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from Lines on Roger Hiltons Watch


Which I was given because

I loved him and we had

Terrible times together.


O tarnished ticking time

Pierce me with your bent hand,

You must be used to being

Looked at very suddenly

In the middle of the night

When he switched the light on

Beside his bed. I hope

You told him the best time

When he lifted you up

To meet the Hilton gaze. 


W. S. Graham

W. S. Graham (1918-1986) is a little known poet. He was born by the shipyards of Greenock in Scotland, but spent much of his life in Cornwall, inhabiting various caravans and cottages along the dramatic coastlines around St Ives. For a man so much on the move, it was important to find close and reliable friends. Roger Hilton was once such friend. Hilton was a painter also living and working around St Ives, and, until his death in 1975, he and Graham were famous friends, drinking companions, and pen-pals (often writing each other dazzling letters in the dead of night). 

The poem above was written in the wake of Hilton’s death, and therefore takes the form of an elegy. From the title, we must first assume that ‘Lines’ refers to the lines of a poem. But upon closer inspection, we can also take this to mean the lines, inscribed by time and use, that adorn the watch itself: the scratches and scuff-marks that life inevitably bestows on us. 

A watch is appropriate subject for an elegy, not only because it invokes the passage of time, but because this particular watch, we read, was a gift from Hilton to Graham: ‘Which I was given because | I loved him’. It therefore represents both the ‘Terrible times’ they had together (because watches mark time) and the reciprocity of true friendship. Only in such intimacy does ‘terrible’ come to mean ‘fantastic fun’.

The poem is moving because it is simple. It resembles more of a casual conversation than a high-brow elegy, so that we can better imagine the relationship between the two men, meandering and offhand. And finally, we see that the poem subtly shifts and begins addressing the watch itself. Perhaps this is because, though Hilton has gone, the watch remains with Graham – a reminder that this kind of friendship never truly leaves you. 

ws graham.jpeg
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