Palimpsest: The Deceitful Portrait
by Conrad Aiken
from The House of Dust 
Well, as you say, we live for small horizons:
We move in crowds, we flow and talk together,
Seeing so many eyes and hands and faces,
So many mouths, and all with secret meanings,–
Yet know so little of them; only seeing
The small bright circle of our consciousness,
Beyond which lies the dark. Some few we know–
Or think we know. Once, on a sun-bright morning,
I walked in a certain hallway, trying to find
A certain door: I found one, tried it, opened,
And there in a spacious chamber, brightly lighted,
A hundred men played music, loudly, swiftly,
While one tall woman sent her voice above them
In powerful incantation . . . Closing then the door
I heard it die behind me, fade to whisper,–
And walked in a quiet hallway as before.
Just such a glimpse, as through that opened door,
Is all we know of those we call our friends.
We hear a sudden music, see a playing
Of ordered thoughts–and all again is silence.
The music, we suppose, (as in ourselves)
Goes on forever there, behind shut doors,–
As it continues after our departure,
So, we divine, it played before we came.
What do you know of me, or I of you?
Little enough . . . We set these doors ajar
Only for chosen movements of the music:
This passage, (so I think–yet this is guesswork)
Will please him,–it is in a strain he fancies,–
More brilliant, though, than his; and while he likes it
He will be piqued . . . He looks at me bewildered
And thinks (to judge from self–this too is guesswork)
The music strangely subtle, deep in meaning,
Perplexed with implications; he suspects me
Of hidden riches, unexpected wisdom.
Or else I let him hear a lyric passage,–
Simple and clear; and all the while he listens
I make pretence to think my doors are closed.
This too bewilders him. He eyes me sidelong
Wondering ‘Is he such a fool as this?
Or only mocking?’–There I let it end.
Sometimes, of course, and when we least suspect it–
When we pursue our thoughts with too much passion,
Talking with too great zeal–our doors fly open
Without intention; and the hungry watcher
Stares at the feast, carries away our secrets,
And laughs . . . but this, for many counts, is seldom.
And for the most part we vouchsafe our friends,
Our lovers too, only such few clear notes
As we shall deem them likely to admire:
‘Praise me for this’ we say, or ‘laugh at this,’
Or ‘marvel at my candor’ . . . all the while
Withholding what’s most precious to ourselves,–
Some sinister depth of lust or fear or hatred,
The sombre note that gives the chord its power;
Or a white loveliness–if such we know–
Too much like fire to speak of without shame.
Well, this being so, and we who know it being
So curious about those well-locked houses,
The minds of those we know,–to enter softly,
And steal from floor to floor up shadowy stairways,
From room to quiet room, from wall to wall,
Breathing deliberately the very air,
Pressing our hands and nerves against warm darkness
To learn what ghosts are there,–
Suppose for once I set my doors wide open
And bid you in . . . Suppose I try to tell you
The secrets of this house, and how I live here;
Suppose I tell you who I am, in fact,
Deceiving you–as far as I may know it–
Only so much as I deceive myself.
If you are clever you already see me
As one who moves forever in a cloud
Of warm bright vanity: a luminous cloud
Which falls on all things with a quivering magic,
Changing such outlines as a light may change,
Brightening what lies dark to me, concealing
Those things that will not change . . . I walk sustained
In a world of things that flatter me: a sky
Just as I would have had it; trees and grass
Just as I would have shaped and colored them;
Pigeons and clouds and sun and whirling shadows,
And stars that brightening climb through mist at nightfall,–
In some deep way I am aware these praise me:
Where they are beautiful, or hint of beauty,
They point, somehow, to me. This water says,–
Shimmering at the sky, or undulating
In broken gleaming parodies of clouds,
Rippled in blue, or sending from cool depths
To meet the falling leaf the leaf’s clear image,–
This water says, there is some secret in you
Akin to my clear beauty, silently responsive
To all that circles you. This bare tree says,–
Austere and stark and leafless, split with frost,
Resonant in the wind, with rigid branches
Flung out against the sky,–this tall tree says,
There is some cold austerity in you,
A frozen strength, with long roots gnarled on rocks,
Fertile and deep; you bide your time, are patient,
Serene in silence, bare to outward seeming,
Concealing what reserves of power and beauty!
What teeming Aprils!–chorus of leaves on leaves!
These houses say, such walls in walls as ours,
Such streets of walls, solid and smooth of surface,
Such hills and cities of walls, walls upon walls;
Motionless in the sun, or dark with rain;
Walls pierced with windows, where the light may enter;
Walls windowless where darkness is desired;
Towers and labyrinths and domes and chambers,–
Amazing deep recesses, dark on dark,–
All these are like the walls which shape your spirit:
You move, are warm, within them, laugh within them,
Proud of their depth and strength; or sally from them,
To blow your Roland’s horn againstt the world. .
This deep cool room, with shadowed walls and ceiling,
Tranquil and cloistral, fragrant of my mind,
This cool room says,–just such a room have you,
It waits you always at the tops of stairways,
Withdrawn, remote, familiar to your uses,
Where you may cease pretence and be yourself.
And this embroidery, hanging on this wall,
Hung there forever,–these so soundless glidings
Of dragons golden-scaled, sheer birds of azure,
Coilings of leaves in pale vermilion, griffins
Drawing their rainbow wings through involutions
Of mauve chrysanthemums and lotus flowers,–
This goblin wood where someone cries enchantment,–
This says, just such an involuted beauty
Of thought and coiling thought, dream linked with dream,
Image to image gliding, wreathing fires,
Soundlessly cries enchantment in your mind:
You need but sit and close your eyes a moment
To see these deep designs unfold themselves.
And so, all things discern me, name me, praise me–
I walk in a world of silent voices, praising;
And in this world you see me like a wraith
Blown softly here and there, on silent winds.
‘Praise me’–I say; and look, not in a glass,
But in your eyes, to see my image there–
Or in your mind; you smile, I am contented;
You look at me, with interest unfeigned,
And listen–I am pleased; or else, alone,
I watch thin bubbles veering brightly upward
From unknown depths,–my silver thoughts ascending;
Saying now this, now that, hinting of all things,–
Dreams, and desires, half-wishes, half-regrets,
Faint ghosts of memory, strange recognitions,–
But all with one deep meaning: this is I,
This is the glistening secret holy I,
This silver-wingèd wonder, insubstantial,
This singing ghost . . . And hearing, I am warmed.
You see me moving, then, as one who moves
Forever at the centre of his circle:
A circle filled with light. And into it
Come bulging shapes from darkness, loom gigantic,
Or huddle in dark again . . . A clock ticks clearly,
A gas-jet steadily whirs, light streams across me;
Two church bells, with alternate beat, strike nine;
And through these things my pe
ncil pushes softly
To weave grey webs of lines on this clear page.
Snow falls and melts; the eaves make liquid music;
Black wheel-tracks line the snow-touched street; I turn
And look one instant at the half-dark gardens,
Where skeleton elm-trees reach with frozen gesture
Above unsteady lamps,–the black boughs lifted
Against a luminous snow-filled grey-gold sky.
‘Beauty!’ I cry . . . My feet move on, and take me
Between dark walls, with orange squares for windows.
Beauty; beheld like someone half-forgotten,
Remembered, with slow pang, as one neglected.
Well, I am frustrate; life has beaten me,
The thing I strongly seized has turned to darkness,
And darkness takes my heart . . . These skeleton elm-trees–
Leaning against that grey-gold snow filled sky–
Beauty! they say, and at the edge of darkness
Extend vain arms in a frozen gesture of protest.
Voices are raised, a door is slammed. The lovers,
Murmuring in an adjacent room, grow silent,
The eaves make liquid music. Hours have passed,
And nothing changes, and everything is changed.
