I first read this poem on a Tube train wall, aeons ago, when I lived in London and Poems on the Underground was introduced. (Is it still running? I do hope so.) I read it and loved it and had to get off the train immediately, whereupon I forgot the title and the name of the poet and could only remember the phrase about the ‘old, star-eaten blanket of the sky’. I never saw the poem again, but the phrase settled in my brain.
Then, last year, a dear friend gave me an anthology and the other night I found my poem! And here it is.
‘The Embankment’ (The Fantasia of a Fallen Gentleman on a Cold, Bitter Night)
Once, in finesse of fiddles I found ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old, star-eaten blanket of the sky
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.
(From Nicholas Albery (ed., assisted by Peter Ratcliffe), Poem for the Day: 366 Poems, Old and New, Worth Learning by Heart, London: Chatto & Windus, 2001)
The narrator’s calling himself a ‘fallen gentleman’ and using the antiquated ‘poesy’ make me think of him as a romantic; the first line seems, in rhythm and with the word ‘fiddles’, rather Irish. His ‘fantasia’ might be golden and ecstatic, but it’s contrasted with the ‘hard pavements’ and the need for ‘warmth’, ‘comfort’, and his anguished cry ‘Oh, God’: the grim reality of life on the streets. I think he’s a drunkard; do you? There is something of that wonderful, expansive sense of the world’s beauty which one feels when nicely drunk. A drunkard who dreams. But I also think that Hulme is referring to Oscar Wilde’s line from Lady Windermere’s Fan: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ And that seems a hopeful thought for a Monday morning...