Poetry: Peter Stothard, <i>TLS</i> review | clivejames.com
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Classic Clive James

Peter Stothard, TLS, November 22nd, 2008

What are your three favourite poems of all those you've published in the TLS?

The first time I was asked that question I froze.

Listophobia again.

On the second time of asking I answered that at the top of the list was Clive James's The Magic Wheel, which appeared in the TLS in the issue before Christmas four years ago.

I remembered it most of all, I had to admit, because it was, in the poet's words, 'an ode in the manner of Theocritus'.

It was a version of a classic - but an unusual, genuinely unforgettable, one.

Theocritus's Idyll 2 is known in English as The Sorceress.

It is an extended plea by a woman whose lover has loved and abandoned her.

Simaetha invokes every magic trick she knows. She wants simultaneously to destroy the faithless Delphis - with fire, hot wax, poisonous lizards and her magic wheel - and to bring him back to her bed.

'The sea is quiet and quiet too are the winds'. As she sweats and curses in her Greek island home, only her pain cannot be made quiet.

Clive James's narrator too looks out to sea on a Mediterranean island and recites the ancient line 'O magic wheel, draw hither to the house the man I love'.

His is the idyll in reverse.

He's dreaming that a woman, one whom he once knew long ago, had had Simaetha's dreams about him.

'I dreamed of you as dreaming that, and now/ The boxed-in balcony of my hotel room high above/ Grand Harbour is a sauna. .'

Instead, the object of his long passion now has her own husband, a 'great dancer': Simaetha's love was a beautifully bodied boy from the gymnasium.

She also has a 'tremendous little son'.

He sees her and knows that she 'dreamed of me no more'.

'Tonight my dream was gone'.

A rosy Homeric dawn had given some brief encouragement.

There is still a 'lizard', but neither as poison nor lure, only now as reminder of their first moments together 'in the ruins of the opera house'.

The title object is not a buzzing bull-roarer used by sorceresses ancient and modern.

It is a wheel of time which has turned and shown him his pleasure at his lover's new happiness.

'The magic wheel has turned to show what fades and what holds fast./ Dream this when I am gone: that he was glad for me at last.'

This poem - and others from the TLS and elsewhere - are now published in Angels Over Elsinore, Collected Verse 2003-2008.