Last Words of a Seventh-Rate Poet

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Bill, I feel far from quite right if not further: already the pill
Seems, if I may say so, to bubble inside me. A poet's heart, Bill,
Is a sort of a thing that is made of the tenderest young bloom on a fruit.
You may pass me the mixture at once, if you please and I'll thank you to boot
For that poem and then for the julep. This really is damnable stuff!
(Not the poem, of course.) Do you snivel, old friend? well, it's nasty enough,
But I think I can stand it I think so ay, Bill, and I could were it worse.
But I'll tell you a thing that I can't and I won't. 'Tis the old, old curse
The gall of the gold-fruited Eden, the lure of the angels that fell.
'Tis the core of the fruit snake-spotted in the hush of the shadows of hell,
Where a lost man sits with his head drawn down, and a weight on his eyes.
You know what I mean, Bill the tender and delicate mother of lies,
Woman, the devil's first cousin no doubt by the female side.
The breath of her mouth still moves in my hair, and I know that she lied,
And I feel her, Bill, sir, inside me she operates there like a drug.
Were it better to live like a beetle, to wear the cast clothes of a slug,
Be the louse in the locks of the hangman, the mote in the eye of the bat,
Than to live and believe in a woman, who must one day grow aged and fat?
You must see it's preposterous, Bill, sir. And yet, how the thought of it clings!
I have lived out my time I have prigged lots of verse I have kissed (ah, that stings!)
Lips that swore I had cribbed every line that I wrote on them cribbed honour bright!
Then I loathed her; but now I forgive her; perhaps after all she was right.
Yet I swear it was shameful unwomanly, Bill, sir to say that I fibbed.
Why, the poems were mine, for I bought them in print. Cribbed? of course they were cribbed.
Yet I wouldn't say, cribbed from the French Lady Bathsheba thought it was vulgar
But picked up on the banks of the Don, from the lips of a highly intelligent Bulgar.
I'm aware, Bill, that's out of all metre I can't help it I'm none of your sort
Who set metres, by Jove, above morals not exactly. They don't go to Court
As I mentioned one night to that cowslip-faced pet, Lady Rahab Redrabbit
(Whom the Marquis calls Drabby for short). Well, I say, if you want a thing, grab it
That's what I did, at least, when I took that danseuse to a swell cabaret,
Where expense was no consideration. A poet, you see, now and then must be gay.
(I declined to give more, I remember, than fifty centeems to the waiter;
For I asked him if that was enough; and the jackanapes answered Peut-être.
Ah, it isn't in you to draw up a menu such as ours was, though humble:
When I told Lady Shoreditch, she thought it a regular grand tout ensemble.)
She danced the heart out of my body I can see in the glare of the lights,
I can see her again as I saw her that evening, in spangles and tights.
When I spoke to her first, her eye flashed so, I heard as I fancied the spark whiz
From her eyelid I said so next day to that jealous old fool of a Marquis.
She reminded me, Bill, of a lovely volcano, whose entrails are lava
Or (you know my penchant for original types) of the upas in Java.
In the curve of her sensitive nose was a singular species of dimple,
Where the flush was the mark of an angel's creased kiss if it wasn't a pimple.
Now I'm none of your bashful John Bulls who don't know a pilau from a puggaree
Nor a chili, by George, from a chopstick. So, sir, I marched into her snuggery,
And proposed a light supper by way of a finish. I treated her, Bill,
To six entrées of ortolans, sprats, maraschino, and oysters. It made her quite ill.
Of which moment of sickness I took some advantage. I held her like this,
And availed myself, sir, of her sneezing, to shut up her lips with a kiss.
The waiters, I saw, were quite struck; and I felt, I may say, entre nous,
Like Don Juan, Lauzun, Almaviva, Lord Byron, and old Richelieu.
(You'll observe, Bill, that rhyme's quite Parisian; a Londoner, sir, would have cited old Q.
People tell me the French in my verses recalls that of Jeames or John Thomas: I
Must maintain it's as good as the average accent of British diplomacy.)
These are moments that thrill the whole spirit with spasms that excite and exalt.
I stood more than the peer of the great Casanova you know de Seingalt.
