A Book of Answers XXII: James McAuley


For many years James McAuley and I kept up a desultory correspondence, but at one time we wrote to each other more often and would send each other copies of poems we had written. It was during those years that we discovered a sort of doppelgänger relation between us: it frequently happened that one would mention reading a book or entertaining an idea which had been occupying the other at the same time, or that we would discover we had been writing poems on the same or closely related themes.

However, the poem called “The Muse”, which answers one of his of the same name, was composed quite deliberately after he had sent me a copy of his own poem. I sent it with apologies since I thought he might take it as a criticism or even a parody, but he accepted it in the way it was meant—as a serious variation on a theme by another poet who accepted his view of the art and was, indeed, deeply touched by it, but whose experience of the art was different. He generously made no objection to my publishing it at a later date, though at the time it was composed for his eye alone.

The Muse

She is Arachne in the trembling web
Of sentience, absorbing what the light
Leaves stranded by its slow reluctant ebb;
And diligently in the night
She must repair threads that were torn aside
And spread her net across oblivion
To catch the luminous incoming tide.

She is Ariadne with the clew
By which her princely lover may explore
The labyrinth of memory, and subdue
The deep-resounding minotaur.
He, with the trophy, guided by the thread,
Emerges from the maze into the sun,
Deliverer from tribute paid to dread.

She is Penelope, patient to resume
The threads of language, though each night her toil
Unravels and hangs trailing from the loom.
Yet still she hopes, content to spoil,
Until the wanderer whom the gods exiled
Comes to his kingdom, and her waiting’s done:
The fabric holds, the gods are reconciled.

The Muse

She is Arachne. Instinct spins the net
Of her ferocious purpose in the night.
On her bared nerves the dew shakes bright and wet;
The angry goddess still with light
Tortures the web; for there the spider hangs
In loveliness no wisdom could invent
And conscious of the poison in her fangs.

She is Ariadne by the shore
Watching a black sail vanish on the sea,
While he, whose steps beyond the dreadful door
Were guided, and again set free,
The loutish prince forgets the path he trod;
And she, though she remembers, will consent
Soon to be tumbled by the drunken god.

She is Penelope. Nightlong at the loom
She must unravel the promise in her heart,
Subdue the monthly protest of the womb;
And still she knows, for all her art,
While its one poor design grows out of date,
The gods, who have all time, too late relent
And when her triumph comes, it comes too late.

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