Grey Gowrie

An Ill-loved Song
prompted by Apollinaire


Here is an old sad song
I sang in 1903
before 1914 let me guess
what might happen to me:
oblique, foreshortened man
locked in the blind caress
of unrequited love;
locked in the old wrong
with nothing left to prove;
an unrequited lover
who before it even began
knew the affair was over;
on whom it had yet to dawn
that love the Phoenix is born
full-grown from sacred fire,
the fire of its own cremation,
to cauterize desire
and extinguish elation.


A foggy day – dusk rather –
in London town…
By arches at Charing Cross
between Strand and the river,
I caught the eye of a boy
who reminded me of you.

A derelict, a scrounger,
his eyes were peaty pools
with languorous, up-turned lashes
any girl except you
would die for and, like you,
he seemed always smiling.
Your wide, nonchalant mouth.

The rest of him looked dirty.
Clothes ill-matched or stolen
perhaps were held together
by fragments a cut above
like the Burlington cravat
holding up holey trousers
or silks with a peacock sheen
to fashion a patchwork shirt
in some insolent imitation
of your Fortuny gowns.
He rose and moved toward me.

I expected a hand for hand-out.
But as he drew near he jerked
his head and turned around
so both of us faced the river.
He stopped again to beckon
me on, to follow him.
Perhaps he thought I wanted
to fall into his line…
I didn’t but I couldn’t
help myself from following
this bad lad, this rough sleeper
who reminded me of you.
He was whistling cheekily now.
His hands were deep in frayed
pockets, his worn soles lapped
like little waves on dank
slabs of a lampless Embankment.

After a time we turned –
I kept ten paces behind –
north, climbed to a cluster
of houses in mean streets.
Everything was obscure.
I quickened, to keep up.
Then the gaps between houses
seemed to part like the Red Sea:
me playing Pharaoh; his beautiful
drowned dark eyes, like yours,
embracing all the Jews…

Somehow I wanted to conjure
something, assert myself,
wrest control in the end
from this hobo, this voyou,
this confident ragamuffin.
But then the fog lifted.

We recovered civilization.
Lamps gleamed in the streets.
Lights flickered from windows
as if the whole town were about
to burst into cheerful flame.
My heart was close to bursting

for you yourself felt near
as I thought you never would be,
as I knew you never could be,
mythical, royal, remote:
a girl from a medieval tapestry
fondling a pale gazelle.

Now my down-and-outer
skedaddled, disappeared
behind one of the windows
or perhaps he hurried on down
back to the mist and the river.
Now a side-door swung
open at a street corner.
A woman burst out, almost
bumped into me, cursed.
Under a lamp she looked
like I imagine you’d look
old, without any money
and drunk. In my grief
I pretended to be Ulysses
come home after all my conquests
to a smelly old dog and a wife
old and knitting and cursing…

So disillusioned I turned
on my heel back to the river.
I trudged for hours, for miles
into the heart of Docklands.
I wanted to get away,
swap my soul for a ship;

a ship for changing my luck;
a ship for sailing away
from you and from desire
and all the undeniable
dawns which seem to end
up in some sorry evening.


And I did sail away
in my imagination
from you, see you swallowed
by fog and fiery buildings:
drowned in dark pools deep
in the eyes of my accomplice.

Cast off from unrequited
love and endless dreaming!
From opaque streets and torn
kingdoms, from a winter
dying to see Easter return
once again, roll aside
wrong years, the wrong woman...
I grew tired, trudging. My ship
beckoned, as if in sudden recall

that last year I met another
woman, a girl from Germany.
Or did I even? Who knows?
Who knows but fog will lift,
Thames mists clear,
and some night, above empty
mastheads pointing to it,

Galaxy show its face, Milky
Way lean over this earth
like the body of a woman
bending to say Good Night,
as I used to imagine
you bending for me,
adrift now in far waters
among unannounced years
                                  and their openings.

That was the ill-loved tale
I told in 1903
before 1918 concurred
with the cold that did for me.
My friend Picasso drew
my bandaged head, my wound.
His line will last a while
when we have gone to ground.
May my lines too be a word
in the ear of an unborn lover
that even a love unborn
turns to a love long over.
As for the one I called you
whom I failed to pull off a throne,
our joys may be distinct;
our suffering’s always the same.
Her smile, her eyes are linked
to my heart but no longer her name.


GREY GOWRIE was born in Dublin in 1939. Educated and professionally engaged in England and the USA, he made his home in Ireland until 1983 when he moved to the Welsh Marches. He taught English and American literature at Harvard and University College London and in 1972, on publishing his first collection of poems, exchanged an academic career for business and public life. He has been a company chairman, a Cabinet minister, Chairman of the Arts Council of England and Provost of the Royal College of Art. He is married to the German journalist Adelheid von der Schulenburg and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His most recent collection of poems is The Italian Visitor (Carcanet).