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1 June 2022

What’s the point of a poet laureate?

A Poet for Elizabeth on Radio 4 looks back at the seven poets who have taken the role during the Queen's reign.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Over the course of Elizabeth II’s seven decades on the throne, there have been seven poet laureates. There is something pompous, obsequious and, to use Mary Beard’s term, “naff” about poems written in honour of the monarchy – and yet, of course, some of Britain’s greatest poets have held the post. Thankfully, there is nothing fusty about this radio show presented by William Sieghart, who freely admits that a royal commission does not a good poem make.

Take John Masefield. He got “a bit carried away”, Philip Errington of the John Masefield Society admits with a grimace of Masefield’s odes on Elizabeth II’s travels. His 1957 poem “On Our Lady’s Western Journey”, which reflects on “those distant states/To which you go as sovereign, or as guest/In both our speech and law are manifest”, is read out over a comic brass band. Ouch. Cecil Day-Lewis, a former socialist, “modernised” the role in 1968. His poem for the 1969 investiture of the Prince of Wales was not straightforwardly reverential, describing the “proud and fiery” Welsh public who had come to “take the measure of their prince”.

Ted Hughes, in his deep Yorkshire burr, explains how the laureate “produces a po-em, now and again, for some national occasion, as the muse dictates…” His work for Prince Harry’s christening, “Rain-Charm for the Duchy”, has a worthy environmentalist message and a memorable description of the “blobby tears” of raindrops, but does remind me of a journal entry by the 18-year-old Sylvia Plath: “It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: After a heavy rainfall, poems titled RAIN pour in from across the nation.”

Sieghart ends, movingly, with the present laureate Simon Armitage’s reading of his response to the Covid-19 pandemic. “Through the hospital window/she said to me/she’d forgotten the name of her special tree,/and forgotten the name/of her favourite bird./Through the hospital window/I mouthed the words:/the song thrush and the mountain ash”.

A Laureate for Elizabeth
BBC Radio 4, 31 May; now on catch-up

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special