Saturday, 8 January 2011


Remember the 1340's? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called "Find the Cow."
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.

Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent a badly broken code.

The 1790's will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.

I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.

Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.


oh. that guy the Red Dirt Girl doesn't like.
Why, I wonder?
Maybe the first poem she read by him gave a bad first impression. 
But how can you shrug this one off? listen to it,
Drop into a stanza, live there a while.
I like it. Sun-dappled rooms, brocade, the distant cries of the hunt, listen, a lute, a virginal, singing from somewhere.
Try a dance.
Chance a glance.
It's not profound, no great revelation, I don't suppose it will be taught, 200 years hence. But I like it. 

poem by Billy Collins


  1. nostalgia
    although I've just stumbled upon this blog, I have to say that is a very nice poem.

  2. you've sent me this one before. it's okay. i like michelle's potato poem better ...! just an aside: how can singing be virginal? i think rita's comment about pretentiousness might work here. i think billy collins is pretentious. there. i've said it.

  3. The virginal is a late mediaeval musical instrument... early ancestor of the piano. Henry the eighth's court had several.
    Though I suppose we might assume the singing of a choir of young girls to be virginal.

  4. Though I do remember the 1340s, this post seems much to personal to intrude upon with my own period anecdotes.

  5. I do hope you are finally feeling a bit better, and that the drugs wear off soon.

  6. I mean a young boy's choir could qualify as virginal too.

    Virginals predate harpsicord.

  7. Glad you clarified that, Max, I was wondering what you meant.
    To take it further, virginal need not necessarily imply young choristers. Aged nuns and monks might also (but not necessarily) be virginal.

    And yes, the virginal was a plucked string instrument, so closer to harpsichord than pianoforte, but I still see it as an ancestor of the piano, being a strung instrument played via a keyboard.
    I can't play either, I can't sing in any way that anybody else might wish to hear, and I fail in the virginal stakes too.

  8. i remember the 1970's when it seems i was completely obsessed with the virginal and the attempts to make them not so. i like the poem but it seems to leave the grit and dirt of those times a bit undisturbed


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