"Haydn Leaves London"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Dec. 2 2008 8:18 AM

"Haydn Leaves London"

August 1795

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Rita Dove read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

I work too slowly for their appetites.
I am a plow horse, not a steed; and though
the plow horse cultivates the very grain that gilds
their substantial guts, they will thrill to any chase,
lay down a tidy fortune and their good name
on the odds of a new upstart darling.                                                

The first trip, I took up Pleyel's unspoken dare
and promised a new piece every evening
for the length of the concert series. 
Intrigue fuels the coldest ambitions;
the daily newspapers thickened
with judgments on the drummed-up duel
between the maestro and his student of yore. 
What was I thinking?  I am old enough to value,
now and then, an evening spent with starlight—
not one twittering fan or lacy dewlap obscuring
my sidelong glance—yet I came back

to these noisome vapors, this fog-scalded moon,
fat and smoking, in its lonely dominion. 
The black Thames pushes on.  I close my eyes
and feel it, a bass string plucked at intervals,                        
dragging our bilge out to the turgid sea—
a drone that thrums the blood, that agitates
for more and more. …

...............................Well, it is done. 
I bore down for half a dozen occasions,
wrote a four-part canon to a faithful dog,
wheedled a few graceful tunes
from Salomon's orchestra, that bloated fraternity
of whines and whistles—and now I can return
to my drowsy Vienna, wreathed in green
and ever turning, turning just slowly enough
to keep the sun soft on her face.

Former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove received the 2011 National Medal of Arts from President Obama. Her latest book publications are Sonata Mulattica and The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry.