They stand in front of bridges, tunnels, boats,
their working empire, proud of all it meant:
prosperity and progress, testament
to a Providential age. Intrigued, one notes
how quaintly they’re turned out – top-hats, frock-coats,
mutton-chop whiskers. But such style points don’t dent
their confidence they’ll forge their way, unbent,
through to a dawn their industry promotes.
I suppose that one day we shall seem as strange
to unborn eyes as these stiff, distant men
who gave us our foundations: in exchange
our doubts, our tracksuits. How will they judge us, when
they wonder why all we did was arrange
the past to give us meaning, now out of then?
They pose in front of bridges, engines, boats,
their effort’s empire, proud its triumphs meant
progress and trade, enduring testament
to their covenanted age. Impressed, one notes
formidably formal garb – top-hats, frock-coats;
well-groomed, bravura whiskers. Life’s left no dent –
their mission statement is to stride unbent
into a future their iron will promotes.
Our future’s fucked: mad mullahs, Climate Change,
no gods we can believe in, no great men
to fool us into certainty... How strange
their hurly-burly shift stands so still, when
their restless wills laboured to re-arrange
an England over now - lost way back then?
They preen, parading factories and boats –
their empire’s engines – proud their labours meant
traffic and profit’s compound testament
to a blessed, progressive age. Amused, one notes
how pompous period togs – top-hats, frock-coats –
match patriarchal whiskers. That doesn’t dent
their doctrine they’re to boldly go, unbent,
into an era enterprise promotes.
And when you come to think of it, how odd
our legacy from these strict, recent men
should be so small: their narrative, their God,
both gone; their limits. Instead of which? Mayhem -
our instant, Googled wisdom riding roughshod
over any faith or meaning, either now or then.
They stare at us, presenting railways, boats –
the nuts and bolts of empire, proud they meant
what they thought progress, saw as testament
to their buoyant, chosen age. Detached, one notes
the costume drama kit: top-hats, frock-coats,
what could be stuck-on whiskers. Yet how to dent
their creed their covenant’s to strive unbent
to make a world their Maker’s will promotes?
Thank God (knock, knock...) we’re free of all that crap –
the double-standards, racism, the yen
to lord it over others. That’s their rap.
Ours? Being somehow lesser than these men
for all our learning, in itself a trap –
the whole thing there means madhouse now, not then.
Their tense, bleak faces know there are no boats
able to weather the storm their proud God meant
to end all progress and be testament
to the launch of His imperious age. One notes
the cheerless mourning gear (black hats and coats),
the grey, grave whiskers. Was there perhaps a dent
in their certainty that they’d be called, unbent,
to people the realm their rigid faith promotes?
Was it their doubt that made them toil so hard
believing that success signalled the men
who having prospered in the Lord’s vineyard
would queue up at the narrow gate, and when
He turned the key would be in the vanguard
as time expired, black-holing now with then?
Maybe it’s not so much what we now know
as that we’ve changed the contract – they at least
believed that all they built somehow increased
not just man’s empire, but would set aglow
a greater purpose, ordained long ago
and down the ages carefully policed
by Providence – thus justified, they fleeced
workers and natives! These days, our dynamo
lacks any sense we might be playing a part
in some grand plan outside the minds of men –
we choose what gives us context, à la carte.
But endings create meaning, and so when
we split the atom was it to impart
the doomsday covenant required, both now
If you have any comments on this poem, Tom Vaughan would be
pleased to hear from you.