Poetry: Grief Has Its Time | clivejames.com
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Grief Has Its Time

“Grief has its time,” said Johnson, well aware
It was himself he spoke for. Others must
Be granted full rights to a long despair
Fuelled by the ruination of their trust

In a fair world. A child born deadly sick
Or vanished: psychic wounds that never heal
Ensure that wit, though it once more be quick,
Will not be merry. Pain too deep, too real.

Free of such burdens, I pursue my course
Supposing myself blessed with the light touch,
A blithesome ease my principal resource.
Sometimes on stage I even say as much,

Or did, till one night in the signing queue
An ancient lady touched my wrist and said
I’d made her smile the way he used to do
When hearts were won by how a young man read

Aloud, and decent girls were led astray
By sweet speech. “Can you put his name with mine?
Before the war, before he went away,
We used to read together.” Last in line

She had all my attention, so I wrote
The name she gave me, which I won’t write here,
And wondered how I’d come to strike the note
She’d clearly heard in poems that were mere

Performances beside the hurt she’d known:
Things written for my peace and my delight.
“Be certain, sir, we take a deeper tone
Than we believe. Enough now for tonight.”

Out in the street he spurned my proffered arm:
His cobbled features caught the link-boy's flame.
“The love of God can get no lasting harm
From fear of death. The two things are the same.”

Yet all the way home he pursued the point
As if the argument about God's will
Within him made him ache in every joint
Until he reached the truth and could be still.

Utmost concision, even in a rage;
Guarding the helpless from experiment;
Stalwart against the follies of the age;
The depth of subtlety made eloquent —

These were the qualities of Johnson's mind
Even the King was bound to venerate,
Who entered through the library wall to find
The rumpled, mumbling sage, alone and great.

Note (from Collected Poems)

The title expression can be found in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, as can the story about the King emerging from a hidden door in the library. The other quotations from Johnson are my inventions. The old lady in the signing queue is not an invention, but she is a compilation. My first landlady in London, whose basement bedsit I rented during the hard winter of 1963, lost her fiancé in World War I: she had a book of Rupert Brooke poems in which she had pressed some flowers that she and her young man had picked together.