Martin Robertson

Now and Then

The Black-out

This is a pilgrimage in search of the two lost loves of my youth, Anabel Donaldson and Humfry Payne.  If it embraces incidentally a good deal else, that is essentially trivia.  The beginning and end of this story is the pilgrimage.

London, Autumn 1939


I walked down Piccadilly in the black-out.

The scented aura and soft ‘hullo, dearie’

offered the troubled flesh peace with dishonour,

dangerous appeasement, till the mind grew weary.

I passed by each and did not pause to con her,

but in the pale Circus stood one alone

just where the moon threw Eros’ shadow on her.

She, stepping suddenly where the light was thrown,

cried:  “Hangs the sheath still empty, and the sword

stands ever in the water-wandering stone?”

Her face was memory where the cold light poured

and memory the colours in her hair,

and in my ears echoed beyond her word

her voice, as I walked on towards Leicester Square.


The first tube gate was shut, but not the second.

Down sandbag-narrowed steps I reached the glare,

but swift a sanded figure from his work

turned and forbade me right of entrance there.

Back up the steps I groped into the murk.

The moon was clouded, I was deadly tired.

This defeat and the inescapable dark

seemed the blackness of war and love misfired,

the concentration of my brooded wrong.

No buses passed me and one taxi, hired.

A wind touched me, and a voice clear and strong:

“trembles the coward soul?  But Anabel

who led you laughing where the thorns were long

sends me here now to comfort you through Hell.”


As the moon breaks, as the moon broke through cloud

despair thinned on my heart.  The moonlight fell

on her pale face and tall, slight, angular figure.

“And you?”  I said; and she: “you know me well.

The moor’s loneliness and the wind’s vigour

bred me secret and strong.  The wind, the moor

and my own heart sufficed.  Three times the rigour

of exile had me dying, but the poor

flesh won and brought me home.  I lived and died

in the wide air, behind a bolted door.

From my lone way I could not turn aside,

yet wrote of love, and what I wrote was true.

Passion and loneliness, despair and pride

peopled my moor and heart—that world I knew.”


“Prophet and guide, unhoped for helper sent me,”

I said, “I would of all have chosen you.

Through different worlds we take a different way,

but common-coloured threads were woven through

our minds.  But what brings you into my fray?

You thought to breathe your soul into the wind,

dissolve and rest.”  She smiled: “did I not say

Anabel sent me?  Do not fear the wind

has failed me of my peace, or her the wood.

She is of the wood and I am of the wind

now, each resolved to earth and our own good.

But search your heart—there you will find us still

to help and guide, only departing should

the heart reject us, if it can and will.”


“Be with me both,” I answered, “long.  My way

is lost or never found.  Life, that should fill

my days with action, chokes them with excuse.

Find me the path missed on the clouded hill

I set my feet to climb.  Let me not lose

the flame, whose power I feel of work and love,

in ashes of self-pity and abuse.

Just now, sunk in the dark, I could not move

spirit or feet, now I am strong and light.

Walk with me home, where Hampstead sleeps above

the quenched city, and talk.”  But she: “to-night

you shall not home so soon; in other places

you are awaited.  Come.”  To the slow height

we turned our backs, towards the Thames our faces.


Trafalgar Square, laid empty in the moonlight,

and long Whitehall received my echoing paces,

the noiseless passage of my friend and guide.

We turned, and left behind the shadowy spaces

of Parliament Square, crossed the untrafficked, wide

Embankment to the bridge, and saw the reach

of river, silver at the full of tide.

“East from the sea and Greece, west out of beech-

woods, Berkshire, childhood, Anabel, the flood

waits for the turn,” began my helper.  “Each

of countless currents met in you has stood

waiting too long.  Oh, do not miss your hour.

Deep hoarded in your heart a wealth of good

observed, absorbed, lies ready.  Give it power.


“Consider those whose lives have kindled your life

and bring your torch out of the ivory tower.”

She ceased, and I turned from the waiting water

and saw my brother moving towards our

stance his long steps.  “But he” I said, and sought her

eyes, “is in Cambridge.”  “I am in the ground,

cold bones in Haworth,” said the parson’s daughter;

“he is in Cambridge, talking, sleeping sound,

O thou of little faith; but we are here.”

I listened, and his footsteps left no sound.

