I see that the Laureate has managed to come up with a decent poem to celebrate the Jubilee, by adopting the Ted Hughes method of writing about some natural phenomenon – in this case the River Thames – rather than the Royal Family (you can hear her read it here – http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9716000/9716076.stm )
The last time we had a Diamond Jubilee – in 1897 – the Poet Laureate was Alfred Austin. He had been appointed because none of the better-qualified candidates wanted the job (William Morris had turned it down) and because he was sympathetic to the Government of the day (in particular, he was a close friend of Lord Salisbury). So, a little like Andrew Motion.
He has been almost universally reviled as the worst Laureate ever, and his productions were widely mocked in his own time. So few of his poems are in print that it is hard to judge whether this is fair, but my impression is that he was fine as long as he stuck to nature poetry (‘a simple orderly charm, as of an English country lane’ as the EB of 1911 put it) and only started to go seriously wrong when he wrote about current affairs (e.g. the Jameson raid or the Armenian massacres).
Anyway, this is an abridged version of his Jubilee poem. I have removed a number of stanzas in the middle, mainly concerned with retrospective praise for Prince Albert. It starts quite well.
The lark went up, the mower whet his scythe,
On golden meads kine ruminating lay,
And all the world felt young again and blithe,
Just as to-day.
The partridge shook her covey from her wings,
And limped along the grass; on leaf and lawn
Shimmered the dew, and every throat that sings
Chanted the dawn.
The doe was followed by her new-dropped fawn,
And, folding all her feathers on her breast,
The swan within the reedmace deep withdrawn
Dreamed on her nest.
In the green wheat the poppy burst aflame,
Wildrose and woodbine garlanded the glade,
And, twin with maiden Summer, forth there came
A summer Maid.
Her face was as the face of mid-June when
Blossoms the meadowsweet, the bindweed blows:
Pale as a lily first She blenched, and then
Blushed like a rose.
They placed a Crown upon her fair young brow,
They put a Sceptre in her girlish hand,
Saying, “Behold! You are Sovereign Lady now
Of this great Land!”
Silent She gazed, as one who doth not know
The meaning of a message. When She broke
The hush of awe around her, ’twas as though
Her soul that spoke.
“With this dread summons, since ’tis Heaven’s decree,
I would not palter, even if I could;
But, being a woman only, I can be
Not great, but good.
“I cannot don the breastplate and the helm,
To my weak waist the sword I cannot gird,
Nor in the discords that distract a Realm
Be seen or heard.
“But in my People’s wisdom will I share,
And in their valour play a helpful part,
Lending them still, in all they do or dare,
My woman’s heart.
Thus with grave utterance and majestic mien
She with her eighteen summers filled the Throne
Where Alfred sate: a girl, withal a Queen,
[Many stanzas removed here]
Then to the winds yet wider was unfurled
The Flag that tyrants never could enslave,
Till its strong wisdom governed half the world,
And all the wave!
And, panoplied alike for War or Peace,
Victoria’s England furroweth still the foam
To harvest Empire, wiser than was Greece,
Wider than Rome!
Therefore with glowing hearts and proud glad tears,
The children of her Island Realm to-day
Recall her sixty venerable years
Of virtuous sway.
Now too from where Saint-Lawrence winds, adown
‘Twixt forests felled and plains that feel the plough,
And Ganges jewels the Imperial Crown
That girds her brow;
From Afric’s Cape, where loyal watchdogs bark,
And Britain’s Sceptre ne’er shall be withdrawn,
And that young Continent that greets the dark
When we the dawn;
From steel-capped promontories stern and strong,
And lone isles mounting guard upon the main,
Hither her subjects wend to hail her long
And ever when mid-June’s musk-roses blow,
Our Race will celebrate Victoria’s name,
And even England’s greatness gain a glow
From Her pure fame.
Perhaps a slight hint of Alan Titmarsh here.
But not everyone was quite as confident that “Britain’s Sceptre ne’er shall be withdrawn”. Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee did inspire one far superior poem – Kipling’s minatory Recessional, which, curiously, I don’t think I’ve heard quoted once during the current celebrations. The ‘lesser breeds without the law’, incidentally, are the Germans.