The mountains are still there, monotonously changeable,
And the men in the sky with their slices of melon
Are managing their ennui – at least until teatime,
Till the dim philosopher comes to persuade them
Of the pathos of distance and the pessimism of strength.

On the cupboards for dogshit along the trails
There are faces of spaniels with snouts like Nietzsche’s,
And his weeping moustaches, done in sourdough plaster,
Are preserved on a bed in his holiday home.

You know the kind of place – it’s safe and strange;
The past is near, your guard is down,
And round the bend in the path by the waterfall
Come comrades you haven’t seen for years, thank God,
With something they want to say.

‘The life you have lived since you left us’ (this is the gist)
‘Is a long betrayal, a simple negative
Of the moment we shared that counted; and those you have loved –
The few fool enough to return the favour –
Will face madness in the end because of it,
Spread-eagled, screaming, in a Cairo street.’

Old friends, I salute you! – still vetting the files
On our long-ago Garden Airplane Trip …
O lords of the quadruple bypass! Wisdom itself,
With the smell of oil paint and turpentine clinging to you,
Undeserved, irremovable (that smell you despised),
Like a nimbus or a caul.

And my negative life?
How sure you both were in the old days,
And wrong, that those who succeed – your brother, for instance –
Had the taste of iniquity afterwards in their mouths.
Some do, some don’t, it turns out.
Happiness is inexcusable, the man said,
But there it is, a permanent scandal – as specious and inspiring as a Swiss resort.

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Vol. 34 No. 10 · 24 May 2012

I am sorry to have piqued T.J. Clark over his misunderstanding of Turner’s so-called Interior at Petworth into such a silly riposte (Letters, 10 May). Because I pointed out recent research into the picture that he has overlooked, he accuses me of philistinism. I didn’t offer an aesthetic appreciation of it, only an explanation of what it actually is in Turner’s creative process; so his comment is uncalled for. As a lifelong curator of British pictures, and particularly of Turner (I published the defamatory Italian cartoon he cites in 1987), I do not think I can be labelled so crudely. No, he has merely reinforced my point: that people who want art history to lead to – and culminate in – modernism, are wilfully indifferent to facts.

Andrew Wilton
London SW11

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