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This poem is taken from PN Review 110, Volume 22 Number 6, July - August 1996.

Lady Hamilton and the Elephant Man David Constantine

Emma Hamilton and Joseph Merrick, a hundred years apart, were famous in their generations, she for her beauty, he for his sad deformity. Emma, born to poor parents in Cheshire in 1765, exploited her assets the best she could: and after standing as the Goddess of Health at the Adelphi to advertise a dubious medical practice she passed from Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh (by whom she had a child) to the Honourable Charles Greville and from him, in 1786, to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, widower, Ambassador in Naples and passionate amateur of classical art and Mount Vesuvius. She seems really to have loved Greville and to have resented being passed on: but, with her mother, she made the best of it, established herself in Naples, got Hamilton to marry her, had a liaison (and another child) with Lord Nelson, the Hero of the Nile. With Hamilton as her impressario she entertained many guests in his household by 'standing in attitudes' - that is, by impersonating famous characters in ancient history and mythology. Many artists depicted her. Joseph Merrick, born in Leicester in 1862, began to develop his deformity, perhaps a form of neurofibromatosis, in infancy, but managed tolerably well at home until his mother died, when he was ten. His life thereafter worsened as his illness did, and he had to make shift first as a door-to-door salesman then in the workhouse. He escaped that misery by exploiting his one asset, his deformity, and put himself on the road, with a manager, as the Elephant Man. Being shown in a shop opposite the London Hospital he was visited by the surgeon Frederick Treves. Treves look him up, exhibited him at the Pathological Society, published articles on him. After an unhappy time on the continent Merrick came back into Treves' care in (he London Hospital and lived out the remaining four years of his life there. Ridiculously, it was rumoured he might be Jack the Ripper. He was much visited by ladies of the highest society.
Those are the bare facts on which I have based my poem. I have brought the four characters together in an underworld where they can converse and utter things it would be harder to utter in the prosaic daylight. The poem works through its images which connect and reconnect, as themes and suggestions in music might. Emma Hamilton, standing in attitudes, kept silent: Joseph Merrick had an inner life which -his deformed mouth could not articulate. I wanted to let them speak, and their minders too. The symmetry attracted me, and the likenesses and differences it contained.

Lady Hamilton and the Elephant Man
Verse for Four Voices with a Prologue

Said to be windy like the underground and crowded
Fuller than the undergrounds of New York, Tokyo,
London, Paris, fuller than that, and add to them Buenos Aires,
Mexico City, Rio, all the world's cities
That pull in populations like black holes, still fuller,
Fuller than all that sum in the rush hour, in one
Everlasting rush hour, is the hell, the underworld of the ancients,
Ours still, still filling. There are only arrivals. Trains arrive,
They empty and leave again and the escalators
Descend out of the air and from every step as they level

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