[ilds] The Tree of Idleness

Michael Haag michaelhaag at btinternet.com
Thu Jul 19 08:24:54 PDT 2007

The Tree of Idleness does seem to be one of those poems where Durrell 
is surveying the whole of his life.  James points to the connection 
between the idleness of this poem and the 'perfect idleness' of Cities, 
Plains and People, an earlier resume of his existence.  Charles' remark 
that this poem is 'a trauma case' strikes me as being what this poem is 

When Durrell writes 'I shall die one day I suppose', he is not 
supposing that he will die one day, rather the supposing refers to 
where he will die:
'I shall die one day I suppose / In this old Turkish house I inhabit'.  
This is Durrell still in his early days on Cyprus.  When exactly the 
poem was written, I do not know, but the bound volume bearing the title 
The Tree of Idleness of which this poem is a part was published in 
March, I think, 1955.  So the poem was written on Cyprus in 1953 or 
1954.  Durrell did not take up his government post until the summer of 
1954, and EOKA violence did not erupt until 1 April 1955.  This poem 
does not appear to have been written under the cloud of those political 
events which gave rise to the poem Bitter Lemons.

Durrell's sentiment about dying there in that house in that village, 
the village of Bellapaix, brings to mind a letter he wrote to Henry 
Miller on 20 November 1953 (see Durrell-Miller Letters 273-4) in which 
he says 'I insist on dying along this holy and pre-Xian shore'.  He is 
referring to the Mediterranean.   Durrell had arrived in Cyprus earlier 
that year and must have felt relieved, after Belgrade, and before that 
Argentina, to be on the shores of the Mediterranean again.  He has 
returned to that place where he feels at home, even where he felt 

Bananas do grow in Cyprus and Greece, and they grow in India.  They are 
not indigenous to any of those countries.  I do not see that Durrell is 
making a political point here.

My attention is caught by the lines, 'Will I be more or less dead / 
Than the village in memory's dispersing / Springs ...?'  Again, I doubt 
that this has anything to do with James' reference to 'rising civil 
strife' as there was as yet no significant strife.  Instead it reminds 
me of Durrell equating death with loss of memory, or equating memory 
with life, which is one of his themes in Nunquam.  The word 'No' in the 
poem is immediately explained: 'No: the card-players in tabs of shade / 
Will play on'; life in the village will continue, even as 'the aerial 
springs / [will] Hiss', that is memory will be dispersed.  It is as 
though individual memory, and individual lives, will pass, but the 
greater existence, the Mediterranean existence along 'this holy shore' 
will continue, and Durrell finds some comfort in planting his body 
there and being part of that.

So what about the trauma that Charles mentions?  I do not want to get 
into this much, but the giveaway for me is the last line of the first 
stanza, 'On the sill in a jam-jar a rock-rose'.  Like Durrell's other 
objects, for example the rings, the black eye patch, in Justine, they 
cry of meaninglessness when they have no associations, when they are 
not given a story.


>             *THE TREE OF IDLENESS [from Collected Poems: 1931-1974
>             (1985), Faber and Faber]*
>             I shall die one day I suppose
>             In this old Turkish house I inhabit:
>             A ragged banana-leaf outside and here
>             On the sill in a jam-jar a rock-rose.
>             Perhaps a single pining mandolin
>             Throbs where cicadas have quarried
>             To the heart of all misgiving and there
>             Scratches on silence like a pet locked in.
>             Will I be more or less dead
>             Than the village in memory's dispersing
>             Springs, or in some cloud of witness see,
>             Looking back, the selfsame road ahead?
>             By the moist clay of a woman's wanting,
>             After the heart has stopped its fearful
>             Gnawing, will I descry between
>             This life and that another sort of haunting?
>             No: the card-players in tabs of shade
>             Will play on: the aerial springs
>             Hiss: in bed lying quiet under kisses
>             Without signature, with all my debts unpaid
>             I shall recall nights of squinting rain,
>             Like pig-iron on the hills: bruised
>             Landscapes of drumming cloud and everywhere
>             The lack of someone spreading like a stain.
>             Or where brown fingers in the darkness move,
>             Before the early shepherds have awoken,
>             Tap out on sleeping lips with these same
>             Worn typewriter keys a poem imploring
>             Silence of lips and minds which have not spoken.
>             1955/1955
>             Author's Note
>             The title of this poem is taken from the name of the tree
>             which stands outside Bellapaix Abbey in Cyprus, and which
>             confers the gift of pure idleness on all who sit under it.

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