Tag Archives: ‘An Old Actor’

Novelist John Williams’ Poem ‘An Old Actor’: The Artist, Late in Life, Bids Farewell to His Audience

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.