The accursed power which stands on Privilege (And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge) Broke–and Democracy resumed her reign: (Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).
The precise phrasing of Hilaire Belloc‘s little squib may have been outdated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Kamala Harris… but the complaint by the common voter (or disillusioned non-voter) is valid, that professional politicians live in a very comfortable club that takes care of all its members regardless of who actually wins an election; and no fundamental change occurs.
A nice little quatrain, iambic pentameter, the simplicity strengthened by the bite of the repetition contradicting the idea of change. Easy to remember and quote because – of course – it rhymes and scans.
Wheer ‘asta beän saw long and meä liggin’ ‘ere aloän? Noorse? thoort nowt o’ a noorse: whoy, Doctor’s abeän an’ agoän; Says that I moänt ‘a naw moor aäle; but I beänt a fool; Git ma my aäle, fur I beänt a-gawin’ to breäk my rule.
This is the opening stanza of Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem ‘The Northern Farmer: Old Style’. The farmer is dying, but obstinately overrules the doctor’s order that he not drink any more ale, just as he obstinately clings to traditional attitudes towards land and class, farming and money.
Where have you been so long and me lying here alone? Nurse? You’re no good as a nurse; why, the doctor’s come and gone: Says that I mayn’t have any more ale; but I’m not a fool; Get me my ale, because I’m not going to break my rule.
It’s one of a series of poems he wrote that recapture the dialect of his Lincolnshire youth, and that reflect the old traditions and the modern changes of that part of the country. It is paired specifically with ‘The Northern Farmer: New Style’–Here the “new style” farmer, out in a cart with his son Sammy, hears the horse’s hooves clip-clopping “Property, property” and chides his son for not thinking enough about money:
Me an’ thy muther, Sammy, ‘as been a’talkin’ o’ thee; Thou’s beän talkin’ to muther, an’ she beän a tellin’ it me. Thou’ll not marry for munny–thou’s sweet upo’ parson’s lass– Noä–thou ‘ll marry for luvv–an’ we boäth of us thinks tha an ass.
Seeä’d her todaäy goä by–Saäint’s-daäy–they was ringing the bells. She’s a beauty, thou thinks–an’ soä is scoors o’ gells, Them as ‘as munny an’ all–wot’s a beauty?–the flower as blaws. But proputty, proputty sticks, an’ proputty, proputty graws.
or, in more modern words:
Me and your mother, Sammy, have been talking of you; You’ve been talking to mother, and she’s been telling me. You don’t want to marry for money–you’re sweet on the parson’s daughter– No, you want to marry for love–and we both think you’re an ass.
Saw her today going by–Saint’s day–they were ringing the bells. She’s a beauty, you think–and so are scores of girls, Those with money and everything–what’s a beauty?–a flower that fades. But property, property sticks, and property, property grows.
Tennyson was meticulous in trying to recapture the life and language of his youth. He wrote:
When I first wrote ‘The Northern Farmer’ I sent it to a solicitor of ours in Lincolnshire. I was afraid I had forgotten the tongue and he altered all my mid-Lincolnshire into North Lincolnshire and I had to put it all back.
And apart from the accuracy of the dialect, Tennyson was as skilled as ever with his carefully conversational metre, and natural rhymes working comfortably with the natural breaks of the lines.
After a billion years of larval hit-and-miss humans emerged, stood up, and fed, and grew, started to build their city chrysalis from which, 3,000 years entombed, now formed anew, they burst in wild bright flight with wings deployed out to the stars. The egg case of this final birth, the Earth, was, naturally, destroyed.
We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rate of change is ever-increasing in all aspects of human life–from our bodies to our planet–and we will never return to the old normal. The good news is that this is the process by which life advantages to higher levels of organisation and intelligence.
This poem was originally published in Star*Line, one of the two magazines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The other magazine is Eye to the Telescope (ETTT).
The poem rhymes and is written in iambics; but the rhymes are not structured to a pattern, and the lines are of uneven length. This casual form is used by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot among others, in some of my favourite poems such asA Summer Night (I have always loved the three paragraphs beginning with:
For most men in a brazen prison live, Where, in the sun’s hot eye, With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give, Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.)
and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The form doesn’t have the musicality of more regular forms like the sonnet or limerick, but it provides all the memorising strength of rhythm and rhyme within a more conversational flow, and facilitates different lengths of thought including, if wanted, a punchline.
We live in difficult times, what with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, mass migration, infectious diseases, unpredictable technological advances in weaponry, and more. And the problems will continue to multiply and get larger, even as we develop solutions to the smaller, simpler ones. And from the inevitable destruction of our form of life will emerge… what? We cannot know, we probably cannot even imagine.
