Sketch for a Portrait of
 
                              Countess Eleanor Palffy        

 
Now in your exaltation

At the kind Court of Heaven,

Do you remember that summer

Evening in Boston,

When we dined together

During the stunned elation

Of War?

            Somehow those coming

Khaki days of dust

And boredom cast

No shadows

Through the laurel leaves.

Doubtless I should

Have listened more

To what you said. These are

The things one grieves

For later - the lost

Words kindly meant,

Unheeded then.

But being young,

I was invulnerable.

That magic armour

Wears away

Not in a day

Or decade;

Yet when needed most,

Is gone.

Why must it cost

The young so much

In years

That disappear,

In tears

That smooth the stone

Of selfishness to dust -

Why must it cost

The grinding down of youth

To reach

The wisdom which

The old could teach:

That giving is

The heart of love?

 

Perhaps you thought this there

In the spectral glamour

Engulfing us above

The Ritz Hotel -

Where, on a far-off day,

You would come back to die.

 

That dinner done,

We wandered in the Public

Gardens, where the sky

Was set with leaflike stars:

Walked past the heroes, green

Spangled with the light.

Home from their marble wars;

Strolled by the swanboat lake.

 

Strange that the flight

Of years

Has left those trees,

Has left that lake,

Untouched by any tears

Which those who saw them there

Later have shed.

The swanboats and the stars

Outlast the living and

Almost the dead.

 

There by the nightlike waters,

Suddenly you spoke

Of Plato -

How he said

That longing meant

Unhappiness ahead.

You wanted me to know

The dangerous way I went.

I listened.

Certain you were kind,

But with an absent mind.

And then the moonlight broke

Across the lake

And all the stars were gone.

 

The war ran on,

Its iron wheels

Whirling

Through the Europe you

 

Had known

From castle windows

And the great hotels.

In Washington

You nursed the ill.

Meanwhile

In Texas,

California,

England,

France

I tried to spell

My future from

The forms I had to file

In triplicate

Or from

The flying-bombs

That fell

A blessed mile

Too far.

And then the war

Was over:

The bitter time

Was done.

 

And afterwards in Egypt

I had the telegram

You sent as you returned

From Persia:

Would I dine that night

With you at Shepheard’s?

It reached me,

Only across the Nile,

A month too late.

 

What pleasure to have stated

Your name to the kirwass

Who waited

In the hallway

And then to smile

With you at lotus column,

Divan and tabouret -

That somehow touching folly

Commingled from

Disparate cultures,

Thebes and Islahan,

Wherein the oriental

Women whispered

Beneath those harem-lights,

While in an alcove, smoking,

Three old Arabian knights

Plotted and clapped their hands

To summon slaves with gin.

You might have said,

Had we been there together:

‘If I begin

That poem of yours

I like so much,

Will you continue

To the end?’

I would have done so, smiling.

You knew how to please.

 

And later

In that garden lighted

By lamps strung through the trees,

If we had sat there talking,

You might have said:

‘Think how this statue here

Of Rameses

Has smiled three thousand years.

Compare

Our melancholy fears,

Our faces drawn to tears.

We do not smile enough.’

Something like that, perhaps.

And other things

To trouble my complacent

Joy in sorrow.

You, who had suffered,

Would have warned me off

Imaginary trips

Through landscapes etched in stone,

Those valleys of the kings,

In which our hero

Muses on

His own life

Buried and unknown,

And weeps a little.

 

You would have cast

Wisdom with laughter

Against that nonsense

Sadness,

Who knew

The true

Meaning of tears.

Your life of splendour

No happier than the merest

Shadow passage of

Veiled women in the street.

Like theirs

Your sorrows,

Not to be aired,

Were hidden and discreet.

You would have had me wait

For grief,

Not run to greet

It early.

 

But we did not meet

That time

Or later.

How kind you had been always

To ‘My landlord’,

As you liked to call me.

On one occasion,

The first night of a play,

When I was with you

Backstage, at the end,

You told the playwright, standing

Aloof among the actors:

‘I want you to meet

My landlord.’

And the famous man replied,

Offering a gold-tipped

Cigarette:

‘I hope you find the Countess

A satisfactory tenant.’

As if the young Romantic,

Tongue-tied before him,

Could have found you less than

His ideal.

 

How gently you corrected me,

As though you were my mother,

Gay and flattering and fun:

‘You have too much distinction,

Dunstan,

Not to have done

That better

Than you have done.

Flowers need water

As well as sun.

Try harder.

And let the sluggards laugh

Who have not even yet

Begun.’

 

Life had betrayed you.

But you surmounted grief.

Not everyone

Could understand

Why you rebelled,

Yet kept your place

Among the magnates whom you mocked.

 

All that has passed.

Those jewel-like hearts

Lie cold in velvet boxes.

You triumph now in girlhood

Graced

With beauty drawn from love -

As shown my mother,

Whom you charmed by kindness -

As shown to me,

The gangling poet,

Delighted by the smartness of your hats.