POETRY IN LOCKDOWN: 19
Airports are moth-balled, rail schedules are emaciated and motorway congestion is a remote memory. One day, when our own “embargo’s off”, we will all travel again. In the meantime we can do it vicariously. Here is a verse letter written at the other end of the social scale from John Clare. It is the 21-year-old Lord Byron to his friend Francis Hodgson, full of the exuberance and excitement of a young man in 1809 setting out on the first leg of his Grand Tour. After lying nine days at Falmouth waiting for a wind, at last they are good to go.
Huzza! HODGSON, we are going,
Our embargo’s off at last
Favourable breezes blowing
Bend the canvas oer the mast,
From aloft the signal’s streaming
Hark! The farewell gun is fired,
Women screeching, tars blaspheming,
Tells us that our time’s expired
Here’s a rascal
Come to task all
Prying from the Custom House,
Not a corner for a mouse
Scapes unsearched amid the racket
Ere we sail on board the Packet. —
Now our boatmen quit their mooring
& all hands must ply the oar;
Baggage from the quay is lowering,
We’re impatient — push from shore —
Have a care! That Case holds liquor
Stop the boat — I’m sick — oh Lord!
Sick Maam, damn me, you’ll be sicker
Ere you’ve been an hour on board.
Thus are screaming
Men & women
Gemmen, Ladies, servants, Jacks,
All are wrangling
Stuck together close as wax,
Such the genial noise & racket
Ere we reach the Lisbon Packet.
Now we’ve reached her, lo! the Captain
Gallant Kidd commands the crew
Passengers their berths are clapt in
Some to grumble, some to spew,
Heyday! Call you that a Cabin?
Why ’tis hardly three feet square;
Not enough to stow Queen Mab in,
Who the deuce can harbour there?
Who, Sir? plenty
Did at once my vessel fill. —
Did they? Jesus,
How you squeeze us!
Would to God they did so still:
Then I’d ’scape the heat & racket
Of the good ship, Lisbon Packet.
Fletcher, Murray, Bob, where are you?
Stretched along the deck like logs —
Bear a hand, you jolly tar you!
Here’s a rope-end for the dogs.
Hobhouse muttering fearful curses
As the hatchway down he rolls,
Now his breakfast, now his verses
Vomits forth & damns our souls.
Here’s a stanza
On Braganza —
Help! — A couplet? — No, a cup
Of warm water—
What’s the matter?
Zounds! My liver’s coming up,
I shall not survive the racket
Of this brutal Lisbon Packet.
Now at length we’re off for Turkey ,
Lord knows when we shall come back,
Breezes foul, & tempests murky,
May unship us in a crack,
But since life at most a jest is
As Philosophers allow
Still to laugh by far the best is,
Then laugh on — as I do now,
Laugh at all things
Great & small things,
Sick or well, at sea or shore,
While we’re quaffing
Let’s have laughing
Who the Devil cares for more?
Save good wine, & who would lack it?
Even on board the Lisbon Packet.