In Competition No. 3255, you were invited to submit a poem about imperial measures. Brian Bilston’s terrific poem ‘The Empire’s Old Clothes’ gave me the idea for this topical challenge, which proved hugely popular, drawing a gratifyingly large, varied and witty entry.
Bob Johnston’s twist on ‘Ozymandias’ – ‘Look on my ounces, tons, slugs, and despair!’ – and Brian Murdoch’s bittersweet Villon-inflected submission – ‘And where are the measures of yesteryear?’– were in contention for the prizes, but they were nudged out by the winners below who are rewarded with £25 each.
Full fathom five, the dead cat lies in peace,
The fallen feline worth her weight in gold.
Ten pounds of puss, down thirty feet, stone cold –
Stop all the clocks and mourn her sad decease!
Enough of water hast thou had, dear mog,
Two hundred gallons, give or take a pint
And therefore will I bid my tears restraint,
While thy demise leaves voters all agog.
Forget the parties, pints in Whitehall down’d,
The tons of cancelled flights, the petrol prices,
The fuel bills and the cost of living crisis –
It’s all about ten pounds of moggy drown’d.
Weigh it all up and you just have to smile:
Give him an inch and he will take a mile.
I’m lying awake with my reason at stake
For I woke with a nightmarish shock:
Has somebody blundered? Our measurements plundered?
I dreamt that they’d turned back the clock.
I’m staring aghast at a blast from the past
And I’m left in a state of hysteria
At a retrograde scheme that we’d share, it would seem,
With the States, Myanmar and Liberia.
I’ve confidence when I’m dividing by ten:
The plan seems quite simple to me,
But thoughts tend to stultify, trying to multiply
Eight pounds five ounces by three.
As inches and miles are invading the aisles
Of my feverish dreams I’ll invoke
Common sense to return, and I’m certain I’ll learn
It was all just an ill-advised joke.
The Romans built impressive roads
And introduced the mile;
They added ounces to our loads
And gave Britannia style.
And stranger names were later penned,
The bushel, peck and thou;
The acre measured out the land
An oxen team could plough.
From Henry’s thumb to Henry’s nose
Was one yard, it is claimed;
A furrow’s length, the story goes,
A furlong would be named.
Such ancient words that still survive
Made Shakespeare’s dramas ring:
A pound of flesh, full fathom five
And every inch a king.
I dreamed I was given a scurrilous inch
Before grasping a mile. What the heck?
That powder I ate: was it only a pinch?
Or a bushel, or merely a peck?
Had I measured it out in non-metric amounts,
My addition a shocking non-starter –
Had I mixed up a rod and a pole with an ounce,
And become an imperial martyr?
Can I fathom it out? Am I lost? Who is moi?
I am no longer sure who I am –
Such thoughts turned my brain to sheer avoirdupois,
And my life to a mere fluid dram.
Divide by sixteen? Or by fourteen? Or twelve?
What’s the pint? Will I ever be me?
Tell Johnson my scruple, and let me unselve
For I’ve taken too much £sd.
And now the end is near – the final chance
To view his life and weigh it up at leisure,
Not using some invented scale from France
But weighing things his way by British measure.
He’d tipped the scales on seven pounds at birth
But grown to sixteen stone when in his prime;
The tape read forty inches for his girth
And he’d looked down on six foot in his time.
His work got every ounce of his attention,
And he always did the hard yards to prepare.
He’d never give an inch when in contention
But took an ell when any chance was there.
But now he’s reached his last and dwindling mile,
And knowing him it really is no wonder
He plans to go out his way and in style –
Before he’s laid precisely six feet under.
Ah, once your world was measured out in chains.
You ruled secure from your Imperial perch
with every detail noted, from the grains
and barleycorns to scruples (weight, not Church).
And all of it, you knew, was set in stone,
and written out in schoolroom childish hand
with quarts and gallons, volumes that you’d known
along with every way to label land.
Who’d ever fathom how this slipped away,
crumbling beneath your feet as, inch by inch,
links to the Empire fell. The yards decay
followed by acres, miles. You feel the pinch –
and not an ounce of pity, not a gill
to soothe the loss of symbols cast like runes.
How sharply bites the decimal, how shrill.
Go, measure out your lives in coffee spoons.
No. 3258: storybook holiday
You are invited to submit a postcard sent while on holiday in a well-known fictional destination of your choice (e.g. Gilead, Gondor, Eurasia, Wonderland…). Please email entries of up to 150 words to email@example.com by 13 July.
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