In Memoriam Geoffrey Gilbert
Gentleman Geoffrey jealous of none
though you were hurt in heaviest way
now that your simple strength is undone
here I come to your grave to pray
(this is my prayer) and flowers to lay
upon the life and death of one
who knew their worth . . . you had, I’d say,
the greenest fingers under the sun.
Geoffrey, here is your autumn gift:
roses, dahlias, three or four,
and laurustinus whose petalled thrift
sheds on the earth its little store
of love; for that is what they’re for.
And ferns will slowly come adrift
here at your feet. I know no more
that this: that absence is no rift.
Traveller of the East and West
(back in the days before I was born),
hardy as stone, you stayed at the best
hotels: the broken road, the dawn,
the horse’s back. And the rich man’s lawn
you bettered in a back yard; possessed
the power to let the earth adorn
its surfaces with patient zest.
You lived with the peasants in Tibet –
and kissed a nun there, so it’s said;
in Canada, with no work to get,
you got through the day on a roll of bread
and looked for work. And you shared your bed
in Harlem, with a dark beauty; and yet
you found an English girl to wed,
and made yourself forget, forget.
You rode with a gipsy caravan
in Abyssinia. Twice you rode
the world’s high path, without a plan
or purpose, but the onward goad:
and held rich life on that high road.
The husband and the family man
took over then. The hooves were slowed
you knew the sound of. Home began.
You had your trade. Photographer
reckoned in London’s best, and once
inventing a “box camera”
that missed a fortune through mischance.
You did not scorn the circumstance
of money; nor the media
of visual art. You’d sight and sense
on film the true spectacular.
Advertisements that bore your mark
won prizes. And you’d use design
to boost idea. Embossed on dark
in brilliant style soap-bubbles shine . . .
you took pure fact. Another line,
less outward-striking and less stark,
you took in words: more fresh and fine.
Your poetry knew of autumn’s spark.
Geoffrey, who is that on the clod,
easy-large, whose bent head grieves
this whispering night, below the nod
of a low cloud-dip, heaven’s eaves?
O who is that whose bent head grieves?
Now moving near, and now has trod
upon the ferns and flowers and leaves
and now is nothing, back with God.
How can I make remark of your words
of poetry? How can I spell
the good news of the nattering birds
that seem to say the day is well?
So in more sombre decibel
your verse is hale. And I preferred
it when you had a tale to tell:
and yet the tale is light, half-heard.
The Swan has always lifted me –
though younger, far, than whom it bears –
past ashen cloud of age, to see
the sharp-winged liberty of the years
in flight, in flight . . . now disappears
in sap-fresh splendour, lake-land, tree,
and the old misty sun. So veers
the soul on its trajectory.
Towards your later middle age
I knew you well, for what you were:
a writer of the mis-spelt page
but spade-deft prose; a character
like an Old Testament gardener;
the room of your later life a stage
for the true craftsman – theatre
of scripts, with clocks on the rampage.
Author, antiques-man, carpenter;
a mind for action – and a mind
that could its fate administer
by never, never being resigned.
God’s journeyman, of simple kind.
A mild and strong inheritor
of science; a poet . . . you defined
the natural philosopher.
Your poems caught the moving grass,
the passionate shade on Nature’s hill
of woodland life, the hours that pass
in man, the rich and blind time still
awake, the breath of good and ill
belabouring us. Turn down the glass
that shone; and put aside the quill.
And Bittern Hill and Tide surpass.
A novel, too, you carved: a tale
of Tempest Island. New idea
of science and art, in little scale,
has lodged a precious inkling here.
But in the story flight and fear
and subterranean fights prevail;
adventure is the atmosphere,
the highest peak a buried trail.
And there were other books. And there
were gardens. There, before your hands
cast down the spade, the coins of air
and earth were flung up: batches, brands . . .
and only evening understands
the richest silence. Always where
you went and worked, were magic lands,
spreading, prosperous, right-as-rain, rare.
Walk now in the architecture of gardens.
Scribble a classic phrase of prose. Dismiss
the ‘wilderness of chores’. Could not your patience
draw reward? And it would be this:
To be within God’s natural edifice
at home for ever. Home, home, home. The riddance
of the old sneer: the family abyss
healed up: a care returned: a touch that gladdens.
This to be yours as smell of flowers is flowers.
What tore the page across I cannot tell
of your domestic chapter: but your powers
were used at last continuing it well.
You made your son a bridge. And so the spell
of making ended: but the carpenter’s hours
fashion a lasting state from Earth’s pell-mell.
The work that’s built by love above all towers.
Geoffrey, your name like a giant fern
remains. If it aggrieves the air
around your grave, let memory turn
to the man behind it. One who could bear
no hostile thought, who was glad to be there.
Men and women have something to learn
from your kind depths. A not too close care;
an unjealous life. And so I adjourn.