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.