Clive James on his new epic poem: ‘The story of a mind heading into oblivion’


In and out of hospital, the writer felt compelled to write something new an epic, with himself as the hero

Until a few days ago, I was a patient in Addenbrooke’s hospital, here in Cambridge, while a busload of nurses and doctors strove to persuade my temperature to stop acting like a wobbling yo-yo. Or anyway I assume they arrived by bus. I myself arrived by ambulance, strapped down against any tendency to slide on to the floor like a speeding custard.

It was a low moment in my recent medical history, but once again the combined efforts of my family and the Addenbrooke’s crash-cart crew dug me out of the hole, so that I have emerged in time to witness the launch of my epic poem, The River In The Sky.

Beautiful title, isn’t it? I can ask that rhetorical question in all modesty because I didn’t think of it. It’s what the Japanese call the Milky Way and nobody in the west has ever heard the phrase without immediately starting to write a book.

I started writing my book the year before last, or I started to write a poem with that title. More precisely, I finally admitted to myself that a sheaf of unfinished poems belonged together. It’s conceivable that they belonged together in the wastepaper basket, and there might soon be critics who say so; but it seemed to me that a small stack of would-be poetic fragments were adding up to the same story, the story of a mind heading into oblivion.

I could imagine the cheer that would go up from my publishers when they heard what I was hatching. The cheer would be the sound of a sock-drawer full of baby mice being fed milk from an eye-dropper.

There hasn’t been, they might pipingly point out, a hit long poem since Tennyson’s Maud, and even Tennyson, a shrewd operator for a dreamy poet, tended to overestimate the initial appeal of any poem longer than a snappy lyric. Maud was a showcase for his technical virtuosity but it was still a whopper.

There is a true anecdote, which all would-be epic poets should bear in mind, about Ruskin’s wife fatally admitting to Tennyson at some social gathering that she had not yet read his poem Maud, which she had heard a lot about. (That last bit was probably the fatal trigger.) Generously keen that she be no longer deprived, Tennyson recited the whole thing to her from memory. Having detected signs of restless inattention on her part, he recited it to her again.

Reeling against the sceptical uproar of the sock-drawer mice, all I can say about my new, and perhaps terminal, poetic project is that it’s not your usual kind of epic. For one thing, it’s quite short. In that regard it’s bang up to date. The great scholar John Carey, the world expert on Paradise Lost, has tacitly conceded, by editing a trimmed version, that a bit more shortness was what Milton’s epic needed.

Christopher Ricks, Professor Carey’s only living rival for cleverness (how like Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum they are, dominating the horizon with mighty use of arms) has pointed out that when a poet makes an allusion to someone else’s poetry he should be offering a bonus, not demanding an entrance fee.

Mindful of this admonition, I have been careful in my own poem to keep everything mine, as it were – partly out of a conviction that if you aren’t ready to start again, you shouldn’t start. Hence my mini-epic spends almost none of its time proving that I have read Shakespeare. As somebody deservedly obscure once said: I tried him once, and he was full of quotations.

Nor does my epic have an epic hero. Instead, it’s got me, going nowhere. In the text, apart from the occasional side-trip to the Great Barrier Reef, I don’t even get to Heaven, except to the extent that Heaven is here on Earth. But that’s something I’ve been convinced of since I was a child, and saw my mother weeping at the news of my father’s death: that Heaven and Hell are both here, with us.

Heaven is here in the way my granddaughter seems continually to pick up speed when she drives my wheelchair, as if she were heading for Andromeda, which is in the poem, too: zillions of light years away but on its way here, unless we’re on the way there. Scientists, I understand, are divided on the subject.

My poem also touches Heaven, or tries to, when dancers dance to its incidental music. The narrator dances the tango with a blind girl in Buenos Aires, on a stone terrace beneath the weeping stars. It really happened, or I think it did: there is always the possibility that I was dreaming even at the time, and only thought I was treading clouds of bliss.

But unless I miss my guess, even the best and most beautiful things about Heaven are here now, or were here just recently. In my text, the Everly Brothers are still singing harmony. But aren’t they doing that still, and won’t they always?

