Some readers of poetry legitimately prefer to bypass the reasons and motivations of the poet.
All poems should be self-contained, they say. If more needs to be known then the poem has
failed. For those so inclined please do skip what follows.
Others readers, however, find the odd clue very helpful. So here are a few words of introduction:
My Arcadia is a set of five poems. The set emerged partially formed on a visit to Wimpole Hall
in Cambridgeshire, a stately home of England with it’s red-brick house, Capability Brown
gardens and curious folly on the hillside. In the previous week I’d watched a tv rerun of Peter Greenaway’s
film The Draughtsman’s Contract and travelled to London to see Tom Stoppard’s fantastic play Arcadia. Sitting there on a grassy rise, on that beautiful summer’s day, eating my picnic and taking in the view of the house, all of the elements seemed to fall together.
The piece is entitled Arcadia because it is in some way a tribute to the play, and it uses something of the structure - beginning in the tourist present, shifting back into the time when the current landscape was created, dwelling upon the shenanigans of the household and then
ending in tragedy.
As a reader all you need to know is that the house is home to Thomasina, a child prodigy, that
her tutor is Septimus Hodge, and that the night of the ball does not go well.
The five poems are best read consecutively. The piece was designed for performance so, after
a run through, try reading it out loud. Try different voices for each poem. Much more fun that way.
And don’t let the rhythm carry you through too fast.
"Et in Arcadia Ego!"
Cried the Tourist at the door,
"I've come to see the furbishments,
I'll take the guided tour:
pause briefly at each picture,
enquire about the china,
the porcelain from far Japan,
the rugs from Asia Minor;
"And in the libr'ry
I will lean across the red-rope barriers
To marvel at the names on tomes
Of those once quick now dead:
The poets and philosophers
Whose works I've never read
But reel off smug and glibly
Whene'er the question's raised
Around the board or down the pub
Then revel in the praise; you see
I soak it in: not what they said
But what I see - the surface.
Why should I seek behind facade?
What point is there in purpose”
"A figure in the landscape,
My presence crucial to the scene,
I move my head or flick my tail
But never stray beyond the bounds
Of grace and perfect balance;
I rarely walk and never run,
I feel no yearning for escape.
"Perspective served at every point
By glade and lake and fountain,
Enhanced by others such as me.
For those within the formal gardens’
Chiselled lines connect the eye
And thought to all that lies beyond;
They dress the House for those without.
"Both House and Garden will remain
A mystery to me and mine
Down among the pastures.
"The Residence is stony-faced;
Beyond the red-bricked nursery wall
And cold-frame glass that nestles close:
The cold stained-glass in window rose;
The chimneys, never smoking now, are cold
Above the roofs of hot black slate;
The drive, chalk-white, reflects the heat.
"I am not here to understand
The elegance or cool beauty,
My remit is to decorate.
"Behind the yards of curtain lace
Figures move, not such as I:
Within the landscape-mirrored glass
Are residents of a finer class;
Consumers of this Godly view
Their dream awakes, they sigh full-spate
And whisper words of Eden;
"I am not here to understand
The elegance in a certainty
That beauty conquers fate.
"Yet even I can recognize
A change upon the wold:
That something, wild and rashly done,
Has tipped the balance to and from:
above, once ever vaulted blue
is boiled with stormy passion;
clouds are echoed, thunders crack
about the brooding folly high,
built in ruin; Ravens fly;
a gothic scene all bordered by
dark banks of pine: Teutonic myth
invades the peace of English style.
"No matter: years will gallop by
And soften glories, soften crimes
the winters ruin stone in truth,
the summers bring on rampant growth;
Adventure, joy of distant youth
Declines, the tale of Middle Age
Romance becomes a memory.
"Yet here I stay,
Or one like me:
Without emotion I may be
Replaced at little cost to Art
In Nature, not like those within.
So long as funding's guaranteed
Us outside, a lasting breed,
Are set fair for the future.
You may keep your walls
And keep your glass,
I'll settle for this greener grass;
Yes, 'In Arcadia Ego'.
"It is a heavenly scene,
You may trust a draughtsman's eye.
See: a little white, a little black,
A little red to the side.
The world needs only colour
To bring it to the eye.
I need this grey upon the green
For contrast; sky is blue,
That's well enough, and brown I think
Of beast and earth:
All help me in my scheme;
But stony grey is first and last,
For it's cold hard grey that pays.
"Were I to paint to please myself
Much closer would I sit,
And maybe she would sit for me;
If I should faint upon this hill,
My easel, oils a’scatter,
Maybe she would mop my brow…
"A bitter thought,
A hopeless case,
She could never look my way,
For if she did
Then so would he.
"It is the heat of day
That causes this distress:
Too hot to think of lines and shade,
Too hot to think of form that's made,
It's form that moves that rules my eye.
