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History Lessons

by Seamus Deane


                  For Ronan Sheehan and Richard Kearney

‘The proud and beautiful city of Moscow
Is no more.’ So wrote Napoleon to the Czar.
It was a November morning when we came
On this. I remember the football pitches
Beyond, stretched into wrinkles by the frost.
Someone was running across them, late for school,
His clothes scattered open by the wind.

Outside Moscow we had seen
A Napoleonic, then a Hitlerian dream
Aborted. The firegold city was burning
In the Kremlin domes, a sabred Wehrmacht
Lay opened to the bone, churches were ashen
Until heretics restored their colour
And their stone. Still that boy was running.

Fragrance of Christ, as in the whitethorn
Brightening through Lent, the stricken aroma
Of the Czars in ambered silence near Pavlovsk,
The smoking gold of ikons at Zagorsk,
And this coal-smoke in the sunlight
Stealing over frost, houses huddled up in
Droves, deep drifts of lost

People. This was history, although the State
Exam confined Ireland to Grattan and allowed
Us roam from London to Moscow. I brought
Black gladioli bulbs from Samarkand
To flourish like omens in our cooler air,
Coals ripening in a light white as vodka.
Elections, hunger-strikes and shots

Greeted our return. Houses broke open
In the season’s heat and the bulbs
Burned in the ground. Men on ladders
Climbed into roselight, a roof was a swarm of fireflies
At dusk. The city is no more. The lesson’s learned.
I will remember it always as a burning
In the heart of winter and a boy running.

 

Seamus Deane was born in 1940 in Derry and educated at Queen’s University, Belfast, and the University of Cambridge. He taught in Derry, lectured in America, and is now a lecturer at University College, Dublin. Next year he will publish his Essays in Modern Irish Literature (Faber and Faber) and The Literature of Ireland (Hutchinson). In 1973 he won the A. E. Memorial Award. (1983)


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