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


The doorbell   a tocsin   tolling
as if the Huns were at the gate
told nothing that was not foretold
in this room   and on this date

when the stranger turned left from the bridge
along the Fontanka    and knew
the gates by the iron lions
that growled and let him through

Who shadowed him   Lachesis
the Eumenides   knowing what now
I know and do not know   where they
have taken you   and if   But how

gladly I heard his step
on the stair   his touch on the bell
as shy as a boy's fingertip
touching his first girl

He brought me no lilac   no ring
but something more precious than love
As the terrible downpour ceased
he brought me   like Noah's dove

a green word out of the blue
A Russian bird rinsing the air
of its thunder and ash   and if
he flew off   he returned later

and Europe again put out her leaves
behind my Amedeo's head
the drawing on his knee   my wall
Modigliani     famous     dead

He brought me leaves and he brought
me stone   He brought me Salomé
back from the dim pharaonic vault
of the Stray Dog cabaret

and up   it seemed   the deeper stairs
those others had descended   who
as memory turned the key
came at her shadow   trooping through

the hall   to meet the guest whom I
admitted to the Masquerade
when destiny called the tune
But whose was the tune I played

the music to which we moved
in the candlelight   pouring wine
dividing between us the clutch
of potatoes   your hand and mine

and his hand with a cigar
conducting   Something by Mozart
Donna Anna dreams a dream
Footsteps   and the dreams depart

He brought me leaves and he brought
me stone   a guest of stone
to drag you from the candlelight
Now Donna Anna sits alone

and will do what must be done
if you   in some cage   tonight
are to lie beyond the range
of the poem's fatal flight

Let it be lettered in flame
translated into air
to be printed and reprinted
anytime   anywhere

under roof or under stars
on the one press that survives
the listeners   the watchers
the searchers with their knives.

Guest from the Future - 3

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library