I have lived in the Bristol area for twelve years, and have been repeatedly struck by the immense wealth of the city’s history and heritage, a wealth which is partly a suspect and difficult one, built on slavery and the tobacco trade, but also one which has involved whole histories of charity and philanthropy. I wanted to give some of Bristol’s founding characters a voice, and this is what I have tried to do in the ‘Sonnets’. I have tried, at least a little, to think myself into the minds and words of these characters, and to see something of the world around from their perspective.
Hospitals, far-off coastlines, vast and unprecedented feats of engineering: these are all aspects of Bristol’s history, yet Bristol occupies a peculiar place in the national landscape, a city built on commerce and industry yet not in the ‘industrial north’. In some ways, it seems a ‘displaced city’, and I have tried to reflect something of this in the poems.
The Bristol Sonnets
I stand on this far stretch of New-found-land.
Sea-birds swoop low. The king who gave me ‘full
And free authority’ to sail so wild
Is in his counting-house, no doubt. I pull
Fish from the teeming sea with my bare hands;
My men are gone inland, but I must stare,
Although I know no ship will ever come
Across the lengths of ocean, in the glare
Of a sun no Christian soul has seen before.
My ships are sunk, raw matchwood for the waves,
And I am old. How many years have passed
Since I set sail? Behind me lie the graves
Of those whose lust for spices drove them more
Than life itself before the storm’s dread blast.
They think me fine and well; they do not know
How deeply in my veins the palsy runs,
Sickness of monks, of minds; sometimes quite crazed
My manuscripts explode with virgin nuns
While I, sequestered, live another life.
Saint Mary, come to me; I am athirst
For blood-red wine, my skin grows parchment-pale,
My soul contorts, flings wrack, my pen will burst,
The pressure in my head reflects the ground
Above me as I crouch inside my cave;
Illuminations flicker in death’s beam.
I wonder: when they lay me in my grave,
What creatures will come knocking, and what sound
Will camouflage the pain, the silent scream?
It is not meet; ‘tis neither fit nor right
T’endure such insult; I will not be mocked.
Years of tradition flow in me, the vast regalia
Of monarchy. I hear the pistol cocked
At dawn in the defence of history;
I shall be present for the final fight
When revolutions are complete, and all
Is back as ‘twas before this threat to light.
These flippant hounds who think that they can change
The course of ages will find reckoning;
My statue will endure, I see it now,
The hand of fate that needs no beckoning
Anoints me. As for these dogs with black mange,
They’ll draw the curse of centuries. I vow.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The question is (I put it constantly,
In one form or another, as I talk,
Which is for me like breath, the stuff of life –
And often it recurs, as I do walk
Beside my cot, with autumn leaves ashine) –
The question is (but whether I should pause?
Wild thoughts arrest me, brilliancies devout,
All the great panoply of nature’s laws
Bears on my head, and thus – am I undone?
I know not) – but the question I would make
Concerns the virtues of the rural scene,
Its honours and its frailties, the quake
That shakes my heart; whether and how to run
Back to the city, reft of hopes serene.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
The land lies all before me, like a flag,
Plain uprights and grim arches, cast in stone.
I sense the stress, the quiver and the strain,
The curvature, the creak of bone on bone.
And this too is a form of law divine,
The verticals, grey keystones, all the weight
Of that which must be carried, lest a fall
From virtue or great height would spoil our state.
On me rest principles of grand design;
I see a tunnel and I see a ship,
I see a great bridge; also I see death,
My best men drowned, driven unto the lip
Of block and brick. Lord, send me a sign,
My health fails nightly; drawings eat my breath.
I found him there, you know; he had a beard
Where jackdaws nested, and his breath was foul.
My title sounds so splendid, does it not?
‘Captain-General’, so they call me; howl
With mirth that such a privateer as I
Should also be a ‘Governor in Chief ’,
After the killings, the maimed mutineers.
But I am not a commonplace, a thief,
I found him, as I said; he’d forgot his name,
‘Twas I who thought that ‘Crusoe’ might be apt
(My own ‘crew’ were mysteriously dead)
But I was wild, I who am now so tame,
Majesty’s henchman; yet I would be wrapt
Again in the high seas, whence all are fled.
