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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Adam Newey

Five men and one woman who took on impossible job – of poet laureate

Queen Elizabeth receives Simon Armitage to present him with the Queen's gold medal for poetry upon his appointment as poet laureate during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London in May 2019
Queen Elizabeth receives Simon Armitage to present him with the Queen's gold medal for poetry upon his appointment as poet laureate during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London in May 2019. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

“Oh, God, the royal poem!” John Betjeman wrote to a friend early in his laureateship. “Send the H[oly] G[host] to help me over that fence. So far no sign: watch and pray.” For a woman who wasn’t noted for a deep interest in literature, the Queen was served by some highly skilled poets laureate. Yet almost all found the job burdensome, and none produced his or her best work while wearing the laurels – certainly nothing to match, say, Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.

The official verse they wrote in some ways mirrors changing attitudes towards the monarchy over the course of Elizabeth II’s long reign. Though, given that most holders of the job have written poems on a wide range of themes – not just to mark royal hatches, matches and dispatches – it’s fair to say that their work reflects broader shifts in social and political concerns.

Aware of the dangers of falling into empty sonorities that can only echo the distance between a remote public figure and the rest of us, laureates most often adopted the technique of trying to see through to the elementally human concerns presumed to exist behind the ceremonial. It’s a strategy suited to contemporary mores in poetry – as opposed, say, to a more bardic, laudatory voice – though it’s still no guarantee of literary merit. Carol Ann Duffy’s The Throne, written to mark the 60th anniversary of the coronation in 2013, enunciates this approach explicitly:

...The crown translates a woman to a Queen

endless gold, circling itself, an O like a well,

fathomless, for the years to drown in – history’s bride,

anointed, blessed, for a crowning...

An alternative strategy was to produce a paean to England’s pastoral heritage, which the monarch is supposed either to embody or to act as protective guardian for. Either way, the struggle to avoid a cheerlessly dutiful tone was almost always a losing one. John Masefield (laureate 1930-67), the poet inherited by the Queen from her grandfather, George V, was that rare thing, a genuinely popular poet (as well as novelist and dramatist), and the last of the generation of Georgian poets (he was born the same year as Edward Thomas) who represent a conservative, some would say reactionary, alternative strand in 20th-century verse to the modernism of TS Eliot and WH Auden. His first poem for the Queen, Line on the Coronation of Our Gracious Sovereign in 1953, takes the pastoral-heritage approach. It verges on doggerel:

This lady whom we crown was born

When buds were green upon the thorn

And earliest cowslips showed;

When still unseen by mortal eye

One cuckoo tolled his ‘Here am I’ …

Masefield published a huge amount of laureate verse, on the deaths of Winston Churchill, TS Eliot and John F Kennedy (“All generous hearts lament the leader killed, / The young chief with the smile, the radiant face”), on AE Housman’s centenary and the birth of Prince Charles (a sonorous little quatrain, full of abstractions about service and destiny). Despite his enormous success as a writer, he retained a modesty that, according to one possibly apocryphal story, led him to accompany his poems with an SAE when sending them to the Times, in case they should be deemed unsuitable for publication.

The appointment of Cecil Day-Lewis (1968-72) marked a passing of the baton to one of the representatives of that other strand of poetry (and a member of the generation that embraced communism in the 1930s), but the poetry itself fared little better. He was only too aware of this. As his widow, Jill Balcon, wrote, his laureate poems “are verses with no pretension to being poetry”. He made it clear on becoming laureate that he would involve himself in public issues that interested him, rather than concentrating on royal events. In other words, he would strive to provide a poetic voice for the nation as a whole.

On being appointed, he told Balcon: “If I can write some verses on the amalgamation of six Teesside boroughs, I shall feel I’ve really achieved something.” He did just that, in Hail, Teesside!:

You are bridge-builders still. Only, today

You draw six towns into a visioned O,

Spanning from town to town the ebb and flow

Of destiny. A dream is realised...