And Hell is here, too, but happening to other people, if you’re lucky. I’m still one of the lucky ones, and that’s the very thing that my quarrel with the Almighty is about. It’s all very well saving me from the killer microbes yet again, but what’s He doing giving a mishmash of a spine to that little girl down the corridor, the little girl whose mother is wearing out from anxiety right there before your eyes? What the devil is He thinking of?

Perhaps He isn’t thinking of anything, which would kind of leave it with us. This is the main reason, in my view, that epic poems are bound to grow shorter: because the titanic war in the beyond will be continually rescaled as a crap-shoot in the back of a garage. Milton had rogue angels falling through space from crystal battlements. We will have dusty children bursting from hunger, and grown men behaving like smug maniacs because they honestly think that they are worth more than women.

But there will still be epic poems, because every human life contains one. It comes out of nowhere and goes somewhere on its way to everywhere – which is nowhere all over again, but leaves a trail of memories. There won’t be many future poets who don’t dip their spoons into all that, even if nobody buys the book. And anyway, who says it will be a book? Maybe it will just go bleep. There is a multi-wheeled camera running loose on Mars that doesn’t even know where it is, but it can still go bleep.

At which point, growing tired again now – I’m back in my office, but it takes an effort to walk from one end of it to the other – I should thank my elder daughter Claerwen for painting the book’s starry cover, and for pointing out to its dim-witted author that the reason the thermometer showed a higher reading back then was that his temperature really had gone up through the roof.

Now that I am home again, my wife has taken over the job of ramming the thermometer into my ear, and it seems to me that she is doing so with more finesse lately, perhaps partly because I have dedicated my epic to her. Try it boys, along with the bunch of roses.

‘All is not lost…’

The opening verses of The River In The Sky

All is not lost, despite the quietness
That comes like nightfall now as the last strength
Ebbs from my limbs, and feebleness of breath
Makes even focusing my eyes a task –
As when, before the merciful excision
Of my mist-generating cataracts,
The money-spiders dwindled in their webs
Between one iron spandrel and the next
On my flagstone verandah, each frail web
The intermittent image of a disc
That glittered like the Facel Vega’s wheel
Still spinning when Camus gave up his life,
Out past the journey’s edge. Just such a dish,
Set off with dew-drops like pin-points of chrome,
Monopolises my attention here
In Cambridge as I sit wrapped in the quiet,
Stock still and planning my last strategies
For how I will employ these closing hours.
But no complaints. Simply because enforced,
This pause is valuable. Few people read
Poetry any more but I still wish
To write its seedlings down, if only for the lull
Of gathering: no less a harvest season
For being the last time. The same frail wheel
Could decorate my father’s clean white headstone
In the cemetery at Sai Wan Bay, Hong Kong:
One of my gateways to the infinite
First built when I was just a little child
And flew a silver Spitfire through the flowers –
Clumps of nasturtiums sopping with their perfume –
As if they were low-lying, coloured clouds
There in Jannali, in the summer heat.
Now, one last time, my fragile treasures link
Together in review.

In ancient days
Men in my job prepared for endless travel
Across the sea of stars, where Pharaoh sailed
To immortality, but now we know
This is no journey. A long, aching pause
Is all the voyage there will ever be.
Already it is not like life. I shan’t
Caress the hetaerae of Naukrates,
Only their images: paint on a wall,
Not vivid like a bowl of porphyry,
But pale, chipped, always fading. Here forgive me
When you come kindly visiting, as both
Our daughters do, for you three built the start
Of this tomb when you helped me weed my books
And then arrange the ones left, walls of colour
The sunlight will titrate from spring to autumn.
Rich shelves of them, these lustrous codices,
Are the first walls I see now in the morning
After the trek downstairs, though when I walk
On further, painfully, I see much more –
Boats in the windows, treasures on the terrace,
As if I weren’t just Pharaoh’s tomb designer
But the living god in the departure lounge
Surrounded by his glistering aftermath –
Yet everything began in these few thousand
Pages of print and plates. Books are the anchors
Left by the ships that rot away. The mud
The anchors lie in is one’s recollection
Of what life was, and never, late or soon,
Will be again.

The River In The Sky is published by Picador on 6 September at £14.99. To order a copy for £10.49 go to or call 0330 333 6846.

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