John Williams, author of Stoner (1965) and the National Book Award-winning Augustus (1972), was like Thomas Hardy in one respect: Williams put as much effort into his poetry as his novel-writing. Below is one of Williams’ poems written late in life, inspired by his love of drama and acting as a young man. The poem is dedicated to Ford Maddox Ford because Williams admired Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and looked to it for inspiration while writing Stoner.
An Old Actor to His Audience
Ford Maddox Ford: 1873-1939
Sirs, I address you out of age, my voice
Gone slack and hoarse, who stood before you once
With some grace and carriage. Ah, time…
The face that once was marble now
Is flesh. Motion is impure, and we
Must move, although we break. The voice that was
Your master is your servant now, reminding you
Of its ancient art that once cast up
A substance that could move you out of time,
Our mortal blemish. And you— the wise and foolish
Who listen to an old man’s wheezing voice—
Suffered your destruction like a pleasure
Scarcely to be borne, desiring to be deceived
Out of the falsehood of your time and place.
But now I am old, am old, and suppliant
To your most gracious whim. We are the relics
Of our ruined past— although I see you now
As if you were not changed, as if you were
As I created you once long ago
Out of the pride and arrogance
Of my spent youth. To whom do I speak, if not
Myself? If not my own, whose faces stare
At me? Had you given me laurel once,
I would have worn it most carelessly
And spoken my echoing lines in its despite.
But now this pate is bald; bald pates have need
Of bay, for warmth and show. I ask
Your kindness now, and ask forbearance of
These loosening years; they make men foolish,
Who were never wise. I stand before you,
Stripped of years, a beggar.
And yet a supplicant,
I would remind you, who has given service
To you all. Out of these creaking boards
I once created worlds that you could not conceive
And peopled them with what you might have been,
Showing a fairer image of yourself
Than you would dare to dream, and given you
Some instant plucked from time that was your own.
From your deep heart’s most lonely need, I have
Dissembled shadows that became your selves
And let them stroll as if they were alive
In the Roman ruins of your northern fields.
John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will be published by Lewbowski in the Netherlands in 2017.