The light wind faded out as he came near.

“Oh what a moon,” he said.  “By such a shine

we first saw Florence resting in the clear

after-heat dusk of summer’s first decline.


“By such a moon we quarrelled at Arezzo

over a camera, where all divine

Piero’s great frescoes stand.”  “Your Italy,”

I said, “your frescoes, all through you are mine.

Through you I have, such as I have, an eye

for visual truth.  And we have shared a world

wider than that, till our ways seemed to lie

always together.”  From the darkness curled

a faint rhythm of music far up stream.

Giles turned intent, and soon across the pearled

water we saw a black smudge with a gleam

of metal at the prow.  “A gondola;

Laurence,” he said.  No more than in a dream

surprised, I listened to the faint guitar.


Down to the quay below Westminster Bridge,

where trips for Hampton Court and Greenwich are

embarked, we went, Giles leading.  Soon the song,

lost for a while, came loud.  The gondola

shot from beneath the bridge and drew along.

A bright-haired girl laughing jumped out: “good-bye,

thanks,” and fled.  Waited at the back the strong

oarsman, in front the singers silently,

while Laurence, Giles and I on things remote

from this search talked at ease.  And presently

they from the boat were calling me: “why not

come with us too?  Come with us.”  But my guide

touched me; I shook my head: “meet soon.”  The boat

passed down with the already turning tide.


The wind was up and cold; I shivered, watching

the gondola grow smaller on the wide

water—so lose them too?  But the shrammed soul

shrinking contracts against a knot of pride:

I felt myself shrunk in the cold, but whole

and me; and turned to Emily, ready to

move like the river to my certain goal.

She smiled: “this is no loss,” she said.  “If you

had stepped in too, you would have lost your way;

their course your drifting—and that brings no true

peace, but slow fretting which is bound to fray

the bonds of love; but in your own strength now

they will be stronger.  Come, we cannot stay.”

She turned towards the sea her quiet brow.


Down the steps from the sloping road above us

a form, my mother, came.  “From Cambridge how

came she?” my prophet mocked.  And she to me:

“countless the hours trouble and loss allow,

harsh in its lasting though their pain must be,

and wide, wide the horizon of the heart

where natural beauty, mutual love are free.

Ointments you have to soothe the personal smart,

and though this dark lies on us all, a warning

of present trouble worse, and when we part

gondola sunk or walkers not returning

may turn a casual parting to a last,

though the night be deprived of moon and morning,

day was before it—and we have had the past.


“Follows the dark but interesting future.”

“The interest that through all shadows cast

shines still is yours, and mine through you,” I said,

“with memory that no despair can blast

and beauty in the air till we are dead.

The convent and the court have their own good,

and its own good the way you took instead.”

The bridge shadow, darker than a night wood,

took three and rendered two; what I must yet

feel, brushed me then.  


To left the plane-trees stood

part lit; to right the shadowed parapet

where leaned a man against the light and drew.

I looked across his arm, and having set

eyes on the work, the worshipped master knew.


Past intellectual truth or visual beauty

yet both intense; the cranes on Waterloo

Bridge, angled black against the fainter sky,

seen in their form, and seen and formed anew.

“Speak to him,” gravely said my guide; and I

“many have I honoured, many loved, but none,

not my guide, more than you.”  He answered: “why

worshipping us, have you so little done?

at thirty-two I died, at thirty she,

Humfry Payne thirty-four—two years to run

or four or six; is your tale like to be

equal to ours?—oh, feed and fan your flame.”

I bent and watched the waters to the sea

running, and swallowed down the tears of shame.


I pulled my hand across my face, weary,

and through my limbs like wine through water came

my father pulling his hand across his face

—perhaps now at his desk doing the same?

I thought, and turned my head.  In the same place

I saw him lean where Seurat leaned before.

He leaned and pulled his hand across his face:

“the second darkness falls,” he said, “the war

recurring like a nightmare or a fever.

Yet while our personal intellects endure

we remain masters of our worlds; the river

reflects the moon between our eyes and brain,

and bound within our private senses quiver

all possibilities of delight and pain.


“We know this shining stream bears London’s refuse

from railway, gasworks, factory and drain

past wordy Westminster to the mined sea,

who know Scamander and the windy plain.

We hold a double talisman—are free,

first of as many worlds as books, and then

have learnt from them a view of history:

public affairs drift by with public men,

self-seeking or at sea, one-tracked, one-sided

or double-crossing once, twice and, again;

but still by personal intellect is guided

his way who will.”  I smiled: “surely from you

comes my taste for an ivory tower provided,

unlike some towers, with windows and a view.”


My eyes followed the water running faster,

fast to the sea—and sudden I saw new,

as out of cloud, the moon; as hanging over

Croyde Bay or Ringstead Bay.  Came sharply through

me hate to be where streets and houses cover

contours of earth, and water runs by walls.

I sought my guide’s look: “uncorrupted lover

of earth and air,” I said, “the grime that palls

this town must choke you more than me.”  “A change,”

she laughed: “remember Elbe’s pillared halls,

the shimmering chandeliers of Thrushcross Grange.”

But I: “remember Roe Head and Law Hill,

remember Brussels.  Can you find it strange

there should be times this city sits me ill?”


“Brussels, Roe Head, Law Hill—exile and prison,”

she said, “but sometimes on the windy hill

of home I felt no less a prisoner.

Of itself exiled and imprisoned will

the heart become, and little matters where

the body walks—loved places round us then

intensify the shuttered heart’s despair.

From London’s prison now you turn again

to Dorset, Devon, Berkshire, Greece, and quite

forget the misery of exile when

Ithaca lay lovely in the moonlight.”

“Lovely—an exile to desire,” I said.

“So stands the moon over Vathý, and bright

the harbour under the dark hills is laid.”


But she: “our way waits.”  I turned to my father

and chilled beheld him gone; then where she led

followed, but half my mind followed in Greece.

“Such light,” I said, “and more the full moon shed

when caught by night my second day in Greece

we lost our way about the twentieth mile

where hills broke to the sea, and ‘this is Greece’

I thought.”  We walked in silence for a while.

At Blackfriars’ Bridge my guide turned up the hill

by narrow alleys where the houses pile,

and half my mind in Greece, among rocks, still

clambered Hymettus.  Suddenly stood plain

great St Paul’s, and before it tall and still,

Like a poplar or a cypress, Humfry Payne.


After loved unknown dead and loved known living

the loved known dead.  How much does memory wane?

figure and face and voice I thought I had,

but now with inexpressible joy and pain

from eyes and ears memorial shadows fade

in the truth’s presence.  “There is more to do

than any life has time to dream,” he said.

“Many, many the things I meant, and few

I made; and much I dreamed is mine and lost,

but some waits others, and of those are you;

the time to do things in is short at most;

why sit like those who listen for the phone,

expecting nothing, listen for the post,

when mind and hand hold so much to be done?”


I drank his voice and did not think to answer

but looked and looked; and then I was alone

with Emily.  The noble mountain stood,

St Paul’s, in pale and shadow-moulded stone,

and stilled, emptied my mind; and then what should

unlikely cross its stillness but the phrase

of Queen Victoria:  ‘I will be good.’?

I laughed, and suddenly in cloud and blaze

rolled back across my heart the gain and loss.

I swallowed, but the tears blotted my gaze.

“You know,” remarked my guide, “you make a cross

too easily out of your natural load”

and added gentler:  “Come.”  We passed across

under Queen Anne, and North by a dark road.


North, and then West again by the Old Bailey

towards High Holborn, tired, a dreary road.

But moonlit on the bridge the statues were

like a wood-cut; and there beside us slowed

with muted lights but a familiar air

a car.  “Hullo; get in.”  Familiar too

the friendly voice, and I was glad to hear.

I stooped, hand on the open door, but drew

back as another voice said:  “Mama, no;

there isn’t room for him.”  And it was true;

there was no room for me if she said so.

“Au revoir.”  “Au revoir.”  I shut the door.

They went as might in fairy-story go

some magic castle, leaving a bleak moor.


We followed on across the dreary circus,

pit where the sordid alleys of the poor

march with the sordid, ill-rich city, on

towards Chancery Lane, but turned once more

north up the Grays Inn Road.  Where the moon shone

across a tram-wire mesh, we met a mass

solemn in a procession, led by one

whose fierce, dark look I knew; who never was

weak to regret, but followed his few days

his light, until “he wrapped his colours” as

Felicia Dorothea Hemans says

“round his breast on a blood-red field of Spain;”

who saw his way among all possible ways

and taking it did not look back again.


Behind him walked his brother, and I called him:

“Christopher”, and he stepped out of a train

of shamblers, saying “how can you stand apart,

if you have ever let the reasoning brain

come into contact with the feeling heart?

Knowing men starving while the rank cigar

perfumes the Ritz, my hands cease from their art

to take arms, not in this but a just war

with final victory; even if the best

must fall, the hour of triumph is not far.”

He to the ranks; and I too, half possessed,

half turned; but not my guide.  My purpose froze.

We went on, but I felt as we turned West

that I was trying to turn from the world’s woes.


In Guildford Place, where London’s nicest statue

kneels with her pitcher and her broken nose

between the men’s and women’s lavatories,

I saw a tall girl, and not yet drawn close

knew Molly and stood still.  “But this once more is

truth but not flesh,” my guide said; “not the scene

which nicely rounds so many wishful stories,

where boy meets girl again, and what has been

wrong withers inexplicably away

leaving behind love’s garden fresh and green.

She is not here; yet here, and on your way

another necessary stage.  Go on

and speak to her.”  I felt my legs obey,

and joined her by the pedestal alone.


“You came towards me sad,” she said, “with flapping

aimlessly certain feet, as you have done

always from that first party till we parted

— your pleasure, if you felt it, never shown,

no bright spark in your love that might have started

an answering flame in me.”  “The Paris spring

and hope,” I answered, “made me lighter-hearted

— orange blinds, fountains, chestnuts flowering,

red mullet and tomato sauce, and sun;

my love burned high then, but the answering

flicker died soon.”  “What can one build on one

spring song?” she said.  “You never offered me

relationship—only an inner-grown

and self-existent you I cannot see.”


“I am not all that I am capable of,”

I said, “but what you want I cannot be.

Elsewhere my road.  But that I take a road

I owe to you—if I am partly free

from the slothful depressive mud that slowed

my way, I owe it you; and more than that.”

“And on my side,” she said, “something is owed.

Do not be humble, sad; consider that

your gifts are good and time is with you still.

A careful house of cards has fallen flat:

turn to a firmer building now.”  “I will”

I answered, sad; then heard: “our way lies on,”

turned, saw my guide, and turned again.  The chill

wind seemed among my bones.  Molly was gone.


The sky was clouded over; my feet were heavy;

houses and trees printing their darker tone

on the dull sky weighed on me as I moved

and thought about my life and little done

— sensibility dumb and strength unproved,

the treacherous laziness of hand and brain,

and love making no contact with the loved.

We had turned North, for when I rose again

out of the pit, I saw the portico

beside us of St. Pancras’ Church, whose sane

classical stillness calmed the aimless flow

of gall.  From such a still height I looked down

and watched detached my weary body go

with Emily on towards Camden Town.


Suddenly Emily spoke: “often in winter

for weeks together I have seen the brown

hills about Haworth white and smooth with snow.

House-bound I watched its beauty change—clouds frown

or cold sun brighten over it, and though

my heart warms to the first of winter weather

I could have cried at last for it to go.

Then, when I felt my throat hard on the tether,

the thaw—soft air one night, and sound on waking

of water dribbling, drifting mists, sharp heather

black through the snow—the frozen winter breaking,

softening, resolving round me, vanishing;

but sometimes suddenly the cold, retaking

our hills, wiped from the world my fancied spring.


“You felt the crusted snow melt from your winter,

the spring’s pulse in the chilled earth wakening,

which to returning cold rehardens now;

but that thaw showed your earth is on the swing

of lengthening days.  Be patient and allow

winter its weakening onsets in retreat;

spring warmth is strengthening though you see not how.”

Quieted now I moved with lighter feet.

Past Camden Town we took the Chalk Farm Road,

turned with the tramlines along Ferdinand Street,

the Malden Road, and on until we trod,

past and above the tramway terminus,

Hampstead Heath, which now low but clear of cloud

the eleven day moon whitened in front of us.


Over the short grass my feet too were silent;

silent and dark behind the nebulous

city receded; crossing slope and stream

we lost all trace of habitation—house

and street gone from the fresh earth like a dream;

freshness and silence of the country night.

I spoke: “if I did not know, this would seem

Berkshire.”  “Or Yorkshire,” answered with a light

laugh Emily; “each to our own is true;

each takes its own home by an absolute right.

Here I must leave you.  I have given you

the keys of hope; further I cannot lead.

Not I the spirit whose eyes can brighten through

your dark sea.  Waits ahead the help you need.”


“Anabel,” I thought, and pressing forward questioned:

“Anabel?” and unanswered turned my head.

I know what Orpheus felt when turning he

touched emptiness.  What Emily had said

of hope seemed nothing to me now that she

was gone; I hoped no more for Anabel,

when “Martin” from the shadow of a tree

came clear.  Clean from my heart the black cloud fell;

softly the fresh wind moved; the stars were bright,

before dawn and the moon behind the hill.

I reached the tree and paused, straining my sight,

standing within the dark tree’s edge, and could

see nothing first, but slowly the dim light

shaped me the shadows among which I stood.


She sat there on a low bough, her legs hanging,

swinging a wide hat, not as in the wood

she braved the thorns, but later, nine or ten

perhaps—another meeting equally good.

In the darkness I could not trace again

each feature’s line, and scarcely tried; such peace

flowed over me to have her there as when

nightmares or wars, quarrels or waitings cease.

“Martin” she said, “how goes your pilgrimage?”

No remembered, no memory-wakening voice

of childhood, but herself set out of age;

“in my heart and in yours slumbered a seed

of great and happy life.  An early page

closed my unfinished book; how does yours read?”


I laughed: “a hard time to be great or happy.

Greatness I think we lack since Yeats is dead;

yet we have Eliot, for whom in Auden now

our long debt to America is paid;

both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf know how

thought weaves in words its inexpressible spells;

Sickert we may in honesty allow

a measure; Stanley Spencer’s vision tells

one need not paint in French exclusively;

Margot Fonteyn dances at Sadler’s Wells

and Sally Gilmour at the Mercury.

Greatness perhaps there is; but I who wait

invisibly chained for—what?—to set me free

am neither great nor likely to be great.


“For happiness a still more doubtful season:

we are at war, and as the stage is set

small hope is offered of a happy ending.

The world seems more than usually wet

with blood and tears; wrongs beyond hope of mending

lie at the root of every decent life;

those who sit still, and those who fall defending

justice, seem equally guilty of the strife

with gangsters and with gamblers on the game,

whetters and users of the deliberate knife.

Between the starving North and war’s dull flame,

distressed only by the knowledge of distress,

disturbed but not stirred by the prick of shame,

I watch the world and wait for happiness.”


She sighed: “unhappiness has always reasons;

fences about the truth, veils on her face.

The heaviness you father on the war,

preventable slaughter, and on the disgrace

of wide preventable want, though such things are

good causes for unhappiness, does not spring

from them.  Unhappiness hides the genuine scar

under some other likely-seeming thing;

you know not even abortive love can be

called the first cause, however sharp its sting.

You are unhappy because you dare not free

your self-bound life, but sit with bated breath

— a kind of cowardice and treachery

to all you ought to be, a breach of faith.”


Hurt home I struck back:  “I have not committed

the cowardice or treachery of death.”

“Death is itself and asks no more,” she said;

“not so life.  Life is more than pulse and breath,

getting through days and years till one is dead.

To see both sides is good; always to keep

a sensitive balance on the fence is bad.

Not yours to raise a fiery cross and sweep

the world before a cause, but none the more

to sit and wait and lull your powers asleep.

You have a sensitive mind and heart, and store

flashes of truth which pass and many miss,

but sensibility locked behind a door

is lost—is power betrayed by cowardice.


“Your delicate task to keep your power, neither

thrown to the winds, nor hid as now it is.

Turn to whatever calls you, only use

your power, and do not use it least for this:

to strip your own inaction’s false excuse.”

A wind shook through the tree; I raised my head

and saw a few faint stars across the loose

network of twigs, and knew that all was said.

Before I looked again I knew her gone;

then looked, and shivering left the deeper shade,

and tired and cold moved stiffly, vaguely on.

Soon to the Spaniards unexpectedly come,

between the set moon and the gathering dawn,

I turned to Hampstead and walked slowly home.