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This poem is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

Poems John Heath-Stubbs


With palms turned upwards to the sky
Beneath a crescent moon, you, Phidyle,
Offer with your country thrift
Fragrance, this year's garden produce,
A collop of fatty pork.

                         For then your vines
Won't feel sirocco's blast, nor the rust spoil
Your corn, and your hand-reared lambs,
When apples fall in auturmn, not turn sickly.

Somewhere below the snows that strew the Alban hills,
Shaded by oaks and holm-oaks, feeds the heifer
Earmarked for Roman ritual butchery,
Sanctified abattoir.

                      No need for you,
A major slaughtering of muttons - you who crown
Your household images with rosemary
And slips of myrtle.

And if pure hands shall tend the altar,
No lavish offerings will serve the more to soften
The small hearthstone gods,
If they should look askance, than barley meal
Given with reverence, than salt -
A spatterdash that fizzles in the flame.

                                          For Arthur and Mary Creedy


So this is the Sabine Villa - always supposing
The archaeologists have got it right. The guide
Seems confident enough: 'Here is his bedroom.
Here is his library, and here his bathroom.'
The bathroom, by the way, was much extended
Into a proper swimming pool, when centuries later,
Christian monks had settled in the place. Who says
Monks were not keen on bathing? Only the pavement,
A plain and geometric pattern,
Still seems to speak of him - an Attic décor.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, whose father was born a slave
But made his pile, was affluent enough
To buy his son a liberal education. At Athens
The young student put aside
His annotated Plato and his Aristotle
(But more congenial, I would guess, he of the garden)
Much thumbed and better loved
His Sappho and Alcaeus, took up his spear
To fight in the republican last ditch
At Philippi - sheer panic!

He left his shield upon the field of battle
(Later he remembered
There was a literary precedent for that).

He made his compromises with the new regime,
As they all did. Virgil re-jigged
The Messianic eclogue he had written
Perhaps for Alexander Helios,
The son of Antony and Cleopatra,
To make it fit the boring son
Of pompous Pollio. But Ovid was not saved
From dreary exile on the Black Sea beaches,
Who wanted only to sing love's changes and love's chances,
And all things shifting, a shape-shifting world.

But for this one his Sabine farm,
The bounty of Maecenas,
Original and best of Ministers of Culture.
Not too far from Rome, he learned to practise
Detachment - detachment but with irony. There he could sing
The sunnier slopes of love - who were they -
These Lydias and Lalages and Leuconöes?
Local contadine, or simply slave girls
Round about the farm, half real half imagined? He honoured too
The rustic pieties, already fading
Into nostalgia, and Phydile
Lifting her hands towards the waxing moon,
Her scattering of barley-meal, her pinch of salt
Spluttering in the altar-fire. Now other gods
Are worshipped in these hills, in other ways, but still
The little images are drummed to church
On the appropriate feast days, to be blessed.

Primroses and early violets
Grow among these stones, that give the ground-plan.
Small birds are twittering among the bushes, and I note
Two male whitethroats dispute for territory.


We climb now up to the Bandusian Spring:
More brightly shining than glass, under the ilex trees,
They still come down, the talkative waters.
We pour libation, three drops of local wine
Out of a twentieth-century bottle, invoking
The mountain-ranging Nine, the poet's shade:
Whether it dwells now in that noble castle
The Florentine assigned it, or, in Epicurean atoms,
It whirls in the tramontino - playful idolatry:
We turn now and return - tomorrow's Maundy Thursday.
It's time to celebrate the different rites -
The dying and the resurrected God.

This poem is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
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