Laurence Whistler (1912-2000) is best known as a glass engraver, but before that he was a poet of some accomplishment, as shown by this moving elegy for his first wife, the actress Jill Furse, who died in 1944, the same year in which his brother Rex was killed in Normandy. He wrote an account of his life with Jill in ‘The Initials in the Heart’, published in 1964. I find the closing lines of this poem particularly affecting.
In the slow lapse of unrecorded afternoons
When nothing seems to change but history itself
Unfolding at the pace of clouds or even weeds
The window murmurs lightly to the vacant room
And seems as if it commented with mild surprise
On some arrival, timely or unique;
Slow by the rapid stream, perhaps, or quick in the slow skies.
Why does the window murmur – and to whom?
What notable event does it report
That’s far above the heads of furniture,
Nor heeded by the absent-minded room?
Is it first cuckoo-fall? – the double word
Dropping like seed into the wood, instant with spring?
Or is it rose-fall? – end of the first rose,
Spilled from the hand of Summer, pensively?
Perhaps first apple-fall? – scatter and thud,
And Autumn here that moment, cornucopia?
Or is it only the first snow-fall? – one,
One, and then one, slid furtive down, as if
Winter himself had thought the moment haunted?
Windows look out of rooms at poetry,
That pours back through them, lyrical in birds,
Epic in weather, narrative in streams.
But they look only out, half-conscious of a being
Shadowed behind them, borrowing their eyes.
O window, when you murmur, ‘Do but look!’
Don’t ask who listens now. Never enquire
Why soundlessness should grow into a habit,
Helpless and final as the dust.
She may be resting yet in the great bed,
Tuned always to your accent, though her heart
Is listening miles away to mine. – Might she
Not lie so still? Never so long, so still?
Should there, long since, have come to you at least,
The flicking over of a page – at least
Her busy pencil, whispering word by word
The letter she would send – at very least
So would she sigh
In the dark ages of the afternoon,
When you would draw her to some poetry
(Fall of the word, the rose, the fruit, the fleeting crystal),
So would she sigh a war away – since tears,
If tears were let, would rain away the world:
Sigh in the great bed for its emptiness,
The waste of poetry, the waste of years.