His first poem on becoming laureate, Then and Now, was commissioned by the Daily Mail as part of its “I’m backing Britain” campaign, a short-lived attempt, in the wake of the Wilson government’s devaluation of sterling, to boost the flagging economy by encouraging workers to put in unpaid overtime:

To work then, islanders, as men and women

Members one of another, looking beyond

Mean rules and rivalries towards the dream you could

Make real, of glory, common wealth, and home.

During his relatively brief tenure, much of it marked by serious illness, Day-Lewis produced poems for the Old Vic’s 150th anniversary, Oxfam’s 25th, for National Library Week, to encourage environmental awareness, for Beethoven’s bicentenary – and just one for a royal event: the poem For the Investiture of the Prince of Wales, published in the Guardian on 1 July 1969.

Your mother’s grace, your father’s gallantry

Go with you now to nerve and cheer you

Upon the crowded, lonely way before you.

Betjeman’s poem on the same event – written three years before he succeeded Day-Lewis – was rather more successful, mainly by virtue of making no attempt to rise to the gravity of the occasion:

Then, sir, you said what shook me through

So that my courage almost fails:

‘I want a poem out of you

On my Investiture in Wales.’

Betjeman (1972-1984) was another genuinely popular figure, in the Masefield mould, known widely through his television appearances and his accessible, wryly fogeyish verse. The day after his appointment, he told this paper: “I don’t think I shall write about public occasions unless I can feel them, it is better not to write than to write badly … I would not, for instance, be at all interested in writing a poem about the entry of Britain into the economic market, or whatever it is. Not my kind of subject.” A year into the job, however, he was already feeling the pressure and calling for spiritual help. A kicking from the press didn’t help. “I have been having a terrible time in the newspapers – misrepresented, lied about, often with the best intentions, and made so nervous I hardly dare put pen to paper,” he wrote. “Perhaps it would be rather a good thing if paper runs out.”

The humour had certainly run out. His poem for Princess Anne’s wedding to Mark Phillips in 1973 runs to a perfunctory dozen lines that end:

All of our people rejoice

With venturous bridegroom and bride.

Trumpets blare at the entrance,

Multitudes crane and sway.

Glow, white lily in London,

You are high in our hearts today!

Another piece, from 1974, on the opening by the Queen Mother of the upper Avon in Stratford after construction of new locks, verges on the McGonagall-esque:

Your Majesty, our friend of many years,

Confirms a triumph now the moment nears:

The lock you have re-opened will set free

The heart of England to the open sea.

After the genteel, well-mannered versifying of his predecessors, the appointment of Ted Hughes (1984-98) must have seemed like setting a wolf in charge of the chicken coop. Given the laureateship when the obvious front-runner, Philip Larkin, turned it down, Hughes was, according to Craig Raine, his one-time editor at Faber, attracted to the job primarily by the fishing opportunities it might present. Private Eye, naturally, had tremendous fun with him, following each laureate poem with its own spoof version. Its version of his piece for the Queen’s 60th birthday ended thus:

Rotting stoat
Body carcass
Gleaming fish nibbled
Carrion of death
Sodden fur bulging
Old Stoatie’s
Rather had it.

Happy birthday
Your Majesty.

He was, arguably, the best of the poets to get the job during the Queen’s reign; certainly he produced the most interesting poems as laureate. Steeped in the English countryside (his attachment is specifically English rather than British), and with an unmatched intensity of vision, he was ideally suited to locating his vision of the English crown within English nature. It didn’t hurt that he was a true believer, with a sense of the monarch as part of a natural order of being. Asked by Faber to produce a quatrain for the Queen’s silver jubilee, he wrote:

A Soul is a Wheel.

A Nation’s a Soul

With a Crown at the hub

To keep it whole.

The title poem from his 1992 collection of laureate verse, Rain-Charm for the Duchy, written to mark the christening of Prince Harry in 1984, succeeds by virtue of making no reference whatsoever to its ostensible subject. It’s a typically tough, raw evocation of a West Country rainstorm, positing Cornwall’s swollen rivers and drenched moors as a kind of pagan fertility symbol that finds a feebly enervated echo in the Christian rite the poem supposedly celebrates. There’s little sense of duty or deference here, or in the Masque written for the Queen’s 60th birthday, which makes glancing reference to the nation’s changing ethnic make-up. Rather, there’s a notion of connectedness, of community of purpose, with the crown figured as “the ring of the people”. This is appropriate to a more democratic age yet it’s also rooted in mythic ideas of timeless English liberty.

The Unicorn, written on the 40th anniversary of the accession, addresses the changing nature of the relationship between monarch and people after deference has melted away:

Falstaff’s our only true-bred Fool,

His belly-laugh the only school

Where liberty guarantees the rule.

Let Licensed Clowns grab ears and eyes.

Britain, Falstaff in disguise,

Laughs with the Queen and keeps her wise.

The appointment of Andrew Motion (1999-2009) in the wave of early Blairite modernisation marked a significant change in the terms of the post: no longer for life, but limited to 10 years. It also came with something like a proper emolument: £5,000 a year instead of the traditional £200 and a butt of sack. But there was still little in the way of an actual job description. “The first time I met the Queen,” Motion wrote in the Guardian, “she said the same thing as Tony Blair, whom I’d also just met for the first time: ‘You don’t have to do anything.’ ”

Motion saw the role as having two distinct parts, as a poet and as an ambassador for poetry, or as he termed it, “a writing bit and a doing bit”. In the latter respect, he left his mark with the establishment of the Poetry Archive, an online library of poets reading their own work. In the former, he continued Day-Lewis’s determination to address a broad range of public issues, producing poems for the TUC, Childline and Combat Stress, among many others. Yet he felt the pressure to mark royal events too. “Every time there’s been a royal birth or wedding or death in the past 10 years,” he wrote after his retirement, “a terrible low rumble has begun in newsrooms across the country. A rumble that has soon led to people ringing me up to ask whether I’m ‘thinking of doing something’.”

In the end he wrote just eight royal poems, among them the universally lampooned rap poem for Prince William’s 21st birthday:

Better stand back

Here’s an age attack,

But the second in line

Is dealing with it fine.

He was also more frank than any of his predecessors about the horrors of trying to write in the public eye: “No other writing that I’ve undertaken, of any kind, has been so difficult … In every case, after I’d written these eight poems, I sent them to my agent, who sent them to newspapers, where they landed on news editors’ desks. News editors don’t think a poem is a story in and of itself, so they then get on the phone to as many people as it takes to find someone who doesn’t like the poem – then they have their story: poet laureate writes another no-good poem.”

Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment in 2009 marked another important change, as the first woman, and the first openly gay person, to take on the role. She was also the only laureate to have written a regular poetry column for the Daily Mirror. Her first official poem addressed the MPs’ expenses scandal. Her second marked the deaths of the two last surviving Tommies from the first world war. She’s also looked at issues as varied as HIV/Aids, the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud of 2010 and an injury to David Beckham’s achilles tendon. Her poem for the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, Rings, divided opinion, but she adopted the novel technique of spreading the pain by commissioning some 20 other poets to produce work that could be used as nuptial vows at weddings or civil partnerships, making of the occasion a more general celebration of love and commitment.

With the exception of Hughes – the Alf Ramsey among laureates – the poets who served the Queen showed that, like managing the England football team, it’s an impossible job. Given the extent to which it invites public mockery, they’re to be admired for taking it on. They also show that, whether the laureateship is in future decoupled from the monarchy or not, it’s still important to have an official voice for poetry, both to address matters of contemporary concern, providing a counterweight to the numbing banalities of so much of our public discourse, and to carve out a little place for poetry close to the heart of the nation’s life.

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