The Love Canal Presaged

by Richard Howard | November 23, 2011

              Dear Mamma, the great-coat has come,
whose use, and my gratitude for it, will surely cumulate
                     all winter long, if
       the cold has not caused me to need it until now. 

              However, all the last fortnight
floods of rain have fallen—the farms all look like lagoons,
                     and even College
       has turned picturesque, a sort of moated fortress,

              or bastion, you might say, given
our fashion of flinging a recusant gauntlet to Progress—some
                     (though not you, mother)
       would declare it quite the Old Testament temper.

              Only this morning, for instance,
the Slade Professor delivered us one of his great Jeremiads,
                     truly fierce it was—
       against the age and its fiendish idols, whereof

              a dark illustration ensued:
a painting by Turner was lugged into Hall, apparently
                     one that Ruskin owned,
       sturdily framed and glazed, a landscape of Leicester, 

              we learned, the Abbey only just
discernible across a river. We stared while Ruskin read
                     (Henry VIII, IV ii)
       the tale of Wolsey’s death on the road to London:

              At long last, with easy roads, he came to Leicester,
              Lodged in the abbey, where the reverent Abbot
              With all his convent honorably received him;
              So went to bed, where eagerly his sickness
              Pursued him still, and three nights after this
              He gave his honors to the world again... 

              You may recall the lines. Myself
I did not know the phrase a little earth for charity, but here
                     he left off quoting
       to praise the idyll Leicester had been the days

              Turner painted it: “If you like,
you may go there. Not I. Not now. Nor again, although
                     I’ll hazard a guess ... ”
       slyly raising a paintbrush ... what has it come to. 

              Right here, these stepping-stones across
the water have been replaced, of course, by a lovely
                     iron bridge...” black paint
       on the glass of the picture! “ ... the color the stream 

              should have is supplied on the left
by the indigo-works ... ” at once that side of the stream
                     ran indigo “... and
       on the right, by a soap factory ...” dashing in 

              saffron “... they mix in the middle,
like curds and whey!” working the muddy mess together
                     with awful relish
       “... You surely see, this empty bit of heath is now

              properly occupied ... ” whereat
a scarlet banner bisected the picture, developing into
                     roofs and a red-brick
       chimney “... atmosphere made—so!” and a cloud of smoke 

              dismantled Turner’s sky. Whereat
the brush was thrown down, and the eyesore hauled off amid
                     a storm of applause
       (in former years he berated empty benches),

              and Ruskin turned, frowning, to face
the civilization of England! I do not yet see his purpose
                     in citing the lines
       from Shakespeare; moreover, how he confuted all 

              science and geological
survey with the assistance of the college cook I have not
                     time nor wit to tell,
       but gratefully remain, your loving son Terence 

              whose father will have to explain
what “a little earth for charity” meant to Ruskin
                     (and the Cardinal).
       November, ’88
                               St. John’s College,
                                                             Oxford

This poem appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/poetry/magazine/97785/the-love-canal-presaged