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

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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

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

In an Austrian Hospital

HERE in this Austrian town
I lie upon my bed
And watch the snow come floating down
Out of a sky of lead.

The crucifix upon the wall
Its silent figure bears.
I hear a clatter in the hall,
A murmur on the stairs,

And now the smiling nun is come.
“Grüss Gott,” she says to me,
And sets a little flask of rum
Beside my jug of tea.

Well, I am warm and dry, at least.
Clearly it is absurd
To think the blizzard on the piste
Was much to be preferred.

That, all the same, is what I think.
Well, this must be endured.
At least, they bring me rum to drink…
At least, I was insured.

In An Austrian Hospital pic 2

The crows are dressed as if for church;
They seem too staid to fly.
Like vultures on the roof they perch,
Waiting for me to die.

I think I shall not die as yet;
I do not hear the call.
I smoke an Austrian cigarette
And watch the snowflakes fall.

The windows of the Krankenhaus
Are blind with stony doom…
A sudden snatch of Josef Strauss
Sounds from a neighbouring room;

The crows adjust their sable hoods
And rise against the snow.
“More Tales from Vienne Woods!”
They grumble as they go.

In An Austrian Hospital pic 1

The snowflakes fall, and on the roof
Remains a single bird.
Suddenly, by him, as he sits
Racking his pinions and his wits,
The imprint of a cloven hoof
Appears, a trifle blurred.

The wicked crow, as black as sin,
Glares with astonished eyes.
Loosing with his departing toe
A little avalanche of snow,
He flaps away towards the Inn
With harsh, despairing cries.

Was it his master’s voice he heard,
His master’s form he saw?
Upon my wall the crucifix
Guards me from the ghastly bird
And his atrocious claw.

The bird was surely damned, and that
Is all I care to learn.
The snowflakes, trickling from the sky,
Smooth out the cloven print, and I
Read the Tiroler Tagesblatt
With stolid unconcern.

In An Austrian Hospital pic 3

MY soul, why art thou ill at ease?
Whence comes this sense of doom?
The old retainer takes mu skis
And bears them from the room.

Let him depart. They were not mine,
Those ancient skis he bore.
A bone is broken in my Bein,
And I shall ski no more.

He bears them to the shadowy shop,
And I shall be repaid.
Why is it, then, my heart goes hop,
As if I were dismayed?

When he returns at last- ah, then!
Then, should I tip him twenty,
Or should I only give him ten,
And would he think it plenty?

Here I must lie in bitter dole,
Racking my anguished brains
To penetrate the Austrian soul
And guess what it contains.

In An Austrian Hospital pic 4

THE doctor comes and says “Good-bye!”
A day or two ago
I puzzled out the reason why:
He means to say “Hello.”

He asks me if this leg is mine,
This plaster leg he sees.
I tell him it is doing fine,
And he, of course, agrees.

“Gut” he remarks; “doch, das ist gut.”
His face is wise and droll.
He asks, “Is this your other foot?”
And I reply, “fawohl.”

He asks me “Tut es Ihnen Weh?”
His eyes are kind, though small.
“Only the one I broke,” I say.
“The other one, not at all.”

As through the door I watch him go,
He turns to smile again,
And most politely says “Hello!”
Meaning “Auf wiederseh’n.”

In An Austrian Hospital pic 5

OH, how mysterious is this tall, dark maid!
She looks about her with a rueful glance
As if to seek some gem she has mislaid.
Mislaid a gem she has; its name was Hans.

She sent him packing, so she tells me, when
She found one day his morals were amiss.
Beaming, she tells me there are no good men…
The merest infant could have told her this.

And so, deluded girl, she lost her chance.
Now she will have to wait until, once more,
There dawns upon her life another Hans,
No worse, no better, than the one before.

Now she considers women are accurst;
An attitude most damping to romance.
She might as well have opted for the first,
Rather than waiting for the second Hans.

In An Austrian Hospital pic 6

I shall not see the Tyrolean spring.
I lie in bed and watch the snowflakes fall;
For months, as yet, the cuckoo will not call,
And I shall be in London when the swing
Of seasons brings the buttercups and all.

People who hear the thumping of my foot
Will cower against the wall and bite their thumbs,
Like Leporello when the statue comes.
My plaster, darkening with the London soot,
Will greet the springtime like a roll of drums.

And in the summer, when at last I shed
This heavy load, the gentle English rain
Will bring me, now and then, a twinge of pain-
And it will be as if I lay in bed
And watched the Austrian snowflakes fall again.

R. P. LISTER

In An Austrian Hospital (1 of 2) In An Austrian Hospital (2 of 2)