Late in the year, one morning I awoke
and found myself shut in on every side
by high and thorny hedges, with a cloak
of thick fog everywhere. There was no hide
or hut; no sound, no voice; nothing to show
location or bearing; nothing to guide –
only a narrow alley where, with slow
steps, I moved between the hedges, feeling
my way, the mist swirling, my courage low.
As day wore on, the haze dispersed, revealing
long lines of foliage with intersections
and dead ends. I knew then I was dealing
with a maze, full of obscure deflections,
with walls which blocked me off or led me on,
sending me back and forth in all directions.
Each broad way would turn out to be a sham;
and all the work of threading twist and turn
be lost as I came back where I began.
Deception followed deception. No return
seemed possible; no exit from these pounds
of lost content; no end you could discern.
The alleys seemed to have elastic bounds:
the more I walked, the further they would go;
the junctions multiplied, the high surrounds
grew higher, darker, and the sun dropped low.
Then to my horror, at an alley’s end,
I saw a black dog prowling to and fro.
If it attacked, I’d no way to defend
myself. I looked for somewhere I could hide.
I’d seen a little pathway round a bend,
and scuttled back; hoped for a hole to slide
out of the reach of slavering canine jaws.
Amazed, I saw a door, and slipped inside
as the animal approached.Without a pause
I slammed the bolt; made sure my barricade.
Outside, I heard the rattle-scratch of claws.
Turning around, I saw a gentle glade,
and then a garden full of shrubs and flowers,
with curving paths, and lawns, and temples made
of shells, and statues set in marbled bowers;
a frame for pineapples; a hanging vine;
a folly topped with ornamental towers;
a grotto lined with pebbles, like a shrine –
after the maze, an Eden of a place.
‘Good Day, Sir,’ said a high voice, ‘I opine
your visit was unplanned, so pale your face,
so torn your garments.’ Looking down, I found
a tiny man, his back held in a brace,
his shape contorted, and his forehead crowned
with a kind of cloche I’d somehow seen before.
‘You’re free by all means, Sir, to look around,’
the apparition said. ‘Please do explore
the curiosities (here two ‘ahems’).
It’s here that I have laboured to restore
the glories of my garden by the Thames
at Twickenham, which once enjoyed some fame,
together with my rhymes and apothegms.’
I said, ‘You do not need to tell your name;
you are the poet Alexander Pope
who wrote The Rape’. He bowed his head – ‘The same:
the master of the well-turned line and trope
is he who owns this orderly retreat
and civil habitat.’ ‘And may one hope,’
I asked, ‘to find an exit from your seat
which does not lead one back towards the hound
(or hounds) from which I’ve just made my retreat?’
‘The maze,’ he answered, ‘stretches all around.
From my domain there is a single gate
into the web from which you’ve just unwound.
It is my whole endeavour to create
an ordered refuge, from the maze aside;
to live in comfort on my own estate,
and cultivate my garden, undenied.
All that I want lies here within this wall.
The dogs of ignorance run wild outside.
The feast of reason and the flow of soul
with chosen friends is all that I desire.’
This wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear at all.
The drawbridge rhapsody did not inspire;
what I was after was a quick way out
with cover guaranteed, not friendly fire
from poets hunkered down in a redoubt
surrounded by their labyrinthine fears.
I thought it well to show some signs of doubt.
‘But don’t you wish to live among your peers?’
I asked. ‘The life you lead seems so confined –
isn’t reclusion bound to lead to tears?
Are other men of genius resigned
to horticulture? Nectarine and peach
may not be meat enough for every mind?’
‘I cannot speak,’ he said, ‘for others. Each
much manage as he can: this does for me.
Ornament and abri are what I preach,
but some may like things simpler: the degree
is down to taste. The principle remains –
our choice is circumscribed: we are not free.
Our destiny’s enclosure – all that restrains
encroachment and invasion and decay.
Whether it’s clearings, gardens, grand domains,
however unadorned, however gay,
they each must build their wattle or their wall
to hold their own and keep the maze at bay.’
I found the poet’s tale began to pall,
but how could I escape his gilded cage?
It did not take much effort to recall
the black dog which was lurking just off-stage,
and other alleys might have equal terrors,
or even worse – I had no way to gauge.
But in the trust that winners must be darers,
I asked the poet for his frank advice.
‘Good Sir,’ I said, ‘I put it to you, whereas
I’m terrified to risk the wild maze twice,
I don’t believe that I can trouble you
for more than say, a night, to be precise.
Is there some person who could steer me through
the passageways towards a further goal,
ensuring that I don’t go all askew?’
His face showed much relief. ‘Upon my soul,’
he said, ‘my gardener John will be your guide;
he knows the safest alleys to patrol.
The time to travel’s when the shadows slide
under the hedges for their mid-day rest;
and all the prowling dogs sleep stupefied:
siesta is the time that you’ll find best.’
So John and I at twelve o’clock next day,
armed with stout sticks, and ready for the test,
slipped through the gate and set off on our way.
End of First Canto.