To the Captain of the Swimming Team      

 
Le temps se passe

And it’s so long now

Since you came across

The Common Room

That autumn evening

In Connecticut

And asked me if I knew

Your cousins near

Annapolis.

 

The moment before

There had been no one

Lonelier than I.

Standing there

Beside the fireplace,

Unspoken to

For being new,

I had been wondering

How to run away.

But all my plans

For catching trains

Departed

When I heard you say:

‘Let’s go

And have a cigarette

After dinner.’

 

Later,

When we were room-mates,

I still remember

The Headmaster

Entering suddenly

Without a knock

To find me on my knees

Beside the closet,

Where you,

With giant cardboard teeth

To make you look

Like Father X

Were hearing my Confession.

It was a moment which he

Handled well:

‘Acting, I see,’

He said,

And left.

 

There is something

About a first friend

From school

That lasts

After the years between

Have gone.

 

But only now,

I think,

Do I begin to understand,

As I reach back

To the true

Things

Lost touch with

Long ago.

 

If only

I had realized

What swimming meant

To you -

So when

Later at college

Your arm was hurt,

It was an end.

 

If only

I had answered

Your letter

When you thanked me

For my books;

Had made

The right response;

Had turned into a real friend,

Someone who was close

And cared.

 

There is nothing

Sadder

Than later

To realize

What one

Should have done.

 

But I wasn’t able

To make

The right response

Having made

The wrong response

Too often -

Looking out

For myself

First,

And unaccustomed

To care

Really

For anyone,

Though, of course,

I thought

I did.

 

But that kind of life

Makes one

Stupid,

With a kind of stupidity

Which only sorrow

Removes,

If it has

Its way

In breaking through

To the heart

Imprisoned

By selfishness

And isn’t

Channelled off

To increase

The sad self-regard.

 

In the spring,

Before the end of Sixth-Form year,

When we lay in the grass

At the top of the hill

Behind the chapel,

Watching the sun go down

Over the mountains

Beyond the Housatonic,

And talking

About nothing very much,

I knew then

That I would remember

Those minutes always,

That somehow they were even then

Filled with nostalgia.

Momentarily it was as though

I were already old,

With my life lived through,

And with nothing but school

To look back on.

That kind of tristesse

Is most enduring,

Alas.

 

All those poems I had read

Up there in the gymnasium,

Sitting on the balcony

Supposedly watching the basketball,

While you were down in the pool

Practising

How to win every race,

Had done me no good.

I had learned to welcome unhappiness

As my only real friend,

And that was a stupid thing to do.

 

So you see,

I feel

There is very little to be said

For romantic poetry.

It is all

Ultimately false

In all

Its suppositions.

If this were the only life,

And we were finally finished

When we are dead,

A case might be made

For that kind of sadness.

But, blessedly, this is not

The only life,

And we have our religion to tell us

That there is a Kingdom

Ahead.

 

But I paid

No attention to wisdom

Then

And went on reading

And saying:

‘How true!’

To all the beautiful lies.

 

Once,

When something had gone wrong,

And you

Had lost a race,

And were much upset,

They sent for me

To leave off reading

And come down to the showers

And talk to you,

Because they thought

That I could help.

I don’t think

That I did help.

But still.

It is pleasant to know

That they thought I could.

 

And later,

When I was Manager

(Did I owe that, after all, to you?)

And greatly enjoyed announcing

In my fraudulent English accent

The races

(And at the end your name

Almost always

Among the ones who won),

The whole team looked forward.

After the final triumphant meet,

To throwing me in.

I rather looked forward to it myself.

But on the day

When the laurels were bestowed

I was ill

In the infirmary.

And so

My assistant was thrown in instead.

 

Now,

When I would like to delight in that memory,

I can’t,

As the occasion never occurred.

 

But there were other times

Which did.

They come back suddenly,

Real and vivid,

As though they could be touched.

 

There was that week-end

Which you asked me

To spend with you

At home.

We went out driving

In your rattley car

And stopped in the woods

And talked

While we looked

At the brilliantly coloured

Leaves.

But how can that be?

It was early summer,

When the leaves

Are still green.

You see

How one changes things round

To suit one’s feelings.

And fall

Is a more effective

Time of year.

But it was early summer,

And we were both,

I should say,

Seventeen.

 

If I went back to school,

Went back to evening chapel,

Heard Ave, Maris Stella

In that wonderful unearthly tone,

And after prayers:

‘Mother of Perpetual Help

Pray for us:

Holy Saints of Canterbury,

Intercede for us,’

After prayers,

If it were close to Christmas,

The boys might sing

One of those carols

Which always bring

The years at school to mind.

 

How has it happened

That you have taken your place

With Good King Wenceslaus

On the Feast of Stephen,

When, as you remember,

The snow lay round about,

Cold and crisp and even?

 

And

You must remember

How we used to serve Mass together,

Kneeling up perfectly straight

In black cassock and white lace-edged surplice,

Underneath the great baldachino

Of blue and gold

That soared above the trecento crucifix -

Our Lord,

Painted as it were by Cimabue,

Looking down upon us

In the early morning of our youth.

 

And sometimes too

We served Benediction,

With all the candles burning

When those carols were sung,

And afterwards,

When the boys had gone

Down to the Common Room,

We would stand out of sight

Behind the chapel

In the late evening light,

Smoking a cigarette,

And talking

About nothing very much.

 

It is a great many years since

Your generous letter;

And now this is the answer

Instead of the novel I promised you

All about school.

I doubt

If I shall ever write that.

And so I must offer

These lines

In its place.

 

I wonder how many letters

Are never sent

Because the writer

Fears

There would be no response.

But that is rarely, I think,

Deliberate,

At least not in an unkind way.

There is usually a reason

Which it might be painful to explain -

One’s own lack of friendliness, for example,

As with me.

 

But you sent your letter off

And now

What you have probably forgotten

You wrote

Brings you this in return.