Loyal incoherence: the Queen in verse

Why no great poems have ever been written about Britain’s constitutional monarchs

September 15, 2022
Ted Hughes, then poet laureate, receives the Order of Merit in 1998 from the Queen. Credit: Alamy/Fiona Hanson
Ted Hughes, then poet laureate, receives the Order of Merit in 1998 from the Queen. Credit: Alamy/Fiona Hanson

“The terrible audacity, rightness and ease of their inspiration make most other poems sound like birthday odes to George the First.” Robert Lowell dropped this sentence from his foreword to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965), which was published after her suicide in London in 1963. Perhaps he was uncertain how it would land in his fellow American’s adopted country. Lowell’s punchline nevertheless expresses an awkward truth about English poetry, which might have served as a prophetic warning to Plath’s husband, the future poet laureate Ted Hughes: no great poems have ever been written about Britain’s constitutional monarchs.

To understand why, consider another great American poet who settled in England, TS Eliot. Shortly after he became a British citizen in 1927, Eliot declared himself “a royalist in politics.” What he meant by this was, like his poetry, somewhat obscure. Intellectually, royalism was a term Eliot imported from France, where it signified a reactionary, anti-parliamentary position. But to most of George V’s other loyal subjects in the 1920s, it must have sounded like a way of dodging the question of which party you vote for.

The tragic symbolism of the impotent ruler animates Eliot’s poetry, from the mythical “Fisher King” of The Waste Land (1922) to the “broken king” (a defeated Charles I) of Little Gidding (1942). But in the 1930s, during the abdication crisis, he beat a retreat from the idea—popular among supporters of Edward VIII, such as the British Union of Fascists—of a strong monarch who might rise above party-political conflict. 

Eliot was, ultimately, a conservative not a revolutionary. He wore a white rose every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, but no living monarch moved him to verse, and he came to be embarrassed by the “royalist” label. His last word on the subject, in 1962, was pragmatic: “I am in favour of retaining the monarchy in every country in which a monarchy still exists.”

Pragmatism might be the watchword of a constitutional monarchy, but it’s an unpromising muse. Possibly the only poem about Elizabeth II to have tackled royal prerogative directly is CH Sisson’s “To the Queen” (1968). Sisson, a civil servant who wrote a book called The Spirit of British Administration, once remarked: “I hope that we are all constitutional monarchists.” “To the Queen,” though, is a deliberately discomfiting poem which valorises, without cosiness, the monarch’s impersonal unifying function: “until this realm / Is covered by the sea // Or worse democracy.”

Punctuation matters, both to poets and civil servants. A comma here would make for an authoritarian remark: absolute rather than relative (“Or worse, democracy”). Unpunctuated, it expresses a conservative wish to preserve the status quo. But, like the rest of the poem, it is provocatively designed to make liberal readers do a double take. 

Sisson’s unsentimental Toryism saw the hereditary authority at the heart of British parliamentary democracy as a guiding restraint: “the rein / Loose on the errant back.” Other poets, though, have felt the force of oppression and exclusion that emanates from castle walls. Standing between Buckingham Palace and Whitehall, RS Thomas reflected in 1963 in “A Welshman at St James’ Park” that “I am not one / Of the public; I have come a long way / To realise it.” During the Silver Jubilee of 1977, Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin remembered seeing tennis players in an English park “suddenly drop their racquets / and stand firmly to attention / as the National Anthem / wafted from the bandstand,” and thinking “this is another country.” And among the sharp questions posed about post-imperial power in his last book, British Museum (2017), Daljit Nagra asked, in a poem for the BBC: “When the flag at the Palace weeps, / say, for the death of a Saudi king, / must our vessel, as dictated by the Houses / of Parliament, echo a voice of grief?”

The English poet who wrote most ambivalently about the political reality of the British monarchy in the 21st century was the late Sir Geoffrey Hill. At the end of his visionary sequence The Orchards of Syon (2002), resigned to “forever tangling with England / in her quiet ways of betrayal,” he glimpses Legoland UK from a plane window:

Loyal incoherence not official

but now and then inspired: when circling

Heathrow on hold we are entertained

by Windsor’s scaled-down perfect replicas

In 1796, Edmund Burke likened the monarchy’s constitutional position to “the proud Keep of Windsor, rising in the majesty of proportion.” Here, Hill asks whether the modern House of Windsor—until 1917, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha—is merely an entertaining sideshow, or something more Platonic (“perfect”), or fake (“replicas”)?

Surprisingly, the author of a poem which pursues these questions without offering a loyal answer is the current poet laureate. In his official lament for the Queen this week, and the Duke of Edinburgh last year, Simon Armitage employed the time-honoured poetic evasion of a pastoral elegy (the landscape mourns, the individual becomes a symbol on the horizon). But in “Lines Thought to Have Been Written on the Eve of the Execution of a Warrant for His Arrest,” from his second collection, Kid (1992), Armitage sardonically evokes an unnamed woman adored by a docile populace: “Boys, [...] in handouts and speeches, / she will care for us and cannot mean it.” The poem ends with an off-hand couplet imagining “the hour that takes her”: “how still we were the moment this happened, / in good faith, as if it really mattered.” Would he get arrested for writing this now?