0.2 drag-queen:* A homosexual who dresses professionally as a woman: usually a theatrical female impersonator or male prostitute who wears extravagant feminine attire and behaves in an exaggerated, lascivious manner for the comic and/or erotic entertainment of patrons. It is very important that there are notions implicit in the term ‘drag’ of advertisement, ostentation and transaction; it is therefore differentiated from ‘transvestism’—which is a non-commercial private sexual behaviour, ‘hermaphrodism’—which is an unfortunate genetic mutation, and ‘transsexualism’—which is the delusional state of believing yourself (like Vita Sackville-West and her literary analogue, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando), despite a total absence of biological corroboration, to have been born into the wrong sex.
A drag-queen makes a simultaneous play (literally a travesty) of both an overstated femininity and an overstated masculinity. Drag deliberately undermines the fundamental dichotomy of sex, and it is this revolutionary æsthetic which has always appealed to the cackling perversions of those who seek to promote the forces of cultural decadence.
It is a debasement of society resulting from the projected victory of these forces—and, like The Beggar’s Opera, a debasement of that society’s conception of the literary artform and poetic justice—with which this poem is concerned. It is entirely fitting that the state of antithetical vagary and debauched commerce should be overseen by a ‘quean’ (see below) whose stock-in-trade is the antithetical performance of sex.
0.5 one-pound coin:* Another hyphenation. No self-respecting Englishman has ever referred to the sovereign in such a way. This clumsy phrase is used, rather than certain metrically much more balanced alternatives (such as ‘sovereign coin’), in order to pile up the hyphenated Americanisms in this epigraphic stanza and thereby provide a foretaste of the artificially grafted neologisms (cleavages, in the Freudian sense) of which that country seems so fond (like The Duchess of Malfi, whose ‘vulturous eating of the apricocks’ from a grafted tree [II.i.2] belies her pregnancy with offspring of a dubious genetic heritage: ‘a springal that cuts a caper in her belly’) and which self-propagate in the futuristic dialect of this poet’s dystopian vision. See passim.
(We should recall that the tree that bears the ‘golden bough’ in The Æneid is described as ‘geminæ’ dual-natured (Book VI li. 205). This is no doubt the source of the ‘ympe tre’ in the Middle English Romance Sir Orfeo, under which Heurodis falls asleep at noon and is captured by the Fairy King. Perhaps this ‘imping’ is more likely to be the result of a natural epiphyte than an artificial graft or scion. Virgil, after all, explicitly likens the Golden Bough to mistletoe, a fact which forms almost the entire premise for Frazer’s study. The symbol of the epiphyte might turn out to be quite important to this work. The most famous example is, of course, the banyan, which begins as a small parasite (like mistletoe) and develops into a huge, encroaching tree that strangles and kills its host, leaving behind a hollow cylinder of knotted roots. The Britain in the poem is one which has disappeared, leaving only this ugly tangled structure of Brummagem Americanism.)
Then again, it might be better to think of these hyphenations as ‘alloys’ rather than as hybrids or banyans. The ‘one-pound coin’ itself—the narrator of the greater part of the canto—is made not of gold (in this future of British degradation in which one suspects all gold is paid in perpetual postwar tribute to Imperial America) but of a cheap mixture of copper, nickel and tin with a hyphenated name: nickel-brass. This reintroduction into circulation of a debased sovereign, in place of the one pound (promissory) note, seems to have been done—just as one suspects it may have been with the dodecagonal threepenny uttered in the same cheap metal—by way of a mocking depiction of some lack of intrinsic value in the currency and the constitution following the collapse of the Gold Standard.
The prosodic effect of these alloys in this and many other stanzas is to make a strophe of the ensuing iamb and therefore to force out the insistent rhythm of three consecutive stressed syllables:
0.6 so-so parts:* Perhaps we are meant, beneath the creak of this see-sawing expression of mediocrity, to hear a homophonic version—‘sew-sew parts’—the ‘stitching and unstitching’ of Yeats’s Penelopean lines: fragments of an unfinished and unfinishable tapestry, embroidered by day and unpicked by night to delay the consummation of an appalling future it must never be allowed to depict, commemorate or instigate.
0.7 slang:* As well as the definitions under the first sense: ‘language of a low and vulgar type’ etc., the OED also provides the following senses for slang: 2. ‘Humbug, nonsense.’; 4. ‘A license, esp. that of a hawker.’; 5. a. ‘A travelling show.’, b. ‘A performance’, c. ‘attrib. As slang cove, cull, a showman.’; 6. ‘A short weight or measure.’
The word manages polysemously to connect the ‘short measure’ of the counterfeit coin and the world of the dubious hawker of ‘humbug’ verse to the ‘slang cove’ drag-queen. The OED fails to provide any etymology for this word (perhaps one of the few serious failings of a nevertheless seminal work of reference if you consider its integrity as a categorical heading in so many of the dictionary’s entries) and adds a note to the effect that all senses other than 1. are themselves ‘only in slang or canting use.’
The connection here, and also elsewhere one suspects, is the language of Gypsies. Vagrants, carnival folk and tinkers have always dissembled with their tall tales and their fraudulent performances, hawked their counterfeit objects and their counterfeit coins, and baffled the credulous with their shabby diversions of legerdemain and legerdemot (the hand is quicker than the eye; the tongue is quicker than the ear). The trinity of senses that interlock like the brass rings of a fairground conjurer in ‘slang’—cant, con-man and counterfeit—are first demystified by Luther’s Liber Vagatorum. The father of Protestantism, who has a natural predilection for denouncing the supposed chicaneries of certain mendicant orders of monks (and indeed implicitly to liken the activities of all profiteering tricksters to the clergy), provides not only a typology of peripatetic fraudsters, but also an itinerary of the counterfeits they pass and a glossary of their argot. This book is therefore probably the progenitor of the modern ‘Dictionaries of Slang’, whose regularity of publication in recent times (at the hands of idle lexicographers too unimaginative to innovate other than by listing the transient contemporary idioms that thankfully remain too marginal to warrant inclusion in a genuine dictionary) seems only to have encouraged a proliferation of slack usages and the development of countless arcane jargons. Luther’s design is far more ambitious and holistic however; for him, all three aspects (the vagabonds, the counterfeits and the words), are part and parcel of the same circulating infection of society for which he prescribed his assiduous schema as the pedagogic cure.
Crucial to this poem’s omnipresent implication of self-criticism, is the idea of poetry’s complicity in the progress of this infection: the idea that the degeneration of poetry itself has created this vagrant slang, a symptom of the material changes brought about by capitalism and the profound damage relativist economics has inflicted on our understanding of the value of words. As Schreiber puts it:
1.2 as trailer-trash as Bonnie Tyler:* A recent addendum to the OED reads, ‘Trailer, n. 9. Cinema. A set of short extracts from a film advertising it in advance’ (something not dissimilar to the ‘programme introduction’ of the previous stanza.) Its combination with ‘trash’ is another of the hyphenated Americanisms in the poem.
‘Bonnie Tyler’ is a feminized version of ‘Bonny’ Wat Tyler the leader of the peasants’ revolt in 1381. The poet is alluding to the preface in Byron’s parody of Southey’s ‘A Vision of Judgment.’ Byron taunts the poet laureate, who had previously been a fellow Jacobin and written a play called ‘Wat Tyler’ with obvious allusions to contemporary politics (of which he was now trying to suppress all evidence), for producing an apotheosis of George III. This persona’s parody of Byron’s parody is perhaps intended by the satirist to reassert Southey’s identification of Byron as ‘Satanic’. This is probably more of a compliment than Byron assumes. Southey is likening him to Milton’s Satan and therefore celebrating his erudition and prowess whilst also denouncing his regicidal politics.
This poet, however, is taking up Southey’s cause by comparing Byron’s ‘Vision’ to those sensationalist advertisements for ‘future presentations’ with which Hollywood bombards our cinema audiences. He ‘counters’ and ‘Birminghamizes’ Byron’s octaves in order both to flatter and indict. The implication is, I think, that we treat the entire poem as ‘trailer-trash’.
1.3 Mancunian:* An inhabitant of Manchester. This was, alongside Birmingham, the other major English city created by the rapid expansion of industrial capitalism during the Industrial Revolution. Both conurbations pose a serious problem for the Saxon shire system in England: Manchester spreading into both Cheshire and Lancashire, and Birmingham making a mockery of the boundaries of Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. ‘Mockery’ is the right word. Birmingham especially seems to owe its existence to a bloody-minded capitalist and industrialist rejection of the ancient authority of both the shire towns (like Warwick and Worcester) and the diocesan seats (like Lichfield and Coventry) which surround it. As such, both cities stand as particularly unbecoming monuments to the defiance of the ancient institutions of English culture which has led inexorably to this nation’s moral decline. The petty rivalry implied in this line between two such remarkably similar revolutionary cities is revealed by this satire as part and parcel of the small mindedness which is the result of the proletarian mindset they have conspired to spawn.
1.5 like Byron in Don Juan:* The reversal of the anglicized and metrically feminine bisyllabic ‘Ju-an’ (to rhyme with ‘new one’) back to the Castillion and metrically masculine monosyllable ‘Hwon’ is the opposite of the process (see passim) of introducing, by means of metrical implication, a diæresis into Birmingham diphthongs. ‘The metrical gender’ of words (in this semi-technical sense) is never allowed to remain stable.
1.6 ¥wan:* The reader will have noticed the unusual orthography throughout this poem. There are two versions of the sterling livre symbol £ and € (one single barred, the other double barred for emphasis) which are used to correspond directly to the runic edh (ð) and thorn (þ) letters of Old English. It is pleasing to reassert the distinction of these two phonemes. For this reason, I would personally be in favour of their reintroduction into English orthography. The currency symbols used here serve to remind us, however, that the words belong to the commercial television station (which introduces their use in the epigraphic stanza), intent on commodifying the language rather than returning it to an old phonemic writing system.
There is some evidence the poet initially intended to include the American cent (¢) symbol to replace <ch>, and thereby emphasise the US reverse colonisation suggested by the use of the dollar sign for <sh>. Such a decision might have been particularly effective if we consider the echoic connection between the words containing this phoneme and the sounds that coins themselves make when coming into contact with one another. (See ‘chinking’* &c.) Perhaps the decision not to use the cent was based on the impact this would have on overall readability, in combination, that is, with a desire to emphasize a direct connection between the dental fricative articulation (so characteristic of both English and the Castillion Spanish of this example) and the insidious commercialism he wants to reveal. Perhaps this has to do with it being (when unvoiced) the sound made by a snake. A French colleague once confessed to me that he was instructed as a child that the trick to these alien lisps was to imagine he was un serpent perfide comme tous les Anglais.
I assume this particular example therefore to be some kind of futuristic symbol of currency used to represent the uvular fricative phoneme for which there is no equivalent in English: perhaps (God forfend) it is the symbol of the ‘metric pound’.
1.8 c*nts:* Its paradoxical detachment from the proper sex makes this squalid usage of the most profane of words much more offensive even than its precise, earthy employment in Lawrence and Joyce. The synecdochic derogation of women is bad enough, but only the worst educated men use it in reference to the stupidity of one another. This process of collapse from ‘cunning/quaint’ femininity to the index of plebeian imbecility is co-relative to that via which currency descends from inherent value to ‘fiat-money’. Thus the word is emblematic: the epitome of the counter. This society is one in which exposure to the sexual organs and the words denoting them is so quotidian that both are a debased currency. This poem, however, warns of an imminent threat to language and culture. It would not be justifiable, I think, to use this word’s appearance in the poem as a pretext for its expurgation, as has been the case with both Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
2.1 Spain:* The dichotomy of England and Spain is as archetypal as that of England and France. The choice of a Spaniard, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, to provide Southey’s critical vision of England in 1807 (when the countries were on the verge of a new alliance against France) must have come quite naturally. Spain is the familiar ‘other.’ As the two great Atlantic naval empires of the reformation and counter-reformation, for example, England and Spain were, in the C16th and C17th, two sides of the same American coin.
