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Alfred Nicol: The Emperor’s New Clothes

It’s a story that people are tired of hearing;
hits too close to home, I suppose.
My part was an accident; I couldn’t see
the Emperor’s fancy new clothes.

At fourteen – a most insubordinate age –
unpractised at holding my tongue,
I cried out, “He hasn’t got anything on!”
naively, because I was young.

Since his trusted advisers, the noblest of noblemen,
hadn’t dared tell him the truth,
the emperor issued a formal decree:
Bring me that high-spirited youth!

Referring to me, of course – pimply and awkward,
untaught, but not easily fooled.
My lack of attention span worked in my favor:
I was too scatter-brained to be schooled.

With due ceremony, to public acclaim,
in the shade of The Venerable Elm,
I was tasked with The Regulatory Enforcement
of Fashion and Dress in the Realm.

Well, you can imagine the boredom I suffered –
Our roundtables gave me the hives!
(Though I took some pleasure inspecting the underthings
worn by the noblemen’s wives.)

But no one regarded my total indifference
as grounds for disqualification;
and nobody censured my absenteeism,
demanding a good explanation.

The truth is, the emperor’s state of undress
had livened things up for a while.
When his subjects looked back on that splendid procession
it gave them occasion to smile.

Albeit the monarch’s transparent attire
was purchased at public expense,
and hustling town criers enlarged on the scandal,
the commoners took no offense.–

They took something else from the startling event:
a burgeoning interest in fashion.
The bustier, codpieces, décolletage
such things were debated with passion.

Fair damsels began to appear at the fairs
exposing their ankles and wrists.
One coxcomb with lipstick on both of his cheeks
offered two other cheeks to be kissed!

When crowds cleared a path for me, I might glance back
and see how they flirted and teased,
but being a person as well as a personage,
I let them do as they pleased.

As the emperor’s agent, I knew that I served
both the arm of the law and its hand,
that enforcement is there at the service of money—
first link in the chain of command.

If lewdness and lust could be turned into profit
– like spinning bright gold from plain straw –
for me to suppress the new fashions would be
to subvert the intent of the law.

A prurient interest brought travelers through
and made us a center of trade.
The Emperor’s coffers were quickly replenished
with taxes the traffickers paid.

The terms of the Dress Code were rarely enforced,
and never by me, to be sure.
I not only countenanced shows of immodesty;
nay, I solicited more!

Artists, musicians and poets converged,
creating a cultural hub,
and much of the credit was given to me.
Too much of it. There was the rub.

An artist is often engaged in debauchery
(when he’s not painting his nudes).
An artist embraces all manner of deviance
but cannot tolerate prudes.

Though decades had passed since His Majesty’s shaming,
that episode always was mentioned
in each testimonial made in my honor –
however benignly intentioned.

Well, no one could blame them for telling the story,
since that’s where I’d gotten my start,
but it didn’t flatter the Emperor’s image.
His worshippers took it to heart.

Whatever is wrong with a little exposure?
The man was ahead of his time!
His tailors were truly the vanguard of fashion;
their silks had unveiled the sublime!

And I’d been a philistine from the beginning,
hindering the progress of Art.
Soon those in the know had all turned up their noses;
fashion abhors an old fart.

Regarding with horror the people’s opprobrium,
loathe to resign in disgrace,
I soaked through my nightshirt and knotted my bedsheets
and dreamed of a way to save face.

Awake with the cock’s crow, I rallied my senses
determined to wrest back control;
I’d take certain measures – including erasure –
to update the chronicler’s scroll

and expunge from the archive the kind of material
likely to stir up the masses.
The Cultural Council was very obliging.
We’ve all got to cover our asses.