Tuesday 16 February 2021

Porter's St John

Here is a short poem to keep alive the memory of that extravagantly gifted poet Peter Porter, who was born on this day in 1929 (in Brisbane). The painting above, St John on Patmos by Bosch, I once knew very well, as a nicely framed reproduction of it hung over the fireplace in the home of my old English master. When I visited him, we would sit in armchairs at either side, me sipping sherry (or Cinzano, or whatever was on offer) while he talked. He was very fond of talking, and I was happy to listen. Whether Porter was thinking of this, or some other painting, or none at all, when he wrote the poem, I don't know, but it's a fine piece of work, I think... 

St John on Patmos

For the right visions
You need a desert or an island.

On an island the beasts will listen,
The groundsel sneak into your cell,

Evil done on the mainland
Will let down a bloody feather at your door,

You get a lion to boss your bestiary
And the best menagerie of all in your head.

What a ramshackle day! The missed heart-beat
Reforms a whole landscape: 

That sail is bringing pilgrims, a hymn to God
In your convalescence – the passion-fruit flower

In its sun-suit, heliotrope under the keel
And fish choking in unbreathable blue,

Closer than the enskied artillery of the Lord
Regrettable Emperors with gold hands

And at the right moment of routine
A sure verb to bind the vision to the rock.

Doctors, Doctors. There are things to do.
Kyrie Eleison. But with the world's help.


  1. Thanks for the lovely Peter Porter poem Nige. He has a way of juxtaposing all aspects of the cosmos together. I particulalrly like 'the enskied artillery of the Lord' which reminded me of Richard Crashaw's 'Mighty Love's Artillery' and some of my favourite lines in Pope -
    "Know then, unnumbered Spirits round thee fly,
    RThe light Militia of the lower sky:' from the rather more earthbound Rape of the Lock

  2. Thanks Guy – and after that line the poem reads quite like early Geoffrey Hill, I thought. Very compressed.