This relationship is as crucial to this poem as it is to Don Juan. Spanish is the source of some of the most important words in its thematic substratum: tobacco, cigar(ette), real (‘royal’, as a sarcastic pun on the sense ‘authentic’), and (most importantly, I suspect) flamingo. There is another word, however, which is of great importance here in terms of its iconic status and its dubious etymology. That word is: America.
The two most cogent derivations of this word play out the battle for the continent itself. The ‘Spanish’ version claims America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine navigator in the pay of Ferdinand and Isabella who had accompanied Columbus on his initial voyage of discovery and was the source of the view that this was a new continent and not East India. Supposedly, the reason for ‘America’ and not ‘Columba’ was that a German mapmaker, Waldseemüller, had made this choice explicit in his 1507 map of the world (this error being repeated by Mercator). This ur-document was only unearthed mysteriously in a German castle in 1901 however; all other maps by the same cartographer labelled the continent ‘Terra Incognita’ and Vespucci’s Christian name was usually printed ‘Albericus’ and not ‘Amerigo’.
If we dismiss the typical French fiction of Jules Marcou—who suggested in 1875 that ‘Amerrique’ was the Carib word for the mainland—we find the only perfectly competitive account in the ‘English’ theory of scientist Alfred E. Hudd. Hudd simply pointed out, in a paper for the Antiquarian Society of Bristol in 1910, that the Venetian Giovanni Capoti landed in Newfoundland in 1497 (two years before Columbus) on a voyage out of Bristol, and the records of that city showed the project had been funded by the Custom’s Collector: Richard Amerycke (whose odd name derived from Welsh). The explicit statement, on an official calendar of the year, that the place discovered would therefore be called ‘Amerycka’, has unfortunately been destroyed in a fire, but other documents making the link between the two men apparently still exist.
The point here is that it is impossible to disentangle these etymologies, and to tell history from fiction, one language from another. One suspects the whole issue to be a trail of forged documents, seaman’s tales and cabbages and kings. ‘America’—the word, the idea and the nation—is rootless, fake, and treacherously ambiguous. America is a counter. America is, this poem urges, Brummagem.
2.2 lager lads:* One might expect drunkards of this name to be German rather than English. If the persona were more committed to his attack on the English, a more apt coinage might have been ‘the bitter boys.’ This would, however, preclude the implicit comparison of this unwanted plague of locusts with the Spanish Gitanos, whose dialect Thomas and Borrow both reveal to be called Germania.
2.2-3 El Candado:* Spanish for ‘padlock’. Perhaps this is intended as an infamous jail in Madrid in which drunk and disorderly English football supporters (the new ‘Zincali’) are to be imprisoned in large numbers.
2.3 football fans:* Needless to say, this abbreviation of ‘fanatic’ is American.
2.3 brain:* The intoxicated football supporters are being satirized for having (literally) the single-mindedness of a gang or crowd. Of course, the pressure of the rhyme here might be the only reason for the singular form, but I think the implication of individualist rationalism as an alternative mentality to be mourned in an English culture which has been entirely taken over by the lumpenproletariat is strongly intended.
2.4 pulling moonies:* the slang sense for moony in the OED is 4. b. ‘slightly intoxicated’. In the broadest semantic way, this does at least suit the context of drunkenness. The vulgar description of the level of inebriation which precedes it, however, suggests the ‘fans’ are much further gone; why, in any case, pleonastically add to such a powerful indictment with a phrase one might gloss merely as ‘behaving tipsy.’ A much more fitting explanation might be that a moony (a count noun in this sentence rather than an adjective, you’ll notice) is supposed to be a futuristic slang term for a drink. A pint of stout or porter does, after all, have a smooth white head of foam when first ‘pulled’ which, when viewed from above by the addled drinker at the point of taking his first quaff, might just resemble the full moon.
2.5 calimari:* Spanish for ‘squid’. One of the most beautiful sights available to the Mediterranean traveller is of the hundreds of lambent squid and cuttlefish that bob to the surface of the calm night sea attracted by the moonlike lantern of a fisherman. One sincerely hopes this timeless image of civility and intelligence is slowly returning as the waters around Gibraltar are cleared of their mines and oil-slicks. For this poet to imaginatively compare such a simple miracle to fish-suppers regurgitated in a torrent of beer from the œsophagi of drunks is truly sickening.
To add insult to injury, the persona is also playing (one assumes) on the brainless application of the word ‘squid’ in the dialect from which his work supposedly originates as a canting plural (by Spoonerism, as it were) of ‘quid’ meaning ‘a Sovereign’. The vomitus ejected is therefore metonymically reduced to the money paid to fill the guts of these neanderthal with alcohol and battered fish. (Just as it was by a philosophical dipsomaniac I once overheard aphorising as he addressed himself erratically to the urinal: ‘You earn your money then you p*** it up the wall.’) Not only is one of the wonders of nature reduced to a scatological eruption in these lines, but the Sovereign (money and monarch) also undergoes an ignominious metamorphosis in ‘the belly of a beggar’ into vomitus.
These effects allow the poet to provoke an almost literal physical rejection of the future his poem forces us imaginatively to ingest. This is emetic satire.
2.6 Another Helicon becomes another Hell:* The first of what I will refer to throughout as ‘Birmingham Alexandrines’. There are quite a large number of these hexameters in the poem; the vast majority occurring on the sixth line of the stanza. I intend to provide further illumination of this effect at a more appropriate juncture below. The important thing to notice here is how the line pivots on a rather unnecessary repetition of the word ‘another.’ Why not ‘A Helicon becomes another Hell’? The indefinite article does quite enough to suggest the idea (itself a debilitating one, even without reference to the infernal regions) that there is more than one Parnassus.
The answer is that the poet is again drawing our attention to the process of dehumanising and sacrilegious mechanical reproduction which characterizes the Birmingham æsthetic of the poem. To repeat ‘another’ is to repeat a repetition; and to flip ‘Helicon’ to ‘Hell’ is to suggest both places are rendered (by this diabolical counterfeit environment) ‘two sides of the same coin.’ Compared to Jamesian ‘elegant variation’ there is always something ominous about any such witless reproduction. Yeats in particular makes ample play of this kind of incantatory rhetoric.
Again, I am brought back to the juxtaposition of the debased Byronic wit of the persona (Byron was self-confessedly the most Popean of the Romantics) and the visionary æsthetic of W. B. Yeats. Evidently, this line is a parody of the witty turns and nuanced repetitions, so elegant in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the Verse-Essays of Alexander Pope. The word ‘becomes’ is crucial to this effect. In a reversal of logic, this Helicon (one amongst many) might become this particular Hell, not only in the sense of metamorphosis, but also in the way a mincing tailor assures his customer the suit he has stitched becomes its wearer.
The difference, though, lies in the deliberate weakness of style, the threateningly bulging metre, the gratuitous repetition of ‘another’ (so suggestive of inexorable doom): all of which is the work of the Yeatsian visionary. In all senses of the phrase, even the most nihilistic, this poem is the vision of Great Britain ‘becoming unbecoming’.
