April 22nd will be the 72nd anniversary of the death of Roger Roughton, and thus a fitting time for me to post this latest from my list of all-time favourite poems. When I first read it, about 45 years ago, in a 60s anthology that I no longer have, the poem was simply subtitled “R.R. 1916-41” but at some subsequent time the full name was revealed. I don’t know why. The poem does not spontaneously jump out of a list of Gascoyne’s greatest poems; he did include it in his “Selected Poems” in 1994, but does not mention it in the extensive “Introductory Notes”, although Roughton does get a mention, as a friend and fellow-writer.
There is not much to be had on Roughton for a google-weary oldster such as myself, although I did find a mention of him here, together with a theory about the real reason for his death. Gascoyne, who died in 2001, has his own web page, and is also on wikipedia.
So, why do I like it so much? Well, not being very “literary”, I find such questions hard to answer. Mostly it is like asking why one likes the music one remembers from a certain time of one’s youth – for its associations. But it is, I feel, an intrinsically good poem; the death of a friend is something we struggle to find words for, let alone this kind of eloquence.
I typed it out, partly from memory, and partly from the “Selected Poems”. Although my memory may not be completely trustworthy, I think Gascoyne has tinkered with the odd word here or there compared with the version I first encountered – I seem to recall “I’ll say not” rather than “I’ll not say”, and “alone at times and dumb” rather than “at times alone and dumb”, but these are mere quibbles compared with the way Spender, for instance, lacerated his early verse.
To be honest, I have never really understood the last five lines. Is it a literary allusion, or does it maybe refer to some intimate childhood memory of Roughton’s that he had shared with his friend? Any help with clarifying this would be gratefully received.
Friend, whose unnatural early death
In this year’s cold, chaotic Spring
Is like a clumsy wound that will not heal:
What can I say to you, now that your ears
Are stoppered-up with distant soil?
Perhaps to speak at all is false; more true
Simply to sit at times alone and dumb
And with most pure intensity of thought
And concentrated inmost feeling, reach
Towards your shadow on the years’ crumbling wall.
I’ll not say any word in praise or blame
Of what you ended with the mere turn of a tap;
Nor to explain, deplore nor yet exploit
The latent pathos of your living years –
Hurried, confused and unfulfilled –
That were the shiftless years of both our youths
Spent in the monstrous mountain-shadow of
Catastrophe that chilled you to the bone:
The certain imminence of which always pursued
You from your heritage of fields and sun …
I see your face in hostile sunlight, eyes
Wrinkled against its glare, behind the glass
Of a car’s windscreen, while you seek to lose
Yourself in swift devouring of white roads
Unwinding across Europe and America;
Taciturn at the wheel, wrapped in a blaze
Of restlessness that no fresh scene can quench;
In cities of brief sojourn that you pass
Through in your quest for respite, heavy drink
Alone enabling you to bear each hotel night.
Sex, Art and Politics: those poor
Expedients! You tried them each in turn,
With the wry inward smile of one resigned
To join in every complicated game
Adults affect to play. Yet girls you found
So prone to sentiment’s corruptions; and the joy
Of sensual satisfaction seemed so brief, and left
Only new need. It proved hard to remain
Convinced of the Word’s efficacity; or even quite
Certain of World-Salvation through “the Party Line” …
Cased in the careful armour that you wore
Of wit and nonchalance, through which
Few quizzed the concealed countenance of fear,
You waited daily for the sky to fall;
At moments wholly panic-stricken by
A sense of stifling in your brittle shell:
Seeing the world’s damnation week by week
Grow more and more inevitable; till
The conflagration broke out with a roar,
And from those flames you fled through whirling smoke,
To end at last in bankrupt exile in
That sordid city, scene of Ulysses; and there,
While War sowed all the lands with violent graves,
You finally succumbed to a black, wild
Incomprehensibility of fate that none could share …
Yet even in your obscure death I see
The secret candour of that lonely child
Who, lost in the storm-shaken castle-park,
Astride his crippled mastiff’s back was borne
Slowly away into the utmost dark.