She was worth, sir, I say it without hesitation, two brace of her sisters.
Ah, why should all honey turn rhubarb all cherries grow onions all kisses leave blisters?
Oh, and why should I ask myself questions? I've heard such before once or twice.
Ah, I can't understand it but, O, I imagine it strikes me as nice.
There's a deity shapes us our ends, sir, rough-hew them, my boy, how we will
As I stated myself in a poem I published last year, you know, Bill
Where I mentioned that that was the question to be, or, by Jove, not to be.
Ah, it's something you'll think so hereafter to wait on a poet like me.
Had I written no more than those verses on that Countess I used to call Pussy
Yes, Minette or Manon and you'll hardly believe it she said they were all out of Musset.
Now I don't say they weren't but what then? and I don't say they were I'll bet pounds against pennies on
The subject I wish I may never die Laureate, if some of them weren't out of Tennyson.
And I think I don't like to be certain, with Death, so to speak, by me, frowning
But I think there were some say a dozen, perhaps, or a score out of Browning.
And though God knows his poems are not (as all mine are, sir) perfumed with orris
Or at least with patchouli I wouldn't be sworn there were none out of Morris.
And it's possible only the legend of Circe is quite an old yarn old
As the hills that I might have been thinking, perhaps, of a poem by Arnold
When I sang how Ulysses Odysseus I mean would have yearned to dishevel her
Bright hair with his kisses, and painted myself at her feet a Strayed Reveller.
As for poets who go on a contrary tack to what I go and you go
You remember my lyrics translated like "sweet bully Bottom" from Hugo?
Though I will say it's curious that simply on just that account there should be
Men so bold as to say that not one of my poems was written by me.
It would stir the political bile or the physical spleen of a drab or a Tory
To hear critics disputing my claim to Empedocles, Maud, and the Laboratory.
Yes, it's singular nay, I can't think of a parallel (ain't it a high lark?
As that Countess would say) there are few men believe it was I wrote the Ode to a Skylark.
And it often has given myself and Lord Albert no end of diversion
To hear fellows maintain to my face it was Wordsworth who wrote the Excursion,
When they know that whole reams of the verses recur in my authorized works
Here and there, up and down! Why, such readers are infidels heretics Turks.
And the pitiful critics who think in their paltry presumption to pay me a
Pretty compliment, pairing me off, sir, with Keats as if he could write Lamia!
While I never produced a more characteristic and exquisite book,
One that gave me more real satisfaction, than did, on the whole, Lalla Rookh.
Was it there that I called on all debtors, being pestered myself by a creditor, (he
Isn't paid yet) to rise, by the proud appellation of bondsmen hereditary?
Yes I think so. And yet, on my word, I can't think why I think it was so.
It more probably was in the poem I made a few seasons ago
On that Duchess her name now? ah, thus one outlives a whole cycle of joys!
Fair supplants black and brown succeeds golden. The poem made rather a noise.
And indeed I have seen worse verses; but as for the woman, my friend
Though his neck had been never so stiff, she'd have made a philosopher bend.
As the broken heart of a sunset that bleeds pure purple and gold
In the shudder and swoon of the sickness of colour, the agonies old
That engirdle the brows of the day when he sinks with a spasm into rest
And the splash of his kingly blood is dashed on the skirts of the west,
Even such was my own, when I felt how much sharper than any snake's tooth
Was the passion that made me mistake Lady Eve for her niece Lady Ruth.
The whole world, colourless, lapsed. Earth fled from my feet like a dream,
And the whirl of the walls of Space was about me, and moved as a stream
Flowing and ebbing and flowing all night to a weary tune
("Such as that of my verses"? Get out!) in the face of a sick-souled moon.
The keen stars kindled and faded and fled, and the wind in my ears
Was the wail of a poet for failure you needn't come snivelling tears
And spoiling the mixture, confound you, with dropping your tears into that!
I know I'm pathetic I must be and you soft-hearted and fat,
And I'm grateful of course for your kindness there, don't come hugging me, now
But because a fellow's pathetic, you needn't low like a cow.
I should like on my soul, I should like to remember but somehow I can't
If the lady whose love has reduced me to this was the niece or the aunt.
But whichever it was, I feel sure, when I published my lays of last year
(You remember their title The Tramp only seven-and-sixpence not dear),
I sent her a copy (perhaps her tears fell on the title-page yes
I should like to imagine she wept) and the Bride of Bulgaria (MS.)
I forwarded with it. The lyrics, no doubt, she found bitter and sweet;
But the Bride she rejected, you know, with expressions I will not repeat.
Well she did no more than all publishers did. Though my prospects were marred,
I can pity and pardon them. Blindness, mere blindness! And yet it was hard.
For a poet, Bill, is a blossom a bird a billow a breeze
A kind of creature that moves among men as a wind among trees.
And a bard who is also the pet of patricians and dowagers doubly can
Express his contempt for canaille in his fables where beasts are republican.
Yet with all my disdainful forgiveness for men so deficient in ton
I cannot but feel it was cruel I cannot but think it was wrong.
I with the heat of my heart still burning against all bars
As the fire of the dawn, so to speak, in the blanched blank brows of the stars
I with my tremulous lips made pale by musical breath
I with the shade in my eyes that was left by the kisses of Death
(For Death came near me in youth, and touched my face with his face,
And put in my lips the songs that belong to a desolate place
Desolate truly, my heart and my lips, till her kiss filled them up!)
I with my soul like wine poured out with my flesh for the cup
It was hard for me it was hard Bill, Bill, you great owl, was it not?
For the day creeps in like a Fate: and I think my grand passion is rot:
And I dreamily seem to perceive, by the light of a life's dream done,
The lotion at six, and the mixture at ten, and the draught before one.
Yes I feel rather better. Man's life is a mull, at the best;
And the patent perturbator pills are like bullets of lead in my chest.
When a man's whole spirit is like the lost Pleiad, a blown-out star,
Is there comfort in Holloway, Bill? is there hope of salvation in Parr?
True, most things work to their end and an end that the shroud overlaps.
Under lace, under silk, under gold, sir, the skirt of a winding-sheet flaps
Which explains, if you think of it, Bill, why I can't, though my soul thereon broodeth,
Quite make out if I loved Lady Tamar as much as I loved Lady Judith.
Yet her dress was of violet velvet, her hair was hyacinth-hued,
And her ankles no matter. A face where the music of every mood
Was touched by the tremulous fingers of passionate feeling, and made
Strange melodies, scornful, but sweeter than strings whereon sorrow has played
To enrapture the hearing of mirth when his garland of blossom and green
Turns to lead on the anguished forehead "you don't understand what I mean"?
Well, of course I knew you were stupid you always were stupid at school
Now don't say you weren't but I'm hanged if I thought you were quite such a fool!
You don't see the point of all this? I was talking of sickness and death
In that poem I made years ago, I said this "Love, the flower-time whose breath
Smells sweet through a summer of kisses and perfumes an autumn of tears
Is sadder at root than a winter its hopes heavy-hearted like fears.
Though I love your Grace more than I love little Letty, the maid of the mill,
Yet the heat of your lips when I kiss them" (you see we were intimate, Bill)
"And the beat of the delicate blood in your eyelids of azure and white
Leave the taste of the grave in my mouth and the shadow of death on my sight.
Fill the cup twine the chaplet come into the garden get out of the house
Drink to me with your eyes there's a banquet behind, where worms only carouse!
As I said to sweet Katie, who lived by the brook on the land Philip farmed
Worms shall graze where my kisses found pasture!" The Duchess, I may say, was charmed.
It was read to the Duke, and he cried like a child. If you'll give me a pill,
I'll go on till past midnight. That poem was said to be Somebody's, Bill.
But you see you can always be sure of my hand as the mother that bore me
By the fact that I never write verse which has never been written before me.
Other poets I blush for them, Bill may adore and repudiate in turn a
Libitina, perhaps, or Pandemos; my Venus, you know, is Laverna.
Nay, that epic of mine which begins from foundations the Bible is built on
"Of man's first disobedience" I've heard it attributed, dammy, to Milton.
Well, it's lucky for them that it's not worth my while, as I may say, to break spears
With the hirelings, forsooth, of the press who assert that Othello was Shakespeare's.
When he that can run, sir, may read if he borrows the book, or goes on tick
In my poems the bit that describes how the Hellespont joins the Propontic.
There are men, I believe, who will tell you that Gray wrote the whole of The Bard
Or that I didn't write half the Elegy, Bill, in a Country Churchyard.
When you know that my poem, The Poet, begins "Ruin seize thee!" and ends
With recapitulations of horrors the poet invokes on his friends.
And I'll swear, if you look at the dirge on my relatives under the turf, you
Will perceive it winds up with some lines on myself and begins with the curfew.
Now you'll grant it's more probable, Bill as a man of the world, if you please
That all these should have prigged from myself than that I should have prigged from all these.
I could cry when I think of it, friend, if such tears would comport with my dignity,
That the author of Christabel ever should smart from such vulgar malignity.
(You remember perhaps that was one of the first little things that I carolled
After finishing Marmion, the Princess, the Song of the Shirt, and Childe Harold.)
Oh, doubtless it always has been so Ah, doubtless it always will be
There are men who would say that myself is a different person from me.
Better the porridge of patience a poor man snuffs in his plate
Than the water of poisonous laurels distilled by the fingers of hate.
'Tis a dark-purple sort of a moonlighted kind of a midnight, I know;
You remember those verses I wrote on Irene, from Edgar A. Poe?
It was Lady Aholibah Levison, daughter of old Lord St. Giles,
Who inspired those delectable strains, and rewarded her bard with her smiles.
There are tasters who've sipped of Castalia, who don't look on my brew as the brew:
There are fools who can't think why the names of my heroines of title should always be Hebrew.
'Twas my comrade, Sir Alister Knox, said, "Noo, dinna ye fash wi' Apollo, mon;
Gang to Jewry for wives and for concubines, lad look at David and Solomon.
And it gives an erotico-scriptural twang," said that high-born young man, " tickles
The lug" (he meant ear) "of the reader to throw in a touch of the Canticles."
So I versified half of The Preacher it took me a week, working slowly. Bah!
You don't half know the sex, Bill they like it. And what if her name was Aholibah?
I recited her charms, in conjunction with those of a girl at the café,
In a poem I published in collaboration with Templeton (Taffy).
There are prudes in a world full of envy and some of them thought it too strong
To compare an earl's daughter by name with a girl at a French restaurant.
I regarded her, though, with the chivalrous eyes of a knight-errant on quest;
I may say I don't know that I ever felt prouder, old friend, of a conquest.
And when I've been made happy, I never have cared a brass farthing who knew it; I
Thank my stars I'm as free from mock-modesty, friend, as from vulgar fatuity.
I can't say if my spirit retains for the subject appears to me misty any tie
To such associations as Poesy weaves round the records of Christianity.
There are bards I may be one myself who delight in their skill to unlock a lip's
Rosy secrets by kisses and whispers of texts from the charming Apocalypse.
It was thus that I won, by such biblical pills of poetical manna,
From two elders Sir Seth and Lord Isaac the liking of Lady Susanna.
But I left her a woman to me is no more than a match, sir, at tennis is
When I heard she'd gone off with my valet, and burnt my rhymed version of Genesis.
You may see by my shortness of speech that my time's almost up: I perceive
That my new-fangled brevity strikes you: but don't though the public will grieve.
As it's sometimes my whim to be vulgar, it's sometimes my whim to be brief;
As when once I observed, after Heine, that "she was a harlot, and I" (which is true) "was a thief."
(Though you hardly should cite this particular line, by the way, as an instance of absolute brevity:
I'm aware, man, of that; so you needn't disgrace yourself, sir, by such grossly mistimed and impertinent levity.)
I don't like to break off, any more than you wish me to stop: but my fate is
Not to vent half a million such rhymes without blockheads exclaiming
Jam Satis.
Specimen from the speaker's original poems.
Come into the orchard, Anne,
For the dark owl, Night, has fled,
And Phosphor slumbers, as well as he can
With a daffodil sky for a bed:
And the musk of the roses perplexes a man,
And the pimpernel muddles his head.

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