Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Twenty Five » THE MASQUE OF MASKS


Camille Ralphs

When I encountered Ben Jonson’s term ‘anti-masque’ right after reading up on modern anti-mask protests, a spoof chiasmus of the two begged to be written (I should mention: in my ‘Masque of Masks’, the interplay of the revolting anti-masque and sparkling masque reflects non-positively, in some ways, on both sides – it is not my place to judge the disenfranchised or misled). I wrote the poem quickly, or before the concept got away: a verse or two a day for two weeks. This shows in the writing’s not infrequent glibness, which I would in other work have felt moved to excise; here, I’ve opted to preserve its mundane madness. Given that this past year’s not the first time anti-mask (and comparable) rhetoric has hindered bounce-back from health crises – this occurred too in 1919 as influenza swept across the world, for instance – this piece should, I thought, conflate a crowd of other literary moments. As Jonathan Gibbs’s Spring Journal (2020) is modelled on the Autumn Journal (1939) of Louis MacNeice, and sometimes structures lines or sections after it, my poem builds on pre-existing masques including Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), which is handily concerned with poor responses to contagion. My main scaffolding is Jonson’s ‘Masque of Queens’ (1609); a reader viewing it beside my masque will see the structural resemblances. Most of what’s written here is new, but it will feel familiar – as with the situation we are in.


The Masque of Masks


‘The antimasque – also known as the antemasque, the false masque, and the antic masque – … took place before the main masque, concentrated on grotesque elements, and provided a direct contrast to the elegance of the masque that followed.’


– ‘Masque’, Encyclopedia Britannica




‘Ni masque, ni vaccin, ni 5G …’


– Sign borne by an anti-mask protester, Montreal, 12/9/2020



When your majesties are set and company’s in expectation, that which first presents itself on stage is Hell. Yet in these trolls’ hollow music feverishly beats a heart of life. One runs out; then a few; then more, until they are eleven. Some have hoarse sports cars, some screaming strollers, some have snapback caps, some smeary spectacles, some merely swilling insolence.


The scene’s music-and-smoke machine, the mounted placards scything through the air, the truth dot com, etcetera, begin to dance. The trolls tear off their masks, and one speaks up.


We know what’s going on. Stand firm:

We’ve not yet been ill or infirm.

But where’s the one who taught us this?

Without his help, we’ll go amiss.


            CHARM I


King, King, we call to you:

With doggèd facts you’ll prove us true.

We – from the dogtracks, peanut pubs

And wet tents and Freemasons’ clubs,

From the city and from caves

Like the dead from massy graves,

Like troops of starvelings – gliding come,

We tenants of a locked-down tomb;

            In union, cry:

            Are you nearby?


            CHARM 2


The time is near; the cops stand far

Away, King, from where we all are.

So let a great assembly be

Of the fearless and the free

On this hectare of hectored ground

Where the roads stretch wide around.

King, spill to us some more

Of what you said before.

            Is he here? No.

            Have one more go.


            CHARM 3


The fuzz are abroad and they’d kettle us in

            If they knew the new from the normal.

The lungs in us wind tight, are winded with rage

            At the deep state and state of things: turmoil.

Our hands go unwashed where our bills go unpaid;

            for those of us, though, who are wealthy,

The cheek of the shutdown is insult enough –

            A quarantine’s not for the healthy.

We’re facts before fear; we will not beware,

Nor bow to mask hysteria.

But we’re not anti-mask, we’re anti-mandate;

If they want to wear a mask, then great!

Now where is our leader? Where’s our King?

Read, read off these posters we bring,

Wittingly, prettily post online,

On Twitter and Instagram swear things are fine.

Black bile above, black bags below …

Help, King; as well as telling, show.

            Shush, there he is!
            Stop coughing, please.


At this their King appears, tall, gaunt and scrolled in the habiliments of graves, dabbled in blood. He’s in a crown, and in his fist a sceptre shines with a barbaric lustre – which they all do reverence. And so he speaks, queries the end wherefore these trolls have come.


KING: Nice work, my trolls. I see you have some wroth

            To add into my miasmatic broth.

            Are we well met?

TROLLS:                                 … What?

KING:                                                             Is this everyone?

TROLLS: This world is full of bodies, but go on –

            We will respond.

KING:                                                 Well, first to join the dance

            Should be you, cloth-eared, scrubbed-up Ignorance;

            Then roll out bickering Suspicion, who

            To every system is immune; then you

            Come, crisp Credulity. From the foment

            Falsehood, in my tissuey cerement

            Come; then come Murmur like a black usurping mist,

            With Malice in’s train and Impudence in’s fist,

            And Slander who himself calls “Common Sense”,

            Shit-spreading Excretation whose defence

            Of Bitterness is Rage, of Rage Mischief.

            Your number’s thrombosed, bloated since the brief

            League of the Anti-Masks in San Francisco

            in 1919, my fevered disco!

TROLLS: What you, leader, ask of us

            We’ll get right to.

KING:                                                 First tell me this:

            Where have you been this past few months, this year?

            What rabid trash have you brought with you here?

TROLL 1: I have been all year with my scissors

            Snipping up their cotton visors,

            And to all the strings I’ve cut

            I am not Fate’s fool, but a fate.

TROLL 2: I wrote this sign, Unmask the Truth,

            In marrow from a fruitbat’s tooth;

            And with this I have beaten down

            The brow of every high-brow frown.

TROLL 3: I spent my weekends at the church

            And saw God’s love, sorely, emerge

            And vow to keep my health; at Mass,

            We all shook hands and kissed the Cross.

TROLL 4: And I’ve been digging up this corpse

            And thumbing at its eyes’ orbs –

            To see if they’ve been veined by coughs

            Or we’ve been tricked, see, by the toffs.

TROLL 5: I had a needle: what did I with that?

            I stitched these words onto my surly hat:

            We Are the 99 Per Cent.

            I smashed these vaccines we were sent.

TROLL 6: I snuck into the old folks’ home

            To see their firm phlegm’s honeycomb,

            And then, because the night was young,

            I went back in and hooked a lung.

TROLL 7: And I stole from the local coroner

            A box of swabs (gobbed with corona),

            Licked them all – the epidemic,

            Like you said, is just a gimmick.

TROLL 8: I’ve been massing YouTube clips

            And spreading them across my lips,

            Then kissing Chinatown goodbye,

            Since China’s labs brought all this by.

TROLL 9: And I tracked down a pangolin

            And ground its scales up powder-thin,

            Then snorted it – but just to test

            The theorem touted in the West.

TROLL 10: I roamed bareface the corner shop

            And, when the clerk asked me to stop,

            I drowned him in a tub of Clover;

            No, no, this shit’s fucking over.

TROLL 11: Thorough a hospice I did creep

            In where the gargling dying sleep

            And sucked the air-snake from each jaw

            Before they woke up; is there more?

KING: Yes: I have brought, to help us cast

            Our net, the net, a 5G mast

            I felled myself, a nerve of wire,

            A doctor who would not retire

            And, twittering, the rich cage of her kin.

            Our peaceful protest let’s begin.


The King stands in the midst of them and from him rises, like the Doric column of an I, a clock of ebony that has the power to pronounce on life. Amid the thickening and gloomy shadows, its brass lungs are still; but not for long.


KING: Rise to this manufactured crisis;

            Join your hands, despite what their advice is –

            Well you know they’re lying to the masses

            With their talk of breath’s ignoble gasses,

            Forecasts of – more like astrology –

            The fine state of the fined economy.

            Who has my faith is clad in complete steel.

            Why wear a mask; what is there to conceal?

            Our Rigour has not gone to bed,

            But their Advice, with blood-shook head,

            Strict Age and sour Severity

            With violet eyelids in wide slumber lie.

            Come grope together – beat the ground

            In a dark fantastic round!


            CHARM 4


Rains teem, winds scream,

Throats stick, lungs cream,

Banks break and districts peak;

Thus their dream (they say)’s unstuck.


KING: Trolls, this is your appointed task:

            Wear truth’s uncouth face, not a mask.

            It with bare hands can unthread joints

            And crumble sinews; and who else appoints

            It but ourselves, by our free speech?

            Let there be no more overreach

            From governance, but dance and dance.

            From influenza kick out influence,

            My wet-nosed, waltzing petri dishes:

            Only this can grant your hidden wishes –

            You would blow their nosy rules and bars

            Into the particles and prickles of the stars!

            Get mad; mad, use your emptied dreams

            To teach them theirs cannot be all it seems.


At which, in strange and sudden music they fall to a magic dance of silly change and raw gesticulation, dancing back to back and hip to hip, their hands joined, making circles backward, to the left hand, and with strange fantastic motions of their heads and bodies. Then the clock bongs.




            CHARM 5


How is foolsgold like catarrh?

Both are all our blessings are.



KING: Hugged in clingy chains of flue,

            Which like sleep have fall’n on you,

            Fall you’ll, one, two, three, a score;

            There’s one of me, but there’ll be more!


                        Hoo! Har! Har! Hoo!


KING: You are many; I am one, soon to be two.

            We’ll be many, you’ll be few.

            We’ll be many

We’ll be


And they all fall down, one at a time, during the charms that follow, ring the King like petals from a hot corolla; at the charms’ close they rise, dressed like him, faces white as noise. They throng the stage, at whose edge stands a microphone. More music blows up, like a gross of instruments have made one blast; on which the whole scene alters, but for the crowd and the clock.


            CHARM 6


A ticklish chest; but we’re oppressed!
Jags in the brain; but money’s strained!

A sopping skin; but they can’t win …

We can’t be wrong – why ends our song?


            CHARM 7


About, about and about

We marched for freedom, shades of doubt

Unmasked, unmuzzled

Now, but puzzled

As we see ourselves too crowned.       

Into the air, around, around

            A ring-a ring-a

            Round, around

We retch voice brittly, put foot down

Upon ourselves. Our bit of ground.


KING(S): And the winter winds are bleak –

            You are dying while you speak.


A building fangs up from behind. A strong and lofty wall girdles it in, with plastic curtains, cedarn alleys vined with drips, wipe-down wood-panelled rooms. This is the House of Health and Service, in the top of which are twelve masked masquers, working furnaces and weighty hammers, welding bolts – with such precautions they can bid defiance to contagion. (The external world can take care of itself.) From in the House a woman, bold, robust and necklaced with a golden stethoscope, shoves through the clammy crowd towards the microphone.


The new Kings, arabesques of figures with unsuited limbs, raise one another up into the House. A rabid music sounds again, to cue the masquers to descend – but can’t be heard over the clock, which bongs eleven times during the speech that follows, and on every bong a masquer topples from their chair to rise kinged, maskless, faceless.


DOCTOR: The unpolluted temple of our kind,

            Our populace, grows clotted by contagion,

            Which imbodies and imbrutes us in brimmed waves.

            So tinsel-slippered false news flies, or runs,

            Quickly to green earth’s ends with printless feet;

            And each time that enchanter [coughs] escapes

            He infiltrates a safe space we had made.

            Comes spongy air; death’s marble, venomed seat

            Smeared with [coughs] gums of glutinous heat – and now

            Our masks won’t hide us from [coughs] him

            Whose viral, named destructions play

            In what becomes our ghostly masquerade;

            Who, kingly-crowned, trampled to tracts of blood

            Even his factious and unlawful multitude –


On seeing the eleven masquers dead, and the eleventh hour met, the doctor sobs. She siezes one King stood erect and motionless – gasps in unutterable shock at finding both the cerements and corpse-like face untenanted by any tactile form. At last the Kings together hum; particulate, unfragrant syrups puff the air, the rifted rocks and thatched groves, dimpled brooks, sea’s finny, oily droves. The doctor’s mask is snatched away; she falls in Velcro-rasp contortions as the microphone, to bonging from the clock and thumping of wrapt feet, is lost.


DOCTOR: Listen and save.

            If each would hold his breath

            And care [coughs] less for saving face

            There’d be no dance of death –

            We’d be our – listen – saving grace

            And bridle in the headlong wave.

            Listen and save –


Among the empty hoods and branching, unspent viciousness, the doctor rises also in a cerecloth. She and all the other Kings pack out the stage. They’re standing calm and resolute, like a forest, close and mute, with folded arms and looks. They turn to face your majesties. They take a step.




Works Cited


In order of first appearance:


The Masque of Queens (1609), Ben Jonson

The Masque of Anarchy (1819), Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Masque of the Red Death (1842), Edgar Allan Poe

A selection of anti-mask slogans (2020), divers hands

Comus (1634) John Milton

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