The Temporal Princes

In the early days of this blog, back when I was commuting to work in Richmond and was only home on weekends, Saturday was often designated Poetry Day (and when it wasn’t, it was Ranting Day, which was also fun).

Today’s poem is actually an excerpt from a much longer work by C. Day Lewis, “The Magnetic Mountain”. I’ve never seen any of the rest of the poem, so these four stanzas must be the best part. The excerpt was included in an anthology of modern verse that I was assigned to study for O-level English in the late 1960s. I memorized it back then (we had to memorize lengthy chunks of verse to quote in the exam), but I don’t own a copy of it, so I hadn’t thought of it in decades.

As I mentioned last weekend, I’ve been sorting through a big old trunk of odds and ends. Some of the memorabilia in it are more than fifty years old, and I hadn’t laid eyes on any of the stuff in more than forty years. As a result, I’ve been running into some (mostly pleasant) surprises.

This past week I encountered the first two stanzas of the poem mentioned above in that trunk. I had scribbled them from memory on the cover of a William and Mary notebook — in class, when I was bored — in about 1971. When I saw them, they seemed VERY familiar, and gradually all four stanzas came back to me. But I couldn’t remember who the poet was, so I googled a piece of the text, and found it on someone’s blog (with minor textual errors, and possibly missing some commas).

This is a superb poem. I’m glad I recovered it after all these years. It’s somewhat gloomy, but I’ve just returned from a funeral, so gloom is appropriate:

But two there are

by C. Day Lewis
from “The Magnetic Mountain” (Part I; 2)

But two there are, shadow us everywhere
And will not let us be till we are dead,
Hardening the bones, keeping the spirit spare,
Original in water, earth and air,
Our bitter cordial, our daily bread.

Turning over old follies in the ante-room,
For first-born waiting or for late reprieve,
Watching the safety-valve, the slackening loom,
Abed, abroad, at every turn and tomb
A shadow starts, a hand is on your sleeve.

O you, my comrade, now or tomorrow flayed
Alive, crazed by the nibbling nerve; my friend
Whom hate has cornered or whom love betrayed,
By hunger sapped, trapped by a stealthy tide,
Brave for so long but whimpering in the end:

Such are the temporal princes, fear and pain,
Whose borders march with the ice-fields of death,
And from that servitude escape there’s none
Till in the grave we set up house alone
And buy our liberty with our last breath.

9 thoughts on “The Temporal Princes

  1. Yes, it’s gloomy, Baron. but sometimes that’s what we need—the hand on the sleeve, to remind us …

    Here’s a poem from a favourite Canadian poet of mine, Marjorie Pickthall (1883-1922). She shows that despite the fear and the pain, before “we set up house alone” we can ask for a few more hours, a few more years—to love, to work.

    Finis

    Give me a few more hours to pass
    With the mellow flower of the elm-bough falling,
    And then no more than the lonely grass
    And the birds calling.

    Give me a few more days to keep
    With a little love and a little sorrow,
    And then the dawn in the skies of sleep
    And a clear to-morrow.

    Give me a few more years to fill
    With a little work and a little lending,
    And then the night on a starry hill
    And the road’s ending.

      • Oh, what the heck

        Give me a few more hours to pass,
        and a few glasses to drink,

        With the mellow flower of the elm-bough falling,
        and a few glasses to drink,

        And then no more than the lonely grass
        and a few glasses to drink,

        And the birds calling.
        and a few glasses to drink!

        … and so on and o forth…

  2. Yet among the miseries in this earthen cell,
    I have a friend Who knows me well.
    His comforting touch He often sends
    as befits those who are lifelong friends.
    Yet as the days darken and the gloom descends
    I ask of my redemption, the where’s and the when’s.
    “Patience brother,” is His reply, “I shall call you to the sky.”
    There we shall meet and no more to cry.

    Pardon the liberties Baron, but as bad as this planet is becoming I know a happy ending for those who believe is promised. I just couldn’t leave the poem with its gloomy notes without a Coda that reminds us of a much better tomorrow when we are done here. The hardest part that I am finding is the patient waiting for the better tomorrow that the Lord has promised.

  3. The last two lines remind me of perhaps the best seduction poem ever, Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress”, which begins:

    Had we but World enough, and Time,
    This coyness, Lady, were no crime.

    Later he continues:

    But at my back I alwaies hear
    Times winged chariot hurryring near:

    In my favourite film, “A Matter of Life and Death” (aka “Stairway to Heaven”, 1946) David Niven’s, apparently doomed, British bomber captain quotes them to an American radio operator (Kim Hunter). But the relevant lines in the present context are:

    The Grave’s a fine and private place,
    But none, I think, do there embrace.

  4. For Baron and his British core, and acuara and his Christian eye:

    Sunset and evening star,
    And one clear call for me!
    And may there be no moaning of the bar,
    When I put out to sea,

    But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
    Too full for sound and foam,
    When that which drew from out the boundless deep
    Turns again home.

    Twilight and evening bell,
    And after that the dark!
    And may there be no sadness of farewell,
    When I embark;

    For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
    The flood may bear me far,
    I hope to see my Pilot face to face
    When I have crost the bar.

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