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


Tonight and every night    the bell
the stove and the candles burn
Before the tocsin tolls again
hell-raisers must return

The stove window reddens
with a city in flames
redoubled in a river
the Moskvá   Nevá   Thames

debouching into Phlegethon

I saw there some up to their eyes in blood
and the great centaur told me    These are the tyrants
who from mass-murder made a livelihood

They choke in the smoking torrents
from springs they unstopped themselves
Napoleon is treading blood
the vintage of 1812

That swastika forelock signals
dreams of a higher race
The blood of jews and gypsies
accuses him to his face

and there is the Children's Friend
islanded in midstream
eyelids   moustache   encrusted
but that is not his scream

Great centaur   shaper of war and peace
what of your argument
that power is the people's will
transferred with their consent

to him   and him   and him   Because
you legitimate their claims
you do your sentry duty
in this abyss of flames

I have called you too a monster
and hated you with all my heart
but in the night of history
you played a homeric part

Under the comet's peacock tail
your city   like Homer's Troy
is still an active volcano
a city flame cannot destroy

a torch by whose shuddering light
you show me what you were shown
a road   a blizzard   prisoners
turned in their sleep to stone

Great centaur   I thought of you
and the prisoners   I thought of them
in the line that shuffled towards
my smouldering Requiem

And so it begins again
the snow starting to fall
At a darkened window I look
as if down from a tower on it all

as if I were taking leave again
of all I took leave of long ago
my son dragged out by a stone guest
a pattern without purpose   No

The pattern must be the shadow
of purpose   by which I know
that my Guest from the Future turned
left from the bridge because Clio

dictated it   she who dictated
the lines on a page of snow
in a wind too cold to let
the tears it loosened flow

preserving them for a future
the past may no longer rot
when spring winds can bear witness
to what the chronicles do not

Guest from the Future - return to 1

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library