande armée, et maintenant troupeau.
On ne distinguait plus les ailes ni le centre :
Il neigeait. Les blessés s'abritaient dans le ventre
Des chevaux morts ; au seuil des bivouacs désolés
On voyait des clairons à leur poste gelés
Restés debout, en selle et muets, blancs de givre,
Collant leur bouche en pierre aux trompettes de cuivre.
Boulets, mitraille, obus, mêlés aux flocons blancs,
Pleuvaient ; les grenadiers, surpris d'être tremblants,
Marchaient pensifs, la glace à leur moustache grise.
Il neigeait, il neigeait toujours ! la froide bise
Sifflait ; sur le verglas, dans des lieux inconnus,
On n'avait pas de pain et l'on allait pieds nus.
Ce n'étaient plus des cœurs vivants, des gens de guerre ;
C'était un rêve errant dans la brume, un mystère,
Une procession d'ombres sous le ciel noir.
La solitude vaste, épouvantable à voir,
Partout apparaissait, muette vengeresse.
Le ciel faisait sans bruit avec la neige épaisse
Pour cette immense armée un immense linceul.
Et, chacun se sentant mourir, on était seul.
– Sortira-t-on jamais de ce funeste empire ?
Deux ennemis ! Le Czar, le Nord. Le Nord est pire.
On jetait les canons pour brûler les affûts.
Qui se couchait, mourait. Groupe morne et confus,
Ils fuyaient ; le désert dévorait le cortège.
On pouvait, à des plis qui soulevaient la neige,
Voir que des régiments s'étaient endormis là.
O chutes d'Annibal ! lendemains d'Attila !
Fuyards, blessés, mourants, caissons, brancards, civières,
On s'écrasait aux ponts pour passer les rivières.
On s'endormait dix mille, on se réveillait cent.
Ney, que suivait naguère une armée, à present
S'évadait, disputant sa montre à trois cosaques.
Toutes les nuits, qui vive ! alerte, assauts ! attaques !
Ces fantômes prenaient leur fusil, et sur eux
Ils voyaient se ruer, effrayants, ténébreux,
Avec des cris pareils aux voix des vautours chauves,
D'horribles escadrons, tourbillons d'hommes fauves.
Toute une armée ainsi dans la nuit se perdait.
L'empereur était là, debout, qui regardait.
Il était comme un arbre en proie à la cognée.
Sur ce géant, grandeur jusqu'alors épargnée,
Le malheur, bûcheron sinistre, était monté ;
Et lui, ce chêne vivant, par la hache insulté,
Tressaillant sous le spectre aux lugubres revanches,
Il regardait tomber autour de lui ses branches.
Chefs, soldats, tous mouraient. Chacun avait son tour.
Tandis qu'environnant sa tente avec amour,
Voyant son ombre aller et venir sur la toile,
Ceux qui restaient, croyant toujours à son étoile,
Accusaient le destin de lèse-majesté,
Lui se sentit soudain dans l'âme épouvanté.
Stupéfait du désastre et ne sachant que croire,
L'empereur se tourna vers Dieu ; l'homme de gloire
Trembla ; Napoléon comprit qu'il expiait
Quelque chose peut-être, et, livide, inquiet,
Devant ses légions sur la neige semées :
— Est-ce le châtiment, dit-il, Dieu des armées ? —
Alors il s'entendit appeler par son nom
Et quelqu'un qui parlait dans l'ombre lui dit : Non.

Victor Hugo — Boaz Asleep

It was the time of harvest. Boaz was asleep.
Exhausted by his labours on the threshing-floor,
He’d made his bed, as usual, by his harvest store
Of bushels full of wheat. His sleep was sweet and deep.

Boaz was old; as rich in barley as in wheat;
Despite his wealth, a man of justice and goodwill;
No dirt polluted water falling through his mill;
His white-hot forge concealed no hell-fire in its heat.

A brook in April’s flood, his beard was silver-grey.
His sheaves contained no hate nor meanness in their yield.
If some poor gleaning woman passed him in the field,
‘Throw down some ears of corn on purpose,’ he would say.

He’d made his way through life without deceit. He wore
White linen garments, and a pure heart on his sleeve.
He practised what he preached: give, sooner than receive.
His sacks of grain seemed public fountains to the poor.

Good master, faithful kinsman; never profligate,
Though generous with all he had; to women’s eyes
(Susceptible to youth) he was the greater prize.
The young man may be handsome, but the old is great.

To be content soon to return to whence he came;
To change this life of change for everlasting days;
Such readiness illuminates an old man’s gaze
More strongly than the flicker of a young man’s flame.

*********

So, here is Boaz, with his goods, his kith and kin
Around him; heaps of corn like piled-up ruins loom;
His sleeping harvesters are huddled in the gloom:
A world that has not aged much since its origin.

The tribes of Israel have a judge as chief. As yet
Men wander on the earth, dwelling in tents, afraid
To look upon the footprints giants must have made
In ground the ebbing flood has left still soft and wet.

*********

As Jacob and as Judith once in sleep had lain,
Boaz now lay, eyes closed, beneath a canopy
Of trees still in full leaf. A dream, a reverie
From heaven’s half-open gate, descended to his brain

In which, out of his belly, like a sprouting rod,
An oak tree rose into the sky. A chosen race,
Links in a long chain, scaled its height; down at its base
A king sang; at its top, men put to death their god.

And Boaz’ spirit murmured, ‘At my time of life,
How might a lineage like this begin with me?
A man past eighty, founder of a dynasty?
I have no son nor heir; no longer have a wife.

So many years have passed since she I loved the most
Lay down on your couch, Lord my God, in place of mine.
Now our two beings strangely once again combine:
She dwelling, half alive, in me, and I half ghost.

How could I credit that these ancient loins might sire
A race of men? That sons might spring from my spent force?
Young men are lusty when the night has run its course;
With joyful mornings comes rekindling of desire.

But old men shiver like a winter birch in bed.
I’m widowed and alone. The shades steal over me.
My soul, Lord God, is tending to eternity
The way a thirsty ox, by water, bends his head.’

Boaz spoke this in the amazement of his trance.
A rose may grow beside a cedar, and the tree
Not know it; Boaz, looking on God’s countenance,
Had no idea he slept with female company.

*********

In his oblivion, came Ruth, a Moabite,
And lay down at the old man’s feet. Her breasts were bare.
She hoped we know not what chance ray might touch her there
When he should start awake, his eyes renewed with light.

So Boaz had no thought a woman lay close by,
And Ruth no knowledge of God’s will. But that sweet smell
Borne on the air arose from clumps of asphodel
And over Gilgal night’s breath drifted in the sky.

The solemn dark seemed apt to bless a marrying.
Ascending and descending, angels kept a watch;
That night, quick, with the eye of faith, you just could catch
A sudden flash of blue which might have been a wing.

The sound of Boaz’ breathing mingled with the flow
Of hidden water over moss, where streams begin.
It was the month when nature brings her bounty in;
When, crowning hilltops all around, white lilies blow.

Ruth dreamed and Boaz slept; the grass was black as ink;
The cow- and sheep-bells tinkled faintly. On that place
Dropped from the firmament immensity of grace.
It was the tranquil hour, when lions go to drink.

In Ur and Jerimadeth all was peace profound.
The sky’s great cloth was pierced with dots and flecks of light.
A thin, clear crescent moon, amongst these flowers of night,
Showed in the west. Ruth made no movement, not a sound;

Into her half-closed eyes moonlight and starlight shone.
She wondered: once eternal summer’s crop was mown,
What god, what harvester so carelessly had thrown
His golden sickle on that field of stars, and gone?

Booz endormi — Victor Hugo

Booz s'était couché de fatigue accablé ;
Il avait tout le jour travaillé dans son aire ;
Puis avait fait son lit à sa place ordinaire ;
Booz dormait auprès des boisseaux pleins de blé.

Ce vieillard possédait des champs de blés et d'orge ;
Il était, quoique riche, à la justice enclin ;
Il n'avait pas de fange en l'eau de son moulin ;
Il n'avait pas d'enfer dans le feu de sa forge.

Sa barbe était d'argent comme un ruisseau d'avril.
Sa gerbe n'était point avare ni haineuse ;
Quand il voyait passer quelque pauvre glaneuse :
‘Laissez tomber exprès des épis,’ disait-il.

Cet homme marchait pur loin des sentiers obliques,
Vêtu de probité candide et de lin blanc ;
Et, toujours du côté des pauvres ruisselant,
Ses sacs de grains semblaient des fontaines publiques.

Booz était bon maître et fidèle parent ;
Il était généreux, quoiqu'il fût économe ;
Les femmes regardaient Booz plus qu'un jeune homme,
Car le jeune homme est beau, mais le vieillard est grand.

Le vieillard, qui revient vers la source première,
Entre aux jours éternels et sort des jours changeants ;
Et l'on voit de la flamme aux yeux des jeunes gens,
Mais dans l'oeil du vieillard on voit de la lumière.

*****

Donc, Booz dans la nuit dormait parmi les siens ;
Près des meules, qu'on eût prises pour des décombres,
Les moissonneurs couchés faisaient des groupes sombres ;
Et ceci se passait dans des temps très anciens.

Les tribus d'Israël avaient pour chef un juge ;
La terre, où l'homme errait sous la tente, inquiet
Des empreintes de pieds de géants qu'il voyait,
Etait mouillée encore et molle du déluge.

*****

Comme dormait Jacob, comme dormait Judith,
Booz, les yeux fermés, gisait sous la feuillée ;
Or, la porte du ciel s'étant entre-bâillée
Au-dessus de sa tête, un songe en descendit.

Et ce songe était tel, que Booz vit un chêne
Qui, sorti de son ventre, allait jusqu'au ciel bleu ;
Une race y montait comme une longue chaîne ;
Un roi chantait en bas, en haut mourait un dieu.

Et Booz murmurait avec la voix de l'âme :
‘Comment se pourrait-il que de moi ceci vînt ?
Le chiffre de mes ans a passé quatre-vingt,
Et je n'ai pas de fils, et je n'ai plus de femme.

Voilà longtemps que celle avec qui j'ai dormi,
O Seigneur ! a quitté ma couche pour la vôtre ;
Et nous sommes encor tout mêlés l'un à l'autre,
Elle à demi vivante et moi mort à demi.

Une race naîtrait de moi ! Comment le croire ?
Comment se pourrait-il que j'eusse des enfants ?
Quand on est jeune, on a des matins triomphants ;
Le jour sort de la nuit comme d'une victoire ;

Mais vieux, on tremble ainsi qu'à l'hiver le bouleau ;
Je suis veuf, je suis seul, et sur moi le soir tombe,
Et je courbe, ô mon Dieu ! mon âme vers la tombe,
Comme un boeuf ayant soif penche son front vers l'eau.’

Ainsi parlait Booz dans le rêve et l'extase,
Tournant vers Dieu ses yeux par le sommeil noyés ;
Le cèdre ne sent pas une rose à sa base,
Et lui ne sentait pas une femme à ses pieds.

*****

Pendant qu'il sommeillait, Ruth, une moabite,
S'était couchée aux pieds de Booz, le sein nu,
Espérant on ne sait quel rayon inconnu,
Quand viendrait du réveil la lumière subite.

Booz ne savait point qu'une femme était là,
Et Ruth ne savait point ce que Dieu voulait d'elle.
Un frais parfum sortait des touffes d'asphodèle ;
Les souffles de la nuit flottaient sur Galgala.

L'ombre était nuptiale, auguste et solennelle ;
Les anges y volaient sans doute obscurément,
Car on voyait passer dans la nuit, par moment,
Quelque chose de bleu qui paraissait une aile.

La respiration de Booz qui dormait
Se mêlait au bruit sourd des ruisseaux sur la mousse.
On était dans le mois où la nature est douce,
Les collines ayant des lys sur leur sommet.

Ruth songeait et Booz dormait ; l'herbe était noire ;
Les grelots des troupeaux palpitaient vaguement ;
Une immense bonté tombait du firmament ;
C'était l'heure tranquille où les lions vont boire.

Tout reposait dans Ur et dans Jérimadeth ;
Les astres émaillaient le ciel profond et sombre ;
Le croissant fin et clair parmi ces fleurs de l'ombre
Brillait à l'occident, et Ruth se demandait,

Immobile, ouvrant l'oeil à moitié sous ses voiles,
Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l'éternel été,
Avait, en s'en allant, négligemment jeté
Cette faucille d'or dans le champ des étoiles.

Victor Hugo — The Lions

The lions in their den have nothing left to eat.
Their captive roars rise up to mighty Nature: ‘Bring us meat!’
She is the only force they know; she cares
For brute beasts in the dark recesses of their lairs.
The lions haven’t eaten for three days.
Man is the object of their rage; their upward gaze
Through bars and chains takes in, as if to taunt their appetite,
The scarlet sky at sunset, bleeding light.
Their voice, crossing the far horizon, fills
The traveller with terror in the blue dusk of the hills.

As moodily they pace, they swat their bellies with their tails.
Their blood-shot eyes betray their movements now the daylight fails.
The cave walls tremble when each famished mouth
Complains of hunger and cries out in wrath.

The pit is deep: once part of a colossal palace hollowed out
By children of the ancient earth, breaking the rock’s dark heart.
Og and his huge sons built it as a hiding-place
When fleeing from the Israelites; to make the empty space
Which now contains the vault, they hammered with their heads.
By day, the sun’s glare spreads
Its roasting heat into the dungeon; and by night, beyond its bars
The prison has no roof below the level of the stars.
In later years, the site belonged to Babylon:
Mad King Nebuchadnezzar had the vault’s floor paved in stone,
Considering the residence of giants of a bygone age
And home to heroes of the Flood, a fit place for a lions’ cage

Which holds four prisoners: a hideous crew.
A litter of remains bestrews the pavement in this grisly zoo.
Huge boulders, high above, cast shadows on the beasts
Whose paws tread leavings from their former feasts:
The carcasses of animals and skeletons of men.

The first brute prowling round the den
Is from the desert outside Sodom, in the wastes of Sinai.
His former life of savage liberty
Was spent where silence reigns, and utter solitude.
But woe betide the traveller unluckily pursued
Who fell into the clutches of this lion of the sands.

The second beast inhabited the green and fertile lands
Where forests border the Euphrates. When he went to drink
The creatures at the river’s brink
All trembled. Hunting packs
Of two kings, mounting joint attacks
Were needed to entrap this snarling creature of the woods.

The third was used to lording it at loftier altitudes:
A mountain lion. Darkness and horror followed in his wake.
Sometimes, in those days, sheep or cattle suddenly would break
Into a downward gallop from the mountains’ height,
Making for muddy valleys in a mass stampede of fright;
Then all the people fled — shepherd, warrior or priest —
At first sight of the dreadful muzzle of the beast.

The fourth, a fearsome monster, lived beside the sea,
A proud companion of the waves, before his slavery.
At that time Gur — great city, mighty port — arose upon its rock.
Its chimneys smoked; hundreds of ships were anchored in its dock,
Their masts a forest in confusion. To the citadel
Came holy men on donkeys, peasants with their grain to sell.
These people lived as joyfully, as free
As once caged birds, delivered from captivity.
The city centre had a spacious market square;
Abyssinians brought ivory to barter there;
Amorites sold amber, and black garments for the heat;
From Ashkelon came butter, and from Asher, wheat.
The winds of commerce blew these nations’ ships
Clipping across the ocean on their trading trips.

So many people; so much noise: the lion was displeased.
A dreadful plan of action seized
His brutal brain one evening as he lay, brooding and dreaming.
It was the town’s annihilation he was scheming.

Gur was a grim, high fortress; every night
Three heavy bars were dropped in place to fasten tight
The city gate. Between each battlement, put there to terrify,
A horn of buffalo or rhino pointed at the sky.
Sheer, solid and heroic rose the city wall
Straight up above the ocean, then straight down — a fall
Of sixty cubits, where the waves continually smote
The mighty stones, down to the bottom of the moat.
Instead of watch dogs yapping from their kennels in the yard,
On either side the gate two dragons mounted guard
And kept unblinking watch.
Hunters had searched among the reeds fringing the Nile to catch
These gruesome creatures; then a wizard’s weird intelligence
Had trained their brains to constant vigilance.

One night, the lion approached and, with a single bound
He cleared the moat. With frenzied teeth he ground
The gate, its triple bars, its hinges and its locks. Crushed in the heap,
The dragons who had never slept lay in eternal sleep.
Later that night, when he regained
The seashore, of that city and its people there remained
Only a dream — a wall here and a tower there, which ghosts possessed:
The tiger’s shelter and the vulture’s nest.

This lion, crouched on his belly, doesn’t roar. He yawns.
Man captured him and put him in this hole; he scorns
To show the pain he feels to his accursed lord.
His pain is worse than hunger; he is bored.

Back and forth the others stalk; they follow with their eyes
A bird which beats its wings above the bars, to tantalise
Their leaping hunger and the gnashing of their teeth
At shadows, for the bird is free; the lions snarl beneath.

Then, in the darkest corner of this dismal well
A grill half opens; cruel and trembling arms propel
A man, clad in a shroud of white, into the lair.
He steps across the threshold of despair.
The iron doors of death clang shut again.
The man stands with the lions in the den.

With foaming mouths and bristling manes, moving as one, the four
Now hurl themselves towards the man waiting across the floor.
Their great collective howl, which echoes in the cage,
Contains the hate and violence of Nature in its rage.
The man says, ‘Peace be with you, lions!’ and lifts his hand.
He stops the lions in their tracks with the command.

The wolf who disinters the dead for food; the flat-skulled bear;
The jackal skulking on the reefs in search of easy fare
Thrown up by shipwrecks: here is Nature in its cruelty.
Hyenas on the hunt are pitiless, though cowardly.
The tiger waits; then, at a bound, demolishes his prey.
And yet the mighty-striding lion, king of beasts by day,
Sometimes at evening stops, raises a paw and holds it there,
Great solitary dreamer, as the night invades the air.

The lions gather in a group amongst the skulls and bones,
Debating what to do in strangely calm and measured tones.
They look like village elders come to settle a dispute.
They pull their white moustaches; they are wise and resolute.
Beneath a dead tree’s twisted branches each one has his say.

Gravely, the lion of the sands speaks first: ‘Comrades, today
As that man entered here, I saw a blazing sun at noon
And felt the heat of desert wind, the merciless simoon.
I know the power of its breath across an empty space.
My friends, this man has come amongst us from a desert place.’

The lion of the woods speaks next: ‘When I was free,
The fig tree, palm tree, cedar, holm-oak played a symphony
Which filled the cave I lived in with its music of delight.
When all the world seemed hushed in night
The deep green foliage around me sang its song.
When this man spoke, his soft voice took me back to night-long
Vigils, to the sounds of birds stirring and shifting in their nests.
No doubt of it: he has arrived amongst us from the forests.’

The black lion, who had come the closest to the man, now speaks
From memory of mountains: ‘He reminds me of the peaks
Which dominate the Caucasus, a place where no rock quakes.
The Atlas mountains’ majesty is in the stance he takes.
He raised his arm. I saw Mount Lebanon rise up and go,
Casting its giant shadow on the countryside below.
I say this man descends amongst us from my mountain home.’

Last but not least, the lion who in days gone by would roam
The seacoasts, matching with his voice the roar
Of waves which thundered ceaselessly upon the shore
Now speaks: ‘Brothers, the sight of greatness drives all bitterness from me:
The reason why in former years I lived close to the sea.
I’ve seen the waves crash into foam; the moon appear; my eyes
Beheld, within dawn’s infinite dark smile, the sun arise.
My fellow creatures, when a lion has kept such company
He feels at one with heights and depths; he knows eternity.
This unknown man has come from God; the face, the eyes that shine
Calmly upon us here reflect the countenance divine.’

Black night has driven every last blue remnant from the sky.
The guard, a slave, wishing to look into the pit, comes by.
Between the dungeon’s bars he pokes his pale and frightened face
And there is Daniel, standing upright, gazing into space,
Dreaming among the multitudes of stars, his peace complete,
While in the gloom the lions lie and lick his feet.

Les Lions — Victor Hugo

Les lions dans la fosse étaient sans nourriture.
Captifs, ils rugissaient vers la grande nature
Qui prend soin de la brute au fond des antres sourds.
Les lions n'avaient pas mangé depuis trois jours.
Ils se plaignaient de l'homme, et, pleins de sombres haines,
A travers leur plafond de barreaux et de chaînes,
Regardaient du couchant la sanglante rougeur;
Leur voix grave effrayait au loin le voyageur
Marchant à l'horizon dans les collines bleues.

Tristes, ils se battaient le ventre de leurs queues;
Et les murs du caveau tremblaient, tant leurs yeux roux
A leur gueule affamée ajoutaient de courroux.

La fosse était profonde; et, pour cacher leur fuite,
Og et ses vastes fils l'avaient jadis construite;
Ces enfants de la terre avaient creusé pour eux
Ce palais colossal dans le roc ténébreux;
Leurs têtes en ayant crevé la large voûte,
La lumière y tombait et s'y répandait toute,
Et ce cachot de nuit pour dôme avait l'azur.
Nabuchodonosor, qui régnait dans Assur,
En avait fait couvrir d'un dallage le centre;
Et ce roi fauve avait trouvé bon que cet antre,
Qui jadis vit les Chams et les Deucalions,
Bâti par les géants, servît pour les lions.

Ils étaient quatre, et tous affreux. Une litière
D'ossements tapissait le vaste bestiaire;
Les rochers étageaient leur ombre au-dessus d'eux;
Ils marchaient, écrasant sur le pavé hideux
Des carcasses de bête et des squelettes d'homme.

Le premier arrivait du désert de Sodome;
Jadis, quand il avait sa fauve liberté,
Il habitait le Sin, tout à l'extrémité
Du silence terrible et de la solitude;
Malheur à qui tombait sous sa patte au poil rude!
Et c'était un lion des sables.

Le second
Sortait de la forêt de l'Euphrate fécond;
Naguère, en le voyant vers le fleuve descendre,
Tout tremblait; on avait eu du mal à le prendre,
Car il avait fallu les meutes de deux rois;
Il grondait; et c'était une bête des bois.

Et le troisième était un lion des montagnes.
Jadis il avait l'ombre et l'horreur pour compagnes;
Dans ce temps-là, parfois, vers les ravins bourbeux
Se ruaient des galops de moutons et de boeufs;
Tous fuyaient, le pasteur, le guerrier et le prêtre;
Et l'on voyait sa face effroyable apparaître.

Le quatrième, monstre épouvantable et fier,
Était un grand lion des plages de la mer.
Il rôdait près des flots avant son esclavage.
Gur, cité forte, était alors sur le rivage;
Ses toits fumaient; son port abritait un amas
De navires mêlant confusément leurs mâts;
Le paysan portant son gomor plein de manne
S'y rendait; le prophète y venait sur son âne;
Ce peuple était joyeux comme un oiseau lâché;
Gur avait une place avec un grand marché,
Et l'Abyssin y venait vendre des ivoires;
L'Amorrhéen, de l'ambre et des chemises noires,
Ceux d'Ascalon, du beurre, et ceux d'Aser, du blé.
Du vol de ses vaisseaux l'abîme était troublé.
Or, ce lion était gêné par cette ville;
Il trouvait, quand le soir il songeait immobile,
Qu'elle avait trop de peuple et faisait trop de bruit.

Gur était très farouche et très haute; la nuit,
Trois lourds barreaux fermaient l'entrée inabordable;
Entre chaque créneau se dressait, formidable,
Une corne de buffle ou de rhinocéros;
Le mur était solide et droit comme un héros;
Et l'océan roulait à vagues débordées
Dans le fossé, profond de soixante coudées.
Au lieu de dogues noirs, jappant dans le chenil,
Deux dragons monstrueux pris dans les joncs du Nil
Et dressés par un mage à la garde servile,
Veillaient des deux côtés de la porte de la ville.
Or, le lion s'était une nuit avancée,
Avait franchi d'un bond le colossal fossé,
Et broyé, furieux, entre ses dents barbares,
La porte de la ville avec ses triples barres,
Et, sans même les voir, mêlé les deux dragons
Au vaste écrasement des verrous et des gonds;
Et, quand il s'en était retourné vers la grève,
De la ville et du peuple, il ne restait qu'un rêve,
Et, pour loger le tigre et nicher les vautours,
Quelques larves de murs sous des spectres de tours.

Celui-là se tenait accroupi sur le ventre.
Il ne rugissait pas, il bâillait; dans cet antre
Où l'homme misérable avait le pied sur lui,
Il dédaignait la faim, ne sentant que l'ennui.

Les trois autres allaient et venaient; leur prunelle,
Si quelque oiseau battait leurs barreaux de son aile,
Le suivait; et leur faim bondissait, et leur dent
Mâchait l'ombre à travers leur cri rauque et grondant.

Soudain dans l'angle obscur de la lugubre étable,
La grille s'entr'ouvrit; sur le seuil redoutable,
Un homme que poussaient d'horribles bras tremblants,
Apparut; il était vêtu de linceuls blancs;
La grille referma ses deux battants funèbres;
L'homme avec les lions resta dans les ténèbres.

Les monstres, hérissant leur crinière, écumant,
Se ruèrent sur lui, poussant ce hurlement
Effroyable, où rugit la haine et le ravage,
Et toute la nature irritée et sauvage
Avec son épouvante et ses rébellions;
Et l'homme dit: — La paix soit avec vous, lions!
L'homme dressa la main; les lions s'arrêtèrent.

Les loups qui font la guerre aux morts et les déterrent,
Les ours au crâne plat, les chacals convulsifs
Qui, pendant le naufrage, errent sur les récifs,
Sont féroces; l'hyène infâme est implacable;
Mais le puissant lion, qui fait de larges pas,
Parfois lève sa griffe et ne la baisse pas,
Étant le grand rêveur solitaire de l'ombre.

Et les lions, groupés dans l'immense décombre,
Se mirent à parler entre eux, délibérant;
On eût dit des vieillards réglant un différend
Au froncement pensif de leurs moustaches blanches.
Un arbre mort pendait, tordant sur eux ses branches.

Et, grave, le lion des sables dit: — Lions,
Quand cet homme est entré, j'ai cru voir les rayons
De midi dans la plaine où l'ardent semoun passe,
Et j'ai senti le souffle énorme de l'espace;
Cet homme vient à nous de la part du désert.

Le lion des bois dit: — Autrefois, le concert
Du figuier, du palmier, du cèdre et de l'yeuse,
Emplissait jour et nuit ma caverne joyeuse;
Même à l'heure où l'on sent que le monde se tait,
Le grand feuillage vert autour de moi chantait.
Quand cet homme a parlé, sa voix m'a semblé douce
Comme le bruit qui sort des nids d'ombre et de mousse;
Cet homme vient à nous de la part des forêts.

Et celui qui s'était approché le plus près,
Le lion noir des monts dit: — Cet homme ressemble
Au Caucase, où jamais une roche ne tremble;
Il a la majesté de l'Atlas; j'ai cru voir,
Quand son bras s'est levé, le Liban se mouvoir
Et se dresser, jetant l'ombre immense aux campagnes;
Cet homme vient à nous de la part des montagnes.

Le lion qui, jadis, au bord des flots rôdant,
Rugissait aussi haut que l'océan grondant,
Parla le quatrième, et dit: — Fils, j'ai coutume,
En voyant la grandeur, d'oublier l'amertume.
Et c'est pourquoi j'étais le voisin de la mer.
J'y regardait — laissant les vagues écumer —
Apparaître la lune et le soleil éclore,
Et le sombre infini sourire dans l'aurore,
Et j'ai pris, ô lions, dans cette intimité,
L'habitude du gouffre et de l'éternité;
Or, sans savoir le nom dont la terre le nomme,
J'ai vu luire le ciel dans les yeux de cet homme;
Cet homme au front serein vient de la part de Dieu.

Quand la nuit eut noirci le grand firmament bleu,
Le gardien voulut voir la fosse, et cet esclave,
Collant sa face pâle aux grilles de la cave,
Dans la profondeur vague aperçut Daniel
Qui se tenait debout et regardait le ciel,
Et songeait, attentif aux étoiles sans nombre,
Pendant que les lions léchaient ses pieds dans l'ombre.

The Woman in the Moon

After Victor Hugo — La Lune

The gods on Mount Olympus were the terror of the Greeks.
Descending one day, Venus fell and badly bruised her cheeks,
and when I say her cheeks I’m not referring to her face.

The men down on the earth looked up and laughed at this disgrace.
‘The gods,’ they said, ‘whom normally we worship and revere
don’t strike us with such awe when we observe them from the rear.’

‘Right then,’ said Venus, ‘since you’ve seen the tender side of me,
I’m emigrating to a place where that is all you’ll see!’

The man who gazes at the moon still feels a sharp regret
that views of Venus’ bottom are the only views he’ll get.

Victor Hugo — La Lune

L’Olympe a dans l’azur des degrés inconnus;
Un jour, en descendant cet escalier, Vénus
Tomba, se fit des bleus ailleurs que sur la face,
Et les hommes en bas rirent; l’effroi s’efface
Quand on peut voir les dieux par leur autre côté.
—Soit, dit alors Vénus, pour leur rire effronté,
Les hommes, ayant eu cette bonne fortune,
Ne verront plus de moi que cela.—

C’est la lune.

The Cow

After Victor Hugo — La Vache

Sometimes, about midday, an old man comes to the white farm
and sits down on the doorstep, where the stone is warm.
The yard is a mass of hens, a hundred red-crested heads
busily feeding. But the guard-dogs have taken to their beds
in the heat, and would be dreaming their doggy dreams
but for an over-vigilant cock, who struts and gleams
and crows like a stuck alarm clock in the midday glare.

A cow has just been led into the yard and tethered there.
She is magnificent: huge, russet-red and patched with white,
she stands, quite still and patiently, the way a hind might
stand over her fawns, and lets a gang of children suckle her.
A shaggy, sharp-toothed, boisterous brood they are,
their hands and faces muddier than a cowshed wall.
Yelling and screaming with excitement, they call
other children over, little ones, who plunge into the fray,
taking full advantage while the milkmaid is away.
Delightedly they suck, not minding if they hurt the beast
in biting her, and with their fingers squeeze the liquid feast
from every crack in every nipple of her fruitful udder.
Brimming with treasure, now and then she lets a shudder
run down her beautiful dark flank, and yet — for all her size
and power — she endures their attacks, her large eyes
gazing vaguely at the middle distance, her thoughts elsewhere.

Great mother Nature, you extend to us an equal care:
we are that crowd of children scrambling to feed
from you, we scholars, poets, saints and sinners, all in need
of sustenance and shelter, we’re your guzzling guests,
all hangers-on to your indulgent, mighty breasts!

Those fountains spilling inexhaustibly have been the source
of sweet refreshment to our hearts. They put the life force
in us; they invigorate our blood, our souls, our future lives.
And while we gulp down all the light and heat your bounty gives,
and while for very gladness in our strength we cry,
rejoicing in your forests, mountains, meadows, sky;
in high indifference, as we fight to slake our thirst,
you dream of Him who brought you into being at the first.

Victor Hugo — La Vache

Devant la blanche ferme où parfois vers midi
Un vieillard vient s'asseoir sur le seuil attiédi,
Où cent poules gaîment mêlent leurs crêtes rouges,
Où, gardiens du sommeil, les dogues dans leurs bouges
Ecoutent les chansons du gardien du réveil,
Du beau coq vernissé qui reluit au soleil,
Une vache était là, tout à l'heure arrêtée.
Superbe, énorme, rousse et de blanc tachetée,
Douce comme une biche avec ses jeunes faons,
Elle avait sous le ventre un beau groupe d'enfants,
D'enfants aux dents de marbre, aux cheveux en broussailles
Frais, et plus charbonnés que de vieilles murailles,
Qui, bruyants, tous ensemble, à grands cris appelant
D'autres qui, tout petits, se hâtaient en tremblant,
Dérobant sans pitié quelque laitière absente,
Sous leur bouche joyeuse et peut-être blessante
Et sous leurs doigts pressant le lait pas mille trous,
Tiraient le pis fécond de la mère au poil roux.
Elle, bonne et puissante et de son trésor pleine,
Sous leurs mains par moments faisant frémir à peine
Son beau flanc plus ombré qu'un flanc de léopard,
Distraite, regardait vaguement quelque part.

Ainsi, Nature ! abri de toute créature !
O mère universelle ! indulgente Nature !
Ainsi, tous à la fois, mystiques et charnels,
Cherchant l'ombre et le lait sous tes flancs éternels,
Nous sommes là, savants, poètes, pêle-mêle,
Pendus de toutes parts à ta forte mamelle !
Et tandis qu'affamés, avec des cris vainqueurs,
A tes sources sans fin désaltérant nos cœurs,
Pour en faire plus tard notre sang et notre âme,
Nous aspirons à flots ta lumière et ta flamme,
Les feuillages, les monts, les prés verts, le ciel bleu,
Toi, sans te déranger, tu rêves à ton Dieu !

After the Battle

After Victor Hugo — ‘Après la Bataille’

The battle done, my father toured the killing ground
on horseback, with a man he loved devotedly:
a hussar, great in stature, greater still in gallantry.
The night was falling and the dead lay all around.

From out the gloom, a feeble cry came to their ears.
A Spaniard of the routed army, broken, bleeding,
dragged himself along the road, gasping for breath and pleading,
‘Give us a drink! A drink, for pity’s sake, good sirs!’

My father saw his enemy’s gaunt face: a mask
of agony and fear of death; and he was moved.
‘Give him a drop of rum,’ he bade the servant that he loved
and unhooked from his saddle his own drinking flask.

The hussar bent down to the dying man, a Moor,
who shouted, ‘Bastards, go to hell! We’re even now!’
He aimed the pistol he was clutching at my father’s brow
and fired. The distant mountains echoed to the roar.

And echoed to the roar. The roar. The aim was wild.
The bullet, which had whistled past my father’s head
had blown his hat clean off and shied his horse. My father said,
‘Give this poor wounded soul a drink, hussar,’ and smiled.

Victor Hugo — Après la bataille

Mon père, ce héros au sourire si doux,

Suivi d’un seul housard qu’il aimait entre tous

Pour sa grande bravoure et pour sa haute taille,

Parcourait à cheval, le soir d’une bataille,

Le champ couvert de morts sur qui tombait la nuit.

Il lui sembla dans l’ombre entendre un faible bruit.

C’était un Espagnol de l’armée en déroute

Qui se traînait sanglant sur le bord de la route,

Râlant, brisé, livide, et mort plus qu’à moitié.

Et qui disait: “A boire! à boire par pitié !”

Mon père, ému, tendit à son housard fidèle

Une gourde de rhum qui pendait à sa selle,

Et dit: “Tiens, donne à boire à ce pauvre blessé.”

Tout à coup, au moment où le housard baissé

Se penchait vers lui, l'homme, une espèce de maure,

Saisit un pistolet qu’il étreignait encore,

Et vise au front mon père en criant: “Caramba!”
Le coup passa si près que le chapeau tomba

Et que le cheval fit un écart en arrière.

“Donne-lui tout de même à boire,” dit mon père.

Dante — Guido i’ vorrei

Imagine, Guido: Lapo, me and you
On board a magic boat, far out at sea.
Not blown by winds, but powered by wizardry,
The craft goes anywhere we tell it to.

Soft skies have brought the fairest sailing weather
And no bad luck has come to spoil the trip.
We pass our days in deepening fellowship:
Firm friends who wish always to be together.

Our kindly wizard has provided mates:
The ladies Vanna, Lagia, and she
(No names, for now) whom we all know to be
Among Firenze’s thirty hottest dates.
With love the constant theme of our debates,
The ladies will be happy; so will we.

Guido, i' vorrei — Dante Alighieri

Guido, i' vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io
fossimo presi per incantamento,
e messi in un vasel ch'ad ogni vento
per mare andasse al voler vostro e mio.
Sì che fortuna od altro tempo rio
non ci potesse dare impedimento,
anzi, vivendo sempre in un talento,
di stare insieme crescesse 'l disio.
E monna Vanna e monna Lagia poi
con quella ch'è sul numer de le trenta
con noi ponesse il buono incantatore:
e quivi ragionar sempre d'amore,
e ciascuna di lor fosse contenta,
sì come i' credo che saremmo noi.

Petrarch — Era il giorno ch’ al sol si scoloraro

It was the day the sun’s rays hid their light
for pity of their maker’s agony.
Lady, your lovely eyes caught hold of me
and I had no defence; they bound me tight.

There seemed no reason, then, to seek relief
from Love’s assault; heedless, I went my way.
Yet I began to suffer, on that day
of public sorrows, my own private grief.

Unarmed Love found me, took me by surprise.
He used, to force a straight way to my heart,
those gates and channels for my tears, my eyes.
He bent his bow to wound me with his dart.

Unchivalrous it was; and to have spared
my lady, who was armoured and prepared.

Era il giorno ch’ al sol si scoloraro — Petrarch


Era il giorno ch’ al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo fattore i rai,

quando i’ fui preso, et non me ne guardai,

ché i be’ vostr’ occhi, donna, mi legaro.



Tempo non mi parea da far riparo
contr’ a’ colpi d’Amor; però m’andai

secur, senza sospetto, onde i miei guai

nel commune dolor s’incominciaro.



Trovommi Amor del tutto disarmato

et aperta la via per gli occhi al core,
che di lagrime son fatti uscio et varco.



Però al mio parer non li fu onore
ferir me de saetta in quello stato,

a voi armata non mostrar pur l’arco.

Petrarch — Lassare il velo o per sole o per ombra

Lady, you’ve not let slip your veil, in sunlight or in shade,
since first you recognised the great desire my eyes betrayed:
desire so strong, it drives all other longings from my heart.

While I kept thoughts of love a secret, hidden and apart
(such was my shame of them, a death-wish overtook my mind),
the face you showed me was adorned with pity. You were kind —

until Love made you wary of me. Now your blonde hair’s veiled
when you go out, your loving glance removed. You have withheld
the very thing I craved the most. This covering you wear,

all the year long, both governs me and drives me to despair.
Shield you it may, from summer’s heat and winter’s icy breath;
to me, your lovely eyes’ sweet light is dimmed, and that is death.

Lassare il velo o per sole o per ombra — Petrarch

Lassare il velo o per sole o per ombra,
donna, non vi vid’ io,
poi che in me conosceste il gran desio
ch’ ogni altra voglia d’entr’ al cor mi sgombra.

Mentr’ io portava i be’ pensier celati
ch’ ànno la mente desiando morta,
vidivi di pietate ornare il volto;
ma poi ch’ Amor di me vi fece accorta,
fuor i biondi capelli allor velati
e l'amoroso sguardo in sé raccolto.

Quel ch’ i’ più desiava in voi m’è tolto;
sì mi governa il velo,
che per mia morte et al caldo et al gielo
de’ be’ vostr’ occhi il dolce lume adombra.

Petrarch — Movesi il vecchierel canuto et bianco

Just as a poor old man, with hair as white as snow,
leaving the happy home where he has spent his life,
embracing his dear children and beloved wife
(the family distraught to see the father go),

will drag his ancient limbs — a pilgrim’s heavy load —
through days he knows full well will be the last he’ll see,
when strength of will alone renews his energy,
he broken by the years and weary of the road,

and come to Rome, to seek the object of his faith —
Christ’s image on a handkerchief — and gaze upon this wraith,
pale prelude to a fuller vision in a higher place;

so I, alas, as chance permits, will sometimes try
by scanning other women, lady, to descry
some likeness in them of your true and longed-for face.

Movesi il vecchierel canuto et bianco — Petrarch

Movesi il vecchierel canuto et bianco
del dolce loco ov’ à sua età fornita
et da la famigliuola sbigottita
che vede il caro padre venir manco;



indi traendo poi l’antico fianco
per l’estreme giornate di sua vita,

quanto più po col buon voler s’aita,

rotto dagli anni, et dal camino stanco;



et viene a Roma, seguendo ’l desio,

per mirar la sembianza di colui
ch’ ancor lassù nel ciel vedere spera;



così, lasso, talor vo cercand’ io,

donna, quanto è possibile in altrui

la disiata vostra forma vera.

Petrarch — Son animali al mondo de sì altera

Some animals enjoy such special powers of sight
that they can look straight at the sun, however bright,
and take no harm; while others shun its glare, and wait
in hiding until evening’s in the sky.

Still others are possessed to launch themselves in flight
at light that emanates from fire, for sheer delight.
Fire’s other property — to burn — they sense too late.
Alas, in this last company am I.

For want of strength I cannot face that lady’s light,
nor shelter in dark places, or the hours of night.
Fate forces me to gaze on her when she appears,
through eyes already injured and half-blind with tears,
knowing too well my true desire, my shame:
to go beyond her light, into her flame.

Son animali al mondo de sì altera — Petrarch

Son animali al mondo de sì altera
vista che ’ncontra ’l sol pur si difende;

altri, però che ’l gran lume gli offende,

non escon fuor se non verso la sera;



et altri, col desio folle che spera
gioir forse nel foco, perché splende,

provan l’altra vertù, quella che ’ncende;

lasso, e ’l mio loco è ’n questa ultima schera.



Ch’ i’ non son forte ad aspettar la luce

di questa donna, et non so fare schermi
di luoghi tenebrosi o d’ore tarde;



però con gli occhi lagrimosi e ’nfermi

mio destino a vederla mi conduce,

et so ben ch’ i’ vo dietro a quel che m’arde.

Petrarch — Non al suo amante più Diana piacque

Diana did not please her lover more, the day he viewed
her bathing in an icy pool, completely nude,
than did, today, the simple mountain shepherdess I saw.

She was about to wash the pretty headscarf that she wore
to stop her stray blonde hair from blowing in her face.
The sky burned, but I shivered as I spied upon such grace.

Non al suo amante più Diana piacque — Petrarch


Non al suo amante più Diana piacque
quando per tal ventura tutta ignuda

la vide in mezzo de le gelide acque,



ch’ a me la pastorella alpestra et cruda
posta a bagnar un leggiadretto velo

ch’ a l’aura il vago et biondo capel chiuda;



tal che mi fece, or quand’ egli arde ’l cielo,

tutto tremar d’un amoroso gielo.

Elusive Quarry

After Petrarch — Perch’ al viso d’Amor portava insegna

The wanderer was fair, and bore Love’s emblem in her face.
She moved my foolish heart. No other of her sisterhood
in beauty’s roll of honour merited a higher place.

I watched her as she strayed across the green grass; and gave chase —
but heard a voice: ‘Don’t waste your steps by hunting in this wood.’
Distant, but loud, it called: ‘She you pursue is out of reach.’

I drew myself into the shadow of a mighty beech
and thought. I looked around. I saw the dangers in my way.
So I turned back and left her. It was not yet quite midday.

Petrarch — Perch’ al viso d’Amor portava insegna

Perch’ al viso d’Amor portava insegna,

mosse una pellegrina il mio cor vano,

ch’ ogni altra mi parea d’onor men degna;



et lei seguendo su per l’erbe verdi,
udí’ dir alta voce di lontano:

‘Ahi, quanti passi per la selva perdi!’



Allor mi strinsi a l’ombra d’un bel faggio

tutto pensoso, et rimirando intorno
vidi assai periglioso il mio viaggio;

et tornai indietro quasi a mezzo ’l giorno.

Petrarch — Quel foco ch' i' pensai che fosse spento

I thought chill weather and advancing years
had quenched the fire which now flares up again,
reviving my soul’s agonies of old.

Those dying embers never were quite cold,
I see — just partly covered. I’m afraid
that I’ll compound the error which I made
in youth, this second time. Thousands of tears
I’ll scatter, for my heart distils its pain
in weeping, as it must; yet from the store
it keeps of sparks and tinder will arise
a brighter flame than that which burned before.

What blaze of passion would not now be spent
by this incessant drenching from my eyes?
Too late I realise Love’s cruel intent:
my strength, torn between opposites, he saps
or, like a fowler, lays such subtle traps
that, though my heart had hopes of fluttering free,
her lovely face once more entangles me.

Quel foco ch' i' pensai che fosse spento — Petrarch

Quel foco ch’ i’ pensai che fosse spento
dal freddo tempo et da l'età men fresca
fiamma et martir ne l'anima rinfresca.

Non fur mai tutte spente, a quel ch' i' veggio,
ma ricoperte alquanto le faville,
et temo no 'l secondo error sia peggio.
Per lagrime ch' i' spargo a mille a mille
conven che 'l duol per gli occhi si distille
dal cor, ch' à seco le faville et l'esca,
non pur qual fu, ma pare a me che cresca.

Qual foco non avrian già spento et morto
l'onde che gli occhi tristi versan sempre?
Amor, avegna mi sia tardi accorto,
vol che tra duo contrari mi distempre,
et tende lacci in sì diverse tempre,
che quand' ò più speranza che 'l cor n'esca,
allor più nel bel viso mi rinvesca.

Petrarch — Beato in sogno et di languir contento

Longing for sleep, to lethargy resigned,
embracing shadows, chasing summer’s breeze,
I swim in boundless and unfathomed seas.
I plough the waves, I build on sand, write on the wind.

Fixated on the sun, I have gone blind
with staring at its brightness; and astride
an ailing, ambling, crippled ox I ride
to hunt a fugitive and wandering hind.

Alive to nothing but my state of woe
(trembling, I actively desire the pain),
to none but Love, Death and my Lady I appeal.

Twenty long, weary years I’ve suffered so.
Tears, sighs and grief have been my only gain.
Ill-starred, I took the bait; and still the hook I feel!

Beato in sogno et di languir contento — Petrarch


Beato in sogno et di languir contento,
d’abbracciar l’ombre et seguir l’aura estiva,

nuoto per mar che non à fondo o riva;

solco onde, e ’n rena fondo, et scrivo in vento;


e ’l sol vagheggio, si ch’ elli à già spento

col suo splendor la mia vertù visiva,

et una cerva errante et fugitiva

caccio con un bue zoppo e ’nfermo et lento.



Cieco et stanco ad ogni altro ch’ al mio danno
il qual dì et notte palpitando cerco,

sol Amor et Madonna et Morte chiamo.



Così venti anni, grave et lungo affanno,

pur lagrime et sospiri et dolor merco:

in tale stella presi l’esca et l’amo!

Petrarch — O misera et orribil visione!


A nightmare terrifies my mind tonight.
Please tell me it’s not true, that she who gave
me pain, yes, yet such hope, is in an early grave;
not she, my kind and guiding light!

Why does she fly to me herself to bear
this dreadful news? How is it that her ghost
acts as the messenger, and not some human post?
Dear God, forbid it; hear my prayer.

I live in hope to see, despite these fears,
her face in flesh, whose spectre now appears.
But if my life-source, honoured and beloved
throughout the world, her lodging has removed
and taken up abode in an eternal home,
I pray my death will quickly come.

O misera et orribil visione! — Petrarch


O misera et orribil visione!
E’ dunque ver che ’nnanzi tempo spenta

sia l’alma luce che suol far contenta

mia vita in pene et in speranze bone?


Ma come è che sì gran romor non sone
per altri messi et per lei stessa il senta?

Or già Dio et Natura nol consenta,

et falsa sia mia trista opinione!



A me pur giova di sperare anchora
la dolce vista del bel viso adorno
che me mantene, e ’l secol nostro onora.



Se per salir a l’eterno soggiorno

uscita è pur del bell’ albergo fora,

prego non tardi il mio ultimo giorno.

Petrarch — Oimè il bel viso, oimè il soave sguardo

Ah, but her face was lovely; gentle was her glance.
She bore herself with grace, and yet with pride.
She humbled men puffed up with arrogance
and heartened those in whom all hope had died.

Alas for that sweet smile! It shot the dart
which makes me long for death: my kindest fate.
Her regal soul deserved to play a part
in empires past; but she was born too late.

I burn for you; I breathe in you; I’m yours alone.
And have I lost for ever your sweet company?
Alas, this is the worst calamity I’ve known.

I left you; with desire and hope you filled my mind,
keeping the thought of greater joys alive in me.
Alas for words of parting, scattered on the wind!

Oimè il bel viso, oimè il soave sguardo — Petrarch

Oimè il bel viso, oimè il soave sguardo,
oimè il leggiadro portamento altero!

Oimè il parlar ch’ ogni aspro ingegno et fero

facevi humile, ed ogni huom vil, gagliardo!


Et oimè il dolce riso, onde uscío ’l dardo

di che morte, altro bene omai non spero!

Alma real dignissima d’impero
se non fossi fra noi scesa sì tardo:



per voi conven ch’ io arda, e ’n voi respiro,
ch’ i’ pur fui vostro; et se di voi son privo
via men d’ogni sventura altra mi dole;



di speranza m’empieste et di desire
quand’ io parti’ dal sommo piacer vivo,

ma ’l vento ne portava le parole.

Petrarch — L’ardente nodo ov’ io fui, d’ora in ora

Death has untied the burning knot where I’ve been caught,
hour by slow hour, for twenty-one whole years. I never knew
such weight of sorrow. Formerly, I thought
that men could die of grief. It isn’t true.

Blind to my suffering, Love had no desire
to lose me yet. Down in the grass another snare he’d laid;
with new dry tinder he had lit another fire.
His stratagems weren’t easy to evade.

But for the many past afflictions I had seen,
he would have caught and burned me yet again
more fiercely, since my wood’s no longer green.

So Death has come once more to set me free.
He broke the knot, he doused the flame; and it is he
we struggle to outwit or overcome in vain.

L’ardente nodo ov’ io fui, d’ora in ora — Petrarch

L’ardente nodo ov’ io fui, d’ora in ora
contando, anni ventuno interi preso
Morte disciolse, né giamai tal peso

provai, né credo ch’ uom di dolor mora.


Non volendomi Amor perdere anchora,

ebbe un altro lacciuol fra l’erba teso

et di nova esca un altro foco acceso,

tal ch’ a gran pena indi scampato fora.



Et se non fosse esperienzia molta
de’ primi affanni, i’ sarei preso et arso
tanto più quanto son men verde legno.



Morte m’à liberato un’altra volta

et rotto ’l nodo, e ’l foco à spento et sparso,
contra la qual non val forza né ’ngegno.

Michael Loves Tom

After Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sonnet XXX

Your lovely eyes have cured my blindness, so I see
A soft light dawning on the world, where all was black.
With your sure-footedness, the burden on my back
Which crushed me when I limped, I carry easily.
I’m just a featherless and dowdy little bird
But brilliant in flight when lifted on your wings.
I am your moods’ barometer: my needle swings
From fine through change to stormy at your slightest word.
Whatever you want, I want too; our wills are one.
My thoughts are born inside the chamber of your heart.
Transported on your breath, my voice trusts to the air.

I’d say I’m like the moon: our eyes are unaware
She moves across the sky, until they see that part
Of her which is ignited by her lord, the sun.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, Sonnet XXX

A Tomaso de’ Cavalieri

Veggio co' bei vostri occhi un dolce lume
Che co' miei ciechi già veder non posso.
Porto co' vostri piedi un pondo a dosso,
Che de' mie' zoppi non e già costume.
Volo con le vostr' ale senza piume;
Col vostr' ingegno al ciel sempre son mosso.
Dal vostr' arbitrio son pallido e rosso,
Freddo al sol, caldo alle più fredde brume.
Nel voler vostro è sol la voglia mia.
I mie' pensier nel vostro cor si fanno.
Nel vostro fiato son le mie parole.
Come luna da sè sol par ch'io sia;
Che gli occhi nostri in ciel veder non sanno
Se non quel tanto che n'accende il sole.

Montale — Lemons

Listen to me. Proper poets only like to stroll
amid the kinds of plants whose names are rare:
acanthus, privet, box. But I love roads
which lead to grassy ditches where,
from half-dry puddles, boys scoop up
a few emaciated eels:
green lanes which run along the ditches’ edge
and drop between the tufts of giant reeds
down to the orchards, to the lemon trees.

It’s better that the blue should swallow up
and hush the chatter of the birds.
We hear more clearly then the whispering
of friendly branches in the scarcely moving air
and catch a scent we cannot disassociate
from earth: a restless sweetness raining on the heart.
The place performs a miracle of peace
on troubled and distracted minds;
poor we may be, but here we gain
our share of riches, and that is
the smell of lemons.

These are the silences, you see, in which
things give themselves away, seem ready
to betray their final secret.
We may be about to find a flaw of Nature.
We are at the dead point of the world,
the link that will not hold,
the disentangling thread that finally
will take us to the heart of something true.
The eyes search everywhere,
the brain requires an answer… then it yields, disintegrates:
effect of perfume overflowing most
when day most languishes.
These are the silences in which
we glimpse in every fleeting human ghost
a certain disarranged Divinity.

But the illusion fails. Time drags us back
to noisy cities where we see the blue
in patches only, up between the roofs.
The rain is wearying the earth. Now winter’s tedium
weighs on the houses, light turns miserly,
the spirit bitter.
                            Then, one day,
glimpsed through a half-shut gate,
there in the courtyard trees
the yellows of the lemons are on show.
The chill which gripped our hearts relents
as sunlight’s golden trumpets
pour their songs into our souls.

I limoni — Eugenio Montale

Ascoltami, i poeti laureati
si muovono soltanto fra le piante
dai nomi poco usati: bossi ligustri o acanti.
lo, per me, amo le strade che riescono agli erbosi
fossi dove in pozzanghere
mezzo seccate agguantano i ragazzi
qualche sparuta anguilla:
le viuzze che seguono i ciglioni,
discendono tra i ciuffi delle canne
e mettono negli orti, tra gli alberi dei limoni.

Meglio se le gazzarre degli uccelli
si spengono inghiottite dall'azzurro:
più chiaro si ascolta il susurro
dei rami amici nell'aria che quasi non si muove,
e i sensi di quest'odore
che non sa staccarsi da terra
e piove in petto una dolcezza inquieta.
Qui delle divertite passioni
per miracolo tace la guerra,
qui tocca anche a noi poveri la nostra parte di ricchezza
ed è l'odore dei limoni.

Vedi, in questi silenzi in cui le cose
s'abbandonano e sembrano vicine
a tradire il loro ultimo segreto,
talora ci si aspetta
di scoprire uno sbaglio di Natura,
il punto morto del mondo, l'anello che non tiene,
il filo da disbrogliare che finalmente ci metta
nel mezzo di una verità.
Lo sguardo fruga d'intorno,
la mente indaga accorda disunisce
nel profumo che dilaga
quando il giorno più languisce.
Sono i silenzi in cui si vede
in ogni ombra umana che si allontana
qualche disturbata Divinità.

Ma l'illusione manca e ci riporta il tempo
nelle città rumorose dove l'azzurro si mostra
soltanto a pezzi, in alto, tra le cimase.
La pioggia stanca la terra, di poi; s'affolta
il tedio dell'inverno sulle case,
la luce si fa avara - amara l'anima.
Quando un giorno da un malchiuso portone
tra gli alberi di una corte
ci si mostrano i gialli dei limoni;
e il gelo dei cuore si sfa,
e in petto ci scrosciano
le loro canzoni
le trombe d'oro della solarità.

Montale — The Eel

My cold sea siren, living eel,
impelled to leave the Baltic and head south
against the current, answering the call
of rivers, estuaries and seas back home,
emerging from the deep once more
to struggle on up tributaries, brooks and trickles,
to attenuate,
to travel ever inward to the heart of solid stone
and wind your way down slicks of mire
until one day
a flash of light through chestnut trees
ignites your dart and wriggle
in the stagnant puddles
of the gullies high up in the Apennines
which tumble all the way down to Romagna;
eel, torchbeam, whiplash, shaft of Love on earth,
whose only route to happy lands
of mating and fertility
is by our ditches and our dried-up mountain streams;
green spirit seeking signs of life
where only drought and desolation bite,
bright spark who says that everything begins
when everything seems burnt to ashes,
buried stick;
brief rainbow, twin to her
whose colours you have framed
within the lashes of your eyes
and caused to shine, immaculate, before the sons of men;
sunk in the mud, your element, can you not recognise
your flesh and blood, your sister in the sky?

L'anguilla — Eugenio Montale

L'anguilla, la sirena
dei mari freddi che lascia il Baltico
per giungere ai nostri mari,
ai nostri estuarî, ai fiumi
che risale in profondo, sotto la piena avversa,
di ramo in ramo e poi
di capello in capello, assottigliati,
sempre più addentro, sempre più nel cuore
del macigno, filtrando
tra gorielli di melma finché un giorno
una luce scoccata dai castagni
ne accende il guizzo in pozze d'acquamorta,
nei fossi che declinano
dai balzi d'Appennino alla Romagna;
l'anguilla, torcia, frusta,
freccia d'Amore in terra
che solo i nostri botri o i disseccati
ruscelli pirenaici riconducono
a paradisi di fecondazione;
l'anima verde che cerca
vita là dove solo
morde l'arsura e la desolazione,
la scintilla che dice
tutto comincia quando tutto pare
incarbonirsi, bronco seppellito;
l'iride breve, gemella
di quella che incastonano i tuoi cigli
e fai brillare intatta in mezzo ai figli
dell'uomo, immersi nel tuo fango, puoi tu
non crederla sorella?

Often, it’s Life’s Evils that I’ve Met

After Eugenio Montale — Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato

Often, it’s life’s evils that I’ve met:
the blocked-up gurgling stream, frustrated in its course;
a leaf in summer, shrivelled in the heat;
the awful stillness of a fallen horse.

The good in life eluded me, unless it were
to know the wonder in divine indifference:
this statue, upright in the midday somnolence;
that cloud; that falcon in the upper air.

Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato — Eugenio Montale

Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato:
era il rivo strozzato che gorgoglia,
era l’incartocciarsi della foglia
riarsa, era il cavallo stramazzato.

Bene non seppi, fuori del prodigio
che schiude la divina Indifferenza:
era la statua nella sonnolenza
del meriggio, e la nuvola, e il falco alto levato.

The Hermit Crab

After Eugenio Montale — Il paguro

It’s all the same to the hermit crab
if he finds a shell that’s not his own
to shelter his body and claws.
He’s a hermit just as well.
The burden under which I groan
is that even if I could slip out of my shell
I can’t enter yours.

Il paguro — Eugenio Montale

Il paguro non guarda per il sottile
se s’infila in un guscio che non è il suo.
Ma resta un eremita. Il mio male è
che se mi sfilo dal mio non posso entrare nel tuo.

The Sunflower

After Eugenio Montale — Portami il girasole

Bring me the sunflower so that I may plant it in my field
whose earth, exposed to winds from off the sea, is scorched and dry;
then all day long its troubled upturned face will be revealed,
sending a yellow signal to the blue reflecting sky.

Dark things seek their opposite — the clarity of day;
and bodies spend their substance in the urgent flux and flow
of colours, just as colours do in strains of music; so
it is the destiny of destinies to pass away.

Bring me the plant, my love, that leads the traveller to a place
where blond transparencies are formed and, as they form, take flight
and life unmakes itself, from solid essence into hazy space;
bring me the sunflower driven to insanity by light.

Portami il girasole — Eugenio Montale

Portami il girasole ch'io lo trapianti
nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino,
e mostri tutto il giorno agli azzurri specchianti
del cielo l'ansietà del suo volto giallino.

Tendono alla chiarità le cose oscure,
si esauriscono i corpi in un fluire
di tinte: queste in musiche. Svanire
è dunque la ventura delle venture.

Portami tu la pianta che conduce
dove sorgono bionde trasparenze
e vapora la vita quale essenza;
portami il girasole impazzito di luce.

Montale — Mediterranean

A cackling noise, as if of bitter mockery
descends in spirals onto my bent head.
The ground is scorched and swept by slanting shadows of pinasters,
and the sea, there in the distance, is obscured from sight
less by their branches than by bursts of sultry haze
which now and then erupt from cracked veins in the earth.
The boiling of the waters, choked on miles of sandbank, reaches me,
now muffled more, now less; or sometimes there’s a boom
and then a rain of spray on rocks.
The moment I look up, the racket overhead is still.
Two blue-white arrows, jays, shoot by
towards the tumult of the waters.

*

Ancient sea, the voice which issues from your mouths
each time they open like green bells and then
suck back and melt away has made me drunk.
The house in which I passed my distant summers was beside you, as you know,
there in a sun-baked landscape where the air is clouded with mosquitoes.
In your presence, now as then, it is as if I’m turned to stone
and yet today I feel no longer worthy
of the solemn admonition of your breath.
You were the first to tell me
that the petty ferment of my heart was but a moment in your own;
that lying deep within me was your law, with all its hazards:
to be vast, to be diverse, yet to be fixed;
and so to purge myself of all uncleanness
just as you do when you toss upon the beach
amongst the cork, the seaweed and the starfish
all the useless debris drawn from your abyss.

*

As I slid down the dry, steep slopes, remote by now
from damp days of the autumn which had swelled them,
sometimes my heart escaped the closed loop of the seasons,
the inexorable drip-drip-drip of time.
And yet a presage of you filled my soul;
you shocked me with a sudden gasp of air,
so still before, on rocks which lined the road.
I understood it now: the stone was trying to break free,
was reaching out to an invisible embrace;
hard matter sensed the wind’s next eddy, and it trembled;
tufts of eager reeds spoke shaking
to the hidden waters, yielding their assent.
You in your vastness were the suffering stones’ redeemer.
Your exultation made legitimate the fixity of finite things.
I stooped amongst the heaps of stones;
the salty air reached to my heart in gusts;
the sea’s brim was a game of rings.
Such is the joy of one stray lapwing
swooping from the occluded valley to the open shore.

*

At times I’ve lingered in the dark, dank caves,
some vast, some narrow, which absorb your force,
their mouths, seen from within, an architect’s bold outlines
painted in by sky. Up from your breast,
amid a sound of thunder, airy temples soared,
lights shooting from their spires: a city made of glass,
suspended in pure blue, uncovering itself,
its fleeting veils discarded one by one, its rumble fading to a whisper.
Here was the dreamed-of homeland rising from the waves.
Emerging from confusion, here was clarity.
The exile was re-entering his uncorrupted country.
So it is that with your liberation, father,
he who watches you takes on a stringent rule of life.
To flee from it is pointless: if I try,
a very pebble, worn away, a hardened, nameless, suffering thing,
condemns me in my path, as does the formless wreckage
thrown down at the roadside by life’s swollen flood
and tangled up with straw and branches.
In the destiny now being prepared for me
I may perhaps find rest and safety, everlastingly.
This thought the wild, unresting sea repeats.
This thought is echoed in the softest breath of air.

*

And there are times — they come upon us suddenly —
when your inhuman heart strikes fear in us
and seems remote from ours. Your music
is discordant from my own, your every movement hostile.
I fall in upon myself, I’m drained of strength,
your voice seems muffled. Motionless I stand
here on the shingle sloping down towards you
to the last steep bank which overhangs you,
crumbling, yellow, carved by runnels of rainwater.
My life now is this dry declivity, a means and not an end,
an open channel for the overflow of streams, inclined to slow erosion.
And it is a plant born out of all this devastation,
facing up to blows the sea strikes,
hanging on amid erratic blasts of wind.
This patch of grassless ground has split
so that a daisy could be born. In her
my spirit quavers as the sea assails me;
silence is still lacking from my life.
I watch the shimmering earth,
the air so clear it darkens,
and the feeling for the sea arising in me is perhaps
the rancour each boy feels towards his father.

*

We don’t know what will become of us tomorrow:
a future filled with sadness or with joy? Perhaps our path
will lead to woodland glades, till then unvisited,
where murmurs the eternal fount of youth.
Or maybe we’ll descend into the furthest valley,
in the night, all recollection of the morning lost.
Perhaps we’ll even venture into foreign lands. We will forget the sun,
and from our minds the jingle-jangle of our rhymes will fade away.
Oh yes, the fable that explains our life will suddenly be changed
into a tale of such foreboding that it can’t be told!
Yet, father, you assure us of one thing, and it is this:
a little of your gift has passed for ever
into syllables we take with us, like humming bees.
We’ll travel far, but we’ll preserve an echo of your voice,
as grey grass in dark courtyards, squeezed
between the houses, yet recalls the sun.
One day, these noiseless words we learned from you,
sustained by weary times, by silences,
will seem as sapid, to a sympathetic heart, as Attic salt.

*

I would have wanted to feel tough and elemental,
like the pebbles you revolve, gnawed by the brine;
a splinter outside time, a witness to a cold, unchanging will.
But I was different: a deliberating man,
attentive to the turmoil of this fleeting life in others, in himself;
a man reluctant to perform an action no-one later could undo.
I wanted to seek out
the evil force which eats away the world,
the little twist by which a lever brings
the universal mechanism to a stop;
I saw the liability of every present happening
to break up into pieces with a crash.
Following the track of one path, I still kept
the other in my heart, and felt its draw.
Maybe the clean cut of the knife was what I needed,
the capacity to make my mind up, to resolve.
I needed other books, not just your thundering page.
But I have no regrets; you still untie
the tangled knots inside me with your song.
And now your frenzied rapture rises to the stars.

*

If only I could press into my laboured rhythm
some small portion of your wildness;
if only it were given me to tune
my stammer in accordance with your voices:
I who dreamed of stealing from you salty words
where art and nature mingle
so I could the better cry aloud
the melancholy of a boy grown old who shouldn’t have been thinking.
But all I have is hackneyed dictionary language,
and the secret voice which love dictates grows hoarse;
it coarsens into plaintive literature.
I only have these words
which give themselves like prostitutes to anyone who asks;
I only have these tired phrases
which tomorrow student hacks can steal from me
to force into their well-made verses.
And your roar increases, and the coming twilight
spreads across the sky its deepening blue.
When I attempt to think, my thoughts abandon me.
I have no senses, and no sense. I have no limit.

*

Disperse this frail, complaining life,
if so you wish; wipe the slate clean.
I hope to rest inside your circle once again;
my aimless wanderings are done.
I came here as a witness to an ordering
which on my journey I forgot;
these words of mine don’t realise
that they swear allegiance to an unattainable event.
Yet always, when I caught the sound
of your soft backwash on the shore,
dismay took hold of me, as if I were a man
whose memory fails him when he calls to mind his home.
My lesson learned, less from your open glory
than from the almost silent breath of some of your deserted noons,
I yield to you in all humility. I’m nothing but a spark
which flies up from a beacon. I know this for sure:
to burn, just that, and nothing else, is my significance.

Mediterraneo — Eugenio Montale

A vortice s’abbatte
sul mio capo reclinato
un suono d’agri lazzi.
Scotta la terra percorsa
da sghembe ombre di pinastri,
e al mare là in fondo fa velo
più che i rami, allo sguardo, l’afa che a tratti erompe
dal suolo che si avvena.
Quando più sordo o meno il ribollio dell’acque
che s’ingorgano
accanto a lunghe secche mi raggiunge:
o è un bombo talvolta ed un ripiovere
di schiume sulle rocce.
Come rialzo il viso, ecco cessare
i ragli sul mio capo; e via scoccare
verso le strepeanti acque,
frecciate biancazzurre, due ghiandaie.

*

Antico, sono ubriacato dalla voce
ch'esce dalle tue bocche quando si schiudono
come verdi campane e si ributtano
indietro e si disciolgono.
La casa delle mie estati lontane
t'era accanto, lo sai,
là nel paese dove il sole cuoce
e annuvolano l'aria le zanzare.
Come allora oggi in tua presenza impietro,
mare, ma non più degno
mi credo del solenne ammonimento
del tuo respiro. Tu m'hai detto primo
che il piccino fermento
del mio cuore non era che un momento
del tuo; che mi era in fondo
la tua legge rischiosa: esser vasto e diverso
e insieme fisso:
e svuotarmi così d'ogni lordura
come tu fai che sbatti sulle sponde
tra sugheri alghe asterie
le inutili macerie del tuo abisso.

*

Scendendo qualche volta
gli aridi greppi
ormai divisi dall'umoroso
Autunno che li gonfiava,
non m'era più in cuore la ruota
delle stagioni e il gocciare
del tempo inesorabile;
ma bene il presentimento
di te m'empiva l'anima,
sorpreso nell'ansimare
dell'aria, prima immota,
sulle rocce che orlavano il cammino.
Or, m'avvisavo, la pietra
voleva strapparsi, protesa
a un invisibile abbraccio;
la dura materia sentiva
il prossimo gorgo, e pulsava;
e i ciuffi delle avide canne
dicevano all'acque nascoste,
scrollando, un assentimento.
Tu vastità riscattavi
anche il patire dei sassi:
pel tuo tripudio era giusta
l'immobilità dei finiti.
Chinavo tra le petraie,
giungevano buffi salmastri
al cuore; era la tesa
del mare un giuoco di anella.
Con questa gioia precipita
dal chiuso vallotto alla spiaggia
la spersa pavoncella.

*

Ho sostato talvolta nelle grotte
che t'assecondano, vaste
o anguste, ombrose e amare.
Guardati dal fondo gli sbocchi
segnavano architetture
possenti campite di cielo.
Sorgevano dal tuo petto
rombante aerei templi,
guglie scoccanti luci:
una città di vetro dentro l'azzurro netto
via via si discopriva da ogni caduco velo
e il suo rombo non era che un susurro.
Nasceva dal fiotto la patria sognata.
Dal subbuglio emergeva l'evidenza.
L'esiliato rientrava nel paese incorrotto.
Così, padre, dal tuo disfrenamento
si afferma, chi ti guardi, una legge severa.
Ed è vano sfuggirla: mi condanna
s'io lo tento anche un ciottolo
róso sul mio cammino,
impietrato soffrire senza nome,
o l'informe rottame
che gittò fuor del corso la fiumara
del vivere in un fitto di ramure e di strame.
Nel destino che si prepara
c'è forse per me sosta,
niun'altra minaccia.
Questo ripete il flutto in sua furia incomposta,
e questo ridice il filo della bonaccia.

*

Giunge a volte, repente,
un'ora che il tuo cuore disumano
ci spaura e dal nostro si divide.
Dalla mia la tua musica sconcorda,
allora, ed è nemico ogni tuo moto.
In me ripiego, vuoto
di forze, la tua voce pare sorda.
M'affisso nel pietrisco
che verso te digrada
fino alla ripa acclive che ti sovrasta,
franosa, gialla, solcata
da strosce d'acqua piovana.
Mia vita è questo secco pendio,
mezzo non fine, strada aperta a sbocchi
di rigagnoli, lento franamento.
È dessa, ancora, questa pianta
che nasce dalla devastazione
e in faccia ha i colpi del mare ed è sospesa
fra erratiche forze di venti.
Questo pezzo di suolo non erbato
s'è spaccato perché nascesse una margherita.
In lei tìtubo al mare che mi offende,
manca ancora il silenzio nella mia vita.
Guardo la terra che scintilla,
l'aria è tanto serena che s'oscura.
E questa che in me cresce
è forse la rancura
che ogni figliuolo, mare, ha per il padre.

*

Noi non sappiamo quale sortiremo
domani, oscuro o lieto;
forse il nostro cammino
a non tócche radure ci addurrà
dove mormori eterna l'acqua di giovinezza;
o sarà forse un discendere
fino al vallo estremo,
nel buio, perso il ricordo del mattino.
Ancora terre straniere
forse ci accoglieranno: smarriremo
la memoria del sole, dalla mente
ci cadrà il tintinnare delle rime.
Oh la favola onde s'esprime
la nostra vita, repente
si cangerà nella cupa storia che non si racconta!
Pur di una cosa ci affidi,
padre, e questa è: che un poco del tuo dono
sia passato per sempre nelle sillabe
che rechiamo con noi, api ronzanti.
Lontani andremo e serberemo un'eco
della tua voce, come si ricorda
del sole l'erba grigia
nelle corti scurite, tra le case.
E un giorno queste parole senza rumore
che teco educammo nutrite
di stanchezze e di silenzi,
parranno a un fraterno cuore
sapide di sale greco.

*

Avrei voluto sentirmi scabro ed essenziale
siccome i ciottoli che tu volvi,
mangiati dalla salsedine;
scheggia fuori del tempo, testimone
di una volontà fredda che non passa.
Altro fui: uomo intento che riguarda
in sé, in altrui, il bollore
della vita fugace — uomo che tarda
all'atto, che nessuno, poi, distrugge.
Volli cercare il male
che tarla il mondo, la piccola stortura
d'una leva che arresta
l'ordegno universale; e tutti vidi
gli eventi del minuto
come pronti a disgiungersi in un crollo.
Seguìto il solco d'un sentiero m'ebbi
l'opposto in cuore, col suo invito; e forse
m'occorreva il coltello che recide,
la mente che decide e si determina.
Altri libri occorrevano
a me, non la tua pagina rombante.
Ma nulla so rimpiangere: tu sciogli
ancora i groppi interni col tuo canto.
Il tuo delirio sale agli astri ormai.

*

Potessi almeno costringere
in questo mio ritmo stento
qualche poco del tuo vaneggiamento;
dato mi fosse accordare
alle tue voci il mio balbo parlare: —
io che sognava rapirti
le salmastre parole
in cui natura ed arte si confondono,
per gridar meglio la mia malinconia
di fanciullo invecchiato che non doveva pensare.
Ed invece non ho che le lettere fruste
dei dizionari, e l'oscura
voce che amore detta s'affioca,
si fa lamentosa letteratura.
Non ho che queste parole
che come donne pubblicate
s'offrono a chi le richiede;
non ho che queste frasi stancate
che potranno rubarmi anche domani
gli studenti canaglie in versi veri.
Ed il tuo rombo cresce, e si dilata
azzurra l'ombra nuova.
M'abbandonano a prova i miei pensieri.
Sensi non ho; né senso. Non ho limite.

*

Dissipa tu se lo vuoi
questa debole vita che si lagna,
come la spugna il frego
effimero di una lavagna.
M'attendo di ritornare nel tuo circolo,
s'adempia lo sbandato mio passare.
La mia venuta era testimonianza
di un ordine che in viaggio mi scordai,
giurano fede queste mie parole
a un evento impossibile, e lo ignorano.
Ma sempre che traudii
la tua dolce risacca su le prode
sbigottimento mi prese
quale d'uno scemato di memoria
quando si risovviene del suo paese.
Presa la mia lezione
più che dalla tua gloria
aperta, dall'ansare
che quasi non dà suono
di qualche tuo meriggio desolato,
a te mi rendo in umiltà. Non sono
che favilla d'un tirso. Bene lo so: bruciare,
questo, non altro, è il mio significato.

Virgil — The Aeneid, book 2

Aeneas and his followers have been welcomed to Carthage by Dido, the city’s queen. After a sumptuous banquet, Dido asks Aeneas to recount the tragic story of the sack of Troy, and of the Trojans’ wanderings since.

The company was hushed. All eyes were on Aeneas.
From his couch, his place of honour,
he now spoke these opening words.

‘Your majesty commands me to recall
a grief unspeakable: the way the Greeks
destroyed Troy’s wealth and brought doom on the kingdom.
I saw those piteous sights myself, and played no little part in them.
Why, even Myrmidons, Dolopians,
or some foot soldier in the ranks of brutal Ulysses
could not hold back their tears in speaking of such things.
Look now: how swiftly dewy night is draining from the sky;
the setting stars are telling us it’s time to sleep.
But if you really want to know about our downfall;
if in few words you wish to hear the final agony of Troy,
although I shudder to remember, and my mind
recoils in horror from the task, I will begin.

The Greeks were broken by the war, frustrated by the fates.
So many years had slipped away. But now their generals,
divinely aided by Athena’s art, constructed an enormous wooden horse:
within its belly, rows and rows of planks made out of deal.
It was a votive offering for their safe return to Greece,
so they pretended; and the rumour got about.
Within the gloom of its great flanks, they furtively
secreted their crack troops, and deep inside
the belly of the beast they crammed their soldiers, armed.

From Troy there is a view across to Tenedos.
The island is well known. In Priam’s time it was a wealthy place,
but now there’s just a bay. The harbour isn’t safe for ships.
The Greeks sailed there, and hid along its barren shore.
We thought they’d gone; that they were heading for Mycenae on the wind.
The land of Teucer was released from its long misery!
The gates were opened wide; and with what joy
the people flooded out to view the Greeks’ abandoned camp,
its posts deserted, and the empty beach.
Here the Dolopians had mustered; here merciless Achilles pitched his tent;
the fleet was anchored there; and there, the battlefield.
Some, stupefied at chaste Athena’s fatal gift,
surveyed the giant horse in wonderment.

Thymoetes first proposed that we should drag the thing
inside the walls and place it in the citadel.
Was he a traitor? Or did Troy’s fate incline that way?
But Capys and some wiser heads advised
that either we should hurl this suspect Grecian gift
headlong into the sea; or light a fire underneath;
or pierce the belly of the beast and probe its hiding place.
The crowd, uncertain, split into two factions.

Just then the priest Laocoön, ahead of an enormous crowd,
came rushing in a passion from the citadel, and shouted from a distance:
“Are you raving mad, you poor deluded citizens?
You really think the enemy has sailed?
Is any gift the Greeks bequeath untouched by treachery?
Is Ulysses well known for kindnesses like this?
No, either Greeks are hidden in this wooden frame,
or else it is an engine built to overtop our walls,
spy on our houses and come down upon the city from above;
or else they’ve hidden some deception there.
My fellow Trojans, do not trust the horse.
Whatever this thing is, I fear the Greeks;
I fear them even when they bring us gifts.”

With these words, and with mighty force,
he hurled his giant spear straight at the horse’s flank
and at the joints which held the curving belly of the beast.
The spear stuck, quivering; the belly trembled
and the space within rang hollow, giving forth a groan.
And had the gods’ commands and our own minds
not been perverted, that man would have driven us
to violate with steel the Grecian hiding-places,
Troy would still be standing,
Priam’s lofty fortress would remain!

But then a group of Trojan shepherds, shouting loudly,
dragged before the king a youth, hands tied behind his back.
He’d planned all this; his aim, to open Troy to the invaders.
Though a stranger, he had placed himself where he’d be found,
knowing full well that either he’d succeed in plying his deceit,
or else, for certain, he’d be killed.
Young men of Troy came running from all sides,
eager to see the captive and competing in their taunts.
Now hear this piece of Grecian treachery,
this prime example of their utter wickedness…

He stood, surrounded by the watching crowd, unarmed and frightened.
Staring at the mass of Trojans, back and forth,
“Alas,” he cried, “what land, what seas can now receive me?
What will be my wretched fate at last?
I have no place amongst the Greeks
and now the Trojans, even, clamour for my blood.”

At this lament, we changed our tone; we checked our violence.
We urged the man to speak, to tell us from what tribe he sprang,
what news he brought. “Tell us,” we cried,
“what you are hoping for now you’re our prisoner.”

The man at last put fear aside and spoke.
“Your majesty, whatever happens, I will tell you all.
I can’t deny that I am Greek. My name is Sinon.
But if malicious Fortune’s hands have fashioned me for misery,
they have not made of me a liar.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Palamedes, son of Belus, and the glory of his name?
He was against the war, and for that stance the Greeks,
by making bogus accusations, had him killed:
an action they regret, now that the innocent is dead.
He was our relative. My father was a poor man
but he sent me, very young, to fight in Palamedes’ company.
For when that man was powerful, and had the ear of kings,
we too enjoyed a certain reputation and renown.
But when he met his death — you know the tale of Ulysses’ foul trickery —
my life dragged on in gloom and grief,
indignant at the fate my friend, an innocent, had met.
I could not stay silent. I was mad with rage.
I vowed that if I ever made it back, victorious, to Argos,
where I was born, and should the chance occur,
I would avenge the death myself.
My words aroused fierce hatred — my first fall from grace.
Now Ulysses, to frighten me, made further allegations,
sowing dark rumours in the crowd, seeking the means
to prove my guilt and clear his own.
He would not rest until, with Calchas his accomplice…
but why spin out such an unwelcome tale?
Why waste your time? If all Greeks are the same to you,
and if you’ve heard enough, just punish me at once.
The Ithacan would thank you for it; and the sons of Atreus
would pay good money for my death!”

Consumed by curiosity, we had to know more,
naïvely innocent of wickedness so great,
of trickery so subtle in the Greeks.

So he continued, trembling with false emotion:
“Often the Greeks longed to abandon Troy,
beat a retreat, and go. They were tired of the long war.
If only they had done so! Sometimes a fierce storm closed them in,
or a gale from the south scared them from leaving.
But most important: when this horse, made out of maple beams,
was ready, storm clouds rumbled through the sky.
We were perplexed. We sent Eurypylus to ask its meaning
of Apollo’s oracle, and from the shrine he brought these chilling words:
A virgin’s blood appeased the winds
when first you Greeks arrived on Trojan shores.
Greek blood must once again be shed to gain a safe return.

And when the crowd heard this, they were astounded.
A cold shudder ran right through them to their bones.
Who was the fated one? Whom did Apollo claim?
The Ithacan’s great voice called Calchas out into our midst:
What is it that the gods demand? And many understood
that I would be the victim of that schemer’s evil crime.
They saw what was to come; and they said nothing.

For ten days the seer sat silent in his tent.
He would not speak a name; would not condemn a man to death.
At last, as if reluctantly, and forced to it by Ulysses’ protracted noise,
he utters… and condemns me to the altar. It was all arranged.
And everyone approved. The fate each man had feared, if coming to himself,
each could endure, now ruin had been switched to someone else.

The dreadful day approached. The sacred rites were ready,
with the salted meal, the ribbons for my temples.
But — I confess it — I broke free, I burst my chains,
and hid all night in a muddy pond, obscured by reeds,
waiting till the Greeks set sail, if they were going.
I have no hope now that I’ll ever see
my old homeland again, nor my sweet children,
nor my father, whom I miss so much.
The Greeks, perhaps, will make them pay the price for my escape,
and by their deaths, poor souls, absolve this crime of mine.
I beg you, by the gods above, by all the powers that know the truth,
and by whatever faith remains untainted among mortals,
pity this distress; pity the one who bears it undeserving!”

He wept. We pitied him, and spared his life.
Priam himself commanded that the man’s tight bonds and fetters
be removed, and kindly spoke to him:
“Whoever you may be, forget the Greeks that you have lost;
you’re one of us now. And yet answer me this question, truly:
what is the meaning of this giant horse? who is responsible?
what is its purpose? a religious offering? a war machine?”

To these words Sinon, practised in the arts of Greek deceit,
raised to the stars his liberated hands.

“You everlasting fires,” he cried, “and you, divine and sacred majesties,
you are my witnesses; and you, those altars and accursed swords
which I escaped, and headbands of the gods I wore as victim:
allow that I may break the solemn law which binds me to the Greeks;
allow that I may hate them, and reveal the truths they’d rather hide.
I am no longer bound by laws made in my homeland.
Only keep your promises, you men of Troy,
and when you are preserved, hold to your faith
if what I say proves true and you gain greatly from it!

Once the war had started, all Greek hopes and expectations
rested on Athena’s help. But from the moment Ulysses, that criminal,
and Diomedes tore her fateful image from its holy shrine,
slaughtered the castle guards, and dared to bloody with their hands
the ribbons on the virgin goddess’ statue which they’d robbed,
from then those hopes receded, ebbed away.
Their strength was broken now Athena was against them,
which she made plain with signs and portents.
For no sooner was the statue placed within their camp
than from its upraised eyes there burst forth flickering flames
and salty sweat ran down over its limbs.
Three times — I tell you in amazement — there leapt up
a glowing apparition of the goddess, shield and spear a-quiver.
Calchas prophesied at once that they must put to sea,
in flight, that Troy would never fall to Greek assaults
unless the Greeks repaired to Argos for new omens,
later bringing back Athena’s image which they’d shipped away.
They’re out at sea now, making for Mycenae with the wind behind them,
off to get recruits and more gods on their side.
Then they’ll be here again, unlooked for. So Calchas reads the signs.

This horse, at Calchas’ warning, has been made to stand in for the image
and to expiate its stealing and the insult to Athena.
Calchas told the Greeks to make a thing of interlocking timbers
so enormous, reaching to the sky,
that it could never enter by the city gates, be dragged within the walls,
to bring to Troy protection in your ancient faith.
Should any Trojan hand assault this homage to Athena, so he prophesied,
— would that the gods should visit such a fate on Calchas ! —
absolute destruction would descend on Priam’s empire
and the Trojans. But if you brought the horse into your city,
then the tide of war would turn and Troy advance up to Mycenae’s walls.
A dreadful fate would then await our children!”

Through his cunning Sinon lied his way into our trust.
We were ensnared by guile, by counterfeited tears:
Trojans whom neither Diomedes nor Achilles conquered,
nor ten long years of war, nor their one thousand ships!

But now another portent, yet more frightful,
fell on our unhappy, unsuspecting people and disquieted our minds.
Laocoön, who was Neptune’s priest that day, as drawn by lot,
was killing a great bull before the customary altars,
when from Tenedos
two snakes came swimming side by side across the tranquil sea.
I shudder to recall it: coiling and uncoiling,
their bellies rising with the swell, their blood-red crests topping the waves,
they headed for the shore. Their great lengths skimmed the foam behind,
huge backs folding and twisting;
we heard the noise they made churning the water.
And now they reached the land, their blood-shot eyes a-blaze,
quivering tongues licking their hissing mouths.
We paled at the sight, and scattered.
They went straight for Laocoön.
First, each snake entwined itself around the little bodies
of the priest’s two sons, and with its fangs gorged on their helpless limbs.
Then, as Laocoön advanced to save his children, weapons in hand,
they seized him too and bound him tight,
twice round the waist, twice with their scaly skin about his throat,
their heads and upraised necks towering above him.
He meanwhile was fighting with both hands to break the knots,
his priestly headbands steeped in gore and covered in black venom.
He uttered hideous cries to heaven, like a wounded bull
who has escaped the altar, shaking from its neck the ill-directed axe.
Gliding away, the snakes sought out unmerciful Athena’s shrine
high in the citadel, and nestled there
beneath her feet and in the circle of her shield.

Then a new terror crept into our quaking hearts,
and people said Laocoön was rightly punished for his crime;
he had profaned the sacred oak, and hurled his cursèd spear into its body.
“Drag up the image to Athena’s house,” they cried. “Placate her holiness.”

We breached the walls and overturned the city’s battlements.
Everyone helped; under the creature’s feet they placed rollers
and cords of hemp were looped around its neck.
The death machine ascended to the walls, chock-full of soldiers.
Maidens and boys surrounded it, chanting holy songs,
delighted just to touch the rope. Up it smoothly moved
and made its fateful entrance to the city.
Oh my country! Ilium, home of the gods,
your mighty battlements famous in war!
Four times the horse stopped at the threshold of the walls.
Four times the armour in its belly clashed.
But we pressed furiously on, blind to the consequence.
We placed the dreadful monster in our holy citadel.
At this, Cassandra raised her voice, predicting doom;
but Trojans never credited her words. That was a god’s command.
We, miserable people, living out our final day,
wrapped festal boughs around the sacred shrines throughout the city.

