Posted by: John Looker | 15 May, 2011



It’s a muscular river, the Thames, marching
through London, the colour of gun metal.
At times however, at dawn, as the light
brushes the sky, it’s tranquil, numinous –
Sampson without his hair.

One such morning, at low tide,
we might have seen a man wading,
waist-deep, bending and scooping,
sifting the mud, scooping and sifting,
wholly absorbed in his task.

He paused beneath the Houses of Parliament,
where lamps still burned, and there on a terrace
was a lone figure, watching the dawn,
suit buttoned against the chill,
face drawn and grey. 

Two metres apart but not a word
exchanged – their lives, their worlds, briefly
drifting close, a random sighting.
One then slowly returned inside;
the other resumed his search.

And all around the air now seemed
to lighten, to quiver on the point of day,
while traffic alighted on Westminster Bridge
and barges took to the river.

© John Stevens 2011

The illustration is one of four in a series of variations on a theme by Jim Kleinhenz, taken with permission from his blog at


  1. You make the river come alive here. I really love it.


    • Thank you Ina. I’m pleased if the thing worked!


  2. Wonderfully atmospheric John,

    I could have been there. And I love the “gun-metal” colour



    • Thanks a lot David. As you might guess, I love the Thames in London.


  3. John, yes I see how the picture fits. Now. Suggesting the picture needs ‘definition’, putting a border around it! Misses the point, right? I’d only given the poem a quick read; I didn’t see that ‘we might have seen’ drifting in the second stanza. ‘Might have’? ‘We’? Okay, the muscular Thames, marching through London, is tamed by the dawn. (Thames, ‘the dark one’?) We are looking on, witnessing (maybe) a brief non-encounter. Two worlds (social realities?) drift near to each other and then go about their business—and then the business of the world (barges) barges in. What did ‘we’ see? Where did ‘we’ go? Reminds me of those nocturnes James Whistler painted. (See his Nocturne in Blue)—only it’s dawn. Also that wonderful third section to Charles Ives’ ‘Three Places in New England’ ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’.
    The great danger that this poem brushes up against is the ‘no rhyme or reason’ part. Think life is meaningless—write a meaningless poem. Think life is boring—write a boring poem. The boring and the meaningless require great writing—and this poem isn’t quite that—but it breathes and drifts along with the mighty Thames and that ain’t bad. Ain’t bad at all.
    Your homework assignment is reread the opening paragraphs to Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’.
    “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
    It’s a pleasure to have my picture with your poem.


    • I greatly appreciate your close reading and thoughtful comments, Jim. I think I see what you mean about ‘no rhyme or reason’. Maybe I need a change of title to sidestep the problem? Must think.
      I’ve looked at Conrad again – strange & marvellous that the story is framed by a scene on the Thames!
      Whistler’s nocturne? Yes, that would have made an acceptable illustration if I hadn’t secured a good deal on the Kleinhenz …


  4. Strong images, John. I am floating somewhere near the apex of the Eye and the two men are [silent movie] figures in the eddies that direct them. The gunmetal adjective sets the pre-dawn scene beautifully. If you do seek a new title, maybe borrow a phrase – ‘a tide in the affairs of men’ …


    • That’s nice of you, John. You know London obviously!
      “A tide in the affairs of men” could be a neat title – witty too. I’m stuck at present on some other ideas, so I’ll ponder!


  5. I’ve changed the title – prompted by Jim Kleinhenz to rethink the impact of the original title, and with the benefit of suggestions from both Jim and John Wainwright. Thanks guys!

    Moments of Suspense? The dawn, the tide, the city and the figures – all held briefly in suspense.


  6. The new title is spot-on, John – and I love your choice of ‘muscular’ to describe the Thames; that’s exactly it. I’m always drawn to the river when I’m in London; it’s a natural, live thing in the midst of all the manmade, made-up stuff, and even though it’s contained between banks and breakwaters, it still goes its own way. Great poem.


    • Thanks very much Nick. I enjoyed your two recent poems set in London!


  7. Great sense of encounter and mystery in the details — the narrative refuses to name the parties or the true roles they play, leaving the reader much room to fill in the blanks. And the great institutions of Parliament and the Thames — so much history mortared in their mutual presence. – Brendan


    • It’s good to hear from you, and I’m glad you think the piece works.


  8. I like this. Particulary the silent communication. Wonderful image.

    Oh and thank you for visiting my blog.


  9. There’s something archetypal about this river and what it represents. I enjoyed your poem, John.


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