Mary Beard I


Upon a lighted stage, a talking head
Filmed from in front in Washington D.C.’s
National Gallery of Art, decrees
That busts of Roman emperors long dead
Might or might not look just as they appeared
To mirrors on the wall, for we must tease
Truth from a tangle of uncertainties.
Caesar’s face now depends on Mary Beard.

How hard to tell true Caesars from the fakes
When history is more than something gone!
Much like a painting by Monet it takes
Its colours from each moment’s Rubicon.

Therefore the bust we look to now is hers,
Set on the lectern like an emperor’s.


Current edit: 23 June 2015

11 October 2015

Mary Beard is a Cambridge Professor of Classical Studies with a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement. She is also a documentary maker and a mother. In 2011 she made a series of six lectures on the powerful figures cut by Rome’s emperors, now accessible online here:

This poem is in response to her first lecture. I think all the poems in the series are worth the effort because, as far as I know, no such series of poems has ever been done before and there are different facets that can be brought out. It’s fun toying with words and ideas. I don’t know why more people don’t do it. On the other hand, writing can be hard work and this series of poems won’t be easy. Each poem has to contribute to a whole vision and each must be different. It is good practice for writing lyrical dramas in the manner of Greek tragedians, these comprising set pieces stitched together seamlessly somehow.


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