2.7 I’m pissed:* Such a crass claim of intoxication, rather than a genuine confession on the part of the poet, is probably more likely to be a parodic reference to the following contemporaneously unpublished stanza which appears on the back of one of the pages of Byron’s manuscript of the first Canto of Don Juan:
3.8 Marieannes:* Marie-Anne is a French pastiche of Britannia. She is often conflated with a personified ‘Liberty’ because her first appearance—bare-breasted in that typically rustic French manner—is in Delacroix’s ‘Liberty leading the people’. Contrary to popular belief, this painting was produced to commemorate not the Jacobin revolution of the C18th, but the revolution of July 1830 in which the legitimate Bourbon monarchy (re-instated after the defeat of Napoleon by Great Britain) was replaced with the ‘Orleanist’ monarch Louis-Phillipe. This depressing event was actually very similar to the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ in England in 1688. It was carried out by Bourgeois politicians in order to create exactly the kind of faux constitutional monarchy which they had identified as the only power capable of defeating their own Revolutionary Imperialism at Trafalgar and Waterloo. Another of the iconic national artworks created to commemorate what was, therefore, actually a short-lived Whigist coup in 1830, was Berlioz’s arrangement of La Marseillaise: to this day the official version of the national anthem. So much for vive la différence. What followed was anarchist insanity in the Paris Commune, The Internationale and Les Folies Pigales.
4.2 queer:* This is the first of innumerable examples in which this poem’s drawling Birmingham diphthongs are stretched across two syllables by means of an implicit diæresis: a particularly unpleasant form of phonetic prevarication which nevertheless serves, by means of a kind of phonic mimesis, quite helpfully to mark the key concepts in the poem’s dealings with the moral and cultural prevarications which are its theme.
‘Queer’ is an obvious choice. In Standard British English it originally meant skewed or non-perpendicular, and carried not entirely unfavourable connotations when used metaphorically. In criminal cant, however, the OED shows there to have been a simultaneous homonym used by thieves and low-lives to castigate (or perhaps to flatter) those who were even more disreputable than themselves. It was also, therefore, used in reference to counterfeits. Perhaps it is from this form that we get the American sense intended here: sexually deviant or homosexual. The uncanny combination in this word, of the debased sense and the debased sound, suggests to me that these instances of dialectal diæresis in the poem might be labelled queers; perhaps it would be even more accurate to say that words treated in this fashion have been queered (not just ‘made strange’ but ‘quizzed’, ‘ridiculed’, ‘puzzled’, ‘imposed upon’, ‘cheated’, ‘swindled’, ‘despoiled’. This is not to mentioned ‘queried’ and ‘made querelous’.
4.4 Rivera:* era 1
4.5 aristeia:* A rare example of a genuinely justifiable diæresis (such as the one in the word ‘diæresis’ itself).
This poem is itself a debased aristeia, of course, at least from the point in stanza 64 where it begins to ape ‘The Rape of the Lock’. The standard pattern—the arming scene, the evocation of the brilliance of the armoured hero, the exhortation of followers, the first exploit, the wounding, the divine intervention, the renewed exploits, the double simile, the kill, the taunt—is identifiable. It undergoes, however, a fission-like disintegration across tawdry characters and scenes. Some of this is the result of following the Wasp of Twickenham, but where Pope is gently mocking Society by comparison with a stable heroic matrix, the poet of this Canto is presenting a nightmare vision of a world in which heroism is entirely exploded. Pope uses ancient heroism to mock the unheroic modern world; this poet summons up a world in which heroism is itself mocked by its counterfeit embodiments. The result is a terrifying evocation of an utterly deracinated culture. We should only, suggests the poet, venture into this poetic Ææa if protected by the moly (from Sanskrit mūla, ‘root’) of literary, linguistic and historical knowledge which can avert our moral emasculation: our transformation into unthinking swine after drinking from the cup of the grotesque transsexual Circe who is its anti-heroine. I will venture, in these annotations, to provide the reader with his moly.
