Spectator competition winners: Shakespeare lays down the law

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

In Competition No. 3170, a challenge inspired by Shelley’s assertion that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, you were invited to step into the shoes of a well-known poet and write their own law in verse.

The above quotation is from Shelley’s 1821 essay A Defence of Poetry, written in response to his friend Thomas Love Peacock’s The Four Ages of Poetry. But my favourite lines on the social function of poetry come from Seamus Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue: ‘In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil — no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense it is unlimited.’

This assignment was a crowd-pleaser, attracting submissions that combined wit with technical adroitness. There were so many entries of merit that it was a tricky one to judge. Commendations go to Alan Millard, Max Ross, Bill Greenwell, Richard Spencer, Chris O’Carroll, Frank McDonald and John Priestland. The winners are printed below and earn their authors £25 apiece.

Shall I detail the law I wouldst enact?
Good gentles, mine is nam’d the Shakespeare Act.
This law prevents the ever-maddening craze
of hinting that another penn’d my plays;
some clay-brained lord, or else the Queen, or Bacon,
such cream-faced loons are wretchedly mistaken.
My toil went into every rhyme and sonnet,
if thou claim’st otherwise, a plague upon it!
I therefore frame the law unto my will
(see what I didst there?); if thou deny’st Bill,
then thou must memorise my plays in all,
and into the cold grip of lawyers fall.
Forsooth, if thou insist I wrote no gems,
my Act shall have thee hurl’d into the Thames.
Dear gallant friends, I hope thou wilt agree
there’s only room for one Bard, and that’s me.
Janine Beacham

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
At Level One: behind a Perspex screen,
At least six feet apart, with covered face
And bubble-wrapped, all fomites Covid-clean.
At Level Two: not in a private dwelling,
Nor in a garden or a public park,
Nor, notwithstanding circumstance compelling,
Covert Covid canoodling in the dark.
At Level Three: no sex in any setting;
A statutory ban on all-night stays;
No contact — no, not even heavy petting —
For doubt avoidance, that completes the ways.
If each to all these caveats adheres,
De facto, our love can but end in tiers.
David Silverman/Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If I’m to wander lonely as a cloud,
the law must minimise the unwashed crowd
of urban poor whose presence I espy,
discolouring my poet’s inward eye.
For unlike Cumbria’s cheery rustic folk,
these city dwellers reek of smut and smoke
and jabber in an uncouth brogue so strong
it’s clear the ghetto street’s where they belong.
Although these interlopers bring in cash,
they leave behind them heaps of stinking trash
for which a levied fine or day in clink
would cause such swarms of visitors to shrink.
Composing verse requires a peaceful view
of craggy cliff, pure stream or sky of blue;
not strangers lurking by my cottage gate,
agog before a literary great.
Paul Freeman/William Wordsworth

No one shall pull a building down
In order simply to erect
A structure that will blight the town
In place of what they would have wrecked.
When taste’s confined to current fashion,
The law must guard the threatened past:
What once was built with skill and passion
Has beauty that is owed to last.
No longer shall a council planner,
Acting of his own volition,
Like some gangster in his manor,
Wield the power of demolition.
Let plansters with destructive urges,
Not sure of where their writ runs now,
Be best employed on worthy purges
In places of despond like Slough.
W.J. Webster/John Betjeman

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses
But henceforth I hereby decree
That girls should wear specs
Before they have sex
In case they don’t like what they see.
Robert Schechter/Dorothy Parker

Whereas I consider my cat Jeoffry.
For he is a mighty hunter.
For the pursuit of mice is his delight.
For when mice are lacking he is melancholy.
For which reason the supply of mice must be kept up.
Therefore law must be enacted forbidding sale of mousetraps.
For such devices rob cats of their occupation.
For the pride of a cat is to labour in his vocation.
For he is valiant in the conquest of mice.
For he is crafty.
For his movements are smooth and sinuous.
For he takes joy in a capture.
For he is generous in success.
For trophies laid upon the doormat are gifts to his friends.
For he can pounce.
George Simmers/Christopher Smart

No. 3173: hyper deflation

You are invited to give a fresh twist to a well-known single line of poetry by adding a line of your own to it. Here is an example, courtesy of legend of the literary competition circuit, the late Martin Fagg: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ You fit the bill — cold, dimmish, wet and grey.’ Please email a maximum of five entries each to by midday on 28 October. We are now returning to paying winners by cheque, unless you state on your entry that you would prefer to be paid by bank transfer.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments