The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

The Guest from the Future

Wolfson College, Oxford
A poem by Jon Stallworthy, recalling a momentous meeting between Isaiah Berlin
and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and its consequences. 

Wolfson College is greatly indebted to Professor Jon Stallworthy for permission to use his poem
The Guest from the Future
in its website tribute to the late Sir Isaiah Berlin.
The poem is the copyright of Professor Stallworthy, and enquiries about that copyright should be addressed to him at Wolfson College.

  The Guest from the Future
a triptych


From the year 1940 I look
 As if down from a tower on it all,
   As if I were taking leave again
    Of all I look leave of long ago,
     As if I had made the sign of the cross
      And went to the vaults below.

                                             25 August 1941
                                            Leningrad under siege

   New Year's Eve.   The Fontanny Palace.  Instead
of the man expected, shades of 1913 appear to
the author in the shape of mummers.  A white hall
of mirrors.   Lyrical digression: the Guest from
the Future.  A Masquerade.  A Poet.  A Ghost.

   I have lit my sacred candles
      To halo the New Year,
          And I welcome 1941
             With you who do not appear.

Good God!
                   The flames drown in crystal
   ‘And the wine like poison burns'.
       Rough shards of speech resurface
           And old hysteria returns
And the clock still does not strike . . .
   In mounting anxiety
      Like a shadow on the threshold
         I guard my sanctuary.

I hear a bell's insistent ring
   And feel my blood run colder,
      And turned to stone, ice, fire,
         I look over my shoulder
As if remembering something,
    And in a low voice say:
       ‘I'm sorry.   The Doges' Palace
         Is next door, but today
You might as well leave all
   Your masks and cloaks, your crowns
     And scepters in the hall.
       I've a mind to sing your praises,
        New Year's Eve hell-raisers.'
Here is Faust, and here Don Juan,
   Dapertutto, Iokanaan,
      And here the Nordic Glahn,
        Or the murderer Dorian,
         All of them whispering
          To their Dianas some
           Old Story.  One has brought
             A Bacchante with a drum.
And the walls have opened for them,
   Light has erupted, sirens wail,
      The ceiling swells to a dome.
        As if scandal could make me quail . . .
What to me are Hamlet's garters!
   Or the dance of Salomé
     Or the Man in the Iron Mask!
        I am more iron than they . . .
And whose turn now to be afraid,
   To back away, wince guiltily,
       And ask forgiveness for old sins?

 I see:
           What do they want, but me?
Supper was not laid for them,
    And our worlds are not the same.
      Those coat-tails conceal a tail . . .
        How elegant he is, how lame . . .
But . . . surely you have not dared
   To bring the Prince of Darkness here?
      That face or mask or skull
         Displays an anguished sneer
That only Goya would dare paint.
   Prince Charming, Prince Derision -
      Compared with whom, the worst
          Of sinners is a saint . . .
On with the carnival!
    But why am I alone alive?
       Tomorrow morning I shall wake
          And no indictments will arrive,
And the blue beyond my windows
    Will laugh into my face.
      But I am frightened; shall go in
         Hugging my shawl, my lace,
Smile at them all and say nothing.
   I do not want to meet again
      This side of Jehosophat
          The woman that I was then
In a necklace of black agate.
    Can the Last Day be here . . . ?
      I have forgotten your lessons,
        False prophets of yesteryear,
But you have not forgotten me.
    The future in the past draws breath
       As the past in the future rots -
         Dead leaves in a dance of death.

The sound of invisible feet,
Cigar smoke blue in the air
Over a parquet floor,
And in all the mirrors there
The man who did not appear
And could not enter that hall.
A man much the same as the rest,
The grave had not made his flesh crawl
And there is warmth in his hand -
My Guest from the Future - a light
In his eye.  Will he really come,
Turning left from the bridge, tonight?

Guest from the Future - 4

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library