Reading Gibbon again, I remembered this poem, “Exeat,” by Stevie Smith (The Frog Prince and Other Poems, 1966):
“I remember the Roman Emperor, one of the cruellest of them,
Who used to visit for pleasure his poor prisoners cramped in dungeons,
So then they would beg him for death, and then he would say:
Oh no, oh no, we are not yet friends enough.
He meant they were not yet friends enough for him to give them death.
So I fancy my Muse says, when I wish to die:
Oh no, Oh no, we are not yet friends enough,
“And Virtue also says:
We are not yet friends enough.
“How can a poet commit suicide
When he is still not listening properly to his Muse,
Or a lover of Virtue when
He is always putting her off until tomorrow?
“Yet a time may come when a poet or any person
Having a long life behind him, pleasure and sorrow,
But feeble now and expensive to his country
And on the point of no longer being able to make a decision
May fancy Life comes to him with love and says:
We are friends enough now for me to give you death;
Then he may commit suicide, then
He may go.”
The first week of the year always puts me in mind of John Berryman and his suicide, on Jan. 7, 1972. I was a sophomore in college and learned of his death from the professor whose class in Victorian poetry I was taking. We were reading Browning, who died at age seventy-seven. Berryman was fifty-eight. I was immature and naïve enough to find something noble in his suicide. He left three children without a father. For several years afterwards, he was my favorite poet, as my own life fell apart. Today, I read Berryman coldly, through the lens of my younger self. So much of his work is sabotaged by the imitative fallacy. It’s a self-indulgent mess. There’s no denying his brilliance, forever corroded by alcohol and its ever-present partner, self-centeredness.
Will May, editor of All the Poems of Stevie Smith (New Directions, 2015), adds this footnote to “Exeat”:
“The final line offers a translation of the title, which puns on the vernacular `exeat’ as a permission for a temporary absence from an English boarding school. Cf. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (AD 121), which reports that Tiberius once refused to grant a criminal a speedy execution with the words nondum tecum in gratiam redii (trans. `you and I are not yet friends’).”