Sheep Mayn’t Safely Graze

Photo by Nick Bondarev on

Sheep Mayn’t Safely Graze

We rack them out between bridges and nuts,
And crank till they must reply.
And those low, low throbs that we feel in our guts –
Well, the sheep feel them too, by-and-by.
But it’s never their bleats or their baas that are scored,
It’s never their voices that sing from each chord,
And it’s never their own requiem we applaud.
In life and in death, so their tension will always be high.

How many hundreds of thousands of sheep
Have our symphonies dispatched ?
Every cello has reason to weep,
And scream as its sinews are scratched.
How many flocks must we cull to the muse ?
How many sacrificed lambkins and ewes ?
On the altar of Bach shall their entrails ooze.
They live for this music, but always do strings come attached.


Playing Marbles and Rag & Bone Man by Steven Scholes


We used to be just simple merchants –
Iron, fish, and cheese,
And jack-of-produce costermen –
Traders in the bare necessities.
But now we’re only spoken off
As rumour, scare, and war –
We’re jack-the-lads shadowmen,
Hawking abstract concepts door-to-door.

The Engineers’ Plot

penge palace
Gems of The Crystal Palace, Sydenham by George Baxter


The Engineers’ Plot

Crystal Palace – it’s a suburb,
Station, park, and football team,
And a memory to a time
When this nation still could dream.
Once a product of Empire,
A palace to capture its roar –
Now just a flat-topped hill
In the Republic of Elsinore.
Straddling boroughs, pumping fountains,
Soaring towers, glass for miles.
Flames across eight counties
And her spell no more beguiles.

“No more beguiles” – that sounds Victorian –
Half vers libre, half Tudor sonnet.
Flirting with jazz and television,
Yet still bedecked in her bustle and bonnet.
She was no Bauhaus, no mere function –
Cast iron crockets encrusted her shell –
For all her prefab industry,
She always wore her baubles well.
Ah, she’s gone now, like her dinosaurs,
She’s of her time and place,
Though her place of course is the one she named –
You cannot say she leaves no trace.



Axis of Up



Axis of Up

Flatland always had all three,
All three dimensions on it –
Anyone with sense can see
The Flatoids are upon it !
It’s true, they barely used the zed,
But still the zed was there –
But as for other strings that thread,
These cannot cube the square.



Via Metallum

Photo by Liam Gant on


Via Metallum

There is no metal in the metalled roads,
But still they’re made of steel –
They take the feet and hooves and loads,
And the ever-turning wheel.
The dust and ruts and highwaymen
Were swept away in dale and fen
By smooth and fast and tarmacked threads
With footed feet and watersheds.

But these have all been laid with stone
A century or more –
The job is done, the back is bone,
The soles are growing sore…
We surely now have roads enough
To leave the wilds unpaved and rough,
And only build our future trails
As metalled roads of shining rails.



Transatlantic Cable 13 – The Future

maiden lane
View of Broadway, north from Cortlandt and Maiden Lane, 1885


Transatlantic Cable 13 – The Future

I write you this, my love,
By paper and by boat.
The old-fashioned way
Is the only way you’ll ever get my note.

But have you heard,
A telegraph now spans between we two ?
Is this the modern world, my love,
The endless chase for something new ?

Though sometimes, when I think how long
We take to send our hearts’ desires,
I fancy, on the breeze, that angels sing
Along those wires –

Pensmiths, calling pensmiths,
What you write today,
You’ll get to say tomorrow –
We shall carry all your precious words,
The small, the silly and absurd,
From off your lips to willing ears –
Allying fears that letters reach too slow –

It’s hardly for the likes of us, my love,
Who must still write –
No spark or semaphore will speed
These words as fast as light.

I cannot see how just one simple cable
Can unite us all.
Messages are paper still and boats,
For those whose means are small.

And yet, so many weeks until
Your next reply can stoke my fires,
If only, on the breeze the angels sang
Along the wires –

Scribers, calling scribers,
What you write today,
Shall fly away tomorrow –
We shall carry ev’ry precious thought,
The playful and the overwrought,
That bring their homes to foreign parts,
Assuring hearts that letter reach too slow –



Transatlantic Cable 12 – The Messages

The Progress of the Century by Nathaniel Currier


Transatlantic Cable 12 – The Messages

Ten full transmissions each hour, each way –
That’s four-hundred-eighty transmissions each day –
Four-hundred-eighty, and what will they say ?

Good news and bad news and news that can’t wait,
Tidings and greetings and offers and meetings,
And orders and treaties and threats and debate,
Departures, arrivals, and lovers and rivals.

Ten full transmissions each hour, each way,
Of profits and prices and projects and pay,
With no words misspoken or scattered astray.

Old news and new news and news of the world,
Battles, elections and plagues and infections,
As fast as the lightning, each message is hurled,
And back comes each answer – an undersea dancer.

Ten full transmissions each hour, each way,
Through storm and through snow and through come-all-what-may,
With no need to worry and no need to pray.

What hath God wrought, they asked, what hath God wrought ?
Nation to nation in communication.
So is this the peace the philosophers sought ?
No need to be shy, just send your reply.



“What have God wrought” was the first one of the first telegrams sent by Samuel Morse in 1844.



Transatlantic Cable 11 – Hooking the Cable

cable breaks
The Breaking of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable on Board the Great Eastern


Transatlantic Cable 11 – Hooking the Cable

We’re fishing with hooks
For a monster eel –
He’s somewhere around here, we know.
We’ll scrape in each nook
And each crevice with steel,
To catch us a live one below.

We’re plumbing the depth
With our long-corded prong
To land him right out of the wet.
He’s only a thumbs-width,
But boy, is he long.
We’ll fetch him up here with us yet.

He isn’t so slippy
When grabbed by his tail –
We know where he’s likely to lay.
His head may be whippy,
His body may flail,
But he won’t be wriggling away.

So surface our booty,
Our highly-prized freight,
More precious than gold by the ton –
So haul up our beauty,
And haul up his mate,
And splice them together as one.



Transatlantic Cable 10 – Laying the Line

great eastern


Transatlantic Cable 10 – Laying the Line

Niagara and Agamemnon –
Those were the ships that sailed
Paying out the precious flex
From wheeling drums upon their decks –
Meeting in the middle as they trailed.
The cable failed.

The tide comes in, the tide goes out,
We have no doubt it will be so –
We’ll wait until it turns about
For soon the current has to flow.

“Make new lines and load them on
The Great Eastern !”, they yelled –
“We need the best and largest beast
To string the West and thread the East
Until the seas and shareholders are quelled.”
The cable held.

The tide goes out, the tide comes in,
We know the when, we know the why –
We cannot hope to stop them,
But let’s ride them when they’re high.



Transatlantic Cable 9 – Gutta-Percha

Palaquium gutta by Franz Köhler


Transatlantic Cable 9 – Gutta-Percha

Forests gone
Trees no more
From Formosa down to Singapore
They hacked them down
Shore to shore
Felled them for the precious sap they bore

Send a message
Round the globe
To spare the trees that let your message probe
Send a message
In good faith
To spare the trees that keep your message safe
Send a message
To the top
Or else some day all messages must

Perished rubber
Turns to brittle
Gutta-percha won’t degrade a little
Latex stretches
So does leather
Gutta-percha keeps its form forever

Send a message
Through the gloam
To spare the trees that bring your message home
Send a message
Dit by dah
To spare the trees that speed your message far
Send a message
Spare the crop
Or else some day all messages must