James may not like me saying it, but he’s dead. He was an existentialist: one of the high church atheists that were educated before post modernism arose and the ladder to knowledge was burned to embers. Those of us who are trying to reconstruct this are of a younger generation educated by his, and some of us still have a little Latin. James had far more.
His worth is not his criticism — which was good — and his epic poetry, which has dated. That was of his time. This however, is a poem that resonates, for when I find myself in the Northern Hemisphere the forests are strange and the light is wrong. James lived there is adult life. You can take the boy out of Sydney, but you can’t take Sydney out of the boy.
Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.
But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run:
My sin was to be faithless. I would lie
As if I could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done
Was in the name of love, or so I thought.
I might have met my death believing this,
But no, there was a lesson to be taught.
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.
My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish, each a little finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.
Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.
Even my memories are clearly seen:
Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must
Be aching for my homeland. Had I been
Dulled in the brain to match my lungs of dust
There’d be no recollection I could trust.
Yet I, despite my guilt, despite my grief,
Watch the Pacific sunset, heaven sent,
In glowing colours and in sharp relief,
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent,
As if it were my will and testament –
As if my first impressions were my last,
And time had only made them more defined,
Now I am weak. The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind.
TLS MAY 2 2014
This is from a link and Clive James Website. He is ambivalent about the electronic samizdat of his work.
As of early 2011, I have an uneasy feeling that this sub-section of the site will grow like no other, especially if I go on finding poems which were written too early to be included in the “Poems by Clive James” pages but which are still out there in cyberspace, neatly positioned in the websites of the magazines that first printed them. And really, when I examine the uneasiness, it isn’t all that unpleasant. Poets like attention. A poet as genuinely brilliant as Wendy Cope might detest the very idea of having her work pirated, but the rest of us are in at least two minds about the prospect of being ravished. Johnny Depp comes swinging lithely aboard and we don’t care what he steals, as long as he observes the line-endings.
I hope I got the line endings more correct than James, who for love stayed not in the land of his birth to the end, not seeking salvation but hoping the lie of oblivion would be true.
1. This quote from David Stove’s son of his father’s despair at his end is telling. The son joined the church.
All Dad’s elaborate atheist religion, with its sacred texts, its martyrs, its church militant; all his ostentatious tough- mindedness; all his intellectual machinery; all these things turned to dust. Convinced for decades of his stoicism, he now unwittingly demonstrated the truth of Clive James’s cruel remark: “we would like to think we are stoic…but would prefer a version that didn’t hurt.”
Already an alcoholic, he now made a regular practice of threatening violence to himself and others. In hospital he wept like a child (I had never before seen him weep). He denounced the nurses for their insufficient knowledge of Socrates and Descartes. From time to time he wandered around the ward naked, in the pit of confused despair. The last time I visited him I found him, to my complete amazement, reading a small bedside Gideon Bible. I voiced surprise at this. He fixed on me the largest, most protuberant, most frightened, and most frightening pair of eyes I have ever seen: “I’ll try anything now.”
Sadly, he chose death. Stove was a genius. But that is not sufficient.