At the peak of a fever like none other,
A good burgher whose thrift was his repute
Might part with two hogsheads of vintage port,
Twelve stout ewes and eight fat swine,
A silver chalice and a suit of clothes,
And brick after wheel after brick of cheese
For a single bulb, and fancy himself shrewd.
The logs disclose another who swapped a mill,
And one a brewery, for their fabled specimens.
Clouds of golden pollen. The pages crackle.
All Holland's in thrall -- the tulips have souls.
Cultivated by sultans, "turbans" from the Persians,
Imported for the delectation of the courts
And the jaded palates of the capitals:
Laced with oil and vinegar in London,
And in Dresden powdered with sugar.
But the Dutchman's taste ran to tulpenwoede --
Florid euphoria, epidemic ardor.
In the smoky taverns of Haarlem and Utrecht,
Flame-tongued goblets fed a blaze of speculation.
A fever like none other. The pages smolder.
The souls of tulips are mulched with Holland's gold.
Before the bottom fell out, before the bubble burst,
There were fortunes to be made from the mutations
That engendered hybrids by the hundredfold.
Pleats and ruffles, scarlet wicks and creamy swatches,
The ruby-veined undercup of the Semper Augustus,
From tightfisted roots the treasured clusters breaking open --
Behold the veritable bounty of beauty!
In vain the pastors thundered from their pulpits.
Once optimism blossoms, only ruin can stem the delirium.
The tulips had souls -- all Holland said so.
A spiked dust flares above the gilded pages.
David Barber is the assistant poetry editor of The Atlantic.
All material copyright © 2000 . All rights reserved.