Simon Walsh looks at the Poets Laureate of Elizabeth II
In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange
There was one constant good
She did not change.
These lines were composed by Philip Larkin in 1978 to be inscribed in stone at the base of an urn to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. ‘I’m sure Ted will do better,’ he remarked, with his usual irony. Larkin (1922-85) never became Poet Laureate although Ted Hughes (1930-98), who also contributed to this Faber & Faber project for outside their offices in Queen Square, WC1, did. (A nation’s a soul / A soul is a wheel / With a crown for a hub / To keep it whole.’) In many ways, Larkin had been the nation’s unofficial laureate although by the mid-1970s his output had reduced to such a trickle that when asked in 1984 if he would succeed John Betjeman as Poet Laureate, he declined, and perhaps sensed his imminent demise too.
The post of Poet Laureate comes with a small honorarium and ‘a butt of sack’. It dates from 1668, and has no obligation to produce verse for royal occasions. Always appointed by the monarch (and on prime ministerial advice) it used to be for life until 1999 when it became a ten-year fixed term.
Upon her accession, Queen Elizabeth II inherited John Masefield (1878-1967) as Poet Laureate. A Victorian, from his appointment in 1930 he had served her grandfather (George V), uncle (Edward VIII), and father (George VI). On the latter’s demise, he wrote:
Wisdom who, with power infinite,
Utterest death to every creature born,
Grant to us now the mercy of Thy light,
With comfort to beloved Queens who mourn.
expressing in words that photograph of the ‘three queens’ (Mary, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Elizabeth II) awaiting the arrival of the late King’s coffin from Norfolk. Masefield was a great encourager, promoting both the recitation of poems and public recognition with George V instituting the royal Gold Medal for Poetry in 1933. A religious man, he had a Shakespearean grasp of oratory. Somewhat like Kipling, he was truly the heir to Tennyson, the only laureate to have served a longer term.
Masefield’s successor, the Irishman Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-72), sadly only managed four years in the role. There was much of the public intellectual about him, including a stint as Chairman of the Arts Council. He had worked as editor for the Ministry of Information during the war and from 1951-56 was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. A clergyman’s son and contemporary of W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, he moved from youthful Marxism to literary elder statesman, perhaps because his style was in truth a hark back to the Georgian Romantics. His detective novels have survived better than his poems.
John Betjeman (1906-84), who followed, was not quite so intellectual but he was certainly prolific. Here was someone who could write with fluency and humour about the Church of England, architecture, brand names, modernism, and the clash with old-style values. A small-c conservative and inveterate snob, he preferred the company of royals to writing for them. All the same, Betjeman’s work was consistent and adept, chronicling at times the tension in British life but usually with a fondness and wry smile. Two of his poems showed an incisive engagement with royal events. ‘Death of King George V’ in 1936 concluded with ‘the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way / Where a young man lands hatless from the air.’ And his 1969 ‘Ballad of the Investiture’ came from an encounter with the then Prince of Wales in the Trinity College, Cambridge, rooms of Mirfield man Harry Williams, when he apparently requested ‘a poem out of you / On my Investiture in Wales’. And so he obliged, but with a laconic concluding couplet: ‘You knelt a boy, you rose a man. / And thus your lonelier life began.’ He responded to those same lines in July 1981 at the end of ‘For a Royal Wedding’:
The scene is changed, the outlook cleared,
The loneliness has disappeared.
And all of those assembled there
Are joyful in the love you share.
Ted Hughes came next. There was darkness in his background from his failed marriage to Sylvia Plath which ended in her suicide in 1963, and the same with his next wife, Assia Wevill, in 1969, along with the death of their daughter. His subsequent marriage was happy and saw the original Yorkshireman settle in Devon on a farm. His royal poems were very few, but he wrote stirringly about nature, and paid homage to the Duchy’s rivers.
Andrew Motion (b.1952) followed. An academic, he met Larkin at Hull and became both his biographer and literary executor. Seamus Heaney had ruled himself out and the New Labour government had considered Carol Ann Duffy but thought she might be too edgy. Motion’s poems were often about nature and sometimes opaque, including national themes and a few royal ones. He founded the online Poetry Archive library.
Carol Ann Duffy was the first female, Scot, and out gay Poet Laureate. A chronicler of social issues, she wrote items for the Cambridges’ wedding in 2011 and ‘The Throne’ for the 2012 Diamond Jubilee.
And so to Simon Armitage, from 2019, who in his first three years has engaged well with the role, writing about coronavirus, the death of Prince Philip in 2021 (‘The Patriarchs’), and two pieces this year in honour of Her late Majesty: ‘Queenhood’ for the Platinum Jubilee, and the touching ‘Floral Tribute’ upon her death (see p29). He will have a willing patron in King Charles who is known to enjoy poetry and has made videos reading works by Wordsworth among others.