A literary mystery

The most beautiful bookshop in the world, Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal

“It is a very common thing, in my experience, to find papers shut up in old books; but one of the rarest things to come across any such that are at all interesting. Still it does happen, and one should never destroy them unlooked-at.”—M R James

James is right, of course, although he was writing in a different context. I’ve never found any mysterious papers inside old books, but I did find a poem. When I was in college, one of my friends had a book entitled Planet and Glow-Worm: A Book for the Sleepless, an anthology compiled by Edith Sitwell. It has been described as “a literary curiosity from another generation that richly deserves to be brought back into print”.

The preface states: “This is not a book about Dreams; it is meant for those whose ‘continual cares, fears, sorrows, dry brains’, drive rest away; it contains some of the composing and calming beauties that, in the compiler’s own experience, bring a happy sleep in their train. Here are evocations of a beauty that conceals no terror, here are flowing rhythms that hold no more wakefulness in their sound than those of a river, thoughts and ways being like those of music … And this is a book to bring sleep to us.”

It is a quirky collection, as one might expect, and I liked it enough to find a copy for myself. Which brings me to the mystery. Inside the back cover was handwritten the following poem, signed “Listener” and dated May 18th, 1944:

The Bargain

Love hurt you once, you said, too much.
You said you’d have no more of such
Hot heartbreak and long loneliness,
You said you’d give and ask far less
Than love, that demon without pity,
That far, miraged, old, golden city
Across the desert of desire,
Ringed with the gateless ring of fire.

You said you’d drink, but not too deep,
Of life; explore yet always keep
Your final secret self intact—
Entire, untired, untorn, unracked.

And I, may heaven forgive me, said,
“Lay your blonde beloved head
In the hollow of my arm—
We’ll love lightly without harm
To either’s heart, and I’ll defy
Your warmth and loveliness; and I
Won’t love too much;
Forgive my lie.”

I find that remarkably poignant, and have always wondered what the story behind it was. Was “Listener” a serviceman? Did he survive the war? It would make a fine romantic story, but I’m afraid I don’t do romantic.

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