Saturday, 16 August 2014

A Biedermeir Age

Note (19 May 2016): This poem was written in rugged ottava rima which I have come to think of as too rugged. Hence I have revised the poem for greater smoothness, and quietly amended it in situ.

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Bronze statues glowing under London rain
Declare, forlorn, a bankrupt history:
Nelson and Cunningham who held the main,
Napier and Havelock seizing victory,
Are swamped in Nelson’s square beneath the vain
Roarings of Muslim demagoguery.
Disdained is public beauty, Roman, Greek –
The fourth plinth occupied by a crop-haired freak.

Pinioned before a screaming crowd a scold
Is ducked, her tongue strapped by an iron bit;
Of country stock, like seasoned oak, she told
Unnerving truth, shared in the ancient writ
Of peoplehood, now banished behind the fold
Of a hand in taverns. Magistrates sit
In well-soaped watchfulness; their rolled-up laws
Poised to curb honesty like a grim monk’s tawse.                     

Borders create cultures – a steepled range,
A sweeping river or the jagged sea –
All nurture smoky camps which swell to grange,
Then town and city, time-bedecked, whose glory
Is marble, and where golden towers arrange
The twilight sky. But should a foreign bee
Seduce the hive, feud engulfs the honeycomb:
Polis, comity, art come tumbling down.

Art is corralled – a gleaming stallion
Gone broken-winded in a muddy field;                         
Its maker’s brio that of a scullion
Scouring pots: Hockney’s colours all congealed
Like Barbie make up; Hirst enjewelling bullion
For hedge-fund men; and Emin loath to wield
A pencil but Professor nonetheless –
Insubstantial putty, an infant’s cess. 

Sentiment triumphs. On a pastel couch,
A lout in jeans and trainers howls, urged on
By cameras to hug his winnings in a slouch                       
Of gross delight. Such is the snotty guerdon
Of grammar-masters’ age-old work to vouch
For man’s civility and learning’s garden.
Did Scipio act so, when Hannibal fled
The plain of Zama, disgrace upon his head?

The straits are breached, the towns are seized; the marches
Bristle with mute despair: Tariq bin Ziyad,
Kettledrums pounding, stacks the Guildhall’s arches
With spoils of war. His thin-eyed mullahs of Ryadh
Uncrate their close-writ texts, their Law which starches
All it grips. Ambrosius, torn, ill-clad,               
Conspires revolt, but his captains, cold and nerve-shot,
Cravenly slink away to barn and cot.

Low cloud and rain hang upon the town square;
Gottlieb Biedermeir goes home for lunch;
A medieval clock tower rattles the air;                     
Moroccan street toughs, Roma girls, a bunch
Of scuffling Poles, and him, attract the stare
Of batoned police: move on, ignore the crunch
Of glass. Think nothing. Lunch is cheese and fruit;
After, Herr Fless calls with fabrics for a suit.                             

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© April 2013. Revised May 2016

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