Poor Charley’s Dream



Poor Charley Snow, a Cambridge don
And a not unsuccessful one
Rose from a tutorship to be
Panjandrum of Technology
Fellow of Christ’s and C.B.E.
And lastly, as such matters go,
A peerage made him Baron Snow.

Besides the physics he professed
—Add Politics for interest—
This fellow of amazing parts
Took in as well the liberal arts,
And every year he wrote a novel
To show how dons intrigue and grovel;
Until he chose, in evil hour,
To haunt the corridors of power,
Where, far from grace, he squandered years
Interrogating engineers
As chief fiend in a minor hell
Called: “Scientific Personnel”.

One night, as dons at Christ’s recall,
Back from these chores, he dined in hall
And from the Master, or the Dean,
Learned he might be ensconced between
A senior wrangler (on his right)
And (left) a rabid Leavisite,
Though which was which they would not say.
Now Charley had been long away
And dons in Cambridge come and go
Like morning mist or winter snow;
But years of chairmanship had made
Our hero master of his trade:
“The Technique of the Interview”,
He told himself, “will see me through”,
And, during grace, evolved some phrases
To put his neighbours through their paces.

These sages each in silence sat
Intent to empty glass and plate,
One florid as a harvest moon
And one like a dyspeptic prune,
When Charley, confident and deft,
Turned to the muncher on his left
And knowing the Sons of Leavis’ strict
Resolve and rule to contradict,
Began by voicing an abhorrence
Of all the works of D. H. Lawrence.

Silence! As if he had not heard,
The prune-like features, undeterred,
Pursued unruffled manducation,
And Charley, to his consternation,
Heard on the right his neighbour smother
A groan of: “O God! Not another!”
So, turning on the moonlike dial
His famous television smile,
Let fall a trenchant observation
On non-Euclidean mensuration.
The moon split slowly, flowered with teeth,
And, while poor Charley held his breath,
Leaned forward and addressed the Prune:
“Jack, can you comprehend this goon?”
The other sadly shook his head:
“Poor devil’s off his chump,” he said,
And both returned with one accord
To labour at the festive board
Oblivious of their outraged guest,
Who sat, as he himself confessed,
In contemplation of his blunder
Like Jove self-struck with his own thunder.

But soon, Minerva-like, a full-
Blown theory sprang from Charley’s skull,
Designed to show with skill and point
The Time, not he, was out of joint:
Not his own failure in acumen
But a decline in all things human,
Science and Letters out of touch
Each chattering in double Dutch,
Each too puffed up with pride to bother
To try to understand the other,
Two cultures galloping at random
With Charley trying to drive them tandem,
Would best account for the absurd
Fiasco which had just occurred.

Between the entrée and the sweet
He had the argument complete,
And after dinner, lost in thought,
Declined the gossip and the port
And, rushing to his rooms, his ripe
Conclusions he began to type.
Hour after hour he rattled on
Until by midnight all was done,
And humming underneath his breath,
Poor Charley, having cleaned his teeth
And said his prayers and locked his door,
Climbed into bed and knew no more.

At half-past midnight on the stroke
It seemed to Charley that he woke
Not in his own congenial bed
But in some trackless waste instead,
Where, though pyjama’d and alone,
A will more binding than his own
Drew him barefoot, by pastures green
To witness an unusual scene:
Dame Nature’s Parliament, which she
Holds once in every century.
There all her children must appear
To urge their pleas or else to hear
What justice argues in their case
And, judgement given, their meed of grace;
And there, where Chaucer long before,
The birds, by kinds assembled, saw,
Poor Charley met her face to face
In all her majesty and grace;
Seated upon a grassy mound,
Backed by old woods and rising ground,
The goddess, beautiful but stern,
Now heard the beasts of prey by turn,
While round them ranked in order stood
The rest who browse or chew the cud.

Just as poor Charley took his place
She had pronounced upon a case;
Next on her book she bent awhile,
Then raised her eyes and with a smile
Summoned our hero to appear:
“Now, Charley, what is this I hear?
You, though a favoured child of mine,
Dare meddle with my grand design
And challenge my decrees and me;
And yet, as these reports agree,
Before you ventured to run mad
You seemed a likely sort of lad
With every gift of Providence
But charity and common sense.
Yet now, they tell me you deplore
Two Cultures where one grew before!

“Well, Charley, I would have you know,
I, Nature, have arranged it so:
That double blessing I designed
For the improvement of mankind.
Though by and large the Human Race,
So vicious, greedy, cruel and base,
Is not my favourite species, Man
Has some importance in my plan
Whose force and wisdom you asperse
And mean to print it, which is worse.
I’ll not deny, child, that I was,
On hearing this, extremely cross.
Had malice or perverse intent
Moved you to scout my government,
Had you less feeling or more wit,
I should have made you smart for it;
But as it is, I spare the rod:
Lovers and fools we leave to God.
So I forgive you for the nonce,
But since you have proved such a dunce,
I shall, as far as I am able
Try to instruct you by a fable:
Come here and sit upon my knee
And listen closely, child, to me!

“Some ages since, you may recall
There were no beasts or men at all;
Among those lowlier forms of life
No pairs resembling man and wife,
No sexes born for mutual ease
Rejoiced in my archaic seas,
But dull mitotic subdivision
And safe but tedious binary fission
Assured my patterns, it is true,
But left me little else to do:
Long ages to await some stray
False replicate of DNA;

And when I had it, I admit
Not much in fact emerged from it.
At last I hit upon the process
Of gene apartheid and meiosis;
From there two sexes led the dance
Of choice, variety and advance
To all these creatures, whom you see
Grouped by their kinds about my knee,
From Lingula to Lion and Ox
And you, creation’s paradox!
Nor did my progress stop with this
Triumph of biogenesis,
For next I laboured to improve
Mere sexual drive to mutual love
Which is the glory of mankind,
Source of all gifts of heart and mind.

“And now, poor Charley, mark me well!
The point, child, of my parable
Is this: Some centuries ago
I found, as you at least should know,
Science confused with Art because
Choked in the same inspissate mass,
Angels performing aerobatics
In the same space with mathematics,
The Muses to a treadmill bound
And Science lost on fairy ground.

“From Gresham College rose a cry:
‘Hear, Nature, hear us or we die!’
Dear Robert Boyle, my darling son,
Dryden, whose verse I dote upon,
Came to this session and I must
Concede their cause no more than just,
And there I promised to devise
The very course you now despise:
Two Cultures, like two sexes, planned
To love and mingle and command
And spread their offspring through the land.
What you, my boy, have overlooked
Is that, before these two are hooked,
There is a period when each
Must think the other out of reach
And, hopelessly in love, they wander
Crying: ‘Our lives are forced asunder!’
I, Nature, see in this, of course,
My favourite trick: The Trojan Horse,
Knowing that in a moment they
Will both be rolling in the hay
And procreating, each by turns,
Ideas and pleasures, my concerns!
All this on purpose I designed
For comfort and increase of kind.

“Now, Charley, it is getting late;
I have more cases to debate
And causes to decide than can
Be handled, so, my little man
Get down now and trot home to bed
And put that nonsense from your head.
But if you will rush on your fate
And print, I shall retaliate
And Cambridge walks shall see you weep;
For, to this very end I keep
A monstrous dog called Leavis there
Whose pleasure is to rend and tear,
And if you should defy me still
I’ll set him at you, so I will!”

Alas! Poor Charley, when he woke
Treated his vision as a joke:
He published and his fate unrolled
Exactly as the dream foretold.

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