Byron at Sixty-Five

Edwin Morgan

The rumour of my death has long abated.
The Greeks still love me, but I don’t love Greeks
Except for one – or two; I must be fated
To wander and to change; when the mast creaks
I smell the salt and know my soul unsated
Until it finds the language no man speaks.
And what is that? some simpleton demands
Who’s never heard the seething of the sands.

No seething here, though, or not much; the plop
And gurgle of old timbers slowly walloped
By oily steamship wash is not the top
Of pleasure; no sea-horses ever galloped
A winning streak in muck; what made me stop
In Venice? Well, the curtain’s nicely scalloped,
My dear contessa’s maid has lit a fire,
And shut-out January relights desire.

Don’t laugh; Childe Harold may be grey and paunchy,
A lame, ex-English, ex-Scottish ex-Romantic
Soon to be ex-everything, including ex-raunchy.
But still I’ll have a gaudy night, not frantic
Like forty years ago; and at dawn she
’ll re-tell, re-live, forgive each aging antic.
All right, it’s comedy; but the comedy’s high
You must admit: palazzo, contessa, and I.

Hear how the north wind batters at the pane!
A spot of grog’s the thing for nights like this –
Not too much seltzer. Sailors on the main
Have grog for birthdays – victories – and Christmas –
And I’m a sailor – and I’ve no champagne –
So here’s to Doctor Grog, and let’s not miss
His therapeutic memories of sails,
And holystoning pigtailed tars, and whales –

Speaking of which, I’ve just read Moby-Dick
And think its author very enigmatic
But enigmatically great, one flick
Of that huge fluke and verse is in the attic,
Prose fills the morning-rooms and thrashes quick
About the hall, large, muscular, and vatic.
We poets must throw off our well-pressed laurels,
Let children play with chinkling beads and corals.

He said. But unresisting, took a rhyme,
Watched the floating bulk of language approach,
Rose up, and at the crucial tilt of time
Shot out that sharp harpoon and saw it broach
The stanza’s shoulders to a ship-bell’s chime.
And Melville needn’t try to drive a coach
And horses through my case in his next book.
He uses metre in his prose, the crook.

But still, America comes on and on,
Land of the turkey, Edgar Allan Poe,
Clam chowder, telegrams, and Audubon.
I think I’ll take a tour there, just to know
A New World now that this damned creaky old one
Has got itself a gout in every toe
And totters, more than marches, to the future,
Afraid to break its grim dynastic suture.

What do I care, they’ll say, an exiled whiner,
A superannuated stateless has-been.
Victoria’s not much of a Regina
In my opinion; let the age come clean,
And stop pretending everything is finer
Because the blood and sweat are seldom seen.
You twitch your skirt, but that still leaves the dust.
You pay, but you don’t give, the workhouse crust.

O Forty-Eight, the year of revolutions,
Men on the streets from Budapest to Bradford,
We saw such rhetoric, such resolutions,
So many torchlight columns, but all baffled,
All gone into a night without solutions,
And storm-clouds burdening the vengeful scaffold.
Who would not think the tyrants had returned,
And all our boyhood hopes swept up and burned?

Marx and Engels wouldn’t; I read their book,
Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei.
They say a spectre’s haunting every nook
Of power in Europe, and that chains will fly.
If that is true, the printing-presses shook
Like thunder when these pages flickered by.
Who could believe them? Yet I read it twice,
And thought I heard the cracking of the ice.

I sent a copy off (in German of course)
To Wordsworth, with a pleasing dedication
‘To our oldest living renegade’. The force
Of this last-minute well-meant operation
To save his soul proved to be over-coarse,
Or else the man was well beyond salvation.
Soon afterwards, he went to meet his Maker,
An unrepentant stupid Tory Laker.

Peace to all such! as parsons say – not me.
Stir up the fire, Teresa dear, it’s dark
And wild outside. Mushrooms, olives, Chianti
Will keep us going in our little ark –
Not so little, I know – that sniffs the sea
And rots and shivers here beneath St Mark.
Every house moves in Venice, drifting down
Canals of blackness to a mirrored town.

How easily we slip into abstraction,
And thoughts of gloom and distant things, things lost
Or never won, the sour fruits of inaction,
And joys that jaded with relentless cost.
Our very loves are ivied, fraction by fraction
Crumbling loose at the onset of frost.
– It isn’t so, my sweet contessa, is it?
Ovid lodged Tristia, ours are but a visit.

And any time I feel myself go tristful,
I write a stanza to my staunch Teresa.
Knowing her short of patience for the wistful,
I improvise a shivaree to please her –
Throwing up a palace, fistful by fistful,
Of crystal, smarter than pyramids in Giza,
Within the Hyde Park of my mind. O Paxton,
Houser of catalogues undreamt by Caxton,

Such cornucopias of imperial trash –
Bronze Gothic chairs – three-hundred-bladed knives –
Pudic statues – rhino horns – calabash
And collapsible piano – sets of tropic gyves –
Such ludicrously philistine panache
As millions never saw in all their lives,
Or loved as soon as saw, or had displayed
Before them in a threadbare horsy glade.

Horses! God, I’m so fat. What a front to flaunt!
I rode my last horse fifteen years ago.
Today I’d float, not swim, the Hellespont.
And every winter this damned foot eats crow
(As Yankees say) and drags me, taunt by taunt.
I’m just a sack of gibes, milord for show.
But dinna fash, lassie (as we Scots say).
We’ll sing to keep the mulligrubs at bay.

We’re at the nameless bottle now; it’s good.
Your rings wink in the gaslight as you pour.
Gas is the thing; I never understood
Why some still rig their dripping candles galore,
Parlours like altars, wax-ends in the food.
Electric’s next – science to the fore!
I think I’m ready for some bread and cheese.
Don’t get up. I have the pantry keys.

There we are. Now if only Ada was here –
You know I miss my daughter – she can talk
Like an angel on sine and cosine, severe
But winning with it, you could never mock
The hypotenuse in her company, or sneer
Your way into some asymptotic baulk.
She’s working all out now with Charles Babbage,
And that’s a far cry from roast beef and cabbage.

It seems they have the plan for a machine
To do computing, a thousand sums a minute.
This engine has not trundled on the scene
Yet, but d’you think there might be something in it?
They need a language that is not – obscene –
Or human – or Albanian – or Innuit.
Ada wants the very machines to confer.
Perhaps they’ll name the language after her.

Babbage and Marx – can that be what’s to come?
Machines to compute, and all the workers free?
My dear contessa, what a maximum
Of bliss it would be to come back and see –
To burn the dungeons that have made men dumb,
And wade whole rivers to the liberty tree.
Burns said I guess an’ fear. Ah when we do,
Mark then and shape the new life thundering through.

How red the fire is now – let it go down.
We never tried the pine-cones Lisa left us.
I must look out. The canal is silver-brown,
Half slurry and half sleet. Weather’s bereft us
Of distant towers. Gondoliers would frown
But there are none. Whatever angel cleft us
Out of the rock is gone. We are ours to keep.
Bed, my love; pop the gas; to touch, and sleep.