Cows Under a Tree

There is a shadow round the tree;
It shelters seven cows and me.
The seven cows have fourteen eyes,
Which view me with a grave surmise.
Three legs, they think, would be too few;
how does this creature stand on two?

There are, or so I calculate,
Some thirty legs among us eight-
Say, three legs and three-quarters each.
The mathematics that they teach
Must be in some respects awry-
One leg and seven-eighths per eye?

I clutch with an uneasy hand
The average legs on which I stand,
And find them two, and find them whole,
which findings much relieve my soul,
the only one (so say the wise)
that lurks behind our sixteen eyes.

R. P. LISTER
THE NEW YORKER
OCTOBER 25, 1958

cows-under-a-tree

The Serpent’s Gallstone

(A graduate of Manchester University looks back.)

I STUDIED in a dark Victorian pile,
Murky with yellow lamps by mocking day.
In its black courtyard- wrenched from the stiff clay
When it was built- a stone, the shade of bile,
Stood on a plinth, like a blunt- ended style
Pointing obliquely at the sodden grey.
“that is the Serpent’s Gallstone,” we would say
To the rare stranger, with a crooked smile.

For thus our motto ran: Be ye as wise
As serpents and as innocent as doves.
And so we learned all manner of strange lies;
We tasted gall in all our early loves,
Darkened our thoughts to match the darkened skies,
And, if our hands were clean, wore dirty gloves.

R. P. LISTER
PUNCH, June 18 1958

the-serpents-gallstone

Captain Bud

It is said that he is hypochondriac, and that at different times he supposes himself a flame of fire, a stone, an oyster, and a cray fish, and that he even sometimes believes himself to be a heatherbell apt to be blown away at every blast on the wind…

– From the chapter entitled “Character of Captain Bud,” by Charlotte Bronte, in “Tales from Angria.”


Here come the parson and his wife
To talk of current trends:
The weather, clothes, parchial strife,
Scandal, and sudden ends.
Am I to waste the best of life
In taking tea with friends?

They fear me when my mood is black,
My eyes suffused with blood.
They call me hypochondriac-
My name is Captain Bud.

I call my fellow, and desire
That he should make it known
That I am now a flame of fire,
A cray fish, or a stone.
I see my baffled friends retire,
And I am left alone.

I am an oyster; all I lack
Is solitude and mud.
I am hypochondriac-
My name is Captain Bud.

My servant knows my humour well.
Lurking, I hear him say,
“The Captain, sir, has tooka spell
Right bad on him today;
He thinks he is a heatherbell
Apt to be blown away.”

The carriages go rolling back,
Fleeing, as from a flood,
That happy hypochondriac,
That blissful Captain Bud.

-R. P. Lister THE NEW YORKER
MAY 9, 1959

Captain Bud

A Shortfall of Bacon

 

A Shortfall of BaconI WAS meditating, as I often do after breakfast, on the shortfall in the overall throughput of bacon, when my hand happened to light on the works of Lord Verulam.

This man, Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam, Viscount St Albans, passed in his day for a person of considerable states- manlike sagacity. He was made Keeper of the Great Seal in 1617 and Lord Chancelor of England in 1618; though he ran into trouble and lost both these jobs in time. But he must have had something. I thought.

The essay I lighted on, after finishing my healthy breakfast of toast and tea, was called Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms. I approached it with reverence; but I was soon astonished by the wealth of wrong thinking contained in it. There is hardly a single statement made by the Sage of St Albans that has not since been proved wholly incorrect.

TAKE HIS views on fiscal matters.

‘No people overcharged with tribute’ [he declares roundly], ‘is fit for empire. Neither will it be, that a people overlaid with taxes should ever become valiant and martial.’

Now, the simplest backwoods Baron of our time would hardly make such a gross error as this. People may argue about a shilling more here or a shilling less there; but everybody knows that the only way to make people valiant and martial is to tax them nearly out of existence.

On rearmament Bacon is equally unsound.

‘Walled town, stored arsenals and armouries, goodly races of horse, chariots of war, elephants, ordnance and the like: all this is but a sheep in a lion’s skin, except the breed and disposition of the people be stout and warlike.’

Such is Bacon’s view; and it is easy to see that he is barking up the wrong tree. We are all agreed now that the essential thing is to pile up the chariots of war and the ordnance; the breed and disposition of the people can look after itself and, on the whole, the less stout and warlike it is, the more convenient for the painstaking administrators who have to deal with it. Nobody wants a world full of stout and warlike people, kicking up trouble in the queues and storming the Food Offices.

THERE IS no end to the follies and misconceptions of this lamentable Chancellor. ‘For empire, and greatness,’ says he, still obsessed with his antique militarism, ‘it importeth most, that a nation do profess arms as their principal honor, study and occupation. No nation, which doth not directly profess arms, may look to have greatness fall into their mouths.’

It is old-fashioned. It is very old-fashioned. In these days we do not look for empire at all; we find our greatness in a more noble fashion by giving our empire away and look for greatness to fall into our mouths as a result of doing so. If it does not fall into our mouths, at least we have a most delightful sense of self-righteousness to compensate for the lack of it. Such a sense goes a long way to wake up for the shortfall of bacon, which, in any case, as enlightened economists have proved, does not depend in any way on empire and greatness.

THE LAST slice of Bacon I have to offer to a curious though scandalized public is one I hardly dare to quote at all at the present time. Nevertheless, I make so bold as to put it down, knowing that nobody would accuse any writer, in a progressive paper such as this, of taking it seriously.

‘As for the wars’ [says this ineffably misguided man], ‘which were anciently made on the behalf of a kind of party, I do not see how they may well be justified; as when the Romans made a war for the liberty of Graecia; or when the Lacedaemonians and Athenians made wars to set up or pull down democracies and oligarchies; or when wars were made by foreigners, under the pretence of justice or protection, to deliver the subjects of others from tyranny and oppression; and the like.’

I had to read this outrageous paragraph three times before I could credit it. Well, really, Bacon, I thought. Is there any respectable justification for war except to set up or pull down democracies and oligarchies and the like? One might as well suggest to people that they should set up and pull down their own democracies and oligarchies, and be hanged to them.

If there are any among you who have thought of going to Bacon for wisdom, I counsel you to eschew him: to stick to toast and tea: and to enjoy the shortfalls in your overall throughputs, while you have them.

TIME AND TIDE 11 APRIL 1953

Winter Dawn

Fled the stars in all directions,
Leaving Heaven swept and clean.
Then the sun came up in sections,
Like a frozen tangerine.

He was cold but he was singing
As he put the stars to flight;
Then he shortly started flinging
Lariats of golden light.

First he caught St, Mary’s steeple,
Then he caught a dozen pubs;
Then he caught the taller people,
And at last the smaller shrubs.

– R. P. Lister

THE NEW YORKER
JANUARY 30, 1960

Winter Dawn

Epitaph for Harty

HERE’s the mortal part of Harty;
In this life he got his start
Forming of a charter party
Party of the second part.

Say not of him that he bartered,
Chaffered crudely in the mart,
He who sat apart and chartered
Parties with a loving heart.

To his parties he imparted
Charters that were works of art,
Till the dreadful day he darted
Underneath a dustman’s cart.
Here he lies, the dear departed
Party of the second part.

PUNCH, February 18 1959

Epitaph for Harty