Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera
Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library
Kenneth Newis and Her Majesty The Queen with the Visitors Book by The Queen's Hall, under a Creative Commons licence
The first Elizabethan era was arguably the greatest ever for English poetry. William Shakespeare, Edmund Spencer, John Donne, George Herbert, Ben Jonson – I could go on. How then has the second Elizabethan era fared in comparison? One way to judge that question would be to take a look at the Poet Laureates who have served during Elizabeth II’s long reign.
The Queen has had six Poet Laureates since ascending to the throne in 1952, beginning with John Masefield, who she inherited from her father, George V. Masefield had at one point a reputation as an old sea dog (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer by’ begins his most famous poem), although the ‘poet of the sea’ had left the Merchant Navy at 17 because of mal-de-mer.
Masefield became the Laureate in 1930, although there were many who felt Kipling would have been more fitting. Whereas Kipling’s reputation has fallen and risen again, Masefield’s went into decline before the end of his long, long life in 1967. By that time his convention-bound form of Georgian poetry, with its rhythmical staidness, looked dusty.
Cecil Day-Lewis began his writing life as a Communist and ended it as Elizabeth II’s second Poet Laureate. Quite a journey. In the 1930s, he’d written poems warning the Ancien Regime their time was up:
Don’t bluster, Bimbo, it won’t do you any good:
We can be much ruder and we’re learning to shoot.
Closet Napoleon, you’d better abdicate,
You better leave the country before it’s too late.
One is tempted to ascribe the blustering to Day-Lewis himself, who spent the last four years of the life hymning royal occasions, although to be fair to him, he did try to move that ancient post into modern times by insisting he should also be allowed to involve himself in public issues, not just Windsor weddings, births and funerals. Nevertheless, his reputation has not weathered well.
Perhaps the most popular of the Queen’s laureates was John Betjeman, who at the time of his appointment in 1972 was well known for his television programmes, his struggles to save Victorian buildings from demolition, and humorous verse.
Ted Hughes and the Laureateship – something never quite fit there. The craggy poet of the moors, a man weighed down by a doomy personal mythology, you just couldn’t see him easily penning odes on the occasion of Prince Andrew’s marriage:
For from this day, that gives you each
To each as man and wife
That’s the dance that makes the honey
Happiness of life.
He was the outstanding poet of his generation and the obvious choice in 1984 (Philip Larkin turned it down), but even his greatest supporters would not say his royal verse counted amongst his best.
On Ted Hughes’ death, the media began to speculate about who might succeed him, with Seamus Heaney’s name in the frame (despite his famous criticism of his inclusion in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry: 'Be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen’). It was in fact Andrew Motion who assumed the role in 1999. He proceeded to reinvent for a new millennium a post that was nearing complete redundancy. He insisted the job only be for ten years and that he wrote ‘poems about things in the news, and [he be] commissioned by people or organisations involved with ordinary life’. His successor Carol Ann Duffy, the first woman ever to hold the post, has followed his lead since taking up the Laureateship in 2009, penning poems on the MP’s expenses scandal, the war in Afghanistan and David Beckham’s injured Achilles’ tendon.
The first Elizabethan period remains unrivalled, poetically, although that need not reflect badly on Elizabeth II’s. Hardly any period since can boast such richness; perhaps only the Romantics and the high-water mark of the age of Victoria, another Queen whose reign coincided with deep changes in the life of Britain. The real question is - does the Queen read poetry?