4.2-6 The rhyme ‘Von’, ‘Bourbonne’, ‘Beaumont’ is off. ‘Ray Bourbonne’ is a feminized and Frenchified version of ‘Ray Bourbon’ (an American female impersonator with links to the Communist Party) designed to insist on both the iambic stress and the correct vowel sound to rhyme with Von. Presumably, ‘Beaumont’ is intended to be pronounced with a silent <t>, as in French. It can only be a half-rhyme if it is: the final consonant being a velar, rather than an alveolar, nasal. It is characteristic of an uneducated anglophone pronunciation to stress the last syllable of all French names. This bourgeois overcorrection marks the speaker out as Birmingham nouveau riche in comparison with the aristocratic anglicisms of Byron, who rhymes ‘Ribaupierre’s’ with ‘grenadiers’ and ‘appears’ (DJ VIII.71) and ‘Gulf of Lyons’ with ‘only die once’ (DJ II.39), as might any unpretentious artisan.
‘Frontier… / Sylvia… / aristeia’ is a mite less forced, but no less unpleasant on the ear.
4.8 panto-dame:* This is typical of the debased amphibious hyphenations in the poem. The Greek prefix panto- which elevates the term to which it is attached to a superlative, unique or all-encompassing status, has become a decrepit slang abbreviation of the infantile theatrical form pantomime. A term which might have meant the quintessence of noble womanhood is therefore rendered, quite literally, as a travesty: an ageing thespian of dubious sexual morality playing a risible old battleaxe to glut the basest comic appetites of the crowd.
5.6 two-bit:* another Americanism with a vulgar pun. The phrase means ‘worthless’ and derives from a jocular American name for the ‘quarter’, the coin worth 25 cents. The name suggests the existence of an entirely fictional coin, the ‘bit’, worth one eighth of a dollar. I say fictional, but crucial to the distinction between decimal and Imperial coinage is the idea—still carried as an idealistic hope in the latter—that coins of intrinsic value can be physically divided in order to create ‘change’. This is the reason for the Base-12 system of calculation in the shilling, for example. As a way of partitioning the circle, twelve is a much more useful number than 10. This is something the Greeks and Romans learned from the inventors of the measurement of Time in ancient Babylon. And this astronomical, geometrical system was applied to money in order to mirror on Earth the way the gods revolved the heavens. Before the rot set in, the silver penny could literally be divided (‘cleaved’ you might say) into the ha’penny and the farthing; similarly a groat could be divided into four pennies, a shilling into four threepenny ‘bits’ and a sovereign into four crowns; and the reverse impressions on the coins were divided into four sectors by means of a symmetrical Christian cross for precisely this reason. Of course, this is only possible if coins are worth what they claim to be worth.
The ‘quarter’ is a hangover of this sensible way of doing things in the world’s first decimalized monetary system. To call a quarter ‘two bits’ is to reassert (however ironically) the value of precious metal over the arbitrary signification of value. If a dollar were a pound, ‘a quarter’ would be ‘a crown’. It is not, though. Whatever the exchange rate now—since Bretton-Woods—a dollar was originally four shillings. It was a Spanish coin otherwise known as a ‘piece of eight’ (being worth eight reals). It is the real that was the ‘bit’ therefore: a silver coin similar in size and weight to the sixpence. To this day, the Irish call a sixpence a reul.
It is characteristic of the violence done against the stable values of nobility by capitalist American revolutionaries that ‘two-bit’ (a sum of money now laying claim to be equivalent with the ‘crown’) has become synonymous with ‘penny-pinching’. Decimalization was (and still is) the consolidation of a decadent shift of currency from intrinsic value, via promissory money, to arbitrary tokens of exchange, with all the logical and moral abstractions this entails. The conspiracy behind the metrical measurement of space and mass, the digital representation of time, and so-called ‘relativity’ (which this arbitrary thinking has inevitably spawned) is one that seeks to bring all our transactions and even our models of the universe down to the level of an Arab market-trader counting on his fingers for the venal purposes of haggling.
