Hounding the laureate

In a recent interview, Andrew Motion declared how relieved he was to no longer be poet laureate. He’s a dutiful man, and clearly felt the strain of meeting expectations. Hearing him, I almost regretted being so critical of his feeble poem about Harry Patch and his ‘found poem’ about war’s horrors.
Mind you, he had it easy in comparison with Robert Bridges, laureate during the Great War and a serious poet – but one who found it difficult to provide topical stuff fit for the newspapers.
This New York Times article from 1919 shows how he was hounded – by the appalling Horation Bottomley, no less – because he had not provided verses celebrating the peace:

Did he ever write that Peace poem? I hope not, since his War poems were not exactly top-notch. Here’s a sample:

“WAKE UP, ENGLAND”

THOU careless, awake!
    Thou peacemaker, fight!
Stand, England, for honour,
And God guard the Right!

Thy mirth lay aside,
They cavil and play:
The foe is upon thee,
And grave is the day.

The monarch Ambition
Hath harnessed his slaves;
But the folk of the Ocean
Are free as the waves.

For Peace thou art armed
Thy Freedom to hold:
Thy Courage as iron,
The Good-faith as gold.

Through Fir, Air, and Water
Thy trial must be:
But they that love life best
Die gladly for thee.

The Love of their mothers
Is strong to command;
The fame of their fathers
Is might to their hand.

Much suffering shall cleanse thee;
But thou through the flood
Shalt win to Salvation,
To Beauty through blood.

Up, careless, awake!
Ye peacemakers, fight!
England stands for Honour:
God defend the Right!

In the first decades of the twentieth century Britain had two superb public poets – Kipling and Chesterton – both able to write accessibly and tellingly on public issues. Both, however, were politically unreliable. The more sedate Bridges was chosen, and did not enhance his reputation with his official verses.

2 Comments

  1. Posted April 6, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating!

  2. Roger
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Kipling rejected the Laureateship- his Last Rime of True Thomas expressed his contempt for knighthoods and similar honours:
    “I ha’ harpit ye up to the throne o’ God,
    I ha’ harpit your midmost soul in three;
    I ha’ harpit ye down to the Hinges o’ Hell,
    And — ye — would — make — a Knight o’ me!”

    Was Chesterton ever offered the post of Laureate? He was nominally still CofE until the 1920s so religion wouldn’t count against him. On the other hand he was more in favour of reviving the post of Court Fool about when bridges got the Laureateship, too: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/20151/- a suitable post for Bottomley.


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