‘For this Relief, Much Thanks’

High-minded, gloomy critics have been heard to say
that modern poetry’s descended to the sewer;
that poets courting popularity today
fill up their lines with matter noxious and obscure.
This lyric will confirm those Jeremiahs’ fears
in praising Bazalgette, the prince of engineers.

Noble Sir Joseph: every time I flush the loo
I fondly think of you, whose genius has meant
that I’m not wading daily in a foetid brew
expelled from London’s bladder and its fundament.
Shit happens, as it must; your tunnels have embraced
our city’s Stygian floods of stinking human waste.

We rightly laud the works of Barry, Scott or Wren,
whose towers, domes and spires connect us to the sky;
yet sturdy structures hidden from the eyes of men
may stand and serve the public good as worthily.
Grand, soaring buildings should arouse our proper pride
but calls of nature cannot meanwhile be denied.

Wren’s famous epitaph we know: ‘If you require
a monument, look round’ — a great man’s lofty boast,
commanding us — us lesser mortals — to admire.
Too modest is the tribute to Sir Joseph’s ghost:
‘Flumini vincula posuit’ imperfectly explains
the debt we owe to his two thousand miles of drains.

His shrine by the Embankment should, in stone, have said:
‘He banished squalor, put to flight the noisome stench
of piss and ordure. And he marked a watershed;
the Thames is now a river, not a toilet trench.
From death by cholera he rescued London Town.
If monument you seek, you Londoners, look down!’

Listen to this poem — read by the author