The Dying Scholar’s Confession

Geoffrey Strickland

Now I am about to die and the secret
Of my ignorance dies with me.
That I put it over them the more discerning
Guessed, their eyes told me, but how much I fooled them
None will ever know. My secret dies with me.

I die mercifully before the secret is out:
The books I quoted and had not read,
The names I hoarded from the talk of others
And dropped into my own,
The desperate webs I wove to fill
The dusty silences of teaching hours.

Why, I have spoken in tongues of which I am so much the master
I could not ask my way in them
Or call for food and a room.
I have spoken like the possessor of experimental skills
Which, if put to the test, would have blown whole laboratories sky high.

I have filled many hours of my pupils’ silence
And intent gazing with my foolishness,
Made exhortations which, had they heeded them
(Or even bothered to read their own lecture notes).
Would have dragged them raving into Hell.

Fortunately, they thought of me only as a good show,
One of the more stimulating lecturers.

And yet I love my ignorance.
The untold treasures of what I do not know
Are more dear to me than the well-lit room
And sagging bookshelves I have owned for years,
In which I am at home and in which I shall die.

The world of what I do not know is like
A towering city on a nest of rocks,
A climbing road, a maze of streets
And squares with antique pumps that I have visited
Many times but cannot find on a map

With men and women who have the look and voices
Of mountain people, who call out to one another
With the rough kindliness of mountain people
In the luminous evenings when the doors are open.

Now that I am dying, I can lapse back into my ignorance.
It will be expected of me even, I shall be honoured for it.
They will say: ‘Once he knew many things, now he knows nothing,
Which is why we mourn for him.’
What have I ever known?