‘A bit’: a morsel is etymologically derived from the result of a bite. I cannot help but note how ironic the memory is that this evokes of Arab stallholders ‘testing the mettle’ of suspect coins with their teeth. The vulgar pun also has its part to play. A polysemous strand of the noun ‘bit’ is the sense: the part of something that bites; hence drill bit and the bit of a key. The crudest synonym in French for the phallus is ‘la bite’, and there seems no reason why a similar slang term could not be prevalent in this future dialect. The amphibious threat of this decimal/Imperial coin—the definitively worthless US version of the Crown—is conflated (next to ‘Dick… chick… and Shufflewick’) with the drag-queen’s hidden phallus
5.6 Mrs Shufflewick:* A crude penile pun: a bowdlerized version of ‘shuttlecock’. There are overtones of the role of Industry in the masculisation of women here too: the shuttle being the weaver’s tool and the mechanisation of the shuttle—in one of the earliest developments of the Industrial Revolution—making it possible for women (whose arms were shorter) to operate the looms. Thus the industrial working class was feminized and the conflation of bolshevism and so-called women’s rights was begun. The Spinning Jenny is the true ancestor of Celia Pankhurst; the bawdy proletarian hermaphrodite, Mrs Shufflewick is the imagined offspring.
5.7 Stars don’t get a look-in:* ‘Look-in’ is seemingly used here as in the OED sense 2. ‘Sporting slang. A chance of success’ and ‘stars’ as in celebrated performers. These early hints of a reversal in the transitivity of gaze and its relation to the night sky cannot however be ignored. Celestial bodies are made out to be the eyes of readers in the poem’s heavens from which the voice seeks (paradoxically perhaps) to hide. Think again of Einstein’s ‘relativity’. See: 118:8, 144:2
5.7 ditty:* A quid-dit(t)y [Poet’s note]
The atmosphere of decadence the poet is attempting to evoke reaches (even at this early stage) deep into semantic roots. ‘Quiddity’, which was once a scholarly term for the definitive essence or nature of a thing has undergone—via sneering parodic use—a deterioration which has left it meaning a pedantic quibble. This poem itself stands as an epitome of this process of decay. Quiddity has become so derelict in this future that it has been cleaved with a hyphen (to resemble the innumerable American slang pairings) so as to mean a nonsense rhyme sung by a debased sovereign: a ‘quid-ditty’—the quiddity of this poem (in the old sense) is truly expressed by such a quidditative epithet (in the modern sense).
5.8 unsung city:* The last line of this stanza originally read ‘My real Queen comes from a real city’, expressly recalling Eliot’s ‘unreal city.’ Clearly Eliot means both ‘spectral’ and ‘ersatz.’ I think the cinema must play a role here. These are not just (un)real but also (un)reel cities. Eliot sees cities ‘superimposed’ on one another : Dante’s Inferno, London, Troy, Baudelaire’s Paris and so on. And it is this last which I think provides the key. Eliot spent 1911 in Paris at the time when Lumiere’s crowd scenes and the ‘fantastic realist’ work of the Gaumont’s artistic director, Louis Feuillade, were the newest and strangest way of envisioning the urban scenery of the undisputed world capital of cinema. When Eliot returns to London (after the war), he can see these ghostly monochrome moving-images of Paris ‘unreeling’ through the City’s streets, mingled with memories of the ‘filmreels’ of marching soldiers and the European walking wounded.
The punning repetition of ‘real’ here, with the usual Brummagem diæresis, emphasizes the bitter irony of a semantic flip from ‘authentic’ to ‘cinematic’. Another, very disturbing, layer of homophony suggests there might also be a play on the Spanish bisyllabic form real, (mentioned above) cognate with ‘Royal.’ Clearly, this ‘Queen’ is to be neither real nor royal. Like both Byron and Southey, this all leaves me (royally) ‘reeling.’ (cf. 0.5* and 2.7*)