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Lay for the Day 11th December


11th December is the feast day of St Damasus, the patron saint of archaeologists. He was a Spaniard who became Pope in AD366, and his patronage of delvers is due to his saving and refurbishing the tombs of the original Roman martyrs. Three crucial events of Church history occurred in his papacy: the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, the canonisation of the books of the Bible we know today, and the creation of a definitive Latin text for them by St Jerome, who was Damasus's secretary for a while.
The poem was inspired by a talk by the chief archaeologist for the Jubilee Line, the newest of London's Tube lines, about the history of Southwark and the area at the south end of London Bridge. The excavations for the Underground revealed evidence of an extensive Roman development – not just a cluster of wooden huts, as usually shown on the southern riverbank in the artists' impressions of Londinium.
There were large stone buildings, and perhaps a colonnaded main street leading to the bridge. One corner of a pre-Roman wooden building was also discovered, the line of whose walls suggested that it was octagonal. The only similar remains found in Britain are thought to be those of an Iron Age temple.
 

Borough Digs

I

The graveyard’s under the railway
and streams beneath the street.
Dust on our shoes
was Roman squaddies’ hidebound feet.

Quaker and robber and whore they
rub their bones in one bed
whilst at the door
of their stews, we knock overhead.

Those whose slaver is on the pots
broken below these stones
are tongues that shaped
this sea-going tongue’s rolling tones.

Johnson, Jonson, Shakespeare, Burbage
wet the shards with their lips,
and he that carved
“the face that launched a thousand ships”.

II

Before the legions came, who knows
what dwellers in the marsh
worshipped what gods
where buses to Camberwell pass?

The fishpond, the leet and the dyke
where flag and rushes grew
sank into pipes
when soap became the empire’s glue;

But the wagtail’s bob and gavotte
in the infants’ school grounds
plumbs the buried
line of the brook, the parish bounds.

III

George and Mitre and Blue-Eyed Maid
took not such rabble in
as, silent, drink
up the grit and gravel, and grin.

For the earth’s an inn assuages
every thirst and hunger,
republic of
earl, monk, punk and costermonger.

IV

The cormorants come up river.
mallard pad the shallows.
Last night a fox
trots past our door in the small hours,

stops, waits for the green man walking,
quickly crosses the road.
Concrete and tar
crown the past. Once the eel and toad

owned the Borough. No man-sole trod
its brine-bothered islands
and feet that still
haunt streets, came through reeds and silence.

 

John Gibbens
from Sand of the Thames

 

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar