Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE DEATH OF A DANDY, by JOHN PEALE BISHOP

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THE DEATH OF A DANDY, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The exquisite banality of rose and ivory
Last Line: And a white candle spreads a film on the hearthstone.
Subject(s): Coatsworth, Charles A.h. (1751-1825)

The exquisite banality of rose and ivory:
Shadows of ivory carved into panels, stained
And decayed in the ceiling; rose color looped,
Casting a shadow of mauve; blown cherubs,
Bulging in silver,
Lift six tapers to the lighted mirror.

A dusk, deep as the under side of a rose,
Is curtained under the old bed-dome.
Contracting the coverlet, a shape lies,
Which may or may not be a man.

What thoughts should an old man have
In the London autumn,
Between dusk and darkness?
Behind the shrunken eyelids, what apparitions?
What pebbles rattle in a dry stream?

A boy with a pale lovely dissolute face
sprawled on the green baize, among the cards,
a Spanish pistol dropped from one hand.

Seen from the glazed squares of the Club, a street
cobbled with faces, bundles of rags and lice,
a yellow dwarf rising with protruding face.

Gilded Indian gamecocks, clawing blood
amid the clapping of pale hairless hands.

Lady Barfinger, masked in satin, disclosing her gums,
labored graces of a cracked coquette.

A Jew that came on sliding haunches,
crouched, and with distended palms whined for his pledges.
Alvanley embroidered in silver foil, poised at the
court, the ball a mirror of silvery Alvanleys.

Phantoms under a cloudy ceiling, uneasy images;
Sentences that never come to a period;
Thoughts of an old dandy, shrunk to a nightgown.

The chamfered fall of silken rose --
muffling London and the autumn rain --
lifts and recurves;
a beautiful young man,
naked, but for a superb white tiewig,
moves in with the slow pacings of a cardinal
dreaming on his cane.
The firelight blushes on the suave
thighs of the young man, as he glides
from his calm, with an inessential gesture,
to brush his tiewig. Palm upon knuckles,
fingers over the cane-head, he regards
amusedly his own face in the crystal.
-- "Without my powdered curled peruke,
I were but a man. So, I am a dandy.
For what was there to do, being no god
burnished and strong, amorous of immortals,
but to escape this disappointing body --
punily erect, patched with scant hair,
rank in its smell, too --
by hiding it in silk and civet -- adding to silver hair,
pomp of vermilion heels?
What else, indeed, unless to drown,
all naked, to drown all sense in wine?
They thought my wit was all in waistcoats,
my epigrams pointed but with dainty tassels,
when every ribbon that my fingers tied
protested with a fragile, indolent disdain
a world exquisitely old and gross and vain.
So I gave them my jest --
walking stark naked to the gaming room
where the preened dandies leaned across their cards.
their pale long fingers spread among the cards.

They laughed; I did not laugh: so old,
so pitiful, so pitiful,
so brutal and so dark, the buffoonery.
But the body's the jest of Another -- I make my obeisance!"

Young Coatsworth has become
a naked glimmer on the lighted glass,
fainter than the shimmer among rainy bees.

An old man lies propped on a bed
Counting the candles of the empty glass,
An old man who has seen
His own youth walking in the room.

The window silk puffs with a winter gust,
and Coatsworth, aetatis suae XXV,
flapped in gold braid, crinkled in air-blue,
with inscrutable precision
bows in a lady,
who repeats the scene with the graces of a marionette.
-- "Madam," he says, addressing her panniers,
"your bodice is miraculously a double moonrise,
your throat the traditional swan's white,
but fuller; your lips an exciting cochineal.
But, in truth, love is at best
a fashionable intrigue, an accompliced secret,
unendurable without grated orris root.
Love remains to the proud mind
a ladder loosened from the brazen tower,
a furtive flight from the sentinelled domain
where self is utterly contained in self.
Though you ordered the death of a thousand roses,
I've caught the breath of a garden, where
no man has ever been, and the ripe fruit
drops through the tarnished air
unheeded, and yew trees are made peacocks.
I thank you for your horrible favors.
Adieu --"

The lady unravels to a ragged smoke;
Coatsworth darkens with blood like a satyr,
blushes in a burnish on the mirror,
burns, and is gone.

The dry skull stretches regretful claws,
And the points of the tapers twist and bend --
Sallow fingers of Jewish usurers.

A rapier flicks through the curtains,
like a needle of sunlight splintered on the sea.
Coatsworth presses before him --
back to the fireplace -- a panting stripling.
A jet of wet red spurts from his shirt front;
the youth sinks and dribbles in blood through the carpet.
"The end of such upstart heralds
As would bar my shield to the sinister."
The reflected visage is rigid,
puckered thinly with wrinkles.
"What if I got my fingers' trick --
whether with rapiers or puffing neckclothes --
from a confectioner of Bath
whose fastidious years were spent
tracing on cakes, white labyrinths of ice
squeezing pink fondant into petalled buds?
What that, overnight, through an open window,
he got me because a crooked pear tree
climbed to the window ledge?
No man's to call me bastard.
I bear Lord Coatsworth's name. I am his son!
And what's a murder more or less
amid the inane fecundity of blood and sweat.
A barmaid and a groom repair the loss."

The dead youth has subsided in blood,
leaving the floor unsoiled;
Coatsworth has leapt through the silvered glass,
leaving its flames unspoiled.

His pallor stained by the rose dimmed dusk,
The old man lies on his curtained bed,
Whimpering like a beggar in a wet loft
When the wind's found the cracks and the straw is cold.

Coatsworth, modishly old, steps from the window folds with a gesture consciously
stands for a moment
half Don Juan, half Childe Harold;
and stalks, a magpie motley,
black, buff and silver, up to the mirror.
He regards the vain, brave fall
of the surtout, the triple-tied neckcloth,
the bronze hair brushed as in busts of Nero --
then, with a posture almost Byronic,
confides, in silence.

"Amid the bumpers, the scaffoldings, the ilex cones,
I have ever worn the scorn of death
with the careless grace of a bouttoniere.
But let me be buried with a fiery choir,
a scarlet and lace processional of boys,
and priests too old to lift their stiffened folds,
too wise to hold their clouded incense as a prayer.
Tie up my chin, lest I should smile.
And press into my hand my laurel cane
where Daphne, with blown crinkled hair, feels the
hard wood invade her silver thighs;
leave me my snuff-box for its musty yawn
and for its intricate cool ivory
showing an April faun at his desires;
probate my will, offer my house for rent.

I had thought to find a languor; to attain
a gallant erudition in the snuff-box and the cane;
to restore a tarnished splendor,
ceremonious as stole,
gorgeous like a vestment -- yet urbane;
between the opening and the closing of the doors,
to have stood between the sconces, ripe in silk,
ancestral laces falling to a sword;
reflected in the parquetry, to dream
of Giorgone in a tricorn, and high wigs
powdered with palest silver, piled like clouds;
of odorous mummied rose, grown dusty with a queen,
tender and slight and proud.
But I have sat so long
before so many mirrors, I'm afraid,
afraid at last that I may be
a shadow of masks and rapiers between the girandoles,
A satin phantom, gone when the wax is down."

He becomes a toothless grimace
between the moveless cherubs, silver blown.

Under the lustred bed-dome, in the curtained dusk,
A throat moans -- the sudden and lonely
Cry of one long ridden by a nightmare,
Who wakes and finds it is no dream.

Old Coatsworth unravels from the bed clothes --
A ghost unwinding its burial linen --
And stands, toes clutched and indrawn,
Ridiculously muffled in linen ruffles;
Totters slowly to the glass
To find therein, grinning wide with terror,
The toothless mist of the last apparition.
Shrieking, he plucks a candle from its socket
And drives the double flame into darkness.
Another, another, another;
Four tapers extinguish their windy stains
In a smear of wax on the mirror.
Another flame drops from a bony claw.
Like the drums of a defeat, his heart sounds.
And he peers at the dwindling face in the mirror --
The face of a dandy brought to a shroud.

Clutching the last tremulous candle
The old dandy sways;
Clings to the air,
And sinks in a slow movement of exhausted mirth.

The mirror is heavy with shadows
And a white candle spreads a film on the hearthstone.

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