Thursday, 24 November 2016

Keith Douglas: 'The House'

Mysterious door by Scott Wylie. Used under Creative Commons license

This poem by Keith Douglas, 'The House', haunts me from time to time. It sometimes comes to mind when I think of houses associated with my childhood and the movement of memory within them, although it really functions on a more symbolic level.

It has the shifting personas and (il)logical leaps of a dream, but 'The House' seems to be mainly about the mysterious workings of imagination, what can impede it, and the at least occasional fear of every artist that creativity is departing, perhaps for good. In this respect, I think it may share a common theme with 'The God Abandons Antony' by CP Cavafy.

There is also a touch of TS Eliot in the disembodied voices and shadows. A copy of the poem exists in which Eliot had made marginal notes.

THE HOUSE (Keith Douglas)

I am a pillar of this house
of which it seems the whole is glass
likewise transparent to the touch
for men like weightless shadows march
ignorantly in at the bright portico
or through a wall serenely go
unnoticing: myself am like a mouse
and carefully inspect all those that pass.

I am the pillar about which
like a conjured spectacle, such
amazing walls and floors appeared
as in the house that devils made.
Yet this queer magnificence 
shows not to many, its defence
not being walls but in the property 
that it is thin as air and hard to see.

I am the pillar and again the one
walking a perpetual up-and-down
scrutinizing all these
substances, shadows on their ways
crowding or evacuating the place.
At times a voice singing, or a face
may seem suspended in the cunning air;
a voice by itself, a face traversing the stair
alone, like a mask of narrow porcelain.
These I introduce but lose again
which are of the imagination, or of air,
being in relation to the house, actually there
yet unreal till I meet with one
who has that creative stone
to turn alive, to turn all alive:
prospecting this is all the care I have.

In order of appearance chosen by chance
whether to speak, to sing, to play, or dance
to my mute invisible audience
many have performed here and gone hence.
Some have resided in the house a time
the best rooms were theirs, also for them
scents and decorations were introduced
and other visitors were refused.
But when for weeks, months no one came near
an unpleasant prompting of suspicious fear 
sent me climbing up to inspect the high
attic, where I made a curious discovery.
In this room which I had not entered for months
among the old pictures and bowls for hyacinths
and other refuse, I discovered the body
conventionally arranged, of a young lady
whom I admit I knew once, but had heard
declined in another country and there died.

Here's the strange fact, for here she lies.
If I but raise them my incredulous eyes
discern her, fairer now than when she lived
because on death her obscure beauty thrived;
the eyes turned to fine stones, the hair to flexible
gold, her flesh to the most natural marble,
until she's the most permanent thing
in this impermanent building
and to remove her I must use
some supernatural device
it seems: for I am forced to say
she arrived in a miraculous way.
I never studied such things; it will need a wiser
practitioner than me to exorcize her
but till the heart is dust and the gold head
disintegrates, I shall never hear the tread
of the visitors at whom I cannot guess,
the beautiful strangers, coming to my house.

                                                             Wickwar, Glos., 1941

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