“I see her, parasol aloft,
The silk and lace,
That regal face;
The haughty mien
She keeps for servants
Would for me be soft.
She would understand my worth,
Would know that I am not the cost
Of brush and paint and canvas.
My eye makes me superior.
In oil I soften glances,
Portray the sitter as required
But if the truth were wanted
Regarding pains and blames and trials,
Well, you may trust a draughtsman's eye,
It is the hand that lies.
But here I sit, denied.
They walk: the Lady and her retinue
To morning prayer as such must do
Each day; and twice a day
The chapel walls confirm her,
Confine her in a past
Of land long held and title clear;
The chapel white reflects the sun,
The door so black is gaping wide,
The cold of stone from deep inside
Wells out to welcome all the brides
For all the Lords and sons of Lords
Now taken by the tide.
Each day she tells the names on tombs
Of those once quick now dead,
And knows her place: to lie there too
Her destiny, the faithful wife of Robert, Earl,
Even in death will share his bed.
She shivers passing by.
Not for her
My wished for drama.
The poets and the painters passing through,
All paid to make eternal life,
Enliven days but not the nights,
Adventure only for the eye
And only thoughts disturb her rest;
Romance: disgrace, too hot a test,
She knows her place too well.
Will keep to shade behind the glass,
Will keep to God, his perfect Grace
Portrayed in windows as they pass.
Disgrace for me
To wish a man would die!
But if I could,
Yes if I could,
I would and damn his fee!
It's time to dance,
Why won't you dance with me?
I've lived an age
Not thirteen years,
O won't you dance with me?
"I've learned a Truth,
My Septimus, to govern this occasion,
That life is just a number built
Upon a tight equation
Unless we add a little more,
Some non-predicted act,
A dance of sorts
That's based upon
Some non-math’matic pact?
"I've seen desire,
A faulty thing
For some within this scene;
I’ll not condemn:
they wish away
but keep to fear,
And pity is a sorry thing.
"But what is wrong
For fearing souls
Is never wrong for we;
I've learned the Truth,
A Truth that's plain to see.
If you will give me margin
I will give you proof,
A theorem that's based upon
Our non-eternal youth.
The cost? A kiss!
again again again
A kiss for youth,
A kiss for proof,
again again again
The Truth remains
For all to find
again again again:
That what we were may cold remain
In words or art or numbers keen,
That what was done is done again,
All will again be seen;
We never lose a single truth,
I tell it to you clear:
It's only love that's lost, my love,
The only loss to fear.
So dance with me!
And dance with me
again again again
We may not see
So dance with me again!
"I watch him run
To quench the flame,
I am not versed in morals:
he should have taken chances,
quenched another flame
taught her other dances;
I hear him cry her name,
But the seventh son
His luck is done:
He runs, he cries in vain
For I am come,
Was ever here,
Will ever be the constant;
In every leaf,
In every stone
I am the final sum;
In every word
In courage and in fear;
For every life
And dream of life
I beat the passing drum.
I rove the deserts,
Ride the plains,
I plough the deeps below;
The mightiest of heights are mine,
The River's wind,
The endless wastes of snow;
I am the first and last of Hell
And even, Heaven knows,
I live in all the hearts of men;
My breeze through Eden blows;
I reap all fields of Paradise,
Consume all in my greed,
Will Take until the End has come;
The irony: I am the seed
Or in the seed
Of all that grows;
I am the deed
Or in the deed
Of everything that's done.
Come, dance with me now Septimus,
You know it is my right.
It is no crime that I commit
To take from you the arms of… that,
I know not what I've done.
That word I miss, though know it not,
I’d know it well,
The object of my jealousy is clear:
The only place I never walk,
The only dream that you create,
That only loss to fear.
There is a deep
I cannot plunder,
There is a place I cannot come,
So dance with me and teach me steps
And show me why you run.
All is but a scene;
Well I make fiercer passion,
I spoil landscapes with my dreams.
Arcadia is a scene
Viewed only from a distance:
Of itself it has no knowledge
Of that word I cannot speak,
that is not passion but in passion,
that lives only in men.
I am a special sort of tourist:
I explore beneath the surface.
I look out to sneer at others
Ever looking in:
The wide-eyed and the blinkered,
The hawk-eyed and the blind;
None can touch me at my depth,
Few can see to cut the skin.
I am not versed in kindness,
But Septimus I wish they could
Cut this weevil from the wood,
Cut the cancer from the gut,
Cut me out and cut the rot!
You give me bitter silence
When half the fault is yours.
Bring bright words
To calm me in my toil,
Bring wise thoughts
To ‘prove this task,
To prove the worth of Sacred Oil;
Comfort me with sums eternal,
Sums to rule all time and space:
Equations of infinity
I Be Here.