Image by R. Ferdon Goodwin

Poem introduction

It's a villanelle which is a very rigid form. And I would like to say, as we talked about the poet Auden, when he wrote a villanelle, the voice of Miranda in The Sea and the Mirror he made it sound absolutely natural like the innocent girl talking. My villanelle's very stiff, I agree, but it needs to be read very stiffly, this thing. I don't think anything needs explaining except that I believe I had actually read a piece of scientific research about changing an old dog's blood with a young one's. And the Chinese tombs - it's a legend that they can't go on farming because the land gets covered with sacred ancestors' tombs which is not true, incidentally. But that's all that needs explaining I think. It's called 'Missing Dates', which is failing to meet appointments, you understand.

Missing Dates

Missing Dates

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month's desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


from The Complete Poems (Penguin Modern Classics, 2001), copyright © William Empson, reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of the Estate of William Empson. Recording used by permission of the BBC.

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