This poem is a response to some work my father did on our family history. With a name like 'Rowland' I expected to be descended from an aristocratic family of French knights. In reality, I found out that we were descended from a family of eighteenth-century hairdressers from Essex. The poem starts with an epigraph from the Antiquarian Repertory.
A History of the Beard
‘The master of the barber shop practised surgery and could breathe a vein as well as mow a beard’
That’s blood in my window, yes. Forget it. Let me cover you with the suds of a laver,
curleth you with a Crisping Iron and (on the side) cutteth you with a Knife
so that the Blood spitteth. You say you only came in for a mullet,
not phlebotomy? Sit still. Prepare to be frounst with my irons
while you strum on the gittern. I see your ambrosial locks are an old cast.
Do not worry. With this camphor soap I shall tweak your inamorato’s peak
and trim it as tight as your subercles. (That’s sidies.) Your mowchatows
will wither their tendrils: I shall trim you like a cheese.
Would you like a gentleman’s cut? I see not.
A common cut? County cut? Court cut? Shall I fix a wig with the doup of a candle, cannikin
and dredging box? A periwig on the pow, weel-heeled, sansy
and as decent as that of my friend Sir Thomas Browne, so large it loaded a camel?
A bag-wig with sausage curls? A campaign-wig with knobs, bobs or dildos?
Are you are a Puritan? Do you want a commode on your head? If so,
there shall be no tricking, trimming, rubbing, scratching, combing, clawing, trickling, toying
to tawe out tuppence. Instead, I shall boss your mouth with the lather
of my balls (sweet sope balls) and ferret your molars as in Gay’s fable,
‘The Goat Without a Beard’, in which ‘Black, rotten teeth’ are strung
to dry in the window by the cups of blood. No? God save you, then,
from the women barbers of Scarborough. As my friend St Jerome said,
‘The woman who wears a wig commits a moral sin’, as if
it were the barnet of Pepys, made with the hair of the plague.
Go and comb your peruke in an opera box, beaux-face.
Make haste and shave on a Sunday, be fined like that naughty Patrick
Bront? in Thornton. On the Lord’s Day, indeed, sir, espied by Dissenters.
No, sir, I shall hear nothing against Sir Thomas More,
who cast his beard aside from the chopping block with his last words:
‘It hath done no treason’. So the ballad goes: ‘It is very hard to handle a beard’
whether dagger-like or stiletto, that might eyes outpike.
I can see this is all irrelevant natter. Sir, you have a chin like a nutmeg.
You would fair well in the Hum-hums of Afghanistan, where the humble being
yanks at the sovereign’s bush, to heap complaints on the shame of the beard.
No, I do not keep spares. Never demand a beard of another,
pull the devil by the beard, make anyone’s beard, beard someone,
or wipe the beard of the sister of King Henry the Eighth. Starch it instead. Ah, I see: you have
no head. Well, God speed you, my love, and remember this advice:
to protect the beard from disarrangement, always wear a cardboard box at night.
from The Land of Green Ginger (Salt, 2008), © Antony Rowland 2008, used by permission of the author and the publisher