I sang of greatness; of all those who fought
For English life and liberty. Yet none
Thanked me for celebrating all that’s true
And good. Instead, under a sickly sun
I crouch; I can remember no-one’s name,
I, who wrote of Nelson, Robespierre,
Who hailed the revolution ere I came
To see that freedom’s more than man can bear.
They called me turncoat, I remember that;
But now my coat is inside out, my mind
Confused with devil’s thoughts, the Inchcape Rock
Looms up before me, like a coast unkind
On which I must be wrecked, a shipboard rat
Running for cover, hearing loud the mock.
They starve and suffer; all this I have seen,
With eyes God gave me, and a heart that beats
In tune with all the destitute and poor,
The ragged, those that live upon the streets
Of Bristol or Calcutta. All the hope
For their reform, their future, all the glory
That could be theirs is something I must teach –
For they can turn; I breathe a different story
Of pleasure, thought, refinement. Give me strength,
Lord, to help the children who are lost;
Succour the slave, persuade the good and great.
They call me weak, say women that are tossed
On storms of feeling cannot get the length
Of reason. But this I know: the hour is late.
On Hanham Mount I stand; the people come,
They crouch before me in the need of grace.
I speak, or that speaks through me with no name;
Within me burns a precious sainted face.
The air is good; what if I have no church,
What of the bishops, what of pomp and show,
None of this minds a whit, if I can save
One soul preserved from the dread world below.
There is one book, and there is only one;
I read it night and day, I ask it all
And hear replies. Or think so. Most of the time.
Grace will save us; we do not need the Fall
For we can be saved beings under the sun.
The people come, and I am in my prime.
Edward Hodges Baily
Ah, there he stands, the great Horatio,
Looking down on London’s square. I’ve been
On a long journey through the streets of stone,
My sculptor’s chisel honed, my eye as keen
As bird’s. I’ve serviced well a royal house;
They paid me not, until the very last,
But stone will do me well to tell the tale
Resistant to the skirmish and the blast.
The eye arises; but do his eyes look down?
Eve on her fountain dances in the wind
From nowhere. I must celebrate
In monuments of marble, so well pinned
That they’ll not fall until the thankless town
Salutes the hero and his burning freight.
I was the first, the very first, to see
In women’s eyes the need they have to speak,
Confess their ailments to a fellow soul.
Of course they banned me; they said that the reek,
The terror, pain, the surgeon’s keening knife
Were matters not for women. I suggest
That all this is a fiction of men’s minds,
Those men that thought that I applied in jest
To help, to learn, to tread an unknown way.
And then they said my blinding was a curse,
But cursed be he who chooses not to see;
There is no blindness in a prophet’s eye
And I am sure as scalpel, not some ‘he’
Who blunders through for fear of something worse,
For my time comes: the sisters’ tide is high.
My beautiful equations. They shall stand
When all around descends to the wine-dark sea,
That sea of poets which I will not know.
Knowledge alone shall serve to make men free.
The quanta quake, the fields are strewn with dice
Whose throw determines what we make of life;
Yet I am strict; there is no time to dance
With magnets when th’ electric world is rife
With computations, numbers, and with points
Whose point is endless; I must keep it clear,
Unsullied; to precision’s deity
I offer everything I hold most dear,
A mechanical domain. This god anoints
Beyond the spectacle of laity.
‘Long John Silver’
I am thirteenth, it seems – an excellent joke!
I jape, I cringe, I wallow through the mire,
My speech is riddles, my attire a smoke
-Screen through which taunting devils signal fire.
They call me devious, but my ways are plain:
I have no motive but the usual lust
For treasure, vengeance and the quiet life,
Retired at last from cooking biscuit-dust.
Forgive me, sirs: I get above my station,
For I am but a traveller’s long dream.
The parrot speaks, my shoulder aches, but John
Is but a reflect of yourselves, the scream
Of enmity of nation unto nation,
And a comic dream to rest your souls upon.