My seraph, enter. Here’s the deck you bade
Me fly beyond the Gates to fetch. We’ll kneel
Beneath this verdant tree’s unstinting shade,
Unearthing all your heart desires. Let’s deal.
I’ve drawn your future card. Does this reveal
Some truth to you: this Six of Swords I’ve played
That paints a boatman on a blade-pierced keel?
My seraph, enter. Here’s the deck you bade
Me burnish to a shine. You’ve always stayed
Our cosmic course, but now you wish to steal
Away by sea upon this ship you’ve made
Me fly beyond the Gates to fetch? We’ll kneel
Beseechingly before His judgment’s steel
For this infraction. Think before you trade
Celestial wings for shawl. Return to heel
Beneath this verdant tree’s unstinting shade.
What’s that? This passenger, the mortal maid
Our card depicts, denotes your soul’s ideal?
And tedium’s degraded our crusade,
Unearthing all your heart desires? Let’s deal
Then with the Throne when need decrees. Conceal
Your downcast head; pin back your wings arrayed
In fear. I’ll steer this vessel’s rigid wheel
And whisper, when we reach the port portrayed,
“My seraph, enter.”
Mindy Watson writes: “The Seraph and the Six of Swords” originally appeared as a February 2018 Star*Line Editor’s Choice poem. This rondeau redoublé—which at face-value chronicles one disaffected and divination-inclined angel convincing another (via a contraband tarot card deck) to thwart angelkind’s “cosmic course” and set sail for unknown shores—began unassumingly enough in 2017, with one Dark Tranquility song phrase—”Enter, suicidal angels”—that I couldn’t scrub from my subconscious. Because, at the time, I was also some three weeks away from starting what I (correctly) suspected would be an operationally thrilling, yet all-consuming new job, this poem served not only as a mentally grounding reiteration of my sincerest loves—mythology, individualism, rejection of unsubstantiated strictures—but also a vehicle by which my then two warring selves—the timid self clinging to comfortable complacency versus the brave self hellbent upon exploration despite the costs—could enact a healthy, internal dialogue. While the poem obviously features a “winner” of sorts, I intentionally framed the poem’s overall trajectory and final concluding stanza to favor, instead of the rebellious self’s unliteral triumph, a perspective blending by which—as the titular Six of Swords tarot card depicts—two entities/selves willingly embark upon a forward-looking journey where, while one serves as instigator/primary traveler and one serves as grounding facilitator—both ultimately undertake the voyage. While I rather compulsively followed “Seraph and the Six of Swords” with two rondeau redoublé sequels (respectively titled “The Fallen Angel’s Ace of Wands” and “The Guardian at the Gated Tower,” which appear in Star*Line’s Spring and Summer 2018 issues) that extend the featured angels’ saga, this original remains my favorite. And while a seemingly mundane job shift originally inspired “Seraph,” I can’t help but re-visit it mid-2020, as we stand stricken by a global pandemic’s impacts, upon the precipice of another pivotal U.S. presidential election decision. For better or worse, the journey continues, spurred forward—I hope—by our “better angels.”
Mindy Watson is a formal verse poet and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Eastern Structures, the Poetry Porch, the Quarterday Review, Snakeskin, Star*Line, and Think Journal. She’s recently also appeared in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets: Form in Formless Times chapbook series and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s 2019 Dwarf Stars Anthology. You may read her work at: https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite.
Death will be harder now, as, year by year, We solve the clues of immortality: Emotions sink to animality As false hopes tighten screws of desperate fear. Hormone control will make age disappear— After false starts, most horrible to see— But those already old must beg to be Frozen for the genetic engineer. While war, starvation, pipe Earth’s gruesome jigs, Successful businessmen will fight to gain Some dead teen’s body, to transplant their brain, The already-old beg to be guinea-pigs. Children, look back, hear our despairing cry: We bred immortals, but we had to die!
This sonnet was originally published in the British quarterly Ambit in 2007, back when the amazing pediatrician and novelist Martin Bax was editing it and accepting formal verse. Perhaps the best-known piece Martin published was J.G. Ballard’s “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”…
But although the poem’s subject-matter seems current, it dates from 1982 when I was first becoming aware of cryonics and the speculative thinking around genetics and nanotechnology. I believe if a person is truly aware of their surroundings, they are going to be aware of both their historical context and their possible science fiction futures. Otherwise, to repeat, they aren’t truly aware of their surroundings.
As Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” He couldn’t have imagined our present world. The rate of change is accelerating. I doubt anyone today can imagine the world a hundred years hence.