Exultation is dead, Beauty is harlot,–
And walks the streets: the thing I strongly seized,
Has turned to darkness, and darkness takes my heart.
If you could solve this darkness you would have me.
This causeless melancholy that comes with rain,
Or on such days as this when large wet snowflakes
Drop heavily, with rain . . . whence rises this?
Well, so-and-so, this morning when I saw him,
Seemed much preoccupied, and would not smile;
And you, I saw too much; and you, too little;
And the word I chose for you, the golden word,
The word that should have struck so deep in purpose,
And set so many doors of wish wide open,
You let it fall, and would not stoop for it,
And smiled at me, and would not let me guess
Whether you saw it fall . . . These things, together,
With other things, still slighter, wove to music,
And this in time drew up dark memories;
And there I stand. This music breaks and bleeds me,
Turning all frustrate dreams to chords and discords,
Faces and griefs, and words, and sunlit evenings,
And chains self-forged that will not break nor lengthen,
And cries that none can answer, few will hear.
Have these things meaning? Or would you see more clearly
If I should say ‘My second wife grows tedious,
Or, like gay tulip, keeps no perfumed secret’?
Or ‘one day dies eventless as another,
Leaving the seeker still unsatisfied,
And more convinced life yields no satisfaction’?
Or ‘seek too hard, the eyes at length grows sightless,
And beauty shines in vain’?–
These things you ask for,
These you shall have . . . So, talking with my first wife,
At the dark end of evening, when she leaned
And smiled at me, with blue eyes weaving webs
Of finest fire, revolving me in scarlet,–
Calling to mind remote and small successions
Of countless other evenings ending so,–
I smiled, and met her kiss, and wished her dead;
Dead of a sudden sickness, or by my hands
Savagely killed; I saw her in her coffin,
I saw her coffin borne downstairs with trouble,
I saw myself alone there, palely watching,
Wearing a masque of grief so deeply acted
That grief itself possessed me. Time would pass,
And I should meet this girl,–my second wife–
And drop the masque of grief for one of passion.
Forward we move to meet, half hesitating,
We drown in each others’ eyes, we laugh, we talk,
Looking now here, now there, faintly pretending
We do not hear the powerful pulsing prelude
Roaring beneath our words . . . The time approaches.
We lean unbalanced. The mute last glance between us,
Profoundly searching, opening, asking, yielding,
Is steadily met: our two lives draw together . . .
. . . ‘What are you thinking of?’ . . . My first wife’s voice
Scattered these ghosts. ‘Oh nothing–nothing much–
Just wondering where we’d be two years from now,
And what we might be doing . . . ‘ And then remorse
Turned sharply in my mind to sudden pity,
And pity to acted passion. And one more evening
Drew to the usual end of sleep and silence.
And, as it is with this, so too with all things.
The pages of our lives are blurred palimpsest:
New lines are wreathed on old lines half-erased,
And those on older still; and so forever.
The old shines through the new, and colors it.
What’s new? What’s old? All things have double meanings,–
All things recur. I write a line, delighted,
(Or touch a woman’s hand, or plumb a doctrine)
Only to find the same thing, known before,–
Only to know the same thing comes to-morrow.
This curious riddled dream I dreamed last night,–
Six years ago I dreamed it just as now;
The same man stooped to me; we rose from bondage,
And broke the accustomed order of our days,
And struck for the morning world, and light, and freedom.
What does it mean? Why is this hint repeated?
What darkness does it spring from, seek to end?
You see me, then, pass up and down these stairways,
Now through a beam of light, and now through shadow,–
Pursuing silent ends. No rest there is,–
No more for me than you. I move here always,
From quiet room to room, from wall to wall,
Searching and plotting, weaving a web of will.
This is my house, and now, perhaps, you know me.
Yet I confess, for all my best intentions,
Once more I have deceived you . . . I withhold
The one thing precious, the one dark thing that guides me;
And I have spread two snares for you, of lies.
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