In the latest issue:

In Quarantine

Erin Maglaque

Après Brexit

Ferdinand Mount

Short Cuts: Springtime for Donald

David Bromwich

Meetings with their Gods

Claire Hall

‘Generation Left’

William Davies

At the North Miami Museum: Alice Paalen Rahon

Mary Ann Caws

Buchan’s Banter

Christopher Tayler

‘American Dirt’

Christian Lorentzen

Fiction and the Age of Lies

Colin Burrow

In Lahore

Tariq Ali


James Lasdun

Rereading Bowen

Tessa Hadley

At the Corner House

Rosemary Hill

William Gibson

Thomas Jones

Poem: ‘Murph & Me’

August Kleinzahler

The Stud File

Kevin Brazil

John Boorman’s Quiet Ending

David Thomson

In Shanghai: The West Bund Museum

John-Paul Stonard

Diary: The Deborah Orr I Knew

Jenny Turner

The Philosophical PhallusClive James
Vol. 6 No. 8 · 3 May 1984

The Philosophical Phallus

Clive James

429 words

Female desire aims to subdue, overcome and pacify the unbridled ambition of the phallus.

Roger Scruton

The unbridled phallus of the philosopher
Was seen last week galloping across the South Downs,
Flame spurting from its flared nostril.

The phallus being a horse in which
Both mane and tail are bunched together at the back end,
This unharnessed piece of horseflesh was of necessity unable
To accompany with a display of shaken neck-hair
The tossing of its head,
But the tossing of its head was tremendous nevertheless,
Like that of Bucephalus, the steed of Alexander.

Where the lush grass curves up to the rim of the chalk cliffs
So that they drop away where you cannot see them
When looking from inland,
Such was the cyclorama against which ran rampant
The unbridled phallus of the philosopher,
Pulling lawn like an emerald treadmill incessantly beneath
The unravelling thunder of its hooves –
Accoutrements which a phallus does not normally possess
But perhaps in this case they were retractable
Like the undercarriage of some large, cigar-shaped aircraft –
The Starlifter, for example, or the C-5 Galaxy.

See where it comes across the Ontological Divide
Separating Men and Women!
The unbridled phallus in its frightening hauteur,
Gushing suds with each procreative snort –
Not the small, dog-skulled horse of the Greeks and the Etruscans,
But the horse of the Persians as noted by Herodotus,
Big, built thickly, hefty-headed,
Its two great globular hindquarters throbbing
Like the throats of rutting frogs.

The prancing pudendum curls its lip but says Yes to Life:
It is a yea-neigher.
Not only does it say ‘ha-ha!’ among the trumpets,
But in the landscaped gardens of fashionable country houses
It trumpets among the ha-has,
And the pulsing vein of its back is not afraid.

Though fleet-footed as an Arab it is stronger than a Clydesdale,
Shouldered like a Shire, bulk-bodied like a Suffolk –
A standing, foam-flanked reproach
To all those of us more appropriately represented
By the Shetland Pony,
Or that shrunken, shrivelled toy horse with the mule-tail
Equus przewalskii, Prejvalsky’s horse
From the Kobdo district of western Mongolia.

At nightfall the women of storm-swept lonely farms,
Or at casement windows of the grand houses aforesaid,
Or women anywhere who languish unfulfilled qua women,
Feel their Ontological Divide transformed to jelly
At the vibrant snuffle in the distance –
Long to subdue it, to overcome it, to pacify it,
Willing it homeward to its chosen stable,
Which will suffer its presence all the more exquisitely
For being neither deep nor wide enough wholly to contain

The unbridled ambition of the philosophical phallus.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences