Overtures to Death

It is not you I fear, but the humiliations
You mercifully use to deaden grief –
The downward graph of natural joys.
Imagination’s slump, the blunted ear.
I hate this cold and politic self-defence
Of hardening arteries and nerves
Grown dull with time serving. I see that the heart lives
By self-betrayal, by circumspection is killed.
That boy, whose glance makes heaven open and edges
Each dawning pain with gold, must learn to disbelieve:
The wildfire lust of the eyes will gutter down
To age’s dim recalcitrance.
Have we not seen how quick this young girl’s thoughts,
Wayward and burning as a charm of goldfinches
Alarmed from thistle-tops, turn into
Spite or a cupboard love or clipped routine?
Nearing the watershed and the difficult passes,
Man wraps up closer against the chill
In his familiar habits: and at the top
Pauses, seeing your kingdom like a net beneath him spread.
Some climbed to this momentous peak of the world
And facing the horizon – that notorious pure woman
Who lures to cheat the last embrace
Hurled themselves down upon an easier doom.
One the rare air made dizzy renounced
Earth, and the avalanche took him at his word:
One wooed perfection – he’s bedded deep in the glacier, perfect
And null, the prince and image of despair.
The best, neither hoarding nor squandering
The radiant flesh and the receptive
Spirit, stepped on together in the rhythm of comrades who
Have found a route on earth’s true reckoning based.
They have not known the false humility,
The shamming-dead of the senses beneath your hunter’s hand;
But life’s green standards they’ve advanced
To the limit of your salt unyielding zone.

from Collected Poems (Jonathan Cape, 1970), used by permission of PFD on behalf of the Estate of C Day Lewis.Recordings used by permission of the BBC

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