[ilds] "On First Looking into Loeb's Horace"

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Thu May 8 16:37:51 PDT 2008

On 5/8/2008 6:22 PM, Bruce Redwine wrote:
> The title already tells us that the poem is playing off Keats's famous sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," which is an unabashed tribute to a great poet.  Durrell reworks a tribute into a poem of scathing criticism of Horace's personality and also strikes blows at Keats.
> I believe it was Newton who said he stood on the shoulders of giants. 
> I don't see Durrell saying this. He seems bent on cutting those giants 
> down to size.

So why would Durrell cultivate an agon with Keats?  Why the antagonism 
towards Horace? 

So if not Keats, then why Lord Byron? 

I can hardly resist dropping off one of my favorites.  Here I think that 
Durrell is identifying to a high degree with the "hobbled," "farded," 
and compromised self of Byron.  I believe that Durrell saw a reckoning 
with the "Notself" as the speaker calls it here to be the unavoidable 
fate of any conscious soul, of any self-aware writer.

This also could be Pursewarden at his mirror in the penultimate moment, 
I think.



Durrell, Lawrence :  BYRON [from Collected Poems: 1931-1974 (1985) , 
Faber and Faber ]

The trees have been rapping
At these empty casements for a year,
Have been rapping and tapping and
Repeating to us here
Omens of the defeating wind,
Omens of the defeating mind.

Headquarters of a war
House in a fever-swamp
Headquarters of a mind at odds.

Before me now lies Byron and behind,
Belonging to the Gods,
Another Byron of the feeling
Shown in this barbered hairless man,
Splashed by the candle-stems
In his expensive cloak and wig
And boots upon the dirty ceiling.

Hobbled by this shadow,
My own invention of myself, I go
In wind, rain, stars, climbing
This ladder of compromises into Greece
Which like the Notself looms before
My politics, my invention and my war.
None of it but belongs
To this farded character
Whose Grecian credits are his old excuse
By freedom holding Byron in abuse.

[Page 121 ]

Strange for one who was happier
Tuned to women, to seek and sift
In the heart's simple mesh,
To know so certainly
Under the perfume and the politics
What undertow of odours haunts the flesh:
Could once resume them all
In lines that gave me rest,
And watch the fat fly Death
Hunting the skeleton down in each,
Like hairs in plaster growing,
Promising under the living red the yellow---
I helped these pretty children by their sex
Discountenance the horrid fellow.

I have been a secretary (I sing)
A secretary to love ...

In this bad opera landscape
Trees, fevers and quarrels
Spread like sores: while the gilded
Abstractions like our pride and honour
On this brute age close like doors
Which pushing does not budge.

Outside them, I speak for the great average.
My disobedience became
A disguise for a style in a new dress.
Item: a lock of hair.
Item: a miniature, myself aged three,
The innocent and the deformed
Pinned up in ribbons for posterity.

And now here comes
The famous disposition to weep,
To renounce. Picture to yourself
A lord who encircled his life
With women's arms; or another
Who rode through the wide world howling
And searching for his mother.

[Page 122 ]

Picture to yourself a third: a cynic.
This weeping published rock---
The biscuits and the glass of soda-water:
Under Sunium's white cliffs
Where I laboured with my knife
To cut a 'Byron' there---
I was thinking softly of my daughter.

A cock to Aesculapius no less ...

You will suggest we found only
In idleness and indignation here,
Plucked by the offshore dancers, brigs
Like girls, and ports of call
In our commerce with liberty, the Whore,
Through these unbarbered priests
And garlic-eating captains:
Fame like the only porch in a wall
To squeeze our shelter from
By profit and by circumstance
Assist this rocky nation's funeral.

The humane and the lawful in whom
Art and manners mix, who sent us here,
This sort of figures from a drawing-room
Should be paused themselves once
Under these legendary islands.
A landscape hurled into the air
And fallen on itself: we should see
Where the frail spines of rivers
Soft on the backbone intersect and scribble
These unbarbered gangs of freedom dribble
Like music down a page and come
Into the valleys with their small
Ordnance which barks and jumps.
I, Byron: the soft head of my heart bumps
Inside me as on a vellum drum.

[Page 123 ]

Other enemies intervene here,
Not less where the valet serves
In a muddle of papers and consequences;
Not less in places where I walk alone
With Conscience, the defective: my defences
Against a past which lies behind,
Writing and rewriting to the bone
Those famous letters in my mind.

Time grows short. Now the trees
Are rapping at the empty casements.
Fevers are closing in on us at last---
So long desired an end of service
To the flesh and its competitions of endurance.
There is so little time. Fletcher
Tidies the bed at dusk and brings me coffee.

You, the speaking and the feeling who come after:
I sent you something once---it must be
Somewhere in Juan ---it has not reached you yet.

O watch for this remote
But very self of Byron and of me,
Blown empty on the white cliffs of the mind,
A dispossessed His Lordship writing you
A message in a bottle dropped at sea.

1946/ 1944

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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