In 1932 when I was ten
In my grandmother’s garden in Camberwell
I saw a Camberwell Beauty butterfly
Sitting on a clump of Michaelmas daisies.
I recognised it because I’d seen a picture
Showing its brownish wings with creamy edges
In a boy’s paper or on a cigarette-card
Earlier that week. And I remember thinking,
What else would you expect? Everyone knows
Camberwell Beauties come from Camberwell;
That’s why they’re called that. Yes, I was ten.
In 1940 when I was eighteen
In Marlborough, going out one winter’s morning
To walk to school, I saw that every twig,
Every leaf in the vicar’s privet hedge
And every stalk and stem was covered in
A thin layer of ice as clear as glass
Because the rain had frozen as it landed.
The sun shone and the trees and shrubs shone back
Like pale flames with orange and green sparkles.
Freak weather conditions, people said,
And one was always hearing about them.
In ’46 when I was twenty-four
I met someone harmless, someone defenceless,
But till then whole, unadapted within;
Awkward, gentle, healthy, straight-backed,
Who spoke to say something, laughed when amused;
If things went wrong, feared she might be at fault,
Whose eye I could have met for ever then,
Oh yes, and who was also beautiful.
Well, that was much as women were meant to be,
I thought, and set about looking further.
How can we tell, with nothing to compare?
Kingsley Amis, in putting the final stamp on his rather dry series of memoirs, decided not to write the prose for which he was so lauded throughout his life. Instead, he penned this, an ode to longing, love, and loss, and the unavoidable truth that we can never fully understand a moment until it is already a memory.
Kingsley himself called the poem “To H.,” with H being Hillary Bardwell, his first wife, and the women he was relentlessly unfaithful to, and divorced, yet helplessly loved throughout his life. Following his divorce from his second wife (writer Elizabeth Jane Howard), and even though he was an incorrigibly philandering and unfaithful husband, Hillary agreed to take Kingsley in, allowing him to live with her (and her new husband, Lord Kilmarnock) for the last decade of his life. This unusual ménage à trois brought Kingsley out of what his son Martin Amis called “a trough of misogyny” that had ruined his writing, rekindling in him the exuberant creativity and comedy which had brought him recognition so many years before. It was in this arrangement that Amis wrote one of his best novels, the Booker prize winner The Old Devils, at the age of 65. It was also the place wherein Kingsley wrote this poem.
“Instead of an Epilogue” reveals a side of Amis that is often overlooked in the typical view of him as a misanthrope that objectified women while objecting to all social norms and rejecting any situation where a bottle wasn’t close at hand.
Here we see a man registering full and true emotions of wistfulness and affection, projecting simultaneous moods of melancholy, gratitude, and bemused humor. You try to do that. It’s not an easy task, and it’s why “Instead of an Epilogue” stands, at least to me, at the crest of modern poetry.
By the way, the poem in close second: “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden.