‘Sentenced to Life’, by Clive James

Clive James

As his ‘lungs of dust’ preclude his being able to travel any more, essayist and poet Clive James has in recent years turned his pen to themes of mortality and memory and place, lamenting, among other things, the impossibility of a return from the UK to his native Australia. And so his latest rich offering:

Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.

But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run:
My sin was to be faithless. I would lie
As if I could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done

Was in the name of love, or so I thought.
I might have met my death believing this,
But no, there was a lesson to be taught.
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.

My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish, each a little finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.

Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.

Even my memories are clearly seen:
Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must
Be aching for my homeland. Had I been
Dulled in the brain to match my lungs of dust
There’d be no recollection I could trust.

Yet I, despite my guilt, despite my grief,
Watch the Pacific sunset, heaven sent,
In glowing colours and in sharp relief,
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent,
As if it were my will and testament –

As if my first impressions were my last,
And time had only made them more defined,
Now I am weak. The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind.

Clive James, ‘Sentenced to Life’, in The Times Literary Supplement, 2 May 2014, 8.


  1. Thank you Jason. I have often enjoyed the thoughtful work, as well as the humour of Clive James. ‘Sentenced to Life’. Struggling towards one’s dying day is a difficult gig. Not everyone comes to it that way. But those who do, and can express it well, give us an insight that leads to present thankfulness.

    A moving piece of poetry.


  2. Thanks Jason. I have a few of James’ books and have just finished his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He has amazing gifts of intellect AND reflection. This poem shows both.


  3. Thanks Clive:I lost the Love of my life at 56. last year.A simply beautiful poem from a good man and country.However next summer at Lords I might care to differ!With best wishes Anthony.


  4. Clive James, great memories of a wonderful man, how you made me laugh, post cards from cities of the world, all fantastic never forget your post card from sydney. Fair well Clive, you could not go home in life but you went home in death, sleep well back home beneath the harbour bridge.


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