Titus Alone(12)

By: Mervyn Peake

Titus, watching from above, marvelled at the spectacle and while he lay there on the roof, a half-moon above him, with its chill and greenish light, and the warm glow of the party below him, was able not only to take in the diversity of the guests but, in regard to those who stood immediately below him, to overhear their conversation....


'Thank heavens it's all over now.'

'What is?'

'My youth. It took too long and got in my way.'

'In your way, Mr Thirst? How do you mean?'

'It went on for so long,' said Thirst. 'I had about thirty years of it. You know what I mean. Experiment, experiment, experiment. And now...'

'Ah!' whispered someone.

'I used to write poems,' said Thirst, a pale man. He made as if to place his hands upon the shoulder of his confidant, but the crush was too great. 'It passed the time away.'

'Poems,' said a pontifical voice from just behind their shoulders, '... should make time stand still.'

The pale man, who had jumped a little, merely muttered, 'Mine didn't,' before he turned to observe the gentleman who had interpolated. The stranger's face was quite inexpressive and it was hard to believe that he had opened his mouth. But now there was another tongue at large.

'Talking of poems,' it said, and it belonged to a dark, cadaverous, over-distinguished nostril-flaring man with a long blue jaw and chronic eyestrain, 'reminds me of a poem.'

'I wonder why,' said Thirst irritably, for he had been on the brink of expansion.

The man with eyestrain took no notice of the remark.

'The poem which I am reminded of is one which I wrote myself.'

A bald man knitted his brows; the pontifical gentleman lit a cigar, his face as expressionless as ever; and a lady, the lobes of whose ears had been ruined by the weight of two gigantic sapphires, half opened her mouth with an inane smirk of anticipation.

The dark man with eyestrain folded his hands before him.

'It didn't come off,' he said, '- although it had something-' (he twisted his lips). 'Sixty-four stanzas in fact.' (He raised his eyes) '- Yes, yes - it was very, very long and ambitious - but it didn't come off. And why...?'

He paused, not because he wanted any suggestions, but in order to take a Deep, meditative breath.

'I will tell you why, my friends. It didn't come off because you see, it was verse all the time.'

'Blank verse?' inquired the lady, whose head was bent forward by the weight of the sapphires. She was eager to be helpful. 'Was it blank verse?'

'It went like this,' said the dark man, unclasping his hands before him and clasping them behind him, and at the same time placing the heel of his left shoe immediately in front of the toe of his right shoe so that the two feet formed a single and unbroken line of leather .1t went like this.' He lifted his head. 'But do not forget it is not Poetry - except perhaps for three singing lines at the outside.'

'Well, for the love of Parnassus -let's have it,' broke in the petulant voice of Mr Thirst who, finding his thunder stolen, was no longer interested in good manners.

'A-l-t-h-o-u-g-h,' mused the man with the long blue jaw, who seemed to consider other people's time and patience as inexhaustible commodities like air, or water, 'a-l-t-h-o-u-g-h,' (he lingered over the word like a nurse over a sick child), 'there were those who said the whole thing sang; who hailed it as the purest poetry of our generation - "incandescent stuff" as one gentleman put it - but there you are - there you are - how is one to tell?'

'Ah,' whispered a voice of curds and whey. And a man with gold teeth turned his eyes to the lady with the sapphires, and they exchanged the arch expression of those who find themselves, however unworthily, to be witnesses at an historic moment.

'Quiet please,' said the poet. 'And listen carefully.’

A mule at prayer! Ignore him: turn to me Until the gold contraption of our love Rattles its seven biscuit boxes, and the sea Withdraws its combers from the rhubarb-grove.

This is no place for maudlin-headed fays To smirk behind their mushrooms! 't is a shore For gaping daemons: it is such a place, As I, my love, have long been looking for.

Here, where the rhubarb-grove into the wave Throws down its rueful image, we can fly Our kites of love, above the sandy grave, Of those long lost in ambiguity.

For love is ripest in a rhubarb-grove

Where weird reflections glimmer through the dawn: O vivid essence vegetably wove Of hues that die, the moment they are born.

Lost in the venal void our dreams deflate By easy stages through green atmosphere: Imagination's bright balloon is late.

Like the blue whale, in coming up for air.

It is not known what genus of the wild

Black plums of thought best wrinkle, twitch and flow Into sweet wisdom's prune - for in the mild Orchards of love there is no need to know.

What use to cry for Capricorn? it sails

Across the heart's red atlas: it is found Only within the ribs, where all the tails The tempest has are whisking it around.