De Quincey’s Ghost

I wrote this after noticing a blue plaque above a doorway in Manchester, announcing Thomas De Quincey’s birthplace.  A man was sleeping rough in the doorway.  I wondered what De Quincey, an aristocratic drug addict, would think if he returned to his birthplace.

A gentleman in grey rags

by the lamp-post

Watching the sky;

Watching the sun drag

Across brown brick.

A lamp flickered

Showing a lined face;

I was born in this place

he said,

In another time.

We sat

in the doorway, litter

in the gutter;

Sharing wine

From the bottle;

Backs against

a metal shutter;

Sleeping bag beneath us.

Tired old men who felt

Almost immortal.

Things were different, then,

He said;

Happiness could be

Bought for a penny;

Amusements were cheap,

and many.

You could be lifted

Into jungle trees to dance

With birds and monkeys

And spy a sphinx

On a London corner

Hiding near Hyde Park.

You might find her again

And become intoxicated

By the scent of her,

Her brown arms curled around you

Like a question.

You might lose whole days like this;

Remembering yourself only

As you sink

Into the mud of the Thames.

I have been wrong,

He said

About so much.

Two lifetimes;

Too long,

Not long enough.

I’ve become tired.

We talked

Into the night

About truth and

Opinion;

About men and kingdoms

About love and guilt

And the things you can’t change.

In the morning

He had gone

Into some kind of light

And I was an old man

Alone in the Manchester dawn.

 

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