On Handling Gervase's Otia Imperialia
There in the green and primrose light
Where ivy litters heart-shaped pools
Of shade on a sunlit window seat:
Warm aromatic wood, warm sills
Of stone, quills, pots and parchment set
At a table with bread and meat, a jug of wine;
In Latin, one ornate unfinished line . . .
Did Gervase, fabling for dull Otto's favour,
Falter, feeling in the shadowed room -
Sun-shafted, with the children's laughter
Frittering spring away - the gloom
Of envious age goad grim endeavour?
Or, running his thin ringed fingers through his hair,
Blink at these dazzling margins and despair?
* * *
Life in the service of self destroys
Itself by the unappeasable
Once-woken hunger that never dies,
And self, awakening last of all
At day's end under darkening skies,
Aches with the poisons mixed by partial greed
And learns too late its simple, total need.
Thus, numberless nameless scribes have lived
Who, lacking leisure of the hand or heart
From prayers or penance interleaved
With labour among pigs, hens and swart
Lugubrious artisans, yet strove
By candle to conceive the world anew
In otiose dreams that vanished with the dew;
But, Marshal of Arles and confidante
Of Henry (doomed, precarious prince),
Gervase avowed his frank intent
To flatter the imperial pence
From Otto's coffers and, unmeant,
His chatter's dragged on seven hundred years.
The irony itself the more endears!
* * *
Let Good Men take those roads the rest shun,
Ladling out their benefice of love
Where huddled souls bear dusty-tented desperation,
So many moons and winds above
The piteous blankness of life's question.
But when I'm old and covet children's sweets
I pray that malice keeps me off the streets
Free in the indifference of natural things!
For under the marbled, cold complacent heaven
We are not myrmidons, or underlings,
Advisors, panders or bound slaves even
And no one whom we know pulls any strings.
Do not our wisest slip without a sound
Into a self-dug hole in their own ground?
* * *
Ah Gervase, to those questions we
Have hovering yet upon our lips
We can return no certainty.
The apish trickster Time corrupts
The imperatives of eternity,
Mocking with shadow-gestures all we say.
The insane grin on the gilded mask of day,
The blazing darkness in the cell
Of sleep, are all the world we know,
And, wearied by faith (half-infidel)
In what we seem, we sorrow so
That death but extrapolates a Rule
Our lives contract us to as novices.
But listen, at your window rise dim voices -
A golden icon in the night,
A radiant window into joy
Filled with madonnas of delight,
Deludes some scrivenor's aspirant boy;
Whilst out on him, with failing sight,
An aged courtier peers enviously
Among the shadows . . . Which of them is free?