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


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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