The most thankless poetry role in the kingdom must be that of Poet Laureate. The occasions – birth, christening, wedding, death, coronation – propose themselves and, willy-nilly, the Muse is expected to intwine an appropriate wreath. I have lived through as many laureates as the present Queen herself: the last years of Masefield, then Cecil Day-Lews, Sir John Betjeman, Ted Hughes, Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy and, now, Simon Armitage. Considering the line of laureates from Dryden down, those with the fullest wigs – Thomas Shadwell, Nahum Tate, Nicholas Rowe and Colly Cibber, that butt (not a sherry-butt) of satirists – are among the least memorable as poets. Henry James Pye is celebrated in the nursery rhyme of the blackbirds baked into him. He was not appointed laureate for his poetry, certainly, though he thought well of it himself.
Almost every time in recent years that the Pye has been opened and set before the Queen, the dainty dish has attracted laughter, parody, gloating disappointment. There is no knowing what the Queen herself has thought of the largely forgettable and forgotten works. We can make a partial exception for Rain-charm for the Duchy (1992), Ted Hughes’s sometimes vigorous laureate exercises. He linked his royal occasions with the sovereignty of nature– fittingly, given the Prince of Wales’s and his father’s environmental commitments.
Some public occasions pass without due poetic notice: the longer the laureate is in office, the more thankless the job must seem. When Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria found consolation not in anything Tennyson whipped up for the occasion, but in her laureate’s In Memoriam, product of a long prior, deep personal grief that was his own. He was her poet for forty-two years and they only met on two occasions.
The current poet laureate had already displayed his civic imagination before the Duke of Edinburgh took leave. His poem ‘Ark’ (2019) contributed to the Extinction Rebellion movement and evoked the flood in terms of trash and pollution, a warning, a yearning for the untrammelled natural world that Hughes (Armitage’s poetic grandfather) had celebrated: an admonition. And there is his poem ‘Lockdown’ (March 2020) in which nature is back, and its myth-, historyand legend-laced consolations.
His first major royal occasion was the death of Prince Philip, ‘Last of the great avuncular magicians’, and he rose to it. On ‘Twitter’ Caroline Bird expressed joy that such a poem – a real poem – had been written to mark the occasion. Her surprise, like mine and many others’, was that it was possible at this time in history to compose it, and that we had a poet sufficiently – eccentric, gifted, innocent, the right word eludes me – to bring it off. Why does it work? In part because of its sincerity: in the man, the history he had lived, the commitments he had made and kept, the poet found a genuine occasion. No apology was needed. He was last of ‘The Patriarchs’. The recent latesnowy weather (he quipped about the Englishness of weather-tropes as a way in) provided a ready correlative:
The weather in the window this morning is snow, unseasonal singular flakes, a slow winter’s final shiver.
He reflects on the occasion, the call for eulogy, and how one man can represent, speak for, stand for, a generation. What makes the occasion genuinely poetic is Armitage’s sense of a generation that ‘fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs