Love made me journey as often as I could
from Birkenhead to Birmingham by steam train
in 1962 – from Woodside’s glazed roof
to Snow Hill’s canopy of girders –
stopping at Chester, Chirk, Gobowen,
Oswestry, Shrewsbury, and, through the Marches,
via Wolverhampton to the ‘Workshop of the World’:
a landscape of fields, canals, small market towns
becoming blackened terraces of cobbled streets.
That year I had opted to study
Ancient Greek Philosophy. The journey
would be a couple of hours of silent reading.
Aristotle’s treatise on ‘Coming To Be
And Passing Away’ fitted the rackety-
rack of the wheels, the odd spouts of steam,
the curvetting of telephone wires,
and the colours of weathers and seasons.
But Plato’s Republic, with its heavy
humour, ponderous dialogue and smart-arse
front-man, Socrates, had me counting the sheep,
and admiring the sepia views of Rhyl
and Scarborough above the seats opposite.
Perhaps Socrates was dyslexic. He left,
as far as we know, nothing in writing.
Untutored in the classical authors
I had thought his historical fame
dependent on the puppet master alone
until, this year, I came across a piece –
in Practical Mechanics, I think it was –
about his young friend Xenophon: rebel
mercenary, military strategist,
kindly trainer of horses, writer.
Each morning, for exercise, Xenophon
describes how Socrates on his verandah
would dance, a cappella, as it were.
No doubt it was the old man’s tripping
of the light fantastic that prompted
Athens’s Watch Committee to accuse him
of corrupting the youth of the city.
Somewhere in Wolverhampton, on the end
of a terrace overlooking a canal,
was painted in white, with a sign writer’s
precision, ‘ETERNITY! Where will you spend
ETERNITY?’ As we passed I would smirk,
as young poets in love are wont to do.
Woodside station has gone, and, everywhere,
the steam and the smoke and the soot, of course,
but maybe the graffito, weathered,
is still there, a ghost. Socrates chose
to drink the hemlock rather than self-exile,
as his friends and followers urged. More dangerous
dead and chronicled, he must have guessed,
than forgotten on some sparse islet,
dribbling into his wine.
PlatoSocratesthe Black CountryXenophon