Interior at Petworth: From Turner

(Lord Egremont speaks)

It was a way of punishing the house, setting it ablaze
in ruddy, golden flames; smoke
in billows up the front stairs; walls
cringing like leaves.   
I say, I am afraid
in my own house. Do not believe
I started this, it was
that man, who was to portray the park alone, mind you,
but then became
enamored of the music room.
And now what have we: floods
of fire rolling from room to room, furniture wrecked
in seethe, my wife   
Lady Amelia turned
wraith, God knows what fish
and drowning slaves cast up in the tide
along with pocket Bibles, snuffboxes, antimacassars, the   
familiar bric-a-brac of the well-kept house.
Where are Edward, Lavinia, Jane? Why
is no one crying, “Fire! Fire!”? Am I
         The man has no sense of proportion.
He had himself lashed to the mast, once, it is said,
on a steamboat off the harbor mouth
in full blizzard: sailors blinded by snow, the boat
crippled, led by the lead, they damn near died to a man, and he—
he was observing “the light at sea,” he said.
The painting? “Soapsuds and whitewash,”   
the critics described it so.

But here, in our house, it is catastrophe   
of flame, not weather, he loosed.
He is a man
in love with last things, clearly,
the last things, but
never understood the first, it seems to me,   
and certainly not the genial medias res
of decorous, daily life.
What tea-times we’ve known in these chambers, what sonatinas,
lieder of an evening, whist,
Emmeline embroidering, the hounds calm at the hearth, now all
               Perhaps there are no flames.   
A bloody haze arises, it could be
my own eyes that fail.
I hear nothing, but fear
the upstairs rooms, cramped rooms
I have not entered in ages, only remember
the draughts, creakings, grime in closet corners,   
windows too tight to lean from, the smell   
of antique damp. And now, who knows   
what acts unroll
on narrow beds, on floorboards warped askew?
As steam is rising, rising? As heat
buoys the house up into an atmosphere   
all of its own creation?
Who are
the participants? Where has Amelia gone?   
Why, in this furnace, can I hear no sound,   
or feel my own skin begin to peel?


Turner painted a series of paintings for his patron, Lord Egremont, between 1830 and 1837. Some were interiors from Lord Egremont’s own house, Petworth. I have taken liberties with the historical character of Lord Egremont.

Rosanna Warren, “Interior at Petworth: From Turner” from Each Leaf Shines Separate. Copyright © 1984 by Rosanna Warren. Reprinted with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Source: Each Leaf Shines Separate (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1984)
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