The Victorians believed an ancient legend, mysterious and enticing; that in the depths of Africa lies a place of fabulous wealth; a place where, were a man to find it he could have the entire piano manufacturing industry grovelling at his feet; I speak of the legend of the place where the elephants go to die.
It was once said that if a man were to stumble upon this elephant’s graveyard he would find such store of ivory that he would be able to retire young and settle in Palm Beach. The legend has taken many forms, but the classical version is surely in Shelley’s Sonnet Elephantmandias1 . As Shelley tells it the legend goes:
I met a traveller from an antique land Ah! Yes! That says it all, and men, spurred on, no doubt, by Miss Winters’2 poem, have fought and died to find those riches, but in the end they have always failed and their quest has proven vain and fatuous and long ago even became illegal. But now-a-days here, on this continent, we have an equally mysterious and desirable location, and one whose treasure is not banned by international treaty—the place where the shopping carts go to die.
Who said “Two vast and legless trunks of stone
Stand in the forest...
Nearby on a pedestal these words appear —
‘My name is Babar, King of Kings , look on
My works Ye mighty and despair.’”
The poor supermarket trolleys seem instinctively to sense when their time has come. Their axles are bent their wheels are cracked they go round the supermarket with a decided list. Their time has come, so instinct drives them to make their way by devious secret paths to their dying grounds. One of the most heartbreaking impacts that modern man has had on the environment in recent years has been his habit of fencing off the ancient migration routes of these sad carts-in-extremis.
With the fencing-in of the exits of supermarkets it is an almost common sight, a herd of the pitiful broken-down carts with their heads jammed up against the barrier trying in vain to escape and die with dignity. How much better it is at the old fashioned ecological sort of market, there one doesn’t see broken down aged limping carts forced to work until they drop, no, there when their allotted span is spun, like old soldiers who have done their duty they just fade away, and where do they go, where is the place where they go to die, and more importantly—what untold riches lie there, what eternally sealed packets of frozen peas, what cans of beans and spaghetti rings what wealth of household cleaning products! The elephants and their ivory pale before the image that calls up.
Last season I got up an expedition to go in search of this secret place.
We struggled on for months through the most difficult terrain, following cart spoor, with only occasional sightings of the beast to keep our spirits up: eventually, half dead with fever and exhaustion, we hacked our way through to our goal, but as you might guess our expedition ended in tragedy. One of my companions incautiously approached a big bull which was in must and it gored him horribly with a horrible cry of “Gore Blimey!”. In the confusion our bearers ran off carrying all our supplies, and we survivors only just made it back by abandoning everything else, now all I am left with is a photograph, the only thing I saved from the disaster.
I still have hope, though, for my photo shows enough land-marks to enable me to retrace my steps. I am going again, and when I return, ah then it won’t just be a few minutes on this show, but a whole hour on Nova.
Cheerio for now
from Richard Howland-Bolton
"... Shelley's Sonnet Elephantmandias" This ought to be with sincere (possibly grovelling) apologies to P.B.Shelley, Jean De Brunhoff and J.C.Merrick since it shamelessly combines all three. I particularly like the effect produced by the reversal of the trunk and legs.
The whole of Shelley's version of the sonnet is here.
For a different take on this sonnet see My Dogma Ran After My Karma.
"... Miss Winters' poem" I bet you never knew before that she was a poetess as well as an actress.
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