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Last Days of Prospero

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From the Archive

Joseph Severn, A Scene from the Tempest, Prospero and Ariel (detail) 

“Last Days of Prospero,” a poem by Donald Justice from our Winter – Spring 1964 issue. Justice, born on August 12, 1925, is remembered for his formal mastery; he had a special fondness for sestinas. He died in 2004. Michael Hofmann has said that Justice “probably has few peers when it comes to the musical arrangement of words in a line.” In 2011, John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote about his poem “There Is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings” for the Daily.

The aging magician retired to his island.
It was no so green as he remembered,
Nor did the sea caress its headlands
With the customary nuptial music.

He did not mind. He would not mind,
So long as the causeway to the mainland
Were not repaired, so long as the gay
Little tourist steamer never again

Lurched late into harbor, and no one
Applied for a license to reopen
The shuttered, gilt casino. Better,
He said, an isle unvisited

Except for those sea-birds come to roost
On the roofs of the thousand ruined cabañas,
Survivors; or the strayed whale offshore,
Suspicious, surfacing to spout,

Noble as any fountain of Milan…
The cave? That was as he had left it,
Amply provisioned against the days
To come. His cloak? Neat on its hanger;

The painted constellations, though faded
With damp a little, still glittered
And seemed in the dark to move on course.
His books? He knew where they were drowned.

(What tempests has he caused, what lightnings
Loosed in the rigging of the world!)
If now it was all to do again,
Nothing lacked to his purposed, only

Some change in the wording of the charm,
Some slight reshuffling of negative
And verb, perhaps—that should suffice.
So, so. Meanwhile he paced the strand,

Debating, as old men will, with himself,
Or the waves, though, as it was, the sea
Seemed only to go on washing and washing
Itself, as if to be clean of something.