Meanwhile, the sky revolves. Night rises swiftly from the sea,
enfolding in its mighty shadow heaven, earth — and Greek duplicity.
Throughout the silent town the Trojans are at rest;
sleep holds their weary limbs.
From Tenedos Greek ships in tight formation slip their moorings.
Under a friendly, silent moon they make for a familiar shore,
their royal flagship leading with a beacon.
Sinon, whom the gods’ malign instruction has protected,
stealthily slides back the planks of pine
and frees the Greeks imprisoned in the horse’s belly.
From the wooden cavern, sliding down the lowered rope
and glad to breathe the open air again,
emerge Thessandrus, Sthenelus and fearsome Ulysses,
then Acamas and Thoas,
Pyrrhus and Machaon,
Menelaus and Epeos, who devised the plot.
They spread out into Troy, the city buried deep in sleep and wine.
They kill the guards, and at the open gates
greet comrades waiting for them, and combine their troops.

It was the hour of the first rest: that gift from heaven,
stealing over tired mortals, which they find most sweet.
I dreamt that Hector stood before my eyes,
most sorrowful, and shedding floods of tears,
his body mutilated by Achilles’ chariot
— as once it had been, in the days gone by — and black with dirt and gore,
his swollen feet cut by their leather thongs.
Ah, what a sight he was! How different from that Hector
who returned to Troy clad in Achilles’ spoils,
who torched Greek ships with Trojan flames.
His beard was ragged, and his hair matted with blood.
He bore the many wounds he’d got around Troy’s walls.
I dreamt I wept myself, greeting him first, and saying, in my grief,
“Light of the Trojans and our surest hope, where have you been so long?
How we have missed you, Hector! Say from what shores you’ve come.
So many of your family are dead. Troy’s sufferings are countless.
With what joy our weary eyes behold you!
What act of shame has marred your handsome face?
Why do I see these wounds?”

He said nothing, seeming not to heed my idle questions.
Then, from deep within his chest, he uttered a great sigh.
“Son of a goddess, flee from here!” he cried. “Escape the flames!
The enemy controls our walls; from its great height
our Troy has fallen. Priam and our country have what they deserve.
If strength of hand — my hand — could save Troy’s towers,
they would be saved. Troy now entrusts to you
her sacred things, her household gods. Go, take them with you.
They must share your fortunes. Seek for them
that mighty city you shall found at last
when you have wandered on the sea.” Those were his words.
And then it seemed that from our city’s inner sanctuary
his hands brought forth the priestly headbands
and the goddess of the hearth, with her undying fire.

Meanwhile, throughout the city there was lamentation and confusion.
Though my father’s house, where I was sleeping,
was secluded, screened by trees,
the dreadful noise of war came to me ever more clearly.
I shook myself from sleep and climbed onto the roof.
I stood there, straining my ears to listen.
The sound was like a fire which engulfs a cornfield
when a gale is blowing from the south; or when
a raging torrent from a mountain river floods the fields,
destroys the hopeful crops and wastes the oxen’s labour,
dragging down forests with it; the shepherd, puzzled, awestruck,
clambers up a rock and hears the roar.

The treachery the Greeks had practised was now clear.
Deiphobus’s mansion crashed down under towering flames.
Ucalegon, his neighbour, had his house a-blaze.
Looking out to sea, I saw the Hellespont reflect the flames.
I heard the shouts of men, the blare of trumpets.
Frantically, I grabbed my weapons, knowing how little use they were,
but desperate to get a fighting force together
and with them charge up to the citadel.
Madness and rage were driving me;
how glorious, I thought, to die in battle!

Just as I was leaving, here was Panthus, breathless, at my door:
priest of Apollo on the citadel, escaping the Greek swords,
in his own hands carrying the holy symbols of our vanquished gods,
dragging his little grandchild with him. He was frantic.
“Where is the fiercest fighting, Panthus? What stronghold could we seize?”
At once, and with a groan, he answered,
“Our last day has come. Our doom is certain.
Trojans and the city are no more.
Our former glories, in his anger, Jupiter has passed to Greece.
Troy is ablaze; the Greeks are masters of it.
At the citadel, the horse spews out armed men.
Triumphant Sinon, to insult us, spreads the flames.
Greek troops in thousands hold the open gates,
as many as came over from Mycenae.
Others block the narrow lanes, with weapons drawn:
a solid line of steel, sword-points flashing, ready to slaughter.
Our front line of sentries, even, are not fighting back;
there is no sign of last resistance.”

Panthus’ words came to me like a message from the gods.
They drove me to the flames,
the clash of swords, the brutal battleground,
the howls and shouts of fighters rising skyward.
In the moonlight, comrades joined me:
Rhipeus and Epytus, that valiant soldier,
Hypanis, Dymas, the boy Coroebus, son of Mygdon…
As it chanced, Coroebus had just come to Troy,
burning with mad passion for Cassandra,
to help her father and the Trojans as a hopeful son-in-law.
Unlucky man, not to have heeded her prophetic words!

I saw these men close ranks, ready for battle, and I spoke:
“You are brave lads, against these odds!
If you’re determined to be with me, to put up a final fight,
see how our cause now stands.
The gods, by whom this empire was sustained,
have gone. They’ve left their shrines and altars empty
and the city you are fighting for is burning.
Let us die together, in the thick of it.
The only hope of the defeated is to hope for nothing!”

This raised their youthful spirits to a fury
and, like ravening wolves crazy with hunger,
blindly driven from their lairs in a black fog,
their cubs at home awaiting their return, thirsting for blood,
we charged the enemy, our weapons drawn,
knowing for certain we were going to die,
and fought our way up to the citadel;
the cloak of darkness gave us some protection.
Unspeakable, the havoc and the carnage of that night;
our anguish plumbed the depths of any quantity of tears.
Ancient Troy, supreme for many years, was ruined.
Lifeless bodies lay about the streets and in the houses,
at the doorways of the temples of the gods.
Nor was it only Trojans who were killed.
Courage returned sometimes to the defeated;
Greeks in their triumph were cut down as well.
Grief, panic, death in all its forms were everywhere.

First, we came upon Androgeos, leading a horde of Greeks.
He wrongly thought our group was on his side
and called out in a friendly voice,
“Hey, get a move on, comrades! What’s been keeping you?
The rest are pillaging and burning Troy;
have you just got here from the ships?”
He heard no friendly answer. He knew at once
that he had fallen among enemies.
Shocked into silence, he retreated.
Like one who, walking on firm ground amid rough briars,
stands on an unseen snake and shrinks back, terrified,
to see the angry creature rear up,
puffing out the purple blotches on its neck:
Androgeos in terror backed away.
We charged, surrounding them with close-ranked swords.
They were surprised, and panicked; they didn’t know the ground.
We slew them all. Fortune favoured our first efforts.
Greatly daring, flushed with our success, Coroebus shouted,
“Brothers, Fortune smiles on us and points the way; let’s follow her!
I say we change our shields and don Greek uniforms.
Deceit or bravery: who knows in war?
Our enemies themselves will give us arms.”
So saying, he put on Androgeos’ plumed helmet,
took his decorated shield and fastened at his side the dead man’s sword.
Rhipeus did likewise, and Dymas, and all the lads.
Elated, each one armed himself with new-found spoils.
On we moved, amongst the enemy and under foreign gods’ protection,
in the darkness fighting hand to hand, time and again,
dispatching many Greeks. Some scattered to their ships,
and swiftly made for safer shores; some cowards,
terrified, climbed back inside the giant horse
and hid in its familiar belly.

Alas, we may not trust the gods for anything against their will!
Here was Cassandra, Priam’s daughter, being dragged with streaming hair
down from the temple and Athena’s shrine,
lifting her burning eyes in vain to heaven —
her eyes, because her straining hands were bound.
Coroebus couldn’t bear the sight; it drove him witless.
Fatally, he hurled himself straight at Cassandra’s captors.
We all followed, rushing at them in a pack, our weapons drawn.
But now our allies on the temple roof,
confused by foreign armour and the Greek crests on our helmets,
hurled missiles down on us and overwhelmed us,
causing pitiful and useless slaughter.
Then the Greeks, enraged to see Cassandra taken from them,
mustered from all sides and fell upon us:
Ajax — fiercest of them all — and Agamemnon, Menelaus
and the whole Greek host. It was as if
a hurricane had caused opposing winds to clash
and make the forest groan: West against South against exultant East
(the wind that drives the horses of the dawn). Nereus, steeped in foam
and brandishing his trident, stirs the seas to fury from their lower depths.
Back to the fight came some whom by our cunning
we had routed in the dark and driven to the corners of the town.
They recognised our shields now, and the weapons which had tricked them;
now they marked our foreign accents. They outnumbered us at once.
Coroebus was the first to fall, cut down by Peneleus at Athena’s altar.
Rhipeus was killed: most upright of the Trojans,
most observant in the cause of justice; but the gods willed otherwise.
Dynas and Hypanis both perished, stabbed by friendly weapons.
Nor could your great goodness, Panthus,
nor Apollo’s sacred headbands break your fall.

Alas, my city, Troy in ashes, and my comrades’ only funeral pyre!
Be witness that, the night of your destruction,
I avoided neither clash of weapons nor the hazards of the war.
And had the fates desired that I should die in combat with the Greeks,
I would have earned that death!

We tore ourselves away. Iphitus and Pelias were with me.
Iphitus was borne down by the years;
Pelias moved slowly, limping with a wound from Ulysses.
At once a clamour summoned us to Priam’s house.

Here we came upon a truly mighty battle, as if none
were being fought elsewhere, as if no men were dying
right across the city. Mars was on the loose.
Greeks were swarming up towards the roof;
others, under cover of a line of shields, attacked the gates.
Their ladders clung to walls, where by the very doorposts
men were struggling to get a foothold on the rungs,
holding shields in their left hands against the arrows from above,
while with their right they grabbed the battlements.
The Trojans meanwhile tore down parapets
and all the tile-work on the roof; with these as missiles,
they prepared to mount a last defence before they died.
They knew the end was near. Gilded roof beams,
which had once adorned the dwelling of their ancestors,
they rolled down on the Greeks. Others crowded round the doors below,
guarding them shoulder to shoulder, with drawn swords.
We were inspired afresh: to save the royal palace,
to relieve our men and reinforce the broken lines.

A postern gate gave entrance by a secret doorway
to a passage which ran through the palace halls.
While Troy yet stood, Andromache, poor soul,
had often used it, unattended, visiting her husband’s parents,
taking little Astyanax to see his grandfather.
I got up to the roof, where desperate Trojans
still were hurling down their useless missiles.
On the rooftop’s very edge there stood a tower, rising to the sky.
From here all Troy was visible,
as were the Greek encampment and their ships.
Surrounding it with iron straps,
placed at the upper storeys where the joints were weak,
we wrenched the tower from its lofty place and pushed it over.
It went crashing down. Across a wide expanse of ground
it crushed the ranks of Greeks. Yet on they came,
attacking us with stones and weapons of all kinds…

At the palace gate, before the courtyard, Pyrrhus stood,
puffed up with pride, in gleaming brazen armour.
He was like a snake in springtime
which has passed the chill of winter underground,
fattening itself on poison plants, and now,
its winter skin sloughed off,
refreshed and in the glow of youth, rears up toward the sun
and shoots out from its mouth a three-forked tongue.
Beside him stood the giant Periphas, Automedon his armour-bearer
— he had been Achilles’ charioteer — and all the youth of Scyros.
These men surged toward the building, throwing flaming brands onto the roof.
Pyrrhus himself was first to grab a two-edged battle-axe,
hack through the stubborn woodwork of the gates
and tear the brass-bound doors from off their hinges.
Heaving out a panel from the doors,
he breached the solid oak, opening a huge hole in the wood.
The house within was now exposed to view,
its long halls clearly visible, the royal inner chambers
— Priam’s and his ancestors’ — laid bare.
The palace guards were standing at the threshold, armed.

Inside the house, confusion reigned: a dreadful, shrieking uproar.
In the women’s quarters, wailing echoed round the vaulted halls.
The noise extended to the shining stars.
Trembling women roamed the building,
clinging onto doors and planting farewell kisses on them.
Pyrrhus, with his father’s strength, advanced;
no bars, no guards could slow his onward rush.
The palace gates were rammed, again, again; they tottered
and the doors, wrenched from their hinges, fell down flat.
Force had prevailed; the Greeks poured in.
Once in, they killed the first line of our guards
and packed the spacious courtyard with their soldiers.
Not with such fury does a foaming river overflow its banks
and in its towering rage engulf the fields
and drown the sheep and cattle on the plains.
On the threshold I saw Pyrrhus, in a killing frenzy,
Agamemnon, Menelaus…

I saw Hecuba, together with her hundred daughters
and, amongst the altars, Priam, polluting with his blood
the very flames that he himself had blessed.
The famous fifty chambers, sporting on their doors
the spoils of war — barbarian gold — and from whose beds
had sprung abundant offspring, were in ruins;
where the fire guttered, Greeks controlled.

And what was Priam’s fate, perhaps you wonder?
When he saw the captured city felled, his palace doors torn off,
the enemy in occupation of his house, old as he was
he vainly threw his long-abandoned armour
round his ancient trembling shoulders,
girding on his useless sword. A man about to die,
he charged towards the packed ranks of the foe.

In the middle of the palace, open to the sky,
stood a gigantic altar, by an ancient laurel tree
which leant against it, shading the household gods.
Here on the altar steps sat Hecuba, in vain hope of protection,
with her daughters, huddled all together
like doves blown helplessly before a raging storm,
clutching the holy effigies.
When Hecuba saw agèd Priam in the armour of his youth, she cried,
“What are you thinking of, my poor unhappy husband,
taking up these weapons? Where are you going in such haste?
It is too late to save the city, or defend it;
it would be, even were my Hector with us now.
Give up; stay here. The altar will protect us all
or we will die together.” With these words
she pulled the old man to her, placing him upon the holy seat.

But now Polites, Priam’s son, escaping wounded
from the carnage caused by Pyrrhus, fled through the fighting
down the palace’s long colonnades, and crossed the empty courts.
Hot in pursuit came Pyrrhus, ready to strike,
about to catch him up and spear him.
When Polites reached his parents’ side, before their eyes
he fell down, pouring out his lifeblood in a stream.
At which the king, already in the arms of death,
gave full vent to his anger, shouting at Pyrrhus,
“For your crime, for deeds so wicked,
if in heaven there is justice which requites these acts,
I pray the gods to thank you as is fit,
reward you in the manner you deserve:
you, who have made me watch my own son’s murder
and with his death defiled a father’s sight.
This was not the way Achilles, whom you falsely claim
to be your father, dealt with me when we were enemies.
He had respect for my request; he recognised my rights.
He gave back Hector’s lifeless corpse for burying
and granted me a safe return to Troy.”
With these words, Priam feebly threw his spear.
The harmless thing rebounded off the bronze of Pyrrhus’ armour
with a clang, onto his shield boss, where it dangled idly.
Pyrrhus answered, “Take this message to my father, then.
Tell him that Pyrrhus is degenerate; my deeds are evil. And now die!”
He dragged the trembling king, still slipping in his son’s spilt blood,
up to the altar steps. He twisted Priam’s hair in his left hand
and lifted with his right his flashing sword
and buried it in Priam’s side, up to the hilt.

So Priam’s fortunes ended. Fate decreed that this should be his doom:
to see his Troy laid low, in flames;
the man who once was ruler of so many lands and peoples,
monarch of Asia. They dragged his body to the seashore,
where it lies, a huge and mutilated trunk, head severed
from the neck, a corpse without a name.

Rage and horror now possessed me. I stood stupefied
and my dear father’s image rose before me
as I looked upon the king, a man of the same age,
fatally wounded, gasping his life away.
I saw my poor forsaken wife Creüsa
and our plundered house. What had become of little Iulus?
I looked round and scanned our forces. All were spent.
They had deserted me: collapsed upon the ground
or fallen helplessly into the flames.

I was alone. And then I saw Helen, silently hiding,
out of the way, in Vesta’s shrine.
I went across and looked. The scene was lit up by the flames.
This hated woman, fearing the Trojans’ wrath towards her
for the sack of Troy, fearing the Greeks’ revenge,
the anger of the husband she abandoned,
she — the curse of her country and of ours —
had sneaked away and crouched down by the altars.
Burning rage leapt up in me; a longing to avenge
the ruin of my country and to make her pay for her misdeeds.
“So I suppose,” I thought, “that she’ll see Sparta
and Mycenae, where she came from, once again,
returning there as queen, unharmed, triumphant!
She’ll see her husband and her home,
her parents and her children, be attended
by a throng of Trojan ladies, waited on by Trojan servants.
Did Priam perish by the sword for this?
For this was Troy burnt to the ground,
our seashore drenched with blood so many times?
No, not for this, for her! Although I’ll gain no noble fame
for punishing a woman; though such victory receives no praise;
yet to have stamped out this abomination
and exacted retribution as deserved, will bring me credit.
An avenging fire will fill my soul with joy;
I will have done some justice to the ashes of my people.”
Railing like this, and in a frenzy of the mind,
I turned on her…

But then my gracious mother came before my eyes.
She shone more brightly than I’d ever seen before.
Her purity, her radiance lit up the night.
She showed herself as goddess, tall and beautiful,
the way she must appear to those who dwell above.
She took my hand, restraining me.
Her lovely voice pronounced these words:
“My son, what is the grief that stirs up
such wild anger in you? Why this rage?
Your loving care for me: where has it gone?
Should you not first see where you’ve left your weary father,
old Anchises; find out if your wife Creüsa
and your son, your Iulus, have survived?
Greek battle lines surround all three of them
and were it not for my concern
they would by now have perished in the flames;
their blood would have been spilled by hostile swords.
It is not Helen — she whose face you hate —
who is to blame for this; nor Paris. No, it is the gods,
the unforgiving gods, who have destroyed Troy’s wealth
and dragged it down from its supremacy.
Watch: I shall draw aside the cloud which up to now
has veiled your sight and dulled your mortal vision in its pall.
Obey me without fear; respect my counsel.
Here, where you see heaps of shattered rubble,
rocks torn from rocks, smoke drifting up amid the dust,
here Neptune is at work, shaking Troy’s walls,
upending its foundations with his giant trident,
tearing the city’s structure from its grounding.
Here is Juno — fiercest goddess of them all —
with sword in hand, controlling Troy’s west gate
and furiously summoning her allies from the ships.
Look up now to the city’s topmost towers.
Athena takes her stand there. Storm clouds lower round her
and the Gorgon’s head is snarling in her shield.
Jupiter, my father, gives the Greeks their courage
and supplies their strength; he stirs up the gods against the Trojans.
Quickly fly from here, my son, and leave behind this anguish.
I will never leave you. I will see you safely to your father’s house.”
With these words she vanished in the darkness of the night.
Fearful shapes came to my eyes: the gods’ great presences,
the hatred which they bore to Troy…

The city Neptune founded was collapsing in the flames
and I was witness to its overthrow.
It was as if an ancient ash tree in the mountains,
being felled by energetic woodmen with their saws and axes,
slowly weakened by its wounds and on the point of falling,
leaves a-tremble, crown nodding and swaying,
utters at last one mighty groan
as, ripped out from the mountainside, it crashes to the ground.

Down from the citadel I went and, with my mother’s guidance,
safely made my way through fire and the enemy.
Swords let me pass; the flames withdrew.

I reached the doorway of my father’s dwelling: my ancestral home.
I sought my father first, and begged that he would let me
carry him away into the hills. But he refused.
He had no wish, with Troy destroyed, to suffer exile or prolong his life.
“The rest of you,” he cried, “with your young blood,
your strength and vigour, you must flee, in haste, at once...
But as for me, had those who dwell in heaven willed
that I should live a longer span, they would have spared my home.
I’ve seen the city overthrown and captured once already, and survived.
That is enough, and more. You see me lying down now;
treat me as a corpse, and say farewell, and go! I’ll die a warrior.
The enemy will slay me out of pity, and collect the spoils.
I am not troubled by the loss of burial. I’m hated by the gods;
I’ve lived a life that’s useless and too long
since Jupiter’s hot breath blew on me in his lightning bolt
and scorched me with his fire.”

He spoke on in this way. He was unshakeable, while we dissolved in tears:
my wife Creüsa, my boy Iulus, all our household.
We pleaded that his stubbornness would hurt us all,
would load an extra sorrow on our misery.
But he refused our pleas. He had decided; he was staying where he lay.
In deep despair, I grabbed my armour once again.
A death wish was upon me. What strategy, what stroke of luck
could help us now? I cried out, “Father,
do you really think that I could leave without you?
Has such shameful language ever passed a father’s lips?
If heaven wishes to annihilate our city,
if you’re determined in your course
— to add your death and ours to Troy’s destruction —
that door opens wide. Soon Pyrrhus will be here,
reeking with Priam’s blood: the man who calmly butchered
Priam’s son before his father’s eyes, then slew the father at the altar.
Was it for this, my gentle mother, that you rescued me
through fire and sword: to see the enemy invade my home,
to see my wife, my son and father slaughtered in each other’s blood?
Bring me my weapons, men! Life’s last glimmer summons the defeated!
Let me at the Greeks again; I’ll find and fight them.
We shall not die unavenged today!”

I girded on my sword and put my left hand through the strapping on my shield.
As I was doing this and rushing from the house,
Creüsa at the door caught hold of me; she clutched my feet
and lifted little Iulus up towards his father.
“If you are going out to die, whatever happens,
take us with you. You have seen what lies outside;
so if you trust these weapons and this armour,
guard our house first. To what fate are you abandoning
your Iulus, and your father, and the woman
who once called herself your wife?”

She wept. She filled the whole house with her cries.
But then a portent, strange and wonderful, appears.
Between the hands and faces of his frantic parents,
suddenly a tongue of flame shines down on Iulus’ head.
It does no harm. It licks his curls and plays around his temples.
Trembling with fear, at once we shake his blazing hair
and quench the holy flames with water.
But my father raises joyful eyes to heaven
and, with hands and voice uplifted, cries,
“Almighty Jupiter, if any prayers can move you,
look on us — I ask no more — and help us,
if our virtue has deserved it. Father, prove this omen true!”
Hardly had the old man said these words,
when with a sudden clap of thunder in the east,
a shooting star bursts from the heavens,
sailing through the dark, its long tail blazing light and fire.
We watch it glide over the roof and crash in splendour
in the forests on Mount Ida, leaving a lengthy furrow
shining in the sky, and all around the stench of sulphur.
At this my father, overcome, and getting to his feet,
salutes the gods and venerates the holy sign:
“Now there is no delay. Now I am with you.
Where you lead, I follow. God of my fathers,
save my household, save my grandson, whom you favour.
You have given us this augury;
Troy has a future under your protection.
Son, I yield to you, I do. I’ll keep you company;
I can refuse no longer.”

He had spoken. Now the fire which had engulfed the city
was approaching; we could hear the roar.
I cried, “Dear father, come then, climb up on my back.
My shoulders will support you; you’re not heavy.
Whatever happens — danger or deliverance — we’ll face together.
Iulus, come with me. Creüsa, leave a little distance, and then follow.
Servants, listen to me. Just outside the city,
there’s a hillock next to Ceres’ ancient temple. It’s a lonely spot.
Beside it is a cypress tree. It’s old; our ancestors protected and revered it.
We’ll split up and gather there.
Father, take the holy symbols of our nation’s household gods.
I’ve just come from the battle, and from killing;
it would be profane to handle them
until I’ve cleansed myself in running water.”
With these words, I spread a tawny lion skin
over my neck and shoulders, and bend down to lift my father.
Iulus tightly holds my hand and follows me,
his little steps not matching mine. Behind us comes my wife.

We pick our way amidst the gloom.
Before, I’d never been afraid of spears and arrows hurled at me,
nor hordes of hostile Greeks. But now I’m scared
by every breath of wind, on edge at any sound.
I fear both for my father and my son.

We neared the gates. I thought we’d make it safely out,
when suddenly I seemed to hear the tramp of marching feet.
My father, peering through the dark, cried out,
“Fly, my son, fly! They’re coming. I can see
their glittering shields and shining helmets!”

I shall never know what evil power took hold of me.
I lost my wits, and as we plunged down alleyways,
leaving behind the streets I knew, by some unhappy chance
Creüsa, alas, was snatched away from us.
Did she stop running? Did she lose her way
and drop down in exhaustion?
I don’t know. I never saw my wife again.
I didn’t even look for her, or think about her,
till we got to Ceres’ ancient temple on the hillock.
Here, when all had gathered, she alone was missing
from the company, lost to her husband and her son.
I was beside myself, berating every mortal, every god.
This was, for me, the worst disaster in the fall of Troy.
I left my son, my father and Troy’s household gods
in charge of my companions, hidden in a winding valley,
strapped my shining armour on and turned back to the city,
with no choice except to run the gauntlet as before,
re-enter and scour all of Troy and put my life in danger yet again.

I found the walls first, then the gloomy entrance
to the gate by which I’d left. My eyes strained in the dark
as I retraced my steps. At every turn my mind was filled with dread
and, even in the silence, terror lurked.

I made it to our house. She might, just possibly,
have found her way back home.

The Greeks had broken in. They had the whole place occupied.
And as I looked, devouring fire rolled upward in the wind.
It reached the roof. Flames towered above the house
and sent a raging blast of heat into the sky.

On I went, to Priam’s house and to the citadel.
There, in the empty colonnades of Juno’s shrine,
stood Phoenix and the terrifying Ulysses,
chosen to guard the plunder. Troy’s royal treasures had been snatched
from temples set alight throughout the city, and brought here:
sacred altars, bowls of solid gold and captured robes, all piled in heaps.
Around them, in a long line, boys and trembling women stood.

Abandoning all caution now, I cried out in the night.
I filled the streets with shouting, in my anguish
calling in vain Creüsa’s name, redoubling my cries,
again, again. And as I rushed about the city, house to house,
in endless, desperate search of her, a mournful apparition
rose before my eyes. It was Creüsa’s ghost,
her image larger than I’d known her in her life. It struck me senseless
and the hair stood upright on my head. My voice stuck in my throat.
But then she spoke these words, to calm my fears:

“What is the use in yielding to such frantic grief, sweet husband?
These things have come about by heaven’s will.
You may not take Creüsa with you on your journey; this
the lord of high Olympus won’t allow.
Long exile is your fate, and you must plough
the vast expanses of the level sea. But you will come to Italy,
where Tiber gently flows through fertile, cultivated fields.
Joy, kingship and a royal wife await you there.
So wipe away those tears for your belov’d Creüsa.
I will never look upon the vaunted dwellings
of the Myrmidons or the Dolopians.
I will not go as slave to mistresses in Greece; not I,
a Trojan lady, married to the son of Venus, the divine.
The mighty mother of the gods has kept me on these shores.
Farewell now; and preserve the love we both bear to our son.”

She said these words, then left me weeping, with so many things
I longed to say to her. She drew away, into thin air. Three times
I tried to fold my arms around her neck; three times
her likeness, grasped in vain, escaped my hands,
as if borne up upon the breeze, or very like a fleeting dream.

The night had run its course, and so at last I rejoined my companions;
where I found, to my amazement, that great numbers
of new would-be travellers had flooded in, women and men,
youngsters gathered for exile, a pitiable crowd.
From all parts they had come, their minds made up, their baggage packed,
ready to cross the sea wherever I might lead.

Above Mount Ida’s highest ridges rose the morning star.
It brought the day. Greeks had blockaded and now held the gates.
No hope of help remained. I bowed to the inevitable,
took my father up, and headed for the mountains.’

Virgil — The Aeneid, book 2

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:

‘Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. quis talia fando
Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi
temperet a lacrimis? et iam nox umida caelo
praecipitat suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.
sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit,
incipiam.

Fracti bello fatisque repulsi
ductores Danaum, tot iam labentibus annis,
instar montis equum divina Palladis arte
aedificant sectaque intexunt abiete costas;
votum pro reditu simulant; ea fama vagatur.
huc delecta virum sortiti corpora furtim
includunt caeco lateri penitusque cavernas
ingentis uterumque armato milite complent.

Est in conspectu Tenedos, notissima fama
insula, dives opum Priami dum regna manebant,
nunc tantum sinus et statio male fida carinis:
huc se provecti deserto in litore condunt;
nos abiisse rati et vento petiisse Mycenas.
ergo omnis longo soluit se Teucria luctu.
panduntur portae; iuvat ire et Dorica castra
desertosque videre locos litusque relictum.
hic Dolopum manus, hic saevus tendebat Achilles,
classibus hic locus, hic acie certare solebant.
pars stupet innuptae donum exitiale Minervae
et molem mirantur equi; primusque Thymoetes
duci intra muros hortatur et arce locari,
sive dolo seu iam Troiae sic fata ferebant.
at Capys, et quorum melior sententia menti,
aut pelago Danaum insidias suspectaque dona
praecipitare iubent subiectisque urere flammis,
aut terebrare cavas uteri et temptare latebras.
scinditur incertum studia in contraria vulgus.

Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva,
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul: “o miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
creditis avectos hostis? aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? sic notus Ulixes?
aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi,
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.”
sic fatus ualidis ingentem viribus hastam
in latus inque feri curvam compagibus alvum
contorsit. stetit illa tremens, uteroque recusso
insonuere cavae gemitumque dedere cavernae.
et, si fata deum, si mens non laeva fuisset,
impulerat ferro Argolicas foedare latebras,
Troiaque nunc staret, Priamique arx alta maneres.

Ecce manus iuvenem interea post terga revinctum
pastores magno ad regem clamore trahebant
Dardanidae, qui se ignotum venientibus ultro,
hoc ipsum ut strueret Troiamque aperiret Achivis,
obtulerat, fidens animi atque in utrumque paratus,
seu versare dolos seu certae occumbere morti.
undique visendi studio Troiana iuventus
circumfusa ruit certantque inludere capto.
accipe nunc Danaum insidias et crimine ab uno
disce omnis...
namque ut conspectu in medio turbatus, inermis,
constitit atque oculis Phrygia agmina circumspexit,
“heu, quae nunc tellus,” inquit, “quae me aequora possunt
accipere? aut quid iam misero mihi denique restat,
cui neque apud Danaos usquam locus, et super ipsi
Dardanidae infensi poenas cum sanguine poscunt?”
quo gemitu conversi animi compressus et omnis
impetus. hortamur fari quo sanguine cretus,
quidve ferat; memoret quae sit fiducia capto.
ille haec, deposita tandem formidine, fatur.

“Cuncta equidem tibi, rex, fuerit quodcumque, fatebor
vera,” inquit; “neque me Argolica de gente negabo:
hoc primum; nec si miserum Fortuna Sinonem
finxit, vanum etiam mendacemque improba finget.
fando aliquod si forte tuas pervenit ad auris
Belidae nomen Palamedis et incluta fama
gloria, quem falsa sub proditione Pelasgi
insontem infando indicio, quia bella vetabat,
demisere neci, nunc cassum lumine lugent:
illi me comitem et consanguinitate propinquum
pauper in arma pater primis huc misit ab annis.
dum stabat regno incolumis regumque vigebat
conciliis, et nos aliquod nomenque decusque
gessimus. invidia postquam pellacis Ulixi
(haud ignota loquor) superis concessit ab oris,
adflictus vitam in tenebris luctuque trahebam
et casum insontis mecum indignabar amici.
nec tacui demens et me, fors si qua tulisset,
si patrios umquam remeassem victor ad Argos,
promisi ultorem et verbis odia aspera movi.
hinc mihi prima mali labes, hinc semper Ulixes
criminibus terrere novis, hinc spargere voces
in vulgum ambiguas et quaerere conscius arma.
nec requievit enim, donec Calchante ministro —
sed quid ego haec autem nequiquam ingrata revolve?
quidue moror? si omnis uno ordine habetis Achivos
idque audire sat est, iamdudum sumite poenas:
hoc Ithacus velit et magno mercentur Atridae.”

Tum vero ardemus scitari et quaerere causas,
ignari scelerum tantorum artisque Pelasgae.
prosequitur pavitans et ficto pectore fatur:

“Saepe fugam Danai Troia cupiere relicta
moliri et longo fessi discedere bello:
fecissentque utinam! saepe illos aspera ponti
interclusit hiems et terruit Auster euntis;
praecipue, cum iam hic trabibus contextus acernis
staret equus, toto sonuerunt aethere nimbi.
suspensi Eurypylum scitatum oracula Phoebi
mittimus, isque adytis haec tristia dicta reportat:
sanguine placastis ventos et virgine caesa,
cum primum Iliacas, Danai, venistis ad oras:
sanguine quaerendi reditus animaque litandum
Argolica. vulgi quae uox ut venit ad auris,
obstipuere animi gelidusque per ima cucurrit
ossa tremor, cui fata parent, quem poscat Apollo.
hic Ithacus vatem magno Calchanta tumultu
protrahit in medios; quae sint ea numina divum,
flagitat. et mihi iam multi crudele canebant
artificis scelus, et taciti ventura videbant.
bis quinos silet ille dies tectusque recusat
prodere voce sua quemquam aut opponere morti.
vix tandem, magnis Ithaci clamoribus actus,
composito rumpit vocem et me destinat arae.
adsensere omnes et, quae sibi quisque timebat,
unius in miseri exitium conversa tulere.

Iamque dies infanda aderat; mihi sacra parari
et salsae fruges et circum tempora vittae.
eripui, fateor, leto me et vincula rupi
limosoque lacu per noctem obscurus in ulva
delitui, dum vela darent, si forte dedissent.
nec mihi iam patriam antiquam spes ulla videndi
nec dulcis natos exoptatumque parentem;
quos illi fors et poenas ob nostra reposcent
effugia, et culpam hanc miserorum morte piabunt.
quod te per superos et conscia numina veri,
per si qua est quae restet adhuc mortalibus usquam
intemerata fides, oro, miserere laborum
tantorum, miserere animi non digna ferentis.”

His lacrimis vitam damus et miserescimus ultro.
ipse viro primus manicas atque arta levari
vincla iubet Priamus dictisque ita fatur amicis:
“quisquis es, amissos hinc iam obliviscere Graios;
noster eris. mihique haec edissere vera roganti:
quo molem hanc immanis equi statuere? quis auctor?
quidve petunt? quae religio? aut quae machina belli?”
dixerat. ille dolis instructus et arte Pelasga,
sustulit exutas vinclis ad sidera palmas:
“vos, aeterni ignes, et non violabile vestrum
testor numen,” ait, “vos arae ensesque nefandi,
quos fugi, vittaeque deum, quas hostia gessi:
fas mihi Graiorum sacrata resolvere iura,
fas odisse viros atque omnia ferre sub auras,
si qua tegunt; teneor patriae nec legibus ullis.
tu modo promissis maneas servataque serves
Troia, fidem, si vera feram, si magna rependam.

Omnis spes Danaum et coepti fiducia belli
Palladis auxiliis semper stetit. impius ex quo
Tydides sed enim scelerumque inventor Ulixes,
fatale adgressi sacrato avellere templo
Palladium, caesis summae custodibus arcis,
corripuere sacram effigiem manibusque cruentis
virgineas ausi divae contingere vittas:
ex illo fluere ac retro sublapsa referri
spes Danaum, fractae vires, aversa deae mens.
nec dubiis ea signa dedit Tritonia monstris.
vix positum castris simulacrum: arsere coruscae
luminibus flammae arrectis, salsusque per artus
sudor iit, terque ipsa solo (mirabile dictu)
emicuit parmamque ferens hastamque trementem.
extemplo temptanda fuga canit aequora Calchas,
nec posse Argolicis exscindi Pergama telis
omina ni repetant Argis numenque reducant
quod pelago et curvis secum avexere carinis.
et nunc quod patrias vento petiere Mycenas,
arma deosque parant comites pelagoque remenso
improvisi aderunt. ita digerit omina Calchas.
hanc pro Palladio moniti, pro numine laeso
effigiem statuere, nefas quae triste piaret.
hanc tamen immensam Calchas attollere molem
roboribus textis caeloque educere iussit,
ne recipi portis aut duci in moenia posset,
neu populum antiqua sub religione tueri.
nam si vestra manus violasset dona Minervae,
tum magnum exitium (quod di prius omen in ipsum
convertant!) Priami imperio Phrygibusque futurum;
sin manibus vestris vestram ascendisset in urbem,
ultro Asiam magno Pelopea ad moenia bello
venturam, et nostros ea fata manere nepotes.”

Talibus insidiis periurique arte Sinonis
credita res, captique dolis lacrimisque coactis,
quos neque Tydides nec Larisaeus Achilles,
non anni domuere decem, non mille carinae.

Hic aliud maius miseris multoque tremendum
obicitur magis atque improvida pectora turbat.
Laocoon, ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos,
sollemnis taurum ingentem mactabat ad aras.
ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta
(horresco referens) immensis orbibus angues
incumbunt pelago pariterque ad litora tendunt:
pectora quorum inter fluctus arrecta iubaeque
sanguineae superant undas, pars cetera pontum
pone legit sinuatque immensa volumine terga.
fit sonitus spumante salo; iamque arva tenebant
ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine et igni
sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora.
diffugimus visu exsangues. illi agmine certo
Laocoonta petunt; et primum parva duorum
corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
implicat et miseros morsu depascitur artus;
post ipsum auxilio subeuntem ac tela ferentem
corripiunt spirisque ligant ingentibus; et iam
bis medium amplexi, bis collo squamea circum
terga dati superant capite et cervicibus altis.
ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodos,
perfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno,
clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit,
qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.
at gemini lapsu delubra ad summa dracones
effugiunt saevaeque petunt Tritonidis arcem,
sub pedibusque deae clipeique sub orbe teguntur.
tum vero tremefacta novus per pectora cunctis
insinuat pavor, et scelus expendisse merentem
Laocoonta ferunt, sacrum qui cuspide robur
laeserit et tergo sceleratam intorserit hastam.
ducendum ad sedes simulacrum orandaque divae
numina conclamant…
dividimus muros et moenia pandimus urbis.
accingunt omnes operi pedibusque rotarum
subiciunt lapsus, et stuppea vincula collo
intendunt; scandit fatalis machina muros,
feta armis. pueri circum innuptaeque puellae
sacra canunt funemque manu contingere gaudent;
illa subit mediaeque minans inlabitur urbi.
o patria, o divum domus Ilium et incluta bello
moenia Dardanidum! quater ipso in limine portae
substitit, atque utero sonitum quater arma dedere:
instamus tamen immemores caecique furore
et monstrum infelix sacrata sistimus arce.
tunc etiam fatis aperit Cassandra futuris
ora, dei iussu non umquam credita Teucris.
nos delubra deum miseri, quibus ultimus esset
ille dies, festa velamus fronde per urbem.

Vertitur interea caelum et ruit Oceano nox,
involvens umbra magna terramque polumque
Myrmidonumque dolos; fusi per moenia Teucri
conticuere, sopor fessos complectitur artus.
et iam Argiva phalanx instructis navibus ibat
a Tenedo tacitae per amica silentia lunae
litora nota petens, flammas cum regia puppis
extulerat, fatisque deum defensus iniquis
inclusos utero Danaos et pinea furtim
laxat claustra Sinon. illos patefactus ad auras
reddit equus, laetique cavo se robore promunt
Thessandrus Sthenelusque duces et dirus Ulixes,
demissum lapsi per funem, Acamasque Thoasque
Pelidesque Neoptolemus primusque Machaon
et Menelaus et ipse doli fabricator Epeos.
invadunt urbem somno vinoque sepultam,
caeduntur vigiles, portisque patentibus omnis
accipiunt socios atque agmina conscia iungunt.

Tempus erat, quo prima quies mortalibus aegris
incipit et dono divum gratissima serpit.
in somnis, ecce, ante oculos maestissimus Hector
visus adesse mihi largosque effundere fletus,
raptatus bigis, ut quondam, aterque cruento
pulvere perque pedes traiectus lora tumentis.
ei mihi, qualis erat! quantum mutatus ab illo
Hectore qui redit exuvias indutus Achilli
vel Danaum Phrygios iaculatus puppibus ignis!
squalentem barbam et concretos sanguine crinis
vulneraque illa gerens, quae circum plurima muros
accepit patrios. ultro flens ipse videbar
compellare virum et maestas expromere voces:
“o lux Dardaniae, spes o fidissima Teucrum,
quae tantae tenuere morae? quibus Hector ab oris
exspectate venis? ut te post multa tuorum
funera, post varios hominumque urbisque labores
defessi aspicimus! quae causa indigna serenos
foedavit vultus? aut cur haec vulnera cerno?”
ille nihil, nec me quaerentem vana moratur,
sed graviter gemitus imo de pectore ducens,
“heu! fuge, nate dea, teque his,” ait, “eripe flammis.
hostis habet muros; ruit alto a culmine Troia.
sat patriae Priamoque datum: si Pergama dextra
defendi possent, etiam hac defensa fuissent.
sacra suosque tibi commendat Troia Penates:
hos cape fatorum comites, his moenia quaere
magna, pererrato statues quae denique ponto.”
sic ait, et manibus vittas Vestamque potentem
aeternumque adytis effert penetralibus ignem.

Diverso interea miscentur moenia luctu,
et magis atque magis, quamquam secreta parentis
Anchisae domus arboribusque obtecta recessit,
clarescunt sonitus armorumque ingruit horror.
excutior somno et summi fastigia tecti
ascensu supero atque arrectis auribus asto:
in segetem veluti cum flamma furentibus Austris
incidit, aut rapidus montano flumine torrens
sternit agros, sternit sata laeta boumque labores
praecipitisque trahit silvas; stupet inscius alto
accipiens sonitum saxi de vertice pastor.
tum vero manifesta fides, Danaumque patescunt
insidiae. iam Deiphobi dedit ampla ruinam
Volcano superante domus, iam proximus ardet
Ucalegon; Sigea igni freta lata relucent.
exoritur clamorque virum clangorque tubarum.
arma amens capio; nec sat rationis in armis,
sed glomerare manum bello et concurrere in arcem
cum sociis ardent animi; furor iraque mentem
praecipitat, pulchrumque mori succurrit in armis.

Ecce autem telis Panthus elapsus Achivum,
Panthus Othryades, arcis Phoebique sacerdos,
sacra manu victosque deos parvumque nepotem
ipse trahit cursuque amens ad limina tendit.
“quo res summa loco, Panthu? quam prendimus arcem?”
vix ea fatus eram gemitu cum talia reddit:
“venit summa dies et ineluctabile tempus
Dardaniae. fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens
gloria Teucrorum; ferus omnia Iuppiter Argos
transtulit; incensa Danai dominantur in urbe.
arduus armatos mediis in moenibus astans
fundit equus victorque Sinon incendia miscet
insultans. portis alii bipatentibus adsunt,
milia quot magnis umquam venere Mycenis;
obsedere alii telis angusta viarum
oppositis; stat ferri acies mucrone corusco
stricta, parata neci; vix primi proelia temptant
portarum vigiles et caeco Marte resistunt.”
talibus Othryadae dictis et numine divum
in flammas et in arma feror, quo tristis Erinys,
quo fremitus vocat et sublatus ad aethera clamor.
addunt se socios Rhipeus et maximus armis
Epytus, oblati per lunam, Hypanisque Dymasque
et lateri adglomerant nostro, iuvenisque Coroebus
Mygdonides: illis ad Troiam forte diebus
venerate, insano Cassandrae incensus amore,
et gener auxilium Priamo Phrygibusque ferebat,
infelix, qui non sponsae praecepta furentis
audierit…
quos ubi confertos ardere in proelia vidi,
incipio super his: “iuvenes, fortissima frustra
pectora, si vobis audentem extrema cupido
certa sequi, quae sit rebus fortuna videtis.
excessere omnes adytis arisque relictis
di, quibus imperium hoc steterat; succurritis urbi
incensae. moriamur et in media arma ruamus.
una salus victis nullam sperare salutem.”

Sic animis iuvenum furor additus. inde, lupi ceu
raptores atra in nebula, quos improba ventris
exegit caecos rabies catulique relicti
faucibus exspectant siccis, per tela, per hostis
vadimus haud dubiam in mortem mediaeque tenemus
urbis iter; nox atra cava circumvolat umbra.
quis cladem illius noctis, quis funera fando
explicet aut possit lacrimis aequare labores?
urbs antiqua ruit, multos dominata per annos;
plurima perque vias sternuntur inertia passim
corpora perque domos et religiosa deorum
limina. nec soli poenas dant sanguine Teucri:
quondam etiam victis redit in praecordia virtus
uictoresque cadunt Danai. crudelis ubique
luctus, ubique pavor et plurima mortis imago.

Primus se Danaum magna comitante caterva
Androgeos offert nobis, socia agmina credens
inscius, atque ultro verbis compellat amicis:
“festinate, viri! nam quae tam sera moratur
segnities? alii rapiunt incensa feruntque
Pergama; vos celsis nunc primum a navibus itis?”
dixit et extemplo (neque enim responsa dabantur
fida satis) sensit medios delapsus in hostis.
obstipuit retroque pedem cum voce repressit.
improvisum aspris veluti qui sentibus anguem
pressit humi nitens, trepidusque repente refugit
attollentem iras et caerula colla tumentem;
haud secus Androgeos visu tremefactus abibat.
inruimus densis et circumfundimur armis,
ignarosque loci passim et formidine captos
sternimus; aspirat primo Fortuna labori.
atque hic successu exsultans animisque Coroebus
“o socii, qua prima,” inquit, “Fortuna salutis
monstrat iter, quaque ostendit se dextra, sequamur:
mutemus clipeos Danaumque insignia nobis
aptemus. dolus an virtus, quis in hoste requirat?
arma dabunt ipsi.” sic fatus deinde comantem
Androgei galeam clipeique insigne decorum
induitur laterique Argivum accommodat ensem.
hoc Rhipeus, hoc ipse Dymas omnisque iuventus
laeta facit: spoliis se quisque recentibus armat.
vadimus immixti Danais haud numine nostro,
multaque per caecam congressi proelia noctem
conserimus, multos Danaum demittimus Orco.
diffugiunt alii ad navis et litora cursu
fida petunt; pars ingentem formidine turpi
scandunt rursus equum et nota conduntur in alvo.

Heu! nihil inuitis fas quemquam fidere divis!
ecce trahebatur passis Priameia virgo
crinibus a templo Cassandra adytisque Minervae,
ad caelum tendens ardentia lumina frustra,
lumina, nam teneras arcebant vincula palmas.
non tulit hanc speciem furiata mente Coroebus
et sese medium iniecit periturus in agmen.
consequimur cuncti et densis incurrimus armis.
hic primum ex alto delubri culmine telis
nostrorum obruimur oriturque miserrima caedes
armorum facie et Graiarum errore iubarum.
tum Danai gemitu atque ereptae virginis ira
undique collecti invadunt, acerrimus Aiax
et gemini Atridae Dolopumque exercitus omnis:
adversi rupto ceu quondam turbine venti
confligunt, Zephyrusque Notusque et laetus Eois
Eurus equis; stridunt silvae saevitque tridenti
spumeus atque imo Nereus ciet aequora fundo.
illi etiam, si quos obscura nocte per umbram
fudimus insidiis totaque agitavimus urbe,
apparent; primi clipeos mentitaque tela
agnoscunt atque ora sono discordia signant.
ilicet obruimur numero, primusque Coroebus
Penelei dextra divae armipotentis ad aram
procumbit; cadit et Rhipeus, iustissimus unus
qui fuit in Teucris et servantissimus aequi
(dis aliter visum); pereunt Hypanisque Dymasque
confixi a sociis; nec te tua plurima, Panthu,
labentem pietas nec Apollinis infula texit.
Iliaci cineres et flamma extrema meorum,
testor, in occasu vestro nec tela nec ullas
vitavisse vices, Danaum et si fata fuissent
ut caderem meruisse manu. divellimur inde,
Iphitus et Pelias mecum (quorum Iphitus aevo
iam gravior, Pelias et vulnere tardus Ulixi),
protinus ad sedes Priami clamore vocati.

Hic vero ingentem pugnam, ceu cetera nusquam
bella forent, nulli tota morerentur in urbe,
sic Martem indomitum Danaosque ad tecta ruentis
cernimus obsessumque acta testudine limen.
haerent parietibus scalae postisque sub ipsos
nituntur gradibus clipeosque ad tela sinistris
protecti obiciunt, prensant fastigia dextris.
Dardanidae contra turris ac tota domorum
culmina convellunt; his se, quando ultima cernunt,
extrema iam in morte parant defendere telis;
auratasque trabes, veterum decora alta parentum,
devolvunt; alii strictis mucronibus imas
obsedere fores; has servant agmine denso.
instaurati animi regis succurrere tectis
auxilioque levare viros uimque addere victis.

Limen erat caecaeque fores et pervius usus
tectorum inter se Priami, postesque relicti
a tergo, infelix qua se, dum regna manebant,
saepius Andromache ferre incomitata solebat
ad soceros et avo puerum Astyanacta trahebat.
evado ad summi fastigia culminis, unde
tela manu miseri iactabant inrita Teucri.
turrim in praecipiti stantem summisque sub astra
eductam tectis, unde omnis Troia videri
et Danaum solitae naves et Achaica castra,
adgressi ferro circum, qua summa labantis
iuncturas tabulata dabant, convellimus altis
sedibus impulimusque; ea lapsa repente ruinam
cum sonitu trahit et Danaum super agmina late
incidit. ast alii subeunt, nec saxa nec ullum
telorum interea cessat genus…

Vestibulum ante ipsum primoque in limine Pyrrhus
exsultat telis et luce coruscus aëna;
qualis ubi in lucem coluber mala gramina pastus,
frigida sub terra tumidum quem bruma tegebat,
nunc positis novus exuviis nitidusque iuventa
lubrica convoluit sublato pectore terga,
arduus ad solem, et linguis micat ore trisulcis.
una ingens Periphas et equorum agitator Achillis,
armiger Automedon, una omnis Scyria pubes
succedunt tecto et flammas ad culmina iactant.
ipse inter primos correpta dura bipenni
limina perrumpit postisque a cardine vellit
aeratos; iamque excisa trabe firma cavavit
robora et ingentem lato dedit ore fenestram.
apparet domus intus et atria longa patescunt;
apparent Priami et veterum penetralia regum,
armatosque vident stantis in limine primo.

At domus interior gemitu miseroque tumultu
miscetur, penitusque cavae plangoribus aedes
femineis ululant; ferit aurea sidera clamor.
tum pavidae tectis matres ingentibus errant
amplexaeque tenent postis atque oscula figunt.
instat vi patria Pyrrhus; nec claustra nec ipsi
custodes sufferre valent; labat ariete crebro
ianua, et emoti procumbunt cardine postes.
fit via vi; rumpunt aditus primosque trucidant
immissi Danai et late loca milite complent.
non sic, aggeribus ruptis cum spumeus amnis
exiit oppositasque evicit gurgite moles,
fertur in arva furens cumulo camposque per omnis
cum stabulis armenta trahit. vidi ipse furentem
caede Neoptolemum geminosque in limine Atridas,
vidi Hecubam centumque nurus Priamumque per aras
sanguine foedantem quos ipse sacraverat ignis.
quinquaginta illi thalami, spes tanta nepotum,
barbarico postes auro spoliisque superbi
procubuere; tenent Danai qua deficit ignis.

Forsitan et Priami fuerint quae fata requiras.
urbis uti captae casum convulsaque vidit
limina tectorum et medium in penetralibus hostem,
arma diu senior desueta trementibus aevo
circumdat nequiquam umeris et inutile ferrum
cingitur, ac densos fertur moriturus in hostis.
aedibus in mediis nudoque sub aetheris axe
ingens ara fuit iuxtaque veterrima laurus
incumbens arae atque umbra complexa Penates.
hic Hecuba et natae nequiquam altaria circum,
praecipites atra ceu tempestate columbae,
condensae et divum amplexae simulacra sedebant.
ipsum autem sumptis Priamum iuvenalibus armis
ut vidit, “quae mens tam dira, miserrime coniunx,
impulit his cingi telis? aut quo ruis?” inquit.
“non tali auxilio nec defensoribus istis
tempus eget; non, si ipse meus nunc adforet Hector.
huc tandem concede; haec ara tuebitur omnis,
aut moriere simul.” sic ore effata recepit
ad sese et sacra longaeuum in sede locavit.

Ecce autem elapsus Pyrrhi de caede Polites,
unus natorum Priami, per tela, per hostis
porticibus longis fugit et vacua atria lustrat
saucius. illum ardens infesto vulnere Pyrrhus
insequitur, iam iamque manu tenet et premit hasta.
ut tandem ante oculos evasit et ora parentum,
concidit ac multo vitam cum sanguine fudit.
hic Priamus, quamquam in media iam morte tenetur,
non tamen abstinuit nec voci iraeque pepercit:
“at tibi pro scelere,” exclamat, “pro talibus ausis
di, si qua est caelo pietas quae talia curet,
persolvant grates dignas et praemia reddant
debita, qui nati coram me cernere letum
fecisti et patrios foedasti funere vultus.
at non ille, satum quo te mentiris, Achilles
talis in hoste fuit Priamo; sed iura fidemque
supplicis erubuit corpusque exsangue sepulcro
reddidit Hectoreum meque in mea regna remisit.”
sic fatus senior, telumque imbelle sine ictu
coniecit, rauco quod protinus aere repulsum,
et summo clipei nequiquam umbone pependit.
cui Pyrrhus: “referes ergo haec et nuntius ibis
Pelidae genitori; illi mea tristia facta
degeneremque Neoptolemum narrare memento;
nunc morere.” hoc dicens altaria ad ipsa trementem
traxit et in multo lapsantem sanguine nati,
implicuitque comam laeva, dextraque coruscum
extulit ac lateri capulo tenus abdidit ensem.
haec finis Priami fatorum; hic exitus illum
sorte tulit, Troiam incensam et prolapsa videntem
Pergama, tot quondam populis terrisque superbum
regnatorem Asiae. iacet ingens litore truncus,
avulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.

At me tum primum saevus circumstetit horror.
obstipui; subiit cari genitoris imago,
ut regem aequaevum crudeli vulnere vidi
vitam exhalantem, subiit deserta Creusa
et direpta domus et parvi casus Iuli.
respicio et, quae sit me circum copia, lustro.
deseruere omnes defessi, et corpora saltu
ad terram misere aut ignibus aegra dedere.

Iamque adeo super unus eram, cum limina Vestae
servantem et tacitam secreta in sede latentem
Tyndarida aspicio; dant claram incendia lucem
erranti passimque oculos per cuncta ferenti.
illa sibi infestos eversa ob Pergama Teucros
et Danaum poenam et deserti coniugis iras
praemetuens, Troiae et patriae communis Erinys,
abdiderat sese atque aris invisa sedebat.
exarsere ignes animo; subit ira cadentem
ulcisci patriam et sceleratas sumere poenas.
“scilicet haec Spartam incolumis patriasque Mycenas
aspiciet, partoque ibit regina triumpho?
coniugiumque domumque patris natosque videbit
Iliadum turba et Phrygiis comitata ministris?
occiderit ferro Priamus? Troia arserit igni?
Dardanium totiens sudarit sanguine litus?
non ita. namque etsi nullum memorabile nomen
feminea in poena est, habet haec victoria laudem;
exstinxisse nefas tamen et sumpsisse merentis
laudabor poenas, animumque explesse iuvabit
ultricis flammae et cineres satiasse meorum.”
talia iactabam et furiata mente ferebar,
cum mihi se, non ante oculis tam clara, videndam
obtulit et pura per noctem in luce refulsit
alma parens, confessa deam qualisque videri
caelicolis et quanta solet, dextraque prehensum
continuit roseoque haec insuper addidit ore:
“nate, quis indomitas tantus dolor excitat iras?
quid furis? aut quonam nostri tibi cura recessit?
non prius aspicies ubi fessum aetate parentem
liqueris Anchisen, superet coniunxne Creusa
Ascaniusque puer? quos omnis undique Graiae
circum errant acies et, ni mea cura resistat,
iam flammae tulerint inimicus et hauserit ensis.
non tibi Tyndaridis facies invisa Lacaenae
culpatusue Paris, divum inclementia, divum
has evertit opes sternitque a culmine Troiam.
aspice (namque omnem, quae nunc obducta tuenti
mortalis hebetat visus tibi et umida circum
caligat, nubem eripiam; tu ne qua parentis
iussa time neu praeceptis parere recusa):
hic, ubi disiectas moles avulsaque saxis
saxa vides, mixtoque undantem pulvere fumum,
Neptunus muros magnoque emota tridenti
fundamenta quatit totamque a sedibus urbem
eruit. hic Iuno Scaeas saevissima portas
prima tenet sociumque furens a navibus agmen
ferro accincta vocat…
iam summas arces Tritonia, respice, Pallas
insedit nimbo effulgens et Gorgone saeva.
ipse pater Danais animos virisque secundas
sufficit, ipse deos in Dardana suscitat arma.
eripe, nate, fugam finemque impone labori.
nusquam abero et tutum patrio te limine sistam.”
dixerat et spissis noctis se condidit umbris.
apparent dirae facies inimicaque Troiae
numina magna deum…

Tum vero omne mihi visum considere in ignis
Ilium et ex imo verti Neptunia Troia:
ac veluti summis antiquam in montibus ornum
cum ferro accisam crebrisque bipennibus instant
eruere agricolae certatim; illa usque minatur
et tremefacta comam concusso vertice nutat,
vulneribus donec paulatim evicta supremum
congemuit traxitque iugis avulsa ruinam.
descendo ac ducente deo flammam inter et hostis
expedior: dant tela locum flammaeque recedunt.

Atque ubi iam patriae perventum ad limina sedis
antiquasque domos, genitor, quem tollere in altos
optabam primum montis primumque petebam,
abnegat excisa vitam producere Troia
exsiliumque pati. “vos o, quibus integer aevi
sanguis,” ait, “solidaeque suo stant robore vires,
vos agitate fugam...
me si caelicolae voluissent ducere vitam,
has mihi servassent sedes. satis una superque
vidimus excidia et captae superavimus urbi.
sic o sic positum adfati discedite corpus.
ipse manu mortem inveniam; miserebitur hostis
exuviasque petet. facilis iactura sepulcri.
iam pridem invisus divis et inutilis annos
demoror, ex quo me divum pater atque hominum rex
fulminis adflavit ventis et contigit igni.”

Talia perstabat memorans fixusque manebat.
nos contra effusi lacrimis coniunxque Creusa
Ascaniusque omnisque domus, ne vertere secum
cuncta pater fatoque urgenti incumbere vellet.
abnegat inceptoque et sedibus haeret in isdem.
rursus in arma feror mortemque miserrimus opto.
nam quod consilium aut quae iam fortuna dabatur?
“mene efferre pedem, genitor, te posse relicto
sperasti tantumque nefas patrio excidit ore?
si nihil ex tanta superis placet urbe relinqui,
et sedet hoc animo perituraeque addere Troiae
teque tuosque iuvat, patet isti ianua leto,
iamque aderit multo Priami de sanguine Pyrrhus,
natum ante ora patris, patrem qui obtruncat ad aras.
hoc erat, alma parens, quod me per tela, per ignis
eripis, ut mediis hostem in penetralibus utque
Ascanium patremque meum iuxtaque Creusam
alterum in alterius mactatos sanguine cernam?
arma, viri, ferte arma; vocat lux ultima victos.
reddite me Danais; sinite instaurata revisam
proelia. numquam omnes hodie moriemur inulti.”

Hinc ferro accingor rursus clipeoque sinistram
insertabam aptans meque extra tecta ferebam.
ecce autem complexa pedes in limine coniunx
haerebat, parvumque patri tendebat Iulum:
“si periturus abis, et nos rape in omnia tecum;
sin aliquam expertus sumptis spem ponis in armis,
hanc primum tutare domum. cui parvus Iulus,
cui pater et coniunx quondam tua dicta relinquor?”

Talia vociferans gemitu tectum omne replebat,
cum subitum dictuque oritur mirabile monstrum.
namque manus inter maestorumque ora parentum
ecce levis summo de vertice visus Iuli
fundere lumen apex, tactuque innoxia mollis
lambere flamma comas et circum tempora pasci.
nos pavidi trepidare metu crinemque flagrantem
excutere et sanctos restinguere fontibus ignis.
at pater Anchises oculos ad sidera laetus
extulit et caelo palmas cum voce tetendit:
“Iuppiter omnipotens, precibus si flecteris ullis,
aspice nos, hoc tantum, et si pietate meremur,
da deinde auxilium, pater, atque haec omina firma.”

Vix ea fatus erat senior, subitoque fragore
intonuit laevum, et de caelo lapsa per umbras
stella facem ducens multa cum luce cucurrit.
illam, summa super labentem culmina tecti,
cernimus Idaea claram se condere silva
signantemque vias; tum longo limite sulcus
dat lucem et late circum loca sulphure fumant.
hic vero victus genitor se tollit ad auras
adfaturque deos et sanctum sidus adorat.
“iam iam nulla mora est; sequor et, qua ducitis, adsum.
di patria, servate domum, servate nepotem.
vestrum hoc augurium, vestroque in numine Troia est.
cedo equidem nec, nate, tibi comes ire recuso.”
dixerat ille, et iam per moenia clarior ignis
auditur, propiusque aestus incendia volvunt.
“ergo age, care pater, cervici imponere nostrae;
ipse subibo umeris nec me labor iste gravabit;
quo res cumque cadent, unum et commune periclum,
una salus ambobus erit. mihi parvus Iulus
sit comes, et longe servet vestigia coniunx.
vos, famuli, quae dicam animis advertite vestris.
est urbe egressis tumulus templumque vetustum
desertae Cereris, iuxtaque antiqua cupressus
religione patrum multos servata per annos;
hanc ex diverso sedem veniemus in unam.
tu, genitor, cape sacra manu patriosque Penates;
me, bello e tanto digressum et caede recenti
attrectare nefas, donec me flumine vivo
abluero…”
haec fatus latos umeros subiectaque colla
veste super fulvique insternor pelle leonis,
succedoque oneri; dextrae se parvus Iulus
implicuit sequiturque patrem non passibus aequis;
pone subit coniunx. ferimur per opaca locorum,
et me, quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
tela neque adverso glomerati examine Grai,
nunc omnes terrent aurae, sonus excitat omnis
suspensum et pariter comitique onerique timentem.

Iamque propinquabam portis omnemque videbar
evasisse viam, subito cum creber ad auris
visus adesse pedum sonitus, genitorque per umbram
prospiciens, “nate,” exclamat, “fuge, nate; propinquant.
ardentis clipeos atque aera micantia cerno.”
hic mihi nescio quod trepido male numen amicum
confusam eripuit mentem. namque avia cursu
dum sequor et nota excedo regione viarum,
heu! misero coniunx fatone erepta Creusa
substitit? erravitne via seu lapsa resedit?
incertum; nec post oculis est reddita nostris,
nec prius amissam respexi animumve reflexi,
quam tumulum antiquae Cereris sedemque sacratam
venimus. hic demum collectis omnibus una
defuit, et comites natumque virumque fefellit.
quem non incusavi amens hominumque deorumque,
aut quid in eversa vidi crudelius urbe?
Ascanium Anchisenque patrem Teucrosque Penates
commendo sociis et curva valle recondo;
ipse urbem repeto et cingor fulgentibus armis.
stat casus renovare omnis omnemque reverti
per Troiam et rursus caput obiectare periclis.

Principio muros obscuraque limina portae,
qua gressum extuleram, repeto et vestigia retro
observata sequor per noctem et lumine lustro.
horror ubique animo, simul ipsa silentia terrent.
inde domum, si forte pedem, si forte tulisset,
me refero. inruerant Danai et tectum omne tenebant.
ilicet ignis edax summa ad fastigia vento
volvitur; exsuperant flammae, furit aestus ad auras.
procedo et Priami sedes arcemque reviso.
et iam porticibus vacuis Iunonis asylo
custodes lecti Phoenix et dirus Ulixes
praedam adservabant. huc undique Troïa gaza
incensis erepta adytis, mensaeque deorum
crateresque auro solidi captivaque vestis
congeritur. pueri et pavidae longo ordine matres
stant circum…
ausus quin etiam voces iactare per umbram
implevi clamore vias, maestusque Creusam
nequiquam ingeminans iterumque iterumque vocavi.
quaerenti et tectis urbis sine fine furenti
infelix simulacrum atque ipsius umbra Creusae
visa mihi ante oculos et nota maior imago.
obstipui, steteruntque comae et vox faucibus haesit.
tum sic adfari et curas his demere dictis:
“quid tantum insano iuvat indulgere dolori,
o dulcis coniunx? non haec sine numine divum
eveniunt; nec te comitem hinc portare Creusam
fas, aut ille sinit superi regnator Olympi.
longa tibi exsilia, et vastum maris aequor arandum;
et terram Hesperiam venies, ubi Lydius arva
inter opima virum leni fluit agmine Thybris.
illic res laetae regnumque et regia coniunx
parta tibi; lacrimas dilectae pelle Creusae.
non ego Myrmidonum sedes Dolopumve superbas
aspiciam aut Grais servitum matribus ibo,
Dardanis et divae Veneris nurus…
sed me magna deum genetrix his detinet oris.
iamque vale et nati serva communis amorem.”
haec ubi dicta dedit, lacrimantem et multa volentem
dicere deseruit, tenuisque recessit in auras.
ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum;
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.
sic demum socios consumpta nocte reviso.

Atque hic ingentem comitum adfluxisse novorum
invenio admirans numerum, matresque virosque,
collectam exsilio pubem, miserabile vulgus.
undique convenere, animis opibusque parati,
in quascumque velim pelago deducere terras.
iamque iugis summae surgebat Lucifer Idae
ducebatque diem, Danaique obsessa tenebant
limina portarum, nec spes opis ulla dabatur.
cessi et sublato montis genitore petivi.’

Virgil — Choose your Season, Choose your Ground

Georgics, book 1, lines 43–70

When spring is new, when icy water trickles down
from snowy mountains, and the warm west wind
breaks up the crumbling clods, that is the time
my groaning bull should drag the plough deep through the earth
so that the ploughshare glistens as it rubs the furrow.
Only a field which for two years has lain fallow,
under sun and frost, will grant the anxious farmer’s prayer;
it yields the mighty harvests which will burst his barns.

Before your iron cuts into an unfamiliar plain
make sure you’ve studied well
the winds which blow there and the changing humours of the sky,
the nature of the ground,
the ways that men have worked the land before —
what prospers in each district, and what fails.
Corn thrives in this place; there is good for grapes;
elsewhere fruit trees spring up; here grass grows readily, no need to plant.

Surely you know: Mount Tmolus sends us fragrant saffron;
India, her ivory; the epicene Sabaeans, frankincense;
the Chalybes, who labour naked at the forge, supply our iron;
Pontus sends the beaver’s pungent oil;
and Epirus provides victorious mares at our Olympic games.
These laws, these everlasting covenants,
were laid on certain lands by Nature from the earliest times,
from when Deucalion threw stones into an empty world
from which men sprang: a hardy race.

So, where the soil is fertile, let your sturdy oxen
turn it over early, in the year’s first months,
and let the dusty summer bake the fallen clods
in its increasing heat. But if the land is poor,
then you can wait until September,
when Arcturus rises; lightly lift the soil,
leaving a shallow furrow. Otherwise, in rich ground,
weeds may choke the hopeful corn; and, in poor,
the barren sand may lose the meagre moisture that it holds.

Virgil — Georgics, lines 43-70

Vere novo, gelidus canis cum montibus umor
liquitur et Zephyro putris se glaeba resolvit,
depresso incipiat iam tum mihi taurus aratro
ingemere, et sulco attritus splendescere vomer.
illa seges demum votis respondet avari
agricolae, bis quae solem, bis frigora sensit;
illius inmensae ruperunt horrea messes.
ac prius ignotum ferro quam scindimus aequor,
ventos et varium caeli praediscere morem
cura sit ac patrios cultusque habitusque locorum,
et quid quaeque ferat regio et quid quaeque recuset.
hic segetes, illic veniunt felicius uvae,
arborei fetus alibi, atque iniussa virescunt
gramina. nonne vides, croceos ut Tmolus odores,
India mittit ebur, molles sua tura Sabaei,
at Chalybes nudi ferrum, virosaque Pontus
castorea, Eliadum palmas Epiros equarum?
continuo has leges aeternaque foedera certis
inposuit natura locis, quo tempore primum
Deucalion vacuum lapides iactavit in orbem,
unde homines nati, durum genus. ergo age, terrae
pingue solum primis extemplo a mensibus anni
fortes invertant tauri glaebasque iacentis
pulverulenta coquat maturis solibus aestas;
at si non fuerit tellus fecunda, sub ipsum
Arcturum tenui sat erit suspendere sulco:
illic, officiant laetis ne frugibus herbae,
hic, sterilem exiguus ne deserat humor harenam.

Virgil — A Storm at Harvest Time

Georgics, book 1, lines 311–327

Need I describe what men must watch for
when the weather changes under autumn’s stars,
the days grow shorter, with a gentler heat;
or when spring downpours soak the bristling cornfields
as the milky grain is swelling on green stalks?

A farmer and his reaper reach his golden acres
and begin to strip the barley from its fragile stems.
Just then, the winds from every quarter join in battle,
tearing the laden harvest far and wide,
uprooting it and hurling it on high,
as if it were light chaff and flying stubble
scattered by a whirlwind to the darkening air.
I’ve often seen it. Often, too, I’ve seen
a mighty mass of waters gather in the sky;
inside the toppling clouds black showers form.
Heaven falls to earth; the deluge
drowns the smiling crops and wastes the oxen’s labour.
Ditches fill; deep rivers in their channels swell and roar;
the ocean chafes and boils in the estuaries.

Virgil — Georgics, book 1, lines 311–327

Quid tempestates autumni et sidera dicam,
atque, ubi iam breviorque dies et mollior aestas,
quae vigilanda viris, vel cum ruit imbriferum ver,
spicea iam campis cum messis inhorruit et cum
frumenta in viridi stipula lactentia turgent?
saepe ego, cum flavis messorem induceret arvis
agricola et fragili iam stringeret hordea culmo,
omnia ventorum concurrere proelia vidi,
quae gravidam late segetem ab radicibus imis
sublimem expulsam eruerent; ita turbine nigro
ferret hiems culmumque levem stipulasque volantis.
saepe etiam inmensum caelo venit agmen aquarum
et foedam glomerant tempestatem imbribus atris
collectae ex alto nubes; ruit arduus aether,
et pluvia ingenti sata laeta boumque labores
diluit; implentur fossae et cava flumina crescunt
cum sonitu fervetque fretis spirantibus aequor.

Virgil — Signs of Rain and of Fair Weather

Georgics, book 1, lines 373–423

The trouble that rain brings is never unannounced.
Either the cranes, high flyers normally,
are chased into the valley bottoms by the coming storm;
or else the heifer looks up to the sky
and flares her nostrils as she sniffs the wind;
or cheeping swallows circle round the ponds
while in the mud the frogs revive their old complaint.

Often, too, the ant brings out her eggs from shelter underground,
wearing a narrow pathway as she goes;
above, a giant rainbow stoops to drink;
and from their feeding grounds, in cawing multitudes,
great flocks of rooks take wing.

All kinds of seabirds come to forage in fresh water
in the river Cayster’s standing pools. Watch them outdo each other
in their splashing game; big drops run down their backs.
They duck their heads, or rush into the water,
eagerly delighting in their ineffective bath.

On dry sea sand, the raven, bird of evil omen,
struts alone, his harsh call summoning the rain.

Even at night, girls working late at spinning wheels
are quick to spot the oil that sputters in their lamp
and lumps of mouldy fungus forming round the wick.

Equally, from the storm itself you can foresee
the sun’s return, and newly opened skies;
the certain signs are there.
The stars are seen to shine with piercing brightness
and the rising moon owes nothing to her brother’s light;
no wispy clouds are borne across the sky.

It is too early yet for kingfishers
— those birds the sea nymph Thetis loved —
to spread their wings along the shore to catch the warming sun;
the muddy pigs have not yet thought
to break up with their snouts their bales of straw
and toss them in the air.
But mists drift down into the valleys, settling on the plain,
and from his lofty perch the owl observes the sunset;
though none hears, he practises his twilit song.

The hawk appears high up in the unclouded sky;
he punishes the lark who stole his lock of purple hair.
Wherever she takes flight
on wings which cleave the lightness of the upper air,
look how her cruel, ruthless enemy pursues her;
hear the sound of his great whirring wings.
He mounts; she swiftly flees, and once again
her wings cut through the sparse expanses of the sky.

The rooks repeat their liquid, muted call, three or four times now,
and often in their airy nests,
joyful at some mysterious admission of delight,
they chatter each to each among the leaves.
They’re glad, now that the rain has stopped,
to see once more their baby offspring and the homes they love.

It’s not, I think, that they have this intelligence from heaven
or that greater foresight in them is a gift of Fate;
but when the weather changes course, when moisture in the air is volatile,
when from the south the rainy wind
condenses that which formerly was rare
and rarefies what formerly was dense,
some aspect of their mind is turned around
and other, different impulses are quickened in their breasts
from those they followed when the wind was driving on the clouds.
That’s why we hear the birds in concert in the field,
the joyful lowing of the cattle, and the rooks’ exultant cries.

Virgil — Georgics, book 1, lines 373–423

Numquam inprudentibus imber
obfuit: aut illum surgentem vallibus imis
aëriae fugere grues, aut bucula caelum
suspiciens patulis captavit naribus auras,
aut arguta lacus circumvolitavit hirundo
et veterem in limo ranae cecinere querelam.
saepius et tectis penetralibus extulit ova
angustum formica terens iter, et bibit ingens
arcus, et e pastu decedens agmine magno
corvorum increpuit densis exercitus alis.
iam variae pelagi volucres et quae Asia circum
dulcibus in stagnis rimantur prata Caystri,
certatim largos umeris infundere rores,
nunc caput obiectare fretis, nunc currere in undas
et studio incassum videas gestire lavandi.
tum cornix plena pluviam vocat improba voce
et sola in sicca secum spatiatur harena.
ne nocturna quidem carpentes pensa puellae
nescivere hiemem, testa cum ardente viderent
scintillare oleum et putris concrescere fungos.

Nec minus ex imbri soles et aperta serena
prospicere et certis poteris cognoscere signis:
nam neque tum stellis acies obtunsa videtur
nec fratris radiis obnoxia surgere Luna,
tenuia nec lanae per caelum vellera ferri;
non tepidum ad solem pinnas in litore pandunt
dilectae Thetidi alcyones, non ore solutos
inmundi meminere sues iactare maniplos.
at nebulae magis ima petunt campoque recumbunt,
solis et occasum servans de culmine summo
nequiquam seros exercet noctua cantus.
apparet liquido sublimis in aëre Nisus
et pro purpureo poenas dat Scylla capillo:
quacumque illa levem fugiens secat aethera pinnis,
ecce inimicus, atrox, magno stridore per auras
insequitur Nisus; qua se fert Nisus ad auras,
illa levem fugiens raptim secat aethera pinnis.
tum liquidas corvi presso ter gutture voces
aut quater ingeminant, et saepe cubilibus altis
nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti
inter se in foliis strepitant; iuvat imbribus actis
progeniem parvam dulcisque revisere nidos.
haud equidem credo, quia sit divinitus illis
ingenium aut rerum Fato prudentia maior;
verum ubi tempestas et caeli mobilis umor
mutavere vias et Iuppiter uvidus Austris
denset erant quae rara modo, et quae densa relaxat,
vertuntur species animorum, et pectora motus
nunc alios, alios, dum nubila ventus agebat,
concipiunt: hinc ille avium concentus in agris
et laetae pecudes et ovantes gutture corvi.

Virgil — The Old Man at Tarentum

Georgics, book 4, lines 125–148

I saw an old man once — the memory returns —
whose home was at Tarentum,
where the shaded waters of the river Galaesus
refresh the ripening corn. He’d come there from Cilicia.
He had a few poor acres of abandoned ground,
not fit for tillage, nor for flocks, nor vines.
And yet he’d made of it a garden,
planting vegetables among the brambles here and there,
and flowers: flimsy poppies and verbena and white lilies.
In his own mind he had the wealth of kings.
He came home late at night, and on his table
laid a feast for which no money had changed hands.
He was the first to gather roses in the spring
and apples in the autumn.
When harsh winter was still splitting rocks with frost
and ice floes slowed the currents of the rivers,
there he was, already cutting wispy hyacinths,
impatient for the laggard summer
and the soft west breezes, slow to come.
So he was first to have a plentiful supply of bees,
emerging in great swarms; and first
to gather frothy honey from the combs he pressed;
his laurestines and lime trees flowered abundantly,
and all the fruits whose blossoms clothed his fertile trees in spring
arrived at ripeness in the autumn.
He would even plant established elms in lines,
pear trees hardened by the seasons,
blackthorns hung with sloes
and planes in leaf, to offer shade to thirsty passers-by.
But I must move on now; I haven’t space to tell you more.
Other writers, after me, will add their memories to mine.

Virgil — Georgics, book 4, lines 125–148

namque sub Oebaliae memini me turribus arcis,
qua niger umectat flaventia culta Galaesus,
Corycium vidisse senem, cui pauca relicti
iugera ruris erant, nec fertilis illa iuvencis
nec pecori opportuna seges nec commoda Baccho:
hic rarum tamen in dumis olus albaque circum
lilia verbenasque premens vescumque papaver
regum aequabat opes animis, seraque revertens
nocte domum dapibus mensas onerabat inemptis.
primus vere rosam atque autumno carpere poma,
et cum tristis hiems etiamnum frigore saxa
rumperet et glacie cursus frenaret aquarum,
ille comam mollis iam tondebat hyacinthi
aestatem increpitans seram Zephyrosque morantis.
ergo apibus fetis idem atque examine multo
primus abundare et spumantia cogere pressis
mella favis; illi tiliae atque uberrima tinus,
quotque in flore novo pomis se fertilis arbos
induerat, totidem autumno matura tenebat.
ille etiam seras in versum distulit ulmos
eduramque pirum et spinos iam pruna ferentis
iamque ministrantem platanum potantibus umbras.
verum haec ipse equidem spatiis exclusus iniquis
praetereo atque aliis post me memoranda relinquo.

Virgil — Aristaeus and the Bees

Georgics, book 4, lines 281–558

If anyone’s whole stock of bees has failed
and he has no idea how to revive the line,
he needs to learn how Aristaeus did it
long ago: a famous method, often used,
whereby new brood is generated
from the tainted blood of slaughtered bullocks.
Let me tell the whole long story, from the start.

In Egypt, whose inhabitants dwell happily
beside the quiet lakes formed by the flooded Nile
and sail around their fields in painted boats;
where the Persian empire borders, and the rushing river,
after flowing all the way from Ethiopia,
divides into its seven branches,
fertilising with black silt the verdant land:
in that whole region people put their trust in this technique.

They choose a place first that will serve their purpose:
small and narrowly confined. They wall and roof it in.
On each of its four sides
they make a window for the slanting light to enter.
Then they take a bullock, two years old;
the horns his brow has sprouted have begun to curve.
They stop his nostrils, block his mouth
and beat to death the poor beast as he struggles.
Then they pound the flesh, to soften it,
while being careful not to split the hide.
They leave him lying in his prison,
scattering beside him broken branches,
thyme and freshly gathered cassia.
This they do in February,
when the soft west wind first ruffles up the waves,
before the meadows blush with new spring colours
and the chattering swallow hangs her nest up in the rafters.
Now the moisture, warming in the softened bones, ferments.
Extraordinary creatures, with no feet at first,
but then with buzzing wings, assemble in a swarm,
and more and more of them attempt to fly,
until, like summer showers pouring from the clouds
or arrows shot from Parthians’ bowstrings
as the battle opens, they burst forth.

Which god was it, you Muses, who invented this device?
And how did men’s ingenious experimenting start?
The tale is told that Aristaeus was a shepherd who kept bees.
He left the vale of Tempe, by the river Peneus,
because his bees had died of hunger and disease.
He stopped beside the sacred fountain at the river’s source
and cried out, bitterly complaining to his mother,
‘Mother, oh Cyrene, you who dwell
deep in this river, if indeed Apollo is my father
and my parentage is glorious and divine,
why was I born, only to be hated by the fates?
Your former love for me, where has it gone?
Why did you bid me hope to have a place in heaven?
Here, although you are my mother,
I resign the best achievements of my mortal life,
these poor rewards for all the care and skill I’ve brought
to tending crops and cattle. Come now:
with your own hand uproot my pleasant woods,
set fire to my cattle stalls, destroy my crops
and burn my seedlings; take an axe — cut down my vines
if such contempt for me and for my honour has possessed you.’

From her chamber underneath the stream
his mother heard his cry. All around her
Nymphs were spinning fleeces from Milesia,
richly dyed a shade of glassy green…
Amongst them, Clymene was singing.
In her song she told how Vulcan, Venus’ husband,
found his wife in bed with Mars;
he wrapped the lovers in a net and then exposed them,
tangled up together, to the gods,
who only mocked him for his foolishness.
The amorous adventures of immortals,
as Clymene narrated them, are countless and as old as time.

Pleased with the song, the Nymphs
were winding soft thread from their spindles
when Aristaeus’ cry assailed his mother’s ear.
The sisters, seated on their glittering chairs, were shocked.
The first to lift her golden head above the waves
was Arethusa. She looked round, and called down to Cyrene,
‘Sister, you were right to be alarmed at this commotion.
It is your own belovèd Aristaeus,
standing sadly by the river, weeping
and accusing you, by name, of cruelty.’

Cyrene’s soul was smitten with strange terror
and she cried, ‘Oh, bring him to us, hurry!
It is allowed that he should cross the threshold of the gods.’
At her command the river parted wide
so that the youth could enter; and its waves stood up
like great curved mountains, forming
an enormous hollow which admitted him
and let him pass beneath the water.
So he went, and marvelled at his mother’s home,
her underwater kingdom, with its lakes confined in caverns,
with its echoing forests; he was stunned to hear
the mighty rush of waters, and amazed to see each river
following its course beneath the great weight of the earth…
When he reached his mother’s chamber
with its hanging roof of pumice,
while Cyrene listened to her son’s self-piteous complaint,
some of the sisters poured spring water on his hands
and brought soft towels to dry them.
Others loaded tables with a feast
and set out brimming cups of wine.
The altars blazed with frankincense. Cyrene cried,
‘Take up the goblets of Maeonion wine;
to Ocean let us make libation!’
Then she prayed to Ocean, father of all things,
and to the Nymphs her sisters, guardian spirits
of a hundred forests and a hundred streams.
Three times she sprinkled flowing nectar on the glowing hearth;
three times the flame blazed up again and reached the roof.
With this good omen to impart fresh courage to her son,
the mother spoke.

‘Out at sea, near Egypt, lives a seer.
His name is Proteus. His colour is sea-green.
Across the great expanses of the deep
he travels in a chariot drawn by fishes
and a team of horses with two legs.
At present he’s revisiting the ports of Thessaly
and Pallene, where he was born.
We Nymphs revere him; so does agèd Nereus himself.
The seer has knowledge of all things:
what is, what has been, what is soon to come.
For this was Neptune’s wish; and Proteus shepherds
Neptune’s flocks of monstrous underwater creatures.
First, my son, you must enchain him;
only then will he explain to you the cause of this disease
and bring about a happy outcome. Force him to it;
otherwise he’ll give you no advice; entreaty will not work.
It is a trial of strength; bind fast the prisoner;
his trickery will then exhaust itself in vain.
I’ll take you to his secret hideaway.
We’ll go there in the heat of midday, when the grass is parched,
when sheep have sought some welcome shade.
The old one will be weary then, and resting.
You can easily assail him while he lies asleep.
But when you lay your hands on him to chain him up,
he’ll try to get away from you by changing shape:
he’ll suddenly appear as different savage beasts —
a bristling boar, a fearsome tiger,
scaly dragon, tawny lioness;
or he’ll eject a spurt of roaring flame to slip his fetters
or he’ll melt between your fingers like clear water.
But the more he tries to change his form, my son,
the tighter you must bind him; after all of these disguises
he will finally resume the shape he had
when first he closed his eyes to sleep.’

Those were her words. She poured ambrosia in a fragrant stream,
anointing Aristaeus’ body with it, head to toe,
so that his hair was smoothed and perfumed
and his limbs made strong and supple.

There is a mighty cavern, hollowed in the mountainside,
where waves are driven endlessly before the wind
and break and roll into its inner recesses.
Sometimes the cave gives mariners safe refuge from the storm.
This is the place, behind a giant rock, where Proteus takes shelter.
Cyrene stationed Aristaeus here, out of the light
and ready for the ambush, while she stood apart, veiled in a mist.
It was high noon in summer, and the grass was scorched.
The riverbeds were dry; their mud was baking in the heat.
Up from the sea came Proteus, in search of his familiar cave.
Around him frolicked creatures of the deep,
splashing far and wide their salty spray.
Here and there, his seals lay down to sleep along the shore.
Just like the shepherd in the hills,
when evening brings the cattle home from pasture
and the bleating of the lambs excites the hunger of the wolf,
Proteus sat on a rock amidst his animals, and counted them.
Now Aristaeus saw his chance.
He scarcely let the ancient one compose his weary limbs
before he burst upon him with a shout, surprising him
and binding him with fetters where he lay.
Proteus of course did not forget his tricks.
He changed himself into all sorts of wondrous shapes:
he was a fire, and then a hideous beast, and then a flowing river.
But when these tactics failed and there was no escape
and he was beaten, he became himself again
and spoke to his attacker with a human voice.
‘Who told you, you presumptuous boy,
that you could break into our home?
What do you want from us?’
Aristaeus answered, ‘Proteus, you know already.
No one can deceive you; don’t try to dupe us now.
The gods have counselled us; we’re here to seek an oracle,
to understand the trouble that has come upon us.’
Hearing these words, the seer, surrendering at last
to inspiration’s agonising force,
his rolling eyes ablaze with blue-grey light,
gnashing his teeth in grim and helpless rage,
opened his mouth to speak the judgement of the fates.

‘The anger of a god pursues you, for your crime is great.
The punishment you suffer is far less than you deserve.
Unhappy Orpheus has brought it on you, in his fury
that his wife was stolen from him by your lust.
Fleeing headlong on the river bank, the poor doomed girl,
in desperation to escape you, failed to see
a giant water snake in long grass at her feet.
Her sisterhood of wood nymphs filled the mountaintops
with cries of sorrow. On the heights of Thrace
and by its rivers there was lamentation.
Orithyia, daughter of the king of Athens, wept.
Orpheus sought consolation for his aching heart
with music from his lyre. It was of you, Eurydice,
his own sweet wife, of you he sang along the lonely shore,
of you as day approached, of you as day departed.

He even ventured through the gorge of Taenarum,
past Pluto’s lofty gates, and crossed a terrifying murky grove,
until he reached the country of the dead, ruled by its fearful king:
the masters of that land, flint-hearted, are impervious to human
   prayers.
Moved by his song, up from the deepest settlements of Erebus
came insubstantial spirits, ghosts of those who live in darkness,
numbering as many thousands as the flocks of birds
that hide themselves among the leaves
when nightfall or a winter shower drives them from the mountains:
women and men, great heroes of the past, their lives now done,
young boys, unmarried girls
and sons placed on the funeral pyre before their parents’ eyes.
The marshes of the sluggish river Cocytus imprisoned them:
a landscape of black mud and ugly reeds;
beyond, the nine confining circles of the river Styx.
They listened.
What is more, the very house of Death, the lowest vaults of Hell,
the Furies with the purple snakes twined in their hair,
were spellbound by the music;
Cerberus stood still, his triple mouths agape;
the wind dropped, and the wheel of Ixion slowed down and stopped.

And now, as Orpheus retraced his steps,
avoiding every danger, and Eurydice,
the wife he had reclaimed, was following behind
— a stipulation Proserpina had required —
a sudden folly seized the careless lover,
folly crying out to be forgiven, overlooked. But Hell is unforgiving.
Having almost gained the light of day, desire overcame him
and unthinkingly, alas, he looked back at Eurydice,
now nearly his again.
That moment all his work was rendered vain,
the bargain he had made with heartless Pluto broken,
and a triple clap of thunder sounded in the marshes of Avernus.
Eurydice cried out, “What dreadful madness, Orpheus,
has brought catastrophe on you and me?
Look! The cruel fates recall me, and the sleep of death
is sealing up my swimming eyes.
Farewell now; they are bearing me away;
I am surrounded by the vastness of the night.
I stretch my hands to you, but they are weak
and — oh, alas! — they’re yours no longer.”
So she spoke, and instantly, like smoke that mingles in thin air,
she vanished from his sight a different way.
She never saw the youth again.
He vainly clutched at shadows,
with so many things he wished to say now left unsaid.
Charon refused to let him back across the Styx.

What could he do? Where could he go,
a man whose wife had twice been stolen from him?
Could his weeping move Hell’s rulers?
To which gods could he appeal?
Eurydice was dead and cold already,
floating on the Styx in Charon’s boat.
They say he wept for seven whole months,
day after day, beneath a lofty crag
beside the river Strymon, far from human habitation;
and that in cool valleys where he told his story,
savage tigers were affected
and the oak trees bent their heads to listen.
It was sorrow like the nightingale’s,
who sits in shadow in a poplar tree
and mourns her young ones’ loss, a cruel ploughman
having seen their nest and plucked her unfledged offspring from it;
all night long she weeps upon a branch,
repeating time and time again her piteous song
and filling all the air with poignant lamentation.
For him there was no thought of other loves, of other brides.
He wandered through the frozen North, alone,
along the icy river Tanais, across the Russian mountains,
grieving for Eurydice, now lost,
bewailing Pluto’s favour, suddenly withdrawn;
until he came to Thrace. Here the Ciconian women,
jealous of his pure devotion, while performing
holy rites and midnight orgies in the name of Bacchus,
tore the young man limb from limb
and strewed his broken body far and wide across the plains.
And as his head, now severed from his beautiful white neck,
was bobbing in the current of the river Hebrus,
still his tongue, though cold in death, and disembodied voice
with failing breath called to Eurydice, his poor Eurydice!
The banks gave back “Eurydice” the whole length of the stream.’

So Proteus spoke, and plunged down, deep into the sea;
and where he dived, he whirled the water
into foam beneath the turbulence.
Cyrene didn’t leave the frightened youth; she spoke to him at once.
‘Now put aside the trouble that afflicts your mind.
The cause of the disease is this, and this alone.
The Nymphs have done this dreadful damage to your bees
because Eurydice and they, in former times,
would dance together, far into the woods.
Now you must be a suppliant, and offer gifts,
and plead for peace, and venerate the gentle spirits of the woods.
They will respond to prayers; their anger will abate. But first
I’ll tell you how your act of penitence must be performed.
Take four choice bulls, the finest specimens
that now are grazing on the green heights of mount Lykaion;
and with them pick four heifers that have never felt the yoke.
Set up four altars for them by the noble shrines
made sacred to the goddesses,
and from the victims’ throats drain off the sacrificial blood,
but leave the bodies of the cattle in the leafy wood.
Nine days later, make an offering of Lethe’s poppies,
for forgetfulness, to Orpheus’ departed spirit,
kill a black ewe, and return to where the bulls and heifers lie.
By now, Eurydice will be appeased,
and you should honour her by slaughtering a calf.’

Without delay, he did his mother’s bidding.
He set up the altars by the shrines,
and brought the four choice bulls there
and the unyoked heifers. Nine days following,
he paid his funeral dues to Orpheus
and went back to the wood. And here
the mother and the son saw something wonderful:
a portent. In the paunches of the beasts,
emerging from their putrifying flesh, were bees,
which buzzed and swarmed out from the ruptured flanks,
drawn upwards in great clouds,
until at last they massed together on a treetop,
hanging in a cluster from the bending boughs.

Virgil — Georgics, book 4, lines 281–558

Sed si quem proles subito defecerit omnis,
nec genus unde novae stirpis revocetur habebit,
tempus et Arcadii memoranda inventa magistri
pandere, quoque modo caesis iam saepe iuvencis
insincerus apes tulerit cruor. altius omnem               
expediam prima repetens ab origine famam.
nam qua Pellaei gens fortunata Canopi
accolit effuso stagnantem flumine Nilum
et circum pictis vehitur sua rura phaselis,
quaque pharetratae vicinia Persidis urget,              
et diversa ruens septem discurrit in ora
usque coloratis amnis devexus ab Indis,
et viridem Aegyptum nigra fecundat harena,
omnis in hac certam regio iacit arte salutem.

Exiguus primum atque ipsos contractus in usus              
eligitur locus; hunc angustique imbrice tecti
parietibusque premunt artis et quattuor addunt,
quattuor a ventis obliqua luce fenestras.
tum vitulus bima curvans iam cornua fronte
quaeritur; huic geminae nares et spiritus oris             
multa reluctanti obstruitur, plagisque perempto
tunsa per integram solvuntur viscera pellem.
sic positum in clauso linquunt et ramea costis
subiciunt fragmenta, thymum casiasque recentis.
hoc geritur Zephyris primum impellentibus undas,               
ante novis rubeant quam prata coloribus, ante
garrula quam tignis nidum suspendat hirundo.
interea teneris tepefactus in ossibus umor
aestuat, et visenda modis animalia miris,
trunca pedum primo, mox et stridentia pinnis,               
miscentur, tenuemque magis magis aëra carpunt,
donec, ut aestivis effusus nubibus imber
erupere, aut ut nervo pulsante sagittae,
prima leves ineunt si quando proelia Parthi.

Quis deus hanc, Musae, quis nobis extudit artem?               
unde nova ingressus hominum experientia cepit?
pastor Aristaeus fugiens Peneia Tempe,
amissis, ut fama, apibus morboque fameque,
tristis ad extremi sacrum caput adstitit amnis,
multa querens, atque hac adfatus voce parentem:               
‘mater, Cyrene mater, quae gurgitis huius
ima tenes, quid me praeclara stirpe deorum
(si modo, quem perhibes, pater est Thymbraeus Apollo)
invisum fatis genuisti? aut quo tibi nostri
pulsus amor? quid me caelum sperare iubebas?               
en etiam hunc ipsum vitae mortalis honorem,
quem mihi vix frugum et pecudum custodia sollers
omnia temptanti extuderat, te matre relinquo.
quin age et ipsa manu felices erue silvas,
fer stabulis inimicum ignem atque interfice messes,              
ure sata et validam in vites molire bipennem,
tanta meae si te ceperunt taedia laudis.’

At mater sonitum thalamo sub fluminis alti
sensit. eam circum Milesia vellera Nymphae
carpebant hyali saturo fucata colore…              
inter quas curam Clymene narrabat inanem               
Volcani Martisque dolos et dulcia furta,
aque Chao densos divum numerabat amores.
carmine quo captae dum fusis mollia pensa
devolvunt, iterum maternas impulit auris
luctus Aristaei, vitreisque sedilibus omnes               
obstipuere; sed ante alias Arethusa sorores
prospiciens summa flavum caput extulit unda,
et procul: ‘o gemitu non frustra exterrita tanto,
Cyrene soror, ipse tibi, tua maxima cura,
tristis Aristaeus nostri genitoris ad undam               
stat lacrimans et te crudelem nomine dicit.’

Huic percussa nova mentem formidine mater,
‘duc, age, duc ad nos; fas illi limina divum
tangere,’ ait: simul alta iubet discedere late
flumina, qua iuvenis gressus inferret. at illum               
curvata in montis faciem circumstetit unda,
accepitque sinu vasto misitque sub amnem.
iamque domum mirans genetricis et umida regna
speluncisque lacus clausos lucosque sonantis
ibat, et ingenti motu stupefactus aquarum               
omnia sub magna labentia flumina terra
spectabat diversa locis…

postquam est in thalami pendentia pumice tecta
perventum et nati fletus cognovit inanis               
Cyrene, manibus liquidos dant ordine fontis
germanae, tonsisque ferunt mantelia villis;
pars epulis onerant mensas et plena reponunt
pocula, Panchaeis adolescunt ignibus arae.
et mater ‘cape Maeonii carchesia Bacchi:              
Oceano libemus,’ ait. simul ipsa precatur
Oceanumque patrem rerum Nymphasque sorores,
centum quae silvas, centum quae flumina servant.
ter liquido ardentem perfundit nectare Vestam,
ter flamma ad summum tecti subiecta reluxit.               
omine quo firmans animum sic incipit ipsa:

‘Est in Carpathio Neptuni gurgite vates,
caeruleus Proteus, magnum qui piscibus aequor
et iuncto bipedum curru metitur equorum.
hic nunc Emathiae portus patriamque revisit               
Pallenen; hunc et Nymphae veneramur et ipse
grandaevus Nereus; novit namque omnia vates,
quae sint, quae fuerint, quae mox ventura trahantur;
quippe ita Neptuno visum est, immania cuius
armenta et turpis pascit sub gurgite phocas.               
hic tibi, nate, prius vinclis capiendus, ut omnem
expediat morbi causam eventusque secundet.
nam sine vi non ulla dabit praecepta, neque illum
orando flectes; vim duram et vincula capto
tende; doli circum haec demum frangentur inanes.               
ipsa ego te, medios cum sol accenderit aestus,
cum sitiunt herbae et pecori iam gratior umbra est,
in secreta senis ducam, quo fessus ab undis
se recipit, facile ut somno adgrediare iacentem.
verum ubi correptum manibus vinclisque tenebis,  
tum variae eludent species atque ora ferarum.
fiet enim subito sus horridus atraque tigris
squamosusque draco et fulva cervice leaena,
aut acrem flammae sonitum dabit atque ita vinclis
excidet, aut in aquas tenues dilapsus abibit.               
sed quanto ille magis formas se vertet in omnis
tam tu, nate, magis contende tenacia vincla,
donec talis erit mutato corpore, qualem
videris, incepto tegeret cum lumina somno.’

Haec ait et liquidum ambrosiae defundit odorem,        
quo totum nati corpus perduxit; at illi
dulcis compositis spiravit crinibus aura
atque habilis membris venit vigor. est specus ingens
exesi latere in montis, quo plurima vento
cogitur inque sinus scindit sese unda reductos,               
deprensis olim statio tutissima nautis;
intus se vasti Proteus tegit obice saxi.
hic iuvenem in latebris aversum a lumine Nympha
collocate, ipsa procul nebulis obscura resistit.
iam rapidus torrens sitientes Sirius Indos               
ardebat caelo, et medium sol igneus orbem
hauserat; arebant herbae, et cava flumina siccis
faucibus ad limum radii tepefacta coquebant,
cum Proteus consueta petens e fluctibus antra
ibat; eum vasti circum gens umida ponti               
exsultans rorem late dispergit amarum.
sternunt se somno diversae in litore phocae;
ipse velut stabuli custos in montibus olim,
Vesper ubi e pastu vitulos ad tecta reducit
auditisque lupos acuunt balatibus agni,               
considit scopulo medius, numerumque recenset.
cuius Aristaeo quoniam est oblata facultas,
vix defessa senem passus componere membra
cum clamore ruit magno, manicisque iacentem
occupat. ille suae contra non immemor artis               
omnia transformat sese in miracula rerum,
ignemque horribilemque feram fluviumque liquentem.
verum ubi nulla fugam reperit fallacia, victus
in sese redit atque hominis tandem ore locutus
‘nam quis te, iuvenum confidentissime, nostras               
iussit adire domos? quidve hinc petis?’ inquit. at ille
‘scis, Proteu, scis ipse; neque est te fallere quicquam;
sed tu desine velle. deum praecepta secuti
venimus hinc lapsis quaesitum oracula rebus.’
tantum effatus. ad haec vates vi denique multa               
ardentis oculos intorsit lumine glauco
et graviter frendens sic fatis ora resolvit.

‘Non te nullius exercent numinis irae;
magna luis commissa: tibi has miserabilis Orpheus
haudquaquam ob meritum poenas, ni fata resistant,              
suscitat, et rapta graviter pro coniuge saevit.
illa quidem, dum te fugeret per flumina praeceps,
immanem ante pedes hydrum moritura puella
servantem ripas alta non vidit in herba.
at chorus aequalis Dryadum clamore supremos               
implerunt montis; flerunt Rhodopeiae arces
altaque Pangaea et Rhesi Mavortia tellus
atque Getae atque Hebrus et Actias Orithyia.
ipse cava solans aegrum testudine amorem
te, dulcis coniunx, te solo in litore secum,               
te veniente die, te decedente canebat.
Taenarias etiam fauces, alta ostia Ditis,
et caligantem nigra formidine lucum
ingressus, Manisque adiit regemque tremendum
nesciaque humanis precibus mansuescere corda.               
at cantu commotae Erebi de sedibus imis
umbrae ibant tenues simulacraque luce carentum,
quam multa in foliis avium se milia condunt,
Vesper ubi aut hibernus agit de montibus imber,
matres atque viri defunctaque corpora vita               
magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae,
impositique rogis iuvenes ante ora parentum,
quos circum limus niger et deformis harundo
Cocyti tardaque palus inamabilis unda
alligat et noviens Styx interfusa coercet.               
quin ipsae stupuere domus atque intima Leti
Tartara caeruleosque implexae crinibus anguis
Eumenides, tenuitque inhians tria Cerberus ora,
atque Ixionii vento rota constitit orbis.

Iamque pedem referens casus evaserat omnes,               
redditaque Eurydice superas veniebat ad auras,
pone sequens (namque hanc dederat Proserpina legem),
cum subita incautum dementia cepit amantem,
ignoscenda quidem, scirent si ignoscere Manes;
restitit, Eurydicenque suam iam luce sub ipsa               
immemor heu! victusque animi respexit. ibi omnis
effusus labor atque immitis rupta tyranni
foedera, terque fragor stagnis auditus Avernis.
illa “quis et me” inquit “miseram et te perdidit, Orpheu,
quis tantus furor? en iterum crudelia retro               
fata vocant conditque natantia lumina somnus.
iamque vale: feror ingenti circumdata nocte
invalidasque tibi tendens, heu! non tua, palmas.”
dixit et ex oculis subito, ceu fumus in auras
commixtus tenuis, fugit diversa, neque illum               
prensantem nequiquam umbras et multa volentem
dicere praeterea vidit; nec portitor Orci
amplius obiectam passus transire paludem.
quid faceret? quo se rapta bis coniuge ferret?
quo fletu manis, quae numina voce moveret?               
illa quidem Stygia nabat iam frigida cumba.
septem illum totos perhibent ex ordine mensis
rupe sub aëria deserti ad Strymonis undam
flevisse, et gelidis haec evolvisse sub antris
mulcentem tigres et agentem carmine quercus;               
qualis populea maerens philomela sub umbra
amissos queritur fetus, quos durus arator
observans nido implumis detraxit; at illa
flet noctem, ramoque sedens miserabile carmen
integrat, et maestis late loca questibus implet.               
nulla Venus, non ulli animum flexere hymenaei:
solus Hyperboreas glacies Tanaimque nivalem
arvaque Riphaeis numquam viduata pruinis
lustrabat, raptam Eurydicen atque inrita Ditis
dona querens. spretae Ciconum quo munere matres               
inter sacra deum nocturnique orgia Bacchi
discerptum latos iuvenem sparsere per agros.
tum quoque marmorea caput a cervice revulsum
gurgite cum medio portans Oeagrius Hebrus
volveret, Eurydicen vox ipsa et frigida lingua,               
a miseram Eurydicen! anima fugiente vocabat:
Eurydicen toto referebant flumine ripae.’

Haec Proteus, et se iactu dedit aequor in altum,
quaque dedit, spumantem undam sub vertice torsit.
at non Cyrene, namque ultro adfata timentem:               
‘nate, licet tristis animo deponere curas.
haec omnis morbi causa; hinc miserabile Nymphae,
cum quibus illa choros lucis agitabat in altis,
exitium misere apibus. tu munera supplex
tende petens pacem, et faciles venerare Napaeas;               
namque dabunt veniam votis, irasque remittent.
sed modus orandi qui sit, prius ordine dicam.
quattuor eximios praestanti corpore tauros,
qui tibi nunc viridis depascunt summa Lycaei,
delige et intacta totidem cervice iuvencas.               
quattuor his aras alta ad delubra dearum
constitue, et sacrum iugulis demitte cruorem
corporaque ipsa boum frondoso desere luco.
post ubi nona suos Aurora ostenderit ortus,
inferias Orphei Lethaea papavera mittes,               
et nigram mactabis ovem, lucumque revises:
placatam Eurydicen vitula venerabere caesa.’

Haud mora: continuo matris praecepta facessit;
ad delubra venit, monstratas excitat aras,
quattuor eximios praestanti corpore tauros               
ducit et intacta totidem cervice iuvencas.
post ubi nona suos Aurora induxerat ortus,
inferias Orphei mittit, lucumque revisit.
hic vero subitum ac dictu mirabile monstrum
adspiciunt, liquefacta boum per viscera toto               
stridere apes utero et ruptis effervere costis,
immensasque trahi nubes, iamque arbore summa
confluere et lentis uvam demittere ramis.

A View of Mount Soracte

After Horace, Odes, 1, 9

Look out the window: Mount Soracte’s thick with glistening snow.
The woods are overburdened with it; they can’t hold the load.
The streams are frozen solid in the biting cold.

Thaliarchus, we’ll beat the freeze by piling firewood
high upon the hearth. I’ll fetch a wine that’s had four years of ageing
in a Sabine jar. I’m feeling generous.

As for the rest: we’ll leave the worry to the gods. The moment they decide
to calm these howling winds which have been whipping up the storm at sea
the cypresses and ancient rowans will be still.

Don’t ask what tomorrow brings; and treat each day
that Fortune gives you as a bonus. This is the time to dance, my boy;
to taste the sweet delights of love. Don’t miss the chance.

We’re in the greening phase of life; the miseries of age
are far away. We should get out more. There are parks and squares
where, every evening, lovers meet and softly whisper in the dusk;

and from a secret corner, it’s so nice to hear
the tell-tale laughter of a hidden girl, pretending, only, to protest
as someone steals a little something from her finger or her arm.

Horace, Odes, 1, 9

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte, nec iam sustineant onus
  silvae laborantes, geluque
    flumina constiterint acuto?

dissolve frigus ligna super foco
large reponens, atque benignius
  deprome quadrimum Sabina,
    o Thaliarche, merum diota.
 
permitte divis cetera, qui simul
stravere ventos aequore fervido
  deproeliantes, nec cupressi
    nec veteres agitantur orni.

quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere et
quem Fors dierum cumque dabit, lucro
  appone nec dulces amores
    sperne puer neque tu choreas,

donec virenti canities abest
morosa. nunc et campus et areae
  lenesque sub noctem susurri
    composita repetantur hora,

nunc et latentis proditor intumo
gratus puellae risus ab angulo
  pignusque dereptum lacertis
    aut digito male pertinaci.

Chloë, Darling

After Horace, Odes, 1, 23

Chloë, darling, please don’t run away!
You shun me like a fawn lost in the hills
who’s searching for her timid mother; frightened even of the wind,
the darkness in the woods: a foolish fear.
Her heart is thumping and her limbs are shaky.
She’s a-quiver like the insubstantial leaves when spring approaches;
like green lizards when they push aside the brambles.

You think I’m a savage tiger or a lion out of Africa.
You think I want to hunt you down and break you. Moi? How could you?
Let me tell you what I think: it’s time to leave your mother; you’re ready for a man.

Horace, Odes, 1, 23

Vitas hinnuleo me similis, Chloë,
quaerenti pavidam montibus aviis
  matrem non sine vano
    aurarum silvae metu.

nam seu mobilibus veris inhorruit
adventus foliis, seu virides rubum
  dimovere lacertae
    et corde et genibus tremit.

atqui non ego te tigris ut aspera
Gaetulusve leo frangere persequor:
  tandem desine matrem
    tempestiva sequi viro.

Vintage Stuff

After Horace, Odes, 3, 21

The year that Manlius was consul was a good year.
I was born; this handsome jar was made,
to store the harvest of that distant summer: Massic.

It’s a wine of unpredictable effect.
It makes some people maudlin.
Some find everything hilarious.
Some get quarrelsome.
You might fall madly, hopelessly in love
or sound asleep.

Whichever way it takes you,
Massic is reserved for special days. Today the jar is coming off the shelf.
Corvinus has commanded me to bring out something mellower.
Socratic dialogue may be his idea of a conversation;
he won’t turn his nose up at a drop of this.
Cato was one of the old school; even his stiff virtue,
so they say, was often warmed with wine.

Unbending characters will generally bend
when wine applies a little gentle pressure;
sensible souls, when Bacchus makes them merry,
have a habit of disclosing secret thoughts and cares;
hope returns to troubled minds;
the poor man’s strength and courage are restored
and, with a drink inside him, he can face
the rage of overbearing tyrants without trembling;
soldiers with their weapons drawn won’t make him even flinch.

So light the lamps. A wine as good as this attracts exalted company.
Liber, god of wine himself, is coming.
The delightful Venus, if we’re lucky, might look in,
plus all three Graces — those girls stick together.
Let’s get this party started; and we’ll keep it up
until returning Phoebus puts the stars to flight.

Horace, Odes, 3, 21

O nata mecum consule Manlio,
seu tu querellas sive geris iocos
  seu rixam et insanos amores
    seu facilem, pia testa, somnum,

quocumque lectum nomine Massicum
servas, moveri digna bona die,
  descende, Corvino iubente
    promere languidiora vina.

non ille, quamquam Socraticis madet
sermonibus, te negleget horridus:
  narratur et prisci Catonis
    saepe mero caluisse virtus.

tu lene tormentum ingenio admoves
plerumque duro; tu sapientium
  curas et arcanum iocoso
    consilium retegis Lyaeo;

tu spem reducis mentibus anxiis,
viresque et addis cornua pauperi,
  post te neque iratos trementi
    regum apices neque militum arma.
 
te Liber et si laeta aderit Venus
segnesque nodum solvere Gratiae
  vivaeque producent lucernae,
    dum rediens fugat astra Phoebus.

Maecenas’ Birthday

After Horace Odes, 4, 11

Phyllis, this jar of Alban wine is nine years old (at least!);
there’s parsley in the garden, good for weaving garlands,
and lots of ivy: you can tie your hair back; you’ll look beautiful.

The silver’s polished, and the altar’s dressed with holy leaves;
it only needs the lamb we’ll sacrifice to splatter it with blood.

The household’s busy busy, with my boys and girls all rushing in and out;
black smoke rolls up the chimney from the leaping flames.

In case you’re wondering what the party is you’ve been invited to:
April, the month of Venus, born from the waves, is halfway through.
Today’s a special day: more special, almost, than my own birthday. Why?
From dawn today my friend Maecenas adds another year to his abundant store.

Now listen. You fancy Telephus, I know. But he’s beyond you.
He’s been tied down by another girl, who’s rich and sexy; and he likes it.
You know how Phaëton burnt his fingers
when he drove his father’s chariot; be warned.
Or what about Bellerophon,
who came a cropper riding wingèd Pegasus?
He learnt a painful lesson, but it brought him down to earth.
Be realistic. He’s not right for you.
Don’t eat your heart out over someone you can’t have.

Come here. You’re not my latest lover; you’re my last.
No other woman, after you, could light my fire.
So how about a song? You’ve got a gorgeous voice.
What do you say? You know how singing drives the blues away.

Horace, Odes, 4, 11

Est mihi nonum superantis annum
plenus Albani cadus; est in horto,
Phylli, nectendis apium coronis;
  est hederae vis

multa, qua crinis religata fulges;
ridet argento domus; ara castis
vincta verbenis avet immolato
  spargier agno;

cuncta festinat manus, huc et illuc
cursitant mixtae pueris puellae;
sordidum flammae trepidant rotantes
  vertice fumum.

ut tamen noris quibus advoceris
gaudiis, Idus tibi sunt agendae,
qui dies mensem Veneris marinae
  findit Aprilem,

iure sollemnis mihi sanctiorque
paene natali proprio, quod ex hac
luce Maecenas meus adfluentes
  ordinat annos.

Telephum, quem tu petis, occupavit
non tuae sortis iuvenem puella
dives et lasciva tenetque grata
  compede vinctum.

terret ambustus Phaëthon avaras
spes, et exemplum grave praebet ales
Pegasus terrenum equitem gravatus
  Bellerophontem,

semper ut te digna sequare et ultra
quam licet sperare nefas putando
disparem vites. age iam, meorum
  finis amorum,

(non enim posthac alia calebo
femina) condisce modos, amanda
voce quos reddas: minuentur atrae
  carmine curae.

The Loved One Sleeps on the Breast of the Poet

After Federico García Lorca — El amor duerme en el pecho del

You’ll never understand the love for you I feel,
long-slumbering boy, as on my breast you lie.
I’ll hide you while I weep. The lynch-mob in full cry
has voices harsh as violating steel.

Mob rule provokes the stars to tremble and my flesh to quake.
Its rage is with us in the room. It hurts me in the chest.
Bird in my hand, with shouts and threats they’ve tracked us to our nest.
The wings of your proud spirit will be bitten when you wake.

They’re out there, through the window, jostling in Gethsemane.
Your body and my torment are the sights they’ve come to see.
They ride white horses with green manes.

Sleep on, beloved. Do you hear? My blood maintains
a kind of broken rhythm underneath rough music from the violins.
They lie in wait, the violators. Soon the agony begins.

El amor duerme en el pecho del poeta — Federico García Lorca

Tú nunca entenderás lo que te quiero
porque duermes en mí y estás dormido.
Yo te oculto llorando, perseguido
por una voz de penetrante acero.

Norma que agita igual carne y lucero
traspasa ya mi pecho dolorido
y las turbias palabras han mordido
las alas de tu espíritu severo.

Grupo de gente salta en los jardines
esperando tu cuerpo y mi agonía
en caballos de luz y verdes crines.

Pero sigue durmiendo, vida mía.
¡Oye mi sangre rota en los violines!
¡Mira que nos acechan todavía!

Machado — In April, a Thousand Waters

April brings its thousand waters.
On the wind the storm clouds blow.
Up amongst their bleak procession,
rents of sky are indigo.

On the sky a rainbow glistens.
Water, sun; the world’s awash.
In a distant cloud, the yellow
zigzag of a lightning flash.

Rain is beating on the window.
Glass is chiming in reply.

I can just see one green meadow
through the drizzle and the mist.
But the holm-oak wood has melted
and the grey sierra’s lost.

Threads of water in a downpour
bend the growing season’s leaves,
whip the eddies of the Duero
into choppy, muddy waves.

Rain falls on the greening bean fields,
on the brown where corn seed hides.
Now the sun is on the holm-oaks.
Puddles shine along the roads.

Rain and sun. The landscape darkens
now; now blazes into light.
There a hillside re-emerges.
Here a hill is lost to sight.

Rolling to the leaden mountains
— balls of cotton, lumps of ash —
rain cloud after rain cloud lours.

Now in sunshine, now in shadow,
scattered farms and distant towers.

En abril, las aguas mil — Antonio Machado

Son de abril las aguas mil.
Sopla el viento achubascado,
y entre nublado y nublado
hay trozos de cielo añil.

Agua y sol. El iris brilla.
En una nube lejana,
zigzaguea
una centella amarilla.

La lluvia da en la ventana
y el cristal repiquetea.

A través de la neblina
que forma la lluvia fina,
se divisa un prado verde,
y un encinar se esfumina,
y una sierra gris se pierde.

Los hilos del aguacero
sesgan las nacientes frondas,
y agitan las turbias ondas
en el remanso del Duero.

