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The Devil Comes to Buckingham

from Legends of Liberty: Volume 2

One day as Britons cheered their sovereign’s sight,
The devil crawled into his servant’s brain.
He entered through the ear as a termite
And caused poor George the Third to go insane.
His Majesty’s gray matter had a tang—
Dis nibbled reason’s overlooking terrace.
The walls of speech fell next when yellow fangs
Went chewing on the pars opercularis.
Then recall’s fortress, breached with just a scamper,
Flapped like a tent when Satan bit the hippocamper.

It had a name: the Monarch’s Malady.
But how’d it come about? “Bitter in soul
When young—neurosis sapped morality,”
Explained his former nanny.
“No—the toll
Of failure to secure his despotism
Disturbed his humors,” said advisors.
“Strife,”
A duchess claimed, “was based in carnal schism:
The strain of mating with his ugly wife.”
“It was the blight of God!” (A priest’s causation.)
Fact was, poor George went manic from an infestation.

A glass observing Venus’ transit past
The sun can err, and calculate the size
Of that great gaseous anchor as more vast
Than is its real command over the skies,
Thus deepening the black that overtakes
The solar system and its spinning daughters.
A clock that pinpoints longitude can break
And throw a ship off course towards unknown waters.
So George’s mental compass cracked that day,
Which gave his moral pendulum a wider sway.

The king had been engrossed in a newspaper,
Displaying to his subjects a rose ring
Of diamond on a pearly hand. A caper,
Then (must have been) struck George’s eye—a thing
That couldn’t possibly have happened. What?
A battle had been fought at Lexington!
The news was like a knife to his dull wit.
His head was stricken: a perplexing din—
That pain again. So Satan saw his chance:
He shriveled to a bug and put George in a trance.

The snake that once had bitten Gilgamesh
When he reached out for immortality
And hissed at Eve to bite a wormless, fresh
Red apple so she’d know reality,
Had changed into an even lower creature
To dangle different urges just as bad.
Let’s ride, it whispered, to your legislature.
“Who’s talking?” George looked round. “Am I muh-mad?”
I’m just your conscience, said the bug. Don’t cower!
Listen: invade America. Retain your power!

“I’m going home,” George shouted. “Now get lost!”
The carriage driver: “You alright milord?”
“Yes,” said the King. “To Buckingham!” At last,
He thought when they pulled in. He stumbled toward
His garden, roamed through bushes like a maze
With gardeners behind him—minotaurs
Whose clippings scratched like claws; each echoed phrase
Of gossip, nosed in roses, seemed like roars.
Through the back door, George blundered in the kitchens
And threw his baleful eyes on horrid apparitions.

On all sides round him, one great furnace blazed.
“Don’ come too close, me King—this oven’s ‘ot!”
A spatul’ed cook nigh spittled cockney. Hazed
George, spinning, tripped and fell; his right hand caught
A bowl that flew up, scattering some spices
That burned his eyes; bad omelets reeked of sulfur.
He knocked over utensils (dark devices):
One stabbed him in the liver like the vulture
That tortured poor Prometheus. In gloom
He wandered out, approaching the White Drawing Room.

His blurry eyeballs, mired in mental fog,
Saw molding walls grow black as Tartarus.
A portrait painted of the Queen’s dead dog
Tripled its head and barked like Cerberus.
A sphinx sat perching, flapping wings (a harpsy-
Chord with an open lid, each paw a leg).
An eagle statue turned into a harpy.
There, furnitured like centaurs, all in league,
Five torsos saddled up in circled seating.
George stepped into the room and bowed in cautious greeting.

He sunk into a silver-cushioned couch
Where his companions, to the left and right,
Were next to him in power, though they slouched
Slightly, away from windows, shunning light.
The commanders from the naval docks. But changed.
The fireplace logs lit up spontaneously.
Cigar smoke curled with cloudy smiles. How Strange.
The voice returned, extemporaneously:
Come meet my dear old friends: trusted lieutenants.
“Out of my head!” George yelled at portraits of descendants.

Their marshal, tilting high his tricorne helm
At the fourth planet, marred the flaming spear
Of his cigar—Lord William Howe.  “This realm
Is in my charge, your Highness. Have no fear:
To guard your kingdom will require five thousand
Troopers—I’ll march to the Pacific Sea!
Five thousand men, all armed with solemn vows and
Promises—Providence deliver thee!
Divine in right, you reign with God Almighty!”
The King just stared. The voice: say something. George: “Alrighty?”

Do better. Then the termite bit down hard
On George’s Broca’s area, starting a flow
Of words that galloped, an invading horde:
“Oh Viscounts, Baronets and Earls below
My velvet-thronéd powers: know that when
Traitors will question my supremacy,
I’ll not respond with fear. Think you these men,
These angry victors in conspiracy,
Who damned us in one skirmish, will o’erspill
Our noble dike? Nay, lords: I’ll do them ill for ill.”

George shook himself. “Sorry, wuh-what’d I say?”
A second, Henry Clinton, spoke up next
As fruit flies buzzed around his ripe young grey
Wig: “Majesty, you’ve recently annexed
Some Germans in the state of Hesse-Kassel.
We could recruit them! Yes, why not? They’re all
Just sitting in some ruined, messy castle!”
As islanders, marooned, will bathe in a squall
To toughen skin and give seashells a scrub,
Clint scratched his piggish head, a pink Beelzebub.

The third man, John Burgoyne—a dashing idol
Of ladies, scourge of children he’d had ripped,
Untimely, from used wombs he wouldn’t bridle
In marriage (no Macduffs, these babes in crypts)—
Raised up his horns: “There’s a majority
Of loyalists who want to be in biz
With Britain’s empire and authority,
My Liege. Front lines are good for fodder.” His
Bull-headed pride was matched by giant bollocks.
His sense of sacrifice was worth a hundred Molochs.

Next Charles Cornwallis, bearing fifty names—
Governor, Lord Lieutenant, Marquess, Earl—
Tried to outshine Jehovah’s divine claims
In far campaigns that seized the eastern world:
“Their rabble force, as yet, has no commanders.
Distribute fighters, Sire, from all your spheres:
Use Indians, Hibernians, highlanders—
Professionals will best their volunteers.”
In a uniform that rendered gazers starstruck,
He topped this pantheon of generals like Marduk.

Last, in the corner, stood Sir Banistre
Tarleton’s legs, two pillars wrapped in snow-
White breaches, mummified—two cannisters
Provisioning his sprinting rations (though
His preference was for riding with sharp spurs).
His military skin of dark green wool
Was crowned with a cap of raven-crested fur
And curly ostrich-feather plume. His cool
Gaze raided men’s impressions like a virus.
This silent judge revived the justice of Osiris.

George looked the Colonel over. “Does he talk?”
“He’s quite loquacious—when you are about
To die,” said Howe. “These men here, Highness—hawks
Of war—all give you sound advice. A boat
Can take us to America tonight!”
The king observed a necklace around Howe:
An iron chain with an orb of hematite
Red quartz—a worthless jewel. Then George’s brow
Broke in with throbbing pain to burglarize
His clear conceptions. Leaning back, he closed his eyes.

George lay there, prone upon the couch, in bulk
A cannoned man-of-war, its monstrous keel
Moored to the ocean floor to rest and sulk,
Its slumbrous helmsman drooling on the wheel,
Careless of how his anchor bumps a kraken
That roars from the abyss, bringing small fame
To hapless sailors when their families blacken
Faces with veils to block the spraying foam
And mourn its vanished ship, pulled down to sleep,
Chained on a fiery lake (so George seemed) in the deep.

Blue eyes, then, peered through darkness—a small hand
Was reaching towards the king, as from a chasm.
“Father!” George stretched his arm to grasp it, and—
Wake up! (That voice again.) George had a spasm:
“Octavius!” he cried as he shot upward.
“Your Highness?” Howe was leaning.
“Hmm?”
“The war?”
The tiny hand receded, the bond ruptured.
“Wha—war?” The generals shot glances.
“Your
Orders to give the troops?”
“Oh yes,” (voice doubtful).
Antennae tickled George’s brain. Words spewed (a spoutful):

“Go—yes, my faithful consorts! Swiftly—go!
Deplete my treasury—take every coin!
Subdue these rebels who would overthrow
My kingdom! You three [Clinton, Howe, Burgoyne]—
Take a preliminary legion—five
Thousand, you said? Cornwallis and his hound
(that scary guy) will stay for now, help drive
Men from the brothels, bars, and prisons—round
The lowlifes up, enlist them in our fleet!
Use every method—flex your muscles, spit deceit.”

Plangent Plantagenets once planted nets
To catch their fellow roses (white and red).
So did these generals depart with threats
To bleed their countrymen in days ahead.
Nice job—you handled all that fairly well.
We make a good team, yes? I’m glad I came.
George (spinning, swinging fists): “Who in the hell
Are you?” Who, what, or where—it’s all the same.
Soft dinner bells rang out with silver shyness.
Let’s eat! “Fine—don’t embarrass me.” That’s all you, Highness.

.

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Andrew Benson Brown has had poems and reviews published in a few journals. His epic-in-progress, Legends of Liberty, will chronicle the major events of the American Revolution if he lives to complete it. Though he writes history articles for American Essence magazine, he lists his primary occupation on official forms as ‘poet.’ He is, in other words, a vagabond.


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14 Responses

  1. Michael Pietrack

    Very entertaining! The dialogue made me smile and read this excerpt with a grin. I could almost hear your satirical voice.

    My favorite lines:

    Plangent Plantagenets once planted nets
    To catch their fellow roses (white and red).
    So did these generals depart with threats
    To bleed their countrymen in days ahead.

    Great stuff! Also, I’m enjoying your podcast…keep up the fine work.

