The National Trust

A building on this site existed in
The previous century:
                                    records begin
Before the first earl bought the monastery
And so became an earl:
                                    Philip his son
Who bought the Tintorettos:
                                    Philip’s son
Was Richard whose son Philip whose son John
And Henry, without issue:
                                    John’s son Ned
Who went to sea, was found and told and died
On the voyage home:
                                    a flint arrow head
Found in New Holland:
                                    the elder sister Fay
Married a diamond merchant in Bombay.
Her son was Krishna, Who’d have been eighth earl
If he had known, existed and survived,
But didn’t, and so wasn’t:
                                    the ninth earl,
Who sold the Tintorettos:
                                    this is the library —
Five thousand books in corsets:
                                    the long gallery
In which they walked in winter:
                                    voices and feet
Disturb the centuries:
                                    pot pourri hangs
Among the silences:
                                    heels click, skirts swing:
— Who failed to marry, who succeeded to
A neighbour’s title, whose Poussin is for sale —
Twenty-eight lengths, one mile:
                                    pot pourri clings
Within the nostrils like a spider’s web:
Earl hangs by varnished earl:
                                    I turn, look out.

The air’s prised open by impending rain:
The dazzle on the grass, the chiselled clouds,
The white submissive cottages: I turn
Back to the earls and to their paying guests.
Two folio volumes, Monasteries of the East,
Sketchbook in the Levant, privately printed,
By Robert Curzon, Philip's brother, known
As Levant Curzon:
                                    the Prince of Parma
Sat at this table, took one mouthful, said
‘Sell me your cook, Signora.’
                                    Lady Emily,
Renowned blue-stocking, did this family tree,
Beginning with Cro-Magnon:
                                    the clock that stopped
As the eleventh earl bid seven clubs
Has never been rewound; the Rembrandt bought
Out of his winnings is not genuine.

This is the purple bedroom: the gorilla
That the tenth earl brought back from Africa
Lived here among the dangling wallpaper.
Terrified housemaids darted through the door
Carrying apples, threw them in the corner
Among the droppings, fled.
                                    His throaty roar,
The listless drumming on his chest, recalled
A youth of pawpaws, oily orange mangoes,
And the shy sunlight in the purple shadows.
One day, he died.
                                    Algernon, twelfth earl,
Married a milkmaid: she collected Spode
And made him happy; and outliving him
By forty childless years, at ninety-three
She wandered, blind, down the long gallery,
Sniffing pot pourri, tapping:
                                    ‘When I die
The house dies too.’

                                    A gentleman from Kansas,
Wallace J. Curzon, junior, we’re told,
Now claims the title:
                                    the sixth earl, in gold
And purple mantle, thought to be by Rubens.

Krishna, or Ned, or Wallace Curzon: if
You had succeeded, could you ease your life
Among these moments and these monuments?
Could you, could I, or could the paying guests?
Could you have eaten all those syllabubs,
Gambled your winnings on the ace of clubs,
Led all those milkmaids to the high, draped bed,
Drawn those vast curtains when your mother died,
Paced the long gallery for centuries,
Looked through the rain at the persistent trees,
Looked up; a quiet nod at Uncle John
By Kneller, sniffed the spidery scent; paced on?


from Rembrandt's Mirror (Secker & Warburg, 1987), copyright © Laurence Lerner 1987; private recording, London, 6 January 1981, copyright © the Estate of Laurence Lerner 1981, used by permission of the author's Estate.

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