Clive James’s’s poem ‘The Magic Wheel’

The editor of the Times Literary Supplement Sir Peter Stothard  when asking himself which were the three favourite poems of all those he’d published in the TLS replied to his own question bysaying that his first choice Clive James’s The Magic Wheel, which appeared in the TLS in the issue before Christmas four years ago.

I remembered it most of all, I had to admit, because it was, in the poet’s words, ‘an ode in the manner of Theocritus‘.Simaetha invokes every magic trick she knows. She wants simultaneously to destroy the faithless Delphis – with fire, hot wax, poisonous lizards and her magic wheel – and to bring him back to her bed.

It was version of a classic – but an unusual, genuinely unforgettable, one.

Theocritus’s Idyll 2 is known in English as The Sorceress.

It is an extended plea by a woman whose lover has loved and abandoned her.

‘The sea is quiet and quiet too are the winds’. As she sweats and curses in her Greek island home, only her pain cannot be made quiet.

Clive James’s narrator too looks out to sea on a Mediterranean island and recites the ancient line ‘O magic wheel, draw hither to the house the man I love’.
His is the idyll in reverse.

He dreaming that a woman, one whom he once knew long ago, had had Simaetha’s dreams about him.

‘I dreamed of you as dreaming that, and now/ The boxed-in balcony of my hotel room high above/ Grand Harbour is a sauna. .’

Instead, the object of his long passion now has her own husband, a ‘great dancer’: Simaetha’s love was a beautifully bodied boy from the gymnasium.

She also has a ‘tremendous little son’.

He sees her and knows best,,,,,, read on 

In yesterday’s post I, as an admirer of James, allowed that the je ne sais quoi you normally expect from poetry is missing in almost all of his,  What I failed to say to say was that in his best poetry,  there are compensations. Sir Peter Stothard, in his discussion here, puts his finger on some of them.

This poem – and others from the TLS and elsewhere – are now published in Angels Over Elsinore, Collected Verse 2003-2008

Stuff no longer posted to the Pete Atkin Web Forum


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