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks for your support, Michael. That first line you cite just popped into my head fully formed, if you can believe that.

      Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    Very well told. You’ve really got in the mad monarch’s head.

    I recall when they made the excellent film ‘The Madness of King George’, that it was supposed to be called ‘The Madness of King George III’, but it was reckoned American audiences might not go to see it figuring it was part of a trilogy and they hadn’t seen ‘The Madness of King George I’ and ‘The Madness of King George II’.

    Reply
    • ABB

      Ha I do remember seeing and enjoying that movie years ago. Funny about the trilogy bit, and not at all surprising that people have forgotten their own history. Probably fighting in vain against the idiocy trend, but fight I will.

      Reply
  3. Mary Gardner

    Dear Andrew,
    You, and this excerpt, are brilliant. I can hardly wait to order Volume 2.
    Should Sir Banistre Tarleton’s legs be wrapped in snow-white “breeches,” or is there a word-play on “breaches” that I don’t understand?

    Reply
    • ABB

      No, ‘breaches’ was a sheer oversight on my part. I am glad these threads exist because I can always count on people to point out my errors!

      I appreciate your support Mary, and it heartens me that you are excited about volume 2. Hope to have it out next year.

      Reply
  4. James Sale

    Very impressive writing and poetry; the thing with Benson Brown’s work is that it is multi-layered and so to discuss it requires an essay! Suffice for now to say: I love the conceit of the termite in George’s brain, which turns out to be Satan, and which of course recalls Satan in book IV of Paradise Lost as he sits squat as a toad at the ear of Eve. The imagery is also incredibly powerful and original. This line, for example – A sphinx sat perching, flapping wings (a harpsy-
    Chord with an open lid, each paw a leg). – manages to successfully combine, through its witty wordplay – a classical with a musical allusion and to rhyme to boot. There is a deep ingenuity in all this. It certainly seems to me to be the case that Benson Brown is writing a major mock-epic of our times. Bravo!

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks for bringing your keen eye to this, James. Without explaining myself too much, I will reveal that I also drew on Tasso in addition to Milton here—a fact which nobody would likely ever notice if I didn’t point it out, as Tasso is sadly no longer read in the English-speaking world. I’m actually not even really sure if he’s read in Italian either.

      Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    ABB, I am smiling at your thoroughly entertaining breath of fresh poetic air that has given new and intriguing life to a fusty, brain-addled dead king of England. The rhyming of “just a scamper” with “hippocamper” is inspired and “bollocks” with “molochs” is hilarious… such amusing touches make this piece romp along with aplomb. But, more than that ‘The Devil Comes to Buckingham’ (great title) is chock full of superb imagery. You manage to paint linguistic pictures with words that excite as they educate (in poetry and history). Well done!

    Reply
    • ABB

      Byron is indeed the master of polysyllabic rhyme. W.S. Gilbert also great.

      Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    A creepy fantasy of a mad scene, Andrew. Partly enjoyable and partly repulsive. The literary allusions and the wordplay belong to the enjoyment. I am still more wondering whether your artistry and artistic intentions are changing as you proceed in the course of the epic. Are you veering into mock epic (as James Sale suggests)? I know I’ve asked this (or something like it) before, but the question of genre and intent comes up again: epic or mock epic? In part, that may have to do with the tangential question of history versus entertainment. Those two things need not be “versus,” but when I look at this selection, I see King George’s historical madness attributed to otherworldly sources AND given an importance many historians might say it did not have. That’s effected partly by your bringing in the military commanders–with personalities and motives that (in this story) take on the features of the King’s malady. That means, however, that I can’t take this as educational. I need to know who those names were in history, before I can evaluate the drama you create from them. Any authorial statements forthcoming, or have you decided how you fit in yourself?!

    Reply
    • ABB

      I think when writing historical fiction, as this is, there needs to be a certain amount of made-up stuff to keep it entertaining. Admittedly, this scene never happened, and the idea of George and his entourage being possessed by demons is a rollicking absurdity—or even a slightly repulsive one, as you say. But, while giving Ben Franklin lightning powers and having Old Sam Whittemore kill a host of British soldiers (instead of just 3), I try to mix in authentic details and factoids. But as far as being purely educational–no, you are correct, it is not.
      I do fall on the mock-epic side—but more Byron and Ariosto than Pope; that is, while being broadly comic, there is still some seriousness here and there. I think comic or burlesque epic could be considered along a spectrum of styles rather than being one generic thing, mapping this according to its three great modern practitioners: heavily satirical (Pope), satirical but with serious elements retained (Byron), or ‘light’ epic that is serious in theme but has an overall witty tone (Ariosto). I tend to fluctuate between the latter two. But since this whole scene is a burlesque of Milton, the satire runs thick.
      I am approaching completion of the manuscript for this volume –have 1 ½ more chapters to write, hope to be done by end of summer and then work on adding images, footnotes, etc. Am hoping to get a few sets of astute eyes on it for feedback before publication next year, if you’re interested and have the time.

      Reply

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