Two poems by Ruth Padel

This month Ruth Padel presents a major new work, Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life, published in the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth. Below are two poems from it.


    Idealising the Unattainable Can Begin Very Early


‘Little Louis clung with great affection to his grandfather. Though he lost him so soon,
he retained the most vivid impression of him.’
Franz Wegeler, Biographical Notes


It’s not the face that stays most truly naked
through a life. What jumps out from this court portrait
of your Flemish grandfather whose name you bear -
the painting you will lash to a wagon every time you move
along with your manuscripts, piano, single bed
and writing-desk, all rumbling uncovered through city air
furred with floating particles of horse-dung -

is this V of bare chest, the open shirt within

the formal robes, the one soft patch of skin
where he might have cradled you. In all the debris
everywhere you live, jugs of red wine
always on the go, the fevers, smells and flies,
broken love-hopes, slamming doors,
you will find your heart shored up
by meeting the trapped brilliance of his eyes.


    Meeting Mozart


Never mind a three-week winter journey to Vienna
on your own. You’re sixteen, burning
to be taught by Mozart Mozart Mozart.
He looks like a fat little bird. Bug eyes, fidgety,
tapping his toes. When you play one of his sonatas
he’s unimpressed. But something makes him say,

Alright then, improvise. And at last he’s caught.
Watch out for this boy. He’ll give the world
something to talk about. But a message from Bonn
skewers you back. Your mother’s ill.
Your dream of learning
from the one man you measure yourself against,
whose music drives your heart, is snatched away.

She waits till you return
to drown in the coughed-up dregs
of her own lungs, and for the one and only time
in what’s going to be a life of illness
you get asthma. As if her breath
the breath she cannot catch, has stolen yours.


Ruth Padel

About Ruth Padel

Ruth has published twelve poetry collections, including the best-selling 'Darwin, A Life in Poems', shortlisted for the Costa Prize, and 'Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth', shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, on conflict and harmony in the Middle East. She is Professor of Poetry at King’s College London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her new book 'Beethoven Variations - Poems on a Life', comes out of five years' work with the Endellion String Quartet and her childhood playing viola, the instrument Beethoven played professionally as a child. She is currently updating her poetry-and-prose book on migration, 'The Mara Crossing', to a paperback edition, 'We are All from Somewhere Else', to be published in July.