Poetry: Oval Room, Wallace Collection | clivejames.com
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Oval Room, Wallace Collection


Created purely for the court’s delight,
Pictures by Boucher and by Fragonard
Still work their charm no matter how we might
Remind ourselves how frivolous they are.

Surprised by Vulcan, Venus doesn’t care
A fig, and Mars is merely given pause.
The reason for the cuckold’s angry stare
Might be that her sweet cleft is draped with gauze.

Boucher does more of that when, held in thrall
By naked ladies, Cupid doesn’t seem
To grasp that he himself could have them all
If he were older. This is just a dream,

Even when Fragonard’s girl in the swing
Splays her long legs, kicks off one velvet shoe,
Knowing that boy down there sees everything.
He can’t believe such miracles are true,

And here they’re really not. In this whole room
All images save one are sex made tame
By prettiness, the pranks of youth in bloom,
Winsomely keen to join a harmless game.

But Boucher’s Pompadour is on her own.
Her poise commands us to include her out:
Such swinging scenes are a forbidden zone.
The kind of woman men go mad about,

Even in company her solitude
Was strictly kept. She never spilled a thing,
And what she might have looked like in the nude
No man alive could know except the king.

Always my visits here are made complete
By her, the stately counterpoint to these
Cavorting revellers. Aloof, discreet,
She guards the greatest of the mysteries:

How sensual pleasure feels. It can’t be seen,
So all this other stuff was just a way
To take the edge off how much love could mean
To win and lose, back then. Just like today.

Standpoint, May 2009

This poem on video (read by Tom O'Bedlam).