Sunday, 27 January 2008

Poetry in public places - Ulysses by the Merlion

The Merlion is a gigantic 80 ton sculpture to be found in Singapore. It is a fish with a lion's head. From it's mouth gushes a torrent of sea water. It is a modern Singapore icon. People in colourful clothes pose for holiday snaps in front of the statue. They buy miniature versions to take home. Hitachi, The Fullerton Hotel and HSBC must be delighted with all the free publicity due to their prominent background location in a million tourist photographs.
In 1977 Singapore poet Edwin Thumboo penned a poem about the Merlion. A plaque at the base of the sculpture is inscribed with his charming ode to Singapore's lion of the sea.

Ulysses by the Merlion

I have sailed many waters,
Skirted islands of fire,
Contended with Circe
Who loved the squeal of pigs;
Passed Scylla and Charybdis
To seven years with Calypso,
Heaved in battle against the gods.
Beneath it all
I kept faith with Ithaca, travelled,
Travelled and travelled,
Suffering much, enjoying a little;
Met strange people singing
New myths; made myths myself.

But this lion of the sea
Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail,
Touched with power, insistent
On this brief promontory...

Nothing, nothing in my days
Foreshadowed this
Half-beast, half-fish,
This powerful creature of land and sea.

Peoples settled here,
Brought to this island
The bounty of these seas,
Built towers topless as Ilium's
They make, they serve,
They buy, they sell.

Despite unequal ways,
Together they mutate,
Explore the edges of harmony,
Searched for a centre;
Have changed their gods,
Kept some memory of their race
In prayer, laughter, the way
Their women dress and greet.
They hold the bright, the beautiful,
Good ancestral dreams
Within new visions,
So shining, urgent,
Full of what is now.

Perhaps having dealt in things,
Surfeited on them,
Their spirit yearns again for images,
Adding to the dragon, phoenix,
Garuda, naga, those horses of the sun,
The lion of the sea,
This image of themselves.

One may wonder what Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, would make of the strange lion-fish creature, the Merlion. Poet-in-Residence suspects that he would be delighted!


  1. I've posted a link to your page:

    It's sort of my update on the Merlion:)

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing that link Gerald.


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