When I first discovered poetry at about the age of 17, it was mainly through the works of (in chronological order of discovery) Siegfried Sassoon, Brian Patten, W.H.Auden and Stephen Spender. The Double Shame was one of my favourites then, but in recent years it has slipped down the pecking order because I eventually realised I didn’t actually know what it was about. In those days I cared less for meaning and more for the immediate impact of the words; wonderful poetic song lyrics were the order of the day, such as the many songs written for Cream by Pete Brown – e.g. “Yellow tigers crouched in jungles in your dark eyes” … marvellous!

But what was this one about? I have recently wondered whether it was addressed to the poet’s brother, whose wife Margaret died of cancer. It may be no accident that The Double Shame  immediately precedes Elegy for Margaret in the Collected Poems. But then I found a website whose author considered it to be a poem about a dead relationship. Hmm, that’s possible. What do you think?

You must live though the time when everything hurts
When the space of the ripe, loaded afternoon
Expands to a landscape of white heat frozen
And trees are weighed down with hearts of stone
And green stares back where you stare alone,
And the walking eyes throw flinty comments,
And the words which carry most knives are the blind
Phrases searching to be kind.

Solid and usual objects are ghosts
The furniture carries cargoes of memory,
The staircase has corners which remember
As fire blows reddest in gusty embers,
And each empty dress cuts out an image
In fur and evening and summer and spring
of her who was different in each.

Pull down the blind and lie on the bed
And clasp the hour in the glass of one room
Against your mouth like a crystal doom.
Take up the book and stare at the letters
Hieroglyphs on sand and as meaningless –
Here birds crossed once and a foot once trod
In a mist where sight and sound are blurred.

The story of others who made their mistakes
And of one whose happiness pierced like a star
Eludes and evades between sentences
And the letters break into eyes which read
The story life writes now in your head
As though the characters sought for some clue
To their being transcendently living and dead
In your history, worse than theirs, but true.

Set in the mind of their poet, they compare
Their tragic sublime with your tawdry despair
And they have fingers which accuse
You of the double way of shame.
At first you did not love enough
And afterwards you loved too much
And you lacked the confidence to choose
And you have only yourself to blame.

Stephen Spender