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The Bristol Sonnets

David Punter

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

John Cabot


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.



Thomas Chatterton


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?



Edmund Burke


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.



Woodes Rogers


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.



Robert Southey


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.



Mary Carpenter


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.



John Wesley


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.



Elizabeth Blackwell


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.



Paul Dirac


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.

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