Lady Elgin Becomes a Widow

Song Three, Psalm 37

Do not fret because of those who are evil

    or be envious of those who do wrong;

for like the grass they will soon wither,

    like green plants they will soon die away.

I went looking for a psalm extolling highway robbery. There must be one. This is the way of conquerors, and King David led armies. Lady Elgin sought to honor her husband’s death in a far land behind a modest stone plaque, leaving plaudits in Westminster to his partners in crime. 

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, Governor of Jamaica, Governor General of the Province of Canada, special commissioner to China, and Viceroy of India, died of a heart attack while crossing a rope bridge over the river Chadly in Kullu, 100 kilometers east of where I live. It was on the 20th of November 1863, so post monsoon, but still the river can be wild. I have crossed it myself, though in a car on a concrete bridge. Photographs show a substantial man who should have had enough sense to avoid scary bridges, but duty called.

He was not the man who stole marble sculptures (known as the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon in Athens, that was his father, but he did burn the Summer Place in Beijing, and forced the Emperor to cede Hong Kong to the Queen “in perpetuity.” 

I cannot find Lord Elgin’s grave, though it is said he is buried here

Saint John of the Wilderness

is modest enough

For the Saint who lost his head


A simple marble stone behind the church

Hides Lord Elgin’s sins

He knew

Sins enough for one man

And was ashamed

Did he ask for forgiveness

Or even recognize them 

For what they really were

Certainly after Gandhi 

Other people began to tally up the loot

The British forged solid reasons for

Conquering kingdoms

Subduing Mohammedans

But really they were just greedy


In a land where the dead are burned

Graveyard stones that could be 

In York or Leeds 

Though not elaborate enough for Canterbury or Westminster

Seem out of place

The weeds grow thick in the monsoon rain

All that I can really see on the stone that his widow

Set in the graveyard are dates

It is tended because tourists come and ask

If this is the man who stole

Marbles from the Parthenon.

He cannot be charged with the sins of his father

Or perhaps he can

People talk

Psalm 37 (v 34 ff)

Wait on the Lord, and keep his way, and he shall exalt thee to inherit the land: when the wicked are cut off, thou shalt see it.

I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree.

Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found.


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