‘In the summer of the year 1792, the author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton ...’


At first, there was no cause for suspicion,
the gentleman rooted in solitude
had taken possession of a small farm,
and rarely showed. We’d seen him walk the lane,

encumbered by a trunk, on arrival,
a scholar, so we heard, and indisposed,
given over to verse and reverie:
attentive about his despatch of mail,
perhaps distracted, but not sinister.

Then one night, woken by the discomfort
of a nagging tooth swabbed in laudanum,
I noticed that his light still burned; the shriek
of an owl scruffing a vole in the brake
made me shiver at this man’s blue candle
and protracted lucubrations. Women
on swearing fealty to the devil
had been turned into hares: confecting charms
was still a distillation of our parish

superstition. My wife wore a toadstone
to ward off ills that bedevil the noon,
and creep sinuously down the gnarled lane
in the shape of a black cat, or magpie.
I raked the whitened embers of the fire,
and huddled there, despite the summer air’s
chartreuse and apple green. A yellow moth
beat at the pane; and dawn was in the sky
when she I’d left came down, and found me there;

but I disclosed nothing. Later that day,
I saw him scrutinising the hedgerows,
where blue speedwell and the wild raspberry,
red dead-nettle, and the mauve dwarf-mallow
could be found by the contemplative eye.
His pallor scared me, and he seemed to look
backwards into his head, as though the sky
had made a compact circuit in his skull.
I hailed him, but he never once looked round.

only walked on in abstraction, and seemed
to utter words as an incantation,
and then retraced resolute steps back home,
and didn’t show again that day. I sat
down on a stone and watched a goldfinch preen
the blazing pansy colours of its breast,
and found myself without the laudanum
to dull the viper in my tooth, so thought
to call upon that wayward, racked person,

and ask the use of a strong anodyne.
I sat for hours in cold trepidation,
fearing to knock, and he, as though possessed,
scratched lines across a page, and when the pain
was greater than my own superstition
I rapped loudly. He still appeared to dream,
and looked unseeingly right through my head,
as though the page was on the other side,
I said, there’s something wrong, and grabbed his arm.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences