Week 178: The Streets of Laredo, by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice was in London during the Blitz and this poem captures the spirit of that time in masterly fashion as it shifts between the real and the semi-mythic, the defiant and the despairing, its cast of characters moving to the ballad tune in a brilliantly choreographed danse macabre.

Agag was a bibilical king referred in the book of Samuel as coming ‘delicately’ to his execution.

The Streets of Laredo

O early one morning I walked out like Agag,
Early one morning to walk through the fire
Dodging the pythons that leaked on the pavements
With tinkle of glasses and tangle of wire;

When grimed to the eyebrows I met an old fireman
Who looked at me wryly and thus did he say:
‘The streets of Laredo are closed to all traffic,
We won’t never master this joker to-day.

‘O hold the branch tightly and wield the axe brightly,
The bank is in powder, the banker’s in hell,
But loot is still free on the streets of Laredo
And when we drive home we drive home on the bell.’

Then out from a doorway there sidled a cockney,
A rocking-chair rocking on top of his head:
‘O fifty-five years I been feathering my love-nest
And look at it now —
why, you’d sooner be dead.’

At which there arose from a wound in the asphalt,
His big wig a-smoulder, Sir Christopher Wren
Saying: ‘Let them make hay of the streets of Laredo;
When your ground-rents expire I will build them again.’

Then twangling their bibles with wrath in their nostrils
From Bunhill Fields came Bunyan and Blake:
‘Laredo the golden is fallen, is fallen;
Your flame shall not quench nor your thirst shall not slake.’

‘I come to Laredo to find me asylum’,
Says Tom Dick and Harry the Wandering Jew;
‘They tell me report at the first police station
But the station is pancaked —
so what can I do?’

Thus eavesdropping sadly I strolled through Laredo
Perplexed by the dicta misfortunes inspire
Till one low last whisper inveigled my earhole —
The voice of the Angel, the voice of the fire:

O late, very late, have I come to Laredo
A whimsical bride in my new scarlet dress
But at last I took pity on those who were waiting
To see my regalia and feel my caress.  

Now ring the bells gaily and play the hose daily,
Put splints on your legs, put a gag on your breath;
O you streets of Laredo, you streets of Laredo,
Lay down the red carpet —
My dowry is death.

Louis MacNeice


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