Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 4: The Value of the Ruins | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Gate of Lilacs 4 :  The Value of the Ruins

In speed, if not in temperature, Proust’s book
Is a racing glacier. Though it may linger,
It never languishes, except when Albertine
Takes centuries to prove herself elusive,
As if the author had foreseen his right
Not just to take his time, but to take yours.
But otherwise the prose, far more compressed
Than it might look, is always hard at work
Unpacking trains of thought as they arrive
And valuing the contents of each crate,
Restoring triumph to that wood’s-wool word
Excelsior. Nothing goes unexamined,
Not even the traditional gradations
Of the social world to which his keen submission
Was powered by curiosity, as if
Hierarchy were a natural event,
The product of salt water. The dream world
Of the Guermantes cajoles him often to the sea
For images. The women of that clan
Are water nymphs. The Duchesse walks abroad
With the pleasures of the Faubourg Saint-Germain
Contained within her face as if between
The valves, pearl-pale and glossy, of a shell.
But history is catching up with her.
In the era of Madame de Sévigné
Nobody had to know a servant’s name,
But Proust can see de Tocqueville’s idea —
Equality, even if just imagined —
Was taking hold, simply because the thought
Could now be had. The poor might have a life
Worth living. When the Duc de Saint Simon —
Whom Proust admired, if only for his prose —
Compiled his monumental chronicle
Of court events, nobody in the cast
Existed if their birth had not been high.
Proust wastes no breath regretting the decline
Of what declined because so absolute —
He even leaves the Revolution out —
But in the ruins he still yearns to hear
The smallest detail of the drawing rooms,
Of who wears what and every word they say,
Although he knows — he says so — that true wit
Must falter in the air of the gratin,
Where the only function of intelligence
Is lending wings to sheer stupidity.
But he can wait for wit. For now, he needs
The fashionable hostesses, like mothers
Who look all set to kiss him. They do not,
But still they smile on him as he arrives,
And that’s enough. The bluestocking hostess —
An aristo in fact, but with pretensions
To nourish the artistically immortal —
Mme de Villeparisis he seeks out
Because she seeks him out, but he knows well
Her fabled politeness adds up to a weapon:
Storing her memories of well-timed grace
She can feel better when the day arrives
Not to invite him. Thus she parodies
The gratin, which behaves in the same way,
If with a subtlety it turns to style —
A rondeau of acceptance and rejection
He loathes and fears though all the while he loves it
Because it is on earth, like the rock pool
Which battles with the sea yet guards the life
That teems within it, killing and being killed.
Such self-control he has, to risk his pride
By going where his sensitivities
May well be violated with a glance!
A Jew, although he calls himself a Catholic;
A writer, but no longer the smart boy
He once was, with his epigrams and squibs
And parodies kept short to be amusing
But not for too long; and a pederast,
Though quiet with it. His appeal to those
Whose invitations line his mantelpiece
Comes to depend on what he knows of them:
Since nothing interests them except themselves
The fact that he can put each name in place
In the celestial map of their existence
Confirms to them their realized ideal.