The Listening Lions

Written and performed by poet Michael Rosen

Location: This piece and its historical context are closely linked with the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, CB2 1RB.

This audio file is a recording & edit by Historyworks:

You can watch a video, taken on Helen's mobile phone, of Michael reading the poem below - we'll take a professional film of Michael performing later on, but for now, enjoy his rendition here:


We hear your feet on the steps of the Fitz

trip-trap, amble, clamber or run

We hear you complain of wind and rain

We hear you laugh when you see the sun.


We hear you talk of war and peace

voices that come, voices that go

we hear of pockets full or empty

what you say is what we know.


We hear lovers’ whispers as you walk by

and sighs of sadness from deep inside

We hear sounds of fear in how you breathe

the hug of hope and the smile of pride.


We hear you wonder about our eyes

We hear you study our hard stone faces.

We hear you wonder if we slumber

like lions after hunting in far-off places.


We hear our dreams of other times

not then, or now, or here, or there

We hear a dream of how we rise

and breathe in the living air.


And we all four together as lions

walk the street, none last or first

to find the water that is ours

to help us quench this terrible thirst.

©Michael Rosen 2014

Historical Context:

Since the very early years of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s existence four stone lions have been positioned outside the museum, two at the north steps and two at the south steps. In 1816 Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, bestowed his library and collection of art to the University of Cambridge as well as £100,000 to construct a building that would house them. His aim was to further "the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation".

It was not until 1835, after a process of discussions and land acquisition, that the Syndicate overseeing the project selected an architect who would design the building. After advertising the tender in the newspapers the Syndicate selected George Basevi (1794 – 1845), a London-born architect, from a group of 27 architects who had sent in plans to be considered. Two years later, on the 4th November 1837, the the Vice-Chancellor, Gilbert Ainslie, laid the foundation stone of the Fitzwilliam Museum, below where the northern lions rest.

In that same year the sculptor William Grinsell Nicholl (1796-1871) became involved in the task that would result in him creating the monumental lions that overlook Trumpington Street, when he was commissioned to realise Basevi’s architectural vision. Nicholl had started work that year carving decorative details of Basevi’s designs for the museum, working on the Corinthian columns and the decorative aspects of the façade. Then in 1839 he sculpted the four iconic lions that guard the south and north steps to the Fitzwilliam Museum’s portico entrance.

According to local folklore, when the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs’ clock strikes midnight, the Fitzwilliam Lions rise from their plinths and make their way to drink from the gutters that run along Trumpington Street, a few metres from where they sit, sometimes walking as far as Hobson’s Conduit. Different versions of the story say that they enter the museum, passing through the walls, occasionally letting out a roar. This is the inspiration for the poem called “The Listening Lions Go Walkabout”, which is located at the Fitzwilliam Museum steps.

Image courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Museum.

To find out more about the history that has inspired this composition and its lyrics you can visit the Historyworks website.

Click on the film link below to access a fun film showing the route and the process of the Cycle of Songs journey:

Created with flickr slideshow.
The Listening Lions


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