Week 59: Street Performers, 1881 by Terence Tiller

An evocative poem that takes me back to the urban, late Victorian childhood of my grandparents and the stories I was told, of lamplighters and muffin-men and sellers of hot chestnuts, and the hooves of horses clopping along the streets. Fantoccini are puppets operated by moving wires or mechanical means; Chinese shades seem to have been part of a galanty show, a play or pantomime produced by throwing shadows of puppets on to a wall; a ‘Chinese shades’ man is interviewed by Henry Mayhew in ‘London Labour and the London Poor’.

Street Performers, 1881

London is painted round them: burly railings
and grey rich inaccessible houses; squares –
laurelled and priveted, flowered, and fast in palings –
where the grave children move and are not theirs
and are more bright and distant than the sun
whose wan dry wine shines in the windows – squares
and heavy curtains, curtains and steps of stone:
these are their coloured cards, their theatres.

Hooked nose and hump, the Black Man, the police,
the hangman’s shadow by the prison wall,
the wandering misery in the courts of peace:
the mad voice like a wire will draw them all –
the puppets and the puppet-masters. Watch:
who is to tell, seeing no showman’s hands,
which are the audience, penny-foolish, which
the fantoccini and the Chinese shades?

Now (scarlet plush and gilt) the lights go on;
cold smoky curtains fold the stage away;
and all but shadows, penny plain, are gone.
Flare-cast from vehement oil, great blurs of grey
upon the gold and indigo, their dole
habit’s iniquity and ungiven bread,
they drift before the rainy street; they roll
on sad wheels rags to be inherited.

The salamander and the swordsman, and
the maypole-ribboned bear; from dark they pass
to dark, through blazing islands – as if stained
in mockery upon hot slips of glass; the fingers are withdrawn,
the puppets tumble, there are no more slides,
the paints are in their boxes: they have gone,
the fantoccini and the Chinese shades.

Terence Tiller


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