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A Ballade for the Birthday of My Dearest Wife

By (April 1, 2017) No Comment

Various things have sabotaged the making
Of this my birthday proffer. First, the fear
Of leaving a warm spot and coldly shaking
The keys like teeth (not mine, alas), the sheer
Middleaged indolence that, year by year,
Grows with my fat. But still, the urgent truth
Demands expression. Celebrate, my dear,
Another anniversary of youth.

I take on, and regret the undertaking.
Too many things, and mostly out of mere
Inertia. Projects in the oven baking,
Irons in the fire crowd time. Time comes and
we’re
Overcommitted. One big time draws near
Then leaps or paws – though gently, not uncouth;
Then I’m all unprepared to clap and cheer
Another anniversary of youth.

But take this, in the time of sun’s forsaking
The glum earth, in an era of flat beer
And watered gin, when anger in its waking
Is much too tired to wake and blast the drear
World that our rulers build, when eye and ear
Survey the blasted corn like exiled Ruth.
But hope chose a November to uprear
Another anniversary of youth.

Envoi

Dearest, although the signs of age appear
In me, in greying hair, deciduous tooth,
You work your yearly miracle. Lo, here:
Another anniversary of youth.

____
This birthday poem from Anthony Burgess to his first wife, Llewela Jones, was found in the book collection of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, England. The typescript was folded inside Burgess’s copy of Somerset Maugham’s Collected Short Stories (volume 3 of the 1963 edition). The date of the book indicates that he probably wrote it the year after he had published his most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange, in 1962.

Burgess wrote and published poetry throughout his career as a student at Manchester University (1937-1940). It was here that he met Llewela (known as Lynne) in 1938, when she was studying history and modern languages. They married in January 1942. Working collaboratively, Burgess and Lynne went on to translate three French novels into English in the 1960s, and he dedicated his novel The Doctor Is Sick to her in 1960.

The poem, a ballade in the style of Ezra Pound (one of Burgess’s favourite poets), speaks about the joy of growing old together, but sadly it was not to be. Lynne died from liver failure in March 1968, at the age of just 47.

Burgess was born John Burgess Wilson in Manchester on 25 February 1917. ‘Anthony Burgess’ was a pseudonym he adopted in 1956 when he published his first novel, Time for a Tiger, set in colonial Malaya. He was known as John to everyone, including his agents and publishers, until he met his second wife, an Italian translator called Liana Macellari, in 1968. She always referred to him as ‘Antonio’.

Before her death in 2007, Liana Burgess set up the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, an educational charity which makes grants to students and encourages public and scholarly interest in Burgess’s life and work. Further information about the Foundation is available at www.anthonyburgess.org

This poem appears in Open Letters Monthly to mark the hundredth anniversary of Burgess’s birth. The first volumes of a new critical edition, titled The Irwell Edition of the Works of Anthony Burgess, will appear from Manchester University Press in the summer of 2017.

–Andrew Biswell, Director, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

 

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