Lloviendo está en los habares
y en las pardas sementeras;
hay sol en los encinares,
charcos por las carreteras.

Lluvia y sol. Ya se obscurece
el campo, ya se ilumina;
allí un cerro desparece,
allá surge una colina.

Ya son claros, ya sombríos
los dispersos caseríos,
los lejanos torreones.

Hacia la sierra plomiza
van rodando en pelotones
nubes de guata y ceniza.

Machado — To a Dry Elm

When lightning struck, the elm was old already.
Its mighty bulk has rotted through, and yet
spring rain and sunshine have revived the ancient body;
a few green leaves begin to sprout.

Its bark, bleached white, is stained with yellow mosses.
Worms consume the crumbling trunk.
The elm stands while a century elapses,
lapped by the Duero’s curving bank.

No nightingales will nest here now. They favour
the rustling poplars which patrol
the roads and rivers. Other visitors take over:

ants climb up the tree’s dry bole
in single file, an army on the march;
spiders weave grey webs within, and wait and watch.

Elm of the Duero:

before the woodman swings his axe
and, after hours of his attacks,
you topple at the final, fatal stroke;

before the joiner comes to choose
the bits of you he still can use
to make a bell-tower, axle or a yoke;

before you go for firewood
in some poor hovel by the road
and blaze next winter brightly on its hearth;

before a whirlwind lays you low,
uprooted, or the gales which blow
from snow-capped mountains bring you to the earth;

before you take the river’s course
through valleys and ravines which force
your great dead weight towards the open sea;

I will write one note of praise —
Your greening branch remains a thing of grace
and keep it in my wallet. You’re in leaf:
my heart, like yours, inclines toward the light, to life,
in hope that, as it has for you, old tree,
this spring may work a miracle for me.

A un olmo seco — Antonio Machado

Al olmo viejo, hendido por el rayo
y en su mitad podrido,
con las lluvias de abril y el sol de mayo
algunas hojas verdes le han salido.

¡El olmo centenario en la colina
que lame el Duero! Un musgo amarillento
le mancha la corteza blanquecina
al tronco carcomido y polvoriento.

No será, cual los álamos cantores
que guardan el camino y la ribera,
habitado de pardos ruiseñores.

Ejército de hormigas en hilera
va trepando por él, y en sus entrañas
urden sus telas grises las arañas.

Antes que te derribe, olmo del Duero,
con su hacha el leñador, y el carpintero
te convierta en melena de campana,
lanza de carro o yugo de carreta;
antes que rojo en el hogar, mañana,
ardas en alguna mísera caseta,
al borde de un camino;
antes que te descuaje un torbellino
y tronche el soplo de las sierras blancas;
antes que el río hasta la mar te empuje
por valles y barrancas,
olmo, quiero anotar en mi cartera
la gracia de tu rama verdecida.
Mi corazón espera
también, hacia la luz y hacia la vida,
otro milagro de la primavera.

Appeal to Aphrodite

After Sappho, fragment 1

Aphrodite, Zeus’s artful daughter, up there
on your glittering throne, immortal: hear my prayer!

Down here! It’s me again, your damsel in distress.
My heart’s a bleeding wound, it’s nearly breaking, mistress…

Yes, I know how many times you’ve heard my cry,
the same old, far-off SOS: ‘Don’t let me die!’
Each time you’ve left your royal father’s golden hall,
jumped in the chariot, cracked the whip, and with a call
of ‘Hold on, Sappho! Mercy mission on its way!’
have galloped to your servant’s aid without delay.

Each time, a lovely flock of speeding sparrows brings
you in to land; an escort in a whirr of wings
has flown with you from heaven, through the middle air
to this dark earth, this vale of tears, this world of care.
You’ve stepped out from the carriage in the usual place
and with a blessed smile on that immortal face
have wondered what or who (as if you didn’t know)
has caused this latest supplication: ‘Sappho,
what’s the matter now? Don’t tell me. Let me guess.
You want me to induce Perfection in a Dress
to change her mind about you. Who’s to blame today?
Which naughty girl attracts you and then runs away?
But don’t you worry. I’ll bewitch her scornful eyes
and she shall be the hungry hunter, you the prize.
You shower her with gifts, which she is pleased to spurn?
Soon she’ll be wooing you with presents in return.
She loves you… not. I’ll pull a petal from that flower
and make her love you till it hurts. It’s in my power.’

Sweet mistress, you’ve done this before. Do it again,
I beg you, come down, ease my mind, blot out its pain,
grant me my heart’s desire. Your wounded warrior can abide
the heat of love’s fierce battle with a goddess on her side.

Sappho, Fragment 1

ποικιλόθρον' ἀθανάτ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ' ἄσαισι μηδ' ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
     πότνια, θῦμον,

ἀλλὰ τυίδ' ἔλθ', αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
     χρύσιον ἦλθες

ἄρμ' ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ' ἆγον
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ' ἀπ' ὠράνωἴθε-
     ρος διὰ μέσσω,

αἶψα δ' ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ', ὦ μάκαιρα,
μειδιαίσαισ' ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι
ἤρε' ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
     δηὖτε κάλημμι,

κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
μαισ' ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ', ὦ
     Ψά]πφ', ἀδικήει;

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ', ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
     κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ' αὔτα
     σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

An Invitation

After Sappho, fragment 2

Kypris, goddess, come to us from Crete!
This temple in your pleasant apple grove
has incense burning in the name of love.
Smoke rises from your altars. How the smell is sweet!

Though lost to sight through apple boughs, I hear
a stream of clear cold water’s gurgling sound.
To shade us, roses flourish all around;
their shimmering leaves work drowsy magic on the air.

The field where horses graze and spring flowers bloom,
where breezes stir and we make holiday
awaits your presence and the graceful way
you fill our festive golden cups with nectar. Come!

Sappho, Fragment 2

δεῦρυ μ’ ἐκ Κρητας .π[ ]ναῦον
ἄγνον, ὄππ[αι δὴ] χάριεν μὲν ἄλσος
μαλί[αν], βῶμοι †δ’ ἔνι θυμιάμε-
   νοι [λι]βανώτῳ·

ἐν δ’ ὔδωρ ψῦχρον κελάδει δι’ ὔσδων
μαλίνων, βρόδοισι δὲ παῖς ὀ χῶρος
ἐσκίαστ’, αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων
   κῶμα κατέρρει·

ἐν δὲ λείμων ἰππόβοτος τέθαλε
ἠρινίοισιν ἄνθεσιν, αἰ δ’ ἄνητοι
μέλλιχα πνέοισιν [
   [ ]

ἔλθα δὴ σὺ στέμ…. ἔλοισα Κύπρι,
χρυσίαισιν ἐν κυλίκεσσιν ἄβρως
ὀμμεμείχμενον θαλίαισι νέκταρ
   οἰνοχόαισον

Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

After Sappho, fragment 16

Some see a matchless beauty in the sights of war:
in lines of fighting men, on horseback or on foot,
about to charge; or battleships abreast the waves.
I see perfection in the objects of our love
and my philosophy is easy to explain.
Consider Helen. Of a beauty unsurpassed,
she nonetheless abandoned husband, parents, child
and, led astray by love, went sailing off to Troy.
Her crazy impulse then emboldens me today:
alas, my Anactoria, you are not here!
I’d rather see your lovely walk, your sweet, bright smile
than all the Lydians’ chariots and men at arms.
If music be the food of love, I’m playing on.
I’m asking only for a part of what we had,
but surely half a loaf is better than no bread!

Sappho, Fragment 16

Ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον οἰ δὲ πέσδων

οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ᾽ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν

ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιστον ἔγω δὲ κῆν᾽ ὄτ -
     
τω τὶσ ἔπαται· 

πά]γχυ δ᾽ εὔμαρεσ σύνετον πόησαι

πά]ντι τ[οῦ]τ᾽, ἀ γὰρ πόλυ περσκόπεισα

κά]λλοσ [ἀνθ]ρώπων Ἐλένα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα
     
τον [πανάρ] ιστον, 

ὂσ τὸ πὰν] σέβασ τροΐα[σ ὄ]λεσσ[ε,
κωὐδὲ πα]ῖδοσ οὔδε [φίλ]ων το[κ]ήων
μᾶλλον] ἐμνάσθη, ἀ[λλὰ] παράγαγ᾽ αὔταν
     
πῆλε φίλει]σαν, 

Ὠροσ. εὔκ]αμπτον γαρ [ἀεὶ τὸ θῆλυ]

αἴ κέ] τισ κούφωσ τ[ὸ πάρον ν]οήσῃ.

οὐ]δὲ νῦν, Ἀνακτορί[α, τ]ὺ μέμναι
     
δὴ] παρειοῖσασ, 

τᾶ]σ κε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα

κ]αμάρυγμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω

η τὰ λύδων ἄρματα κἀν ὄπλοισι
     
πεσδομ]άχεντασ 

εὶ μεν ἴδ]μεν οὔ δύνατον γένεσθαι

λῷστ᾽] ὀν᾽ ἀνθρώποισ, πεδέχην δ᾽ ἄραστηαι,

[τῶν πέδειχόν ἐστι βρότοισι λῷον]
     
[ἢ λελάθεσθαι.] 

Green

After Sappho, fragment 31

The dinner guest placed opposite the girl I love
must be a current favourite of the powers above.

How your infectious laughter and delicious voice
have captivated him, the fool! He has no choice.

Three places down, my heart is thumping like a drum.
I look at you. My tongue has snapped, no words will come,

my ears are humming and I seem to have gone blind,
I’m trembling, burning, drenched with sweat; and in my mind

the thought that you, my own, should smile on him instead
is slowly killing me. Now that I’m almost dead,

I wonder, is my appetite for love as keen?
Or is it only envy that is evergreen?

Sappho, Fragment 31

Φαίνεταί μοι κήνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν ὤνηρ, ὄστις ἐναντίος τοι
ἰζάνει, καὶ πλυσίον ἆδυ φωνεύ-
        σας ὑπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμερόεν, τό μοι μάν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόασεν·
ὡς γὰρ εὔιδον βροχέως σε, φώνας
        οὺδὲν ἔτ' εἴκει·

ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ' αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ' οὐδὲν ὄρημ', ἐπιρρόμ-
        βεισι δ' ἄκουαι.

κἀ δέ μίδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δέ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ' ὀλίγω 'πιδεύης
        φαίνομαι [ἄλλα].

ἀλλὰ πᾶν τόλματον, [ἐπεὶ καὶ πένητα].

No Accounting for Taste

After Sappho, fragment 57

Andromeda, grow up! I know you like a bit of rough,
but I just saw you with that country girl dressed in a sack
that shows her ankles. Really… Send the hopeless creature back.
Surely the choice of talent in the town is good enough?

Sappho, Fragment 57

τίς δ' ἀγροίωτις θέλγει νόον...
ἀγροίωτιν ἐπεμμένα σπόλαν...
οὐκ ἐπισταμένα τὰ βράκε' ἔλκην ἐπὶ τὼν σφύρων;

Unobtainable

After Sappho, fragment 105

You’re like the sweetest apple on the topmost branch,
after the gang of apple-gatherers has gone,
that stays and ripens further, proudly and alone.
Did they forget you in their hasty harvesting?
Not quite. When talking idly of some other thing
they often think of you. But you were out of reach.

Sappho, Fragment 105

οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ' ὔσδῳ,
ἄκρον ἐπ' ἀκροτάτῳ, λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπηες,
οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ', ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐδύναντ' ἐπίκεσθαι.

A Sister’s Plea

After Sappho, fragment 5, and fragment 15, and Ovid, Letters of the Heroines 15, lines 63-70 and 117-120

Nereids, you who bring the sailor safely home from sea,
and Cypris, my own patient goddess, hear a sister’s plea!
You’re angry with my brother, and your rage is justified.
I’ve begged him on my knees to mend his ways. How hard I’ve tried!
He doesn’t seem to care. He’s put his family to shame.
But please don’t punish him. I know the person who’s to blame:
he’s thrown his money at Doricha, that Egyptian whore.
He’s broke. He’s turned to piracy because he needs some more.
The fool! And yet I love him still. He’s not a wicked boy.
Please grant that soon, instead of heartache, he may bring us joy;
that friends he’s lost may speak his name with pride again one day;
but punish those (especially her) who’ve tempted him to stray.
Correct (but with a gentle hand!) the errings of his past
and set my dear Charaxus on a virtuous course at last.

I close with hope that, in your mercy, you will spare a thought
for Sappho, scanning the horizon, weeping at the port.

Sappho, Fragment 5

Κύπρι καὶ] Νηρήιδες ἀβλάβη[ν μοι
τὸν κασί]γνητον δ[ό]τε τυίδ' ἴκεσθα [ι
κὤσσα οἰ θύμῳι κε θέλῃ γένεσθαι
πάντα τελέσθην,

ὄσσα δὲ πρ]όσθ' ἄμβροτε πάντα λῦσα[ι
καὶ φίλοισ]ι οἶσι χάραν γένεσθαι
κὠνίαν δ’ ἔ]χθροισι, γένοιτο δ’ ἄμμι
μηκ έτι μ]ηδ’ εἶς

τὰν κασιγνήταν δὲ θέλοι δὲ λύγραν
ἔμμορον] τίμας, [ὀν]ίαν δὲ λύγραν
                  ]ὄτοισι π[ά]ροιθ’ ἀχεύων
                       ] . να

] . εἰσαΐω[ν] τό κἐνχρω
                   ]λ’ ἐπαγ[ορί]αι πολίταν
                   ]λλως […]νῆκε δ’ αὖτ’ οὐ
                    ]κρω[ ]

]οναικ[ ]εο[ ] . ι
                    ] .. [ . ]ν σὺ [δ]έ Κύπ[ρ]ι, σ[έμ]να
                               ]θεμ[έν]α κάκαν [
                                ]ι.

Sappho, Fragment 15

]α μάκαι[ρα
                                             ]εὐπλο. · [
                                             ] . ατοσκα[
                                             ]

ὄσσα δὲ πρ]όσθ᾽[ ἄμ]βροτε κῆ[να λυσαι
                   ]αταις [ ]νεμ[
             σὺν] τύχαι λίμ[ ]ενος κλ[
] . [

Κύ]πρι, κα[ί σ]ε πι[κροτάτ]αν ἐπεύ[ροι,
μη]δὲ καυχάσ[α]ιτο τόδ᾽ ἐννέ[ποισα
Δ]ωρίχα, τὸ δεύ[τ]ερον ὠς πόθεννον
εἰς] ἔρον ἦλθε.

Ovid, Letters of the Heroines 15, lines 63-70 and 117-120

arsit inops frater meretricis captus amore 
     
   mixtaque cum turpi damna pudore tulit.

factus inops agili peragit freta caerula remo, 
     
   quasque male amisit, nunc male quaerit opes.

me quoque, quod monui bene multa fideliter, odit; 
     
   hoc mihi libertas, hoc pia lingua dedit. 

et tamquam desit, quae me sine fine fatiget, 
     
   accumulat curas filia parva meas…
gaudet et e nostro crescit maerore Charaxus 
     
   frater et ante oculos itque reditque meos.

utque pudenda mei videatur causa doloris, 
     
   ‘quid dolet haec? certe filia vivit!’ ait.

Hairstyles

After Sappho, fragment 98

My mother told me once that, in her salad days,
a purple headband was the thing for girls to wear,
but fashions change; for me, it’s wreaths of flowers in bloom
that best set off the glory of your yellow hair.

Sappho, Fragment 98

[. . ] . θος· ἀ γάρ μ᾽ ἐγέννα[τ᾽
[σ]φᾶς ἐπ᾽ ἀλικίας μέγ[αν
[κ]όσμον, αἴ τις ἔχη φόβα[ι]ς[
πορφύρωι κατελιξαμέ[να πλόκωι,

ἔμμεναι μάλα τοῦτο δ[ή·
ἀλλ᾽ἀ ξανθοτέραις ἔχη[
ταὶς κόμαις δάιδος προ[

[σ]τεφάνοισιν ἐπαρτία[ις
ἀνθέων ἐριθαλέων·
μ]ίτρὰναν δ᾽ ἀρτίως κλ[

ποικίλαν ἀπὺ Σαρδίω[ν
…] . αονίας πόλις

A Rebuke

After Sappho, fragment 137

‘Sappho, this is off the record, strictly entre nous…’
‘So save your breath. Have you got nothing else to do
but hang around the place and dish the dirt all day?
If you had something true or generous to say
you’d look me in the eye and come out with it straight.
You’re just the kind of idle blabbermouth I hate.’

Sappho, Fragment 137

θέλω τί τ' εἴπην, ἀλλά με κωλύει
αἴδως...

αἰ δ' ἦχες ἔσλων ἴμερον ἢ κάλων
καὶ μή τί τ' εἴπην γλῶσσ' ἐκύκα κάκον,
αἴδως † κέν σε οὐκ † ἦχεν ὄππατ',
ἀλλ' ἔλεγες † περὶ τὼ δικαίω †

Distracted

After Sappho, fragment 102

Sweet mother, I can’t work my loom today, and here’s the truth:
I’m overcome with fretful longing for a certain youth.
Alas, it’s Aphrodite’s cunning work, but there it is:
since she got weaving, my fate’s intertwined with his.

Sappho, Fragment 102

γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον
πόθῳ δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι' Ἀφροδίταν

Moon and Stars

After Sappho, fragment 34

A crowd of stars is glorious on moonless nights,
but when the moon is full they’re shy, they shrink away.
So with the other girls when you appeared today:
your greater beauty overwhelmed their lesser lights.

Sappho, Fragment 34

Ἄστερες μὲν ἀμφὶ κάλαν σελάνναν
ἂψ ἀπυκρύπτοισι φάεννον εἶδος,
ὄπποτα πλήθοισα μάλιστα λάμπῃ
   γᾶν

Such Sweet Sorrow

After Sappho, fragment 94

Weeping, as she left me, she said, ‘Sappho,
I can’t bear it. Would that I were dead!
What cruel luck is ours!’ But I replied,

‘Go now. Farewell. Remember me for this:
you know how much we loved you — all of us.
Or else, remember what good times we had!
The way we used to dress you up in flowers:
the wreaths of violets and crocuses
and roses, and the garlands we would weave
to place around that tender neck of yours.
We made a perfume for you from the flowers.
You would anoint yourself, our fairy queen.
We lay together on soft beds
and every longing of your heart was satisfied.

When Aphrodite called, no shrine, no grove
of sacred trees escaped our worship.
And the music… and the dancing… Love, remember that.’

Sappho, Fragment 94

Τεθνάκην δ’ ἀδόλως θέλω·
ἀ με ψισδομένα κατελίμπανεν

πόλλα καὶ τόδ’ ἔειπέ [μοι·
‘ὤιμ’ ὠς δεῖνα πεπ[όνθ]αμεν,
Ψάπφ’, ἦ μάν σ’ ἀέκοισ’ ἀπυλιμπάνω.’

τὰν δ’ ἔγω τάδ’ ἀμειβόμαν·
‘χαίροισ’ ἔρχεο κἄμεθεν
μέμναισ’, οἶσθα γὰρ ὤς σε πεδήπομεν·

αἰ δὲ μή, ἀλλά σ’ ἔγω θέλω
ὄμναισαι [....] . [...] .. αι
.. [ ] καὶ κάλ’ ἐπάσχομεν.

πό[λλοις γὰρ στεφάν]οις ἴων
καὶ βρ[όδων κρο]κίων τ’ ὔμοι
κἀ.. [ ] πὰρ ἔμοι περεθήκαο,

καὶ πό[λλαις ὐπα]θύμιδας
πλέκ[ταις ἀμφ’ ἀ]πάλαι δέραι
ἀνθέων ἐ[βαλες] πεποημέναις,

καὶ πολλῷι [ ]. μύρῳι
βρενθείῳι. [ ]ρν[..]ν
ξαλείψαο κα[ὶ βασ]ιληίῳι,

καὶ στρώμν [αν ἐ]πὶ μολθάκαν
ἀπάλαν πα . [ ] …ων
ἐξίης πόθον[ν ] . νίδων,

κωὔτε τις [ οὔ]τε τι
ἶρον οὐδ’ν[ ]
ἔπλετ’ ὄπποθεν ἄμ]μες ἀπέσκομεν

οὐκ ἄλσος . [ χ]όρος
                                    ]ψοφος
                                     ]…οιδιαι

Adieu

After Sappho, fragment 58

Now that old age is withering my once smooth skin,
now that my hair, once black, has turned to snowy white,
now that my knees are feeble and my legs too thin
to carry me, as once, to dances every night,
what can I do? Nothing. At least avoid the fate
to which the foolish goddess of the dawn condemned
her mortal lover: helpless ageing without end.

My own dear girls, I’m weary and the hour is late.
You must take up my lyre and sing my songs. And yet
I contemplate oncoming death without regret
for that I have known love, and with it I have won
the brightness and the beauty, briefly, of the sun.

Sappho, Fragment 58

Υμμες πεδὰ Μοίσαν ἰοκόλπων κάλα δῶρα, παῖδες,
σπουδάσδετε καὶ τὰν φιλάοιδαν λιγύραν χελύνναν·
ἔμοι δ’ ἄπαλον πρίν ποτ’ ἔοντα χρόα γῆρας ἤδη
ἐπέλλαβε, λεῦκαι δ’ ἐγένοντο τρίχες ἐκ μελαίναν·
βάρυς δέ μ’ ὀ θῦμος πεπόηται, γόνα δ’ οὐ φέροισι,
τὰ δή πότα λαίψηρ’ ἔον ὄρχησθ’ ἴσα νεβρίοισι.
τὰ μὲν στεναχίσδω θαμέως· ἀλλὰ τί κεν ποείην;
ἀγήραον ἄνθρωπον ἔοντ’ οὐ δύνατον γένεσθαι.
καὶ γάρ ποτα Τίτωνον ἔφαντο βροδόπαχυν Αὔων
ἔρωι φυράθεισαν βάμεν’ εἰς ἔσχατα γᾶς φέροισαν,
ἔοντα κάλον καὶ νέον, ἀλλ’ αὖτον ὔμως ἔμαρψε
χρόνωι πόλιον γῆρας, ἔχοντ’ ἀθανάταν ἄκοιτιν.

Two Views of Power

The Hawk and the Nightingale

After Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 202-212

A hawk rode in his kingdom
one ancient summer’s day.
He spotted, stooped and fell upon
a nightingale for prey.

He grabbed her pretty coloured neck.
Up to the clouds he swept.
His claws had pierced her deeply
so that piteously she wept.

The hawk spoke roughly: ‘Stupid bird,
there’s no point crying out.
You think you’ve got a lovely voice?
You sing quite well, no doubt,

but I’m the daddy; in my grip
you’ll travel where I wish.
I’ll have you for my dinner;
you’re a tasty little dish.

Or if today’s your lucky day
I might — you never know —
decide that I’m not hungry now
and let this morsel go.

The point is: know your place, my friend,
don’t punch above your weight.
You’ll always come off second best
when tangling with the great.’

The hawk’s words caused the nightingale
to quiver in despair
at high-speed, long-winged psychopaths
who terrorise the air.

The poet told this tale
‘to kings who understand’, at least,
that human nature’s nobler
than the nature of the beast.

Alas, the record since he wrote
inclines to the reverse.
Our cruelty’s not cannibal;
our wickedness is worse.

Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 202-212

νῦν δ᾿ αἶνον βασιλεῦσ᾿ ἐρέω, φρονέουσι καὶ αὐτοῖς.
ὧδ᾿ ἴρηξ προσέειπεν ἀηδόνα ποικιλόδειρον,
ὕψι μάλ᾿ ἐν νεφέεσσι φέρων, ὀνύχεσσι μεμαρπώς·
ἡ δ᾿ ἐλεόν, γναμπτοῖσι πεπαρμένη ἀμφ᾿ ὀνύχεσσιν,
μύρετο· τὴν ὅ γ᾿ ἐπικρατέως πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπεν·
“δαιμονίη, τί λέληκας; ἔχει νύ σε πολλὸν ἀρείων·
τῇ δ᾿ εἶς ᾗ σ᾿ ἂν ἐγώ περ ἄγω καὶ ἀοιδὸν ἐοῦσαν·
δεῖπνον δ᾿ αἴ κ᾿ ἐθέλω ποιήσομαι ἠὲ μεθήσω.
ἄφρων δ᾿ ὅς κ᾿ ἐθέλῃ πρὸς κρείσσονας ἀντιφερίζειν·
νίκης τε στέρεται πρός τ᾿ αἴσχεσιν ἄλγεα πάσχει.”
ὣς ἔφατ᾿ ὠκυπέτης ἴρηξ, τανυσίπτερος ὄρνις.

The Eagle and the Wren

From Aesop, according to Plutarch

The birds had heard that men have kings
(the fabulist relates).
Some wondered, ‘Should we do the same?’
This led to fierce debates.

‘I move that we select a king…’
Here was the magpie’s voice.
That chatterbox of vanity
thought he should be their choice.

‘…and I’d be willing, if you wish…’
‘No, no,’ the others said.
‘You strut your stuff enough
without a crown put on your head.’

They then discussed what qualities
befit a royal fowl.
The sparrow sensibly proposed:
‘Let’s go and ask the owl.’

They flocked to seek the wisdom
of the old man in the oak.
He scratched his chin, considered long,
and finally he spoke.

‘Why imitate a species
that’s restricted to the earth?
From what I’ve seen, their monarchs
are more trouble than they’re worth.

But if you must, here’s my advice:
choose as your chief the bird
who flies the highest in the air.’
They took him at his word.

Equipped with keen binoculars,
the owl lined up the crowds.
He gave a great ‘To-woo!’ and off
they headed for the clouds.

It was an awesome sight to see
a hundred birds take wing,
when ninety-nine would fail the test
and one return a king.

(The ostrich had abstained
from all this nonsense from the start.
‘In my opinion, flying’s such
an overrated art.’)

Who would emerge victorious?
Whose feathers would be crowned?
The weaklings — ninety-eight — fell back
exhausted to the ground.

Only the eagle now remained.
Pride was his overthrow.
During a lap of honour
for his public down below,

he felt a wriggling on his back,
a pushing-off; and then
there fluttered higher still, he saw,
a small, triumphant wren.

‘You cheat!’ he squawked. ‘You can’t do that!’
‘Why not?’ the wren replied.
‘It’s called collaboration. Shall we
let the owl decide?’

The owl, consulted, judged the case
with words to this effect:
‘I will admit, the question strains
my humble intellect,

but since you’re set on copying
the foolish ways of men:
it’s brains, not force, that leaders need.
The winner is: the wren!’

The owl was a republican.
On royalty, the doubt
in his first thoughts was best, I think;
we’re better off without.

7.

Pupil to Teacher

To Peter Hetherington, my English teacher 1965–1969

The pupil, like the child, assumes this privilege:
to take for granted what is given. Even so,
we knew by instinct that your teacher’s gift was rare:
the mix of tenderness and ardour for the books
you showed us into; your glad welcome for the valid thought
the learning brain sometimes put forth, spotted unerringly
and sorted from the mawkish airs
and trying-on of other people’s scholarship
of teenage intellectuals; the boldness of your judgements —
telling us, in 1966,
that Godot is as great a play as Lear
it took my breath away and gave it back.
Even your rages — annual, in March,
when play rehearsals hit a crisis — cried out loud
that going through the motions was the least of it,
that we could be in step, if only we’d step up,
with language which would tip-toe out of bounds
and leave us wiser than our masters…

Nearly 40 years have passed
and I’ve come back to thank you. Why so long?
Not sloth, forgetfulness or busyness; I needed all that time
to make a little heap of verses good enough
to say to you that greatness in a teacher
has its consequences; master, these are one.

At His Quitting Time

In honour of Seamus Heaney

To me, your novice, you were more than master. You were mage.
Your books were talismans I reached for countless times, in hope
to hear the magic word which would unlock me, spring me, do the trick.
Foolish apprentice, seeking short cuts! I had no such luck.
Between your lines a truer, slower voice spoke up, and still speaks up,
its Derry accent urging, ‘Take the plunge.

Practise the art. Go on now. You can do it.’
                                                                         When you left
it was late August, and your blackberries were ripening.
Beside your house of death, next to the low clay roof, what can I leave
as grave gift but the debt — unpayable — you must forgive?
This afternoon, as summer lingers, I’m out plundering
the hedges, as you did. I’m burdened and bereft.

Poems, berries, season’s fullness… I can’t help trying
the comparison, until I see its flaw.
Your childhood’s hoarded treasures rotted and went sour.
Your lifetime’s hoard of words retains the staying power to bless
and strengthen us who stay and grieve. But will not now increase.
For that loss, as you did, I feel like crying.

The Poet’s Prayer

Poetry is just consonants and vowels.
Mostly it’s like crapping when you don’t want to.
Muse, move in a mysterious way within my bowels.

Poetry is just thoughts tricked out in lines.
It’s like watching for shooting stars in August.
Lord, let me not be blinking when one shines.

Poetry is just management of stress.
On wonderful days it’s like taking dictation.
God, grant me such days more often, and the others less.