Friday, June 12, 2009

Poets and politics

Reading Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 (1965) this weekend, I came across an incident that can surely be entered as evidence on the side of those who argue that poets should stay out of politics. In the course of describing the interlocking circles of government and society in 1890s England, Tuchman tells of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury's decision in 1895 to fill the post of Poet Laureate, which had been vacant since the death of Tennyson in 1892.

The problem with that decision, however, was that Salisbury had almost no interest in anything beyond the work of government and the duties and privileges of the upper class; Tuchman cites earlier as a telling example Salisbury's blase approach to appointing churchmen:
Once when two clergymen with similar names were candidates for a vacant bishopric, he appointed the one not recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and this being sorrowfully drawn to his attention, he said, "Oh, I daresay he will do just as well."
His choice for Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin, perhaps did not do quite as well as others. Tuchman, clearly enjoying herself, describes him thus:
A journalist of deep Conservative dye, founder and editor of the National Review, Austin was also the producer of fervent topical verse on such occasions as the death of Disraeli. When a friend pointed out grammatical errors in his poems, Austin said, "I dare not alter these things. They come to me from above."
A mere two weeks into his laureateship, Austin found himself coming under the scorn of the literary for a poem h published in the Times celebrating the Jameson Raid, Leander Starr Jameson's foolhardy attempt to provoke an uprising in the Transvaal (which, though it took a couple of years, did eventually erupt into the Boer War). The lines Tuchman quotes are impressively dreadful--and surprisingly mawkish, considering they're describing a violent raid:
There are girls in the gold-reef city,
There are mothers and children too!
And they cry, Hurry up! for pity!
So what could a brave man do? . . .

So we forded and galloepd forward,
As hard as our beasts could pelt,
First eastward, then trending northward,
Right over the rolling veldt.
I have to admit, though, that I like the sound of "hard as our beasts could pelt," and the way it rolls nicely into "First eastward, then trending northward"; though the fact that that second line essentially does no useful work makes it hard to approve.

If the writer of Austin's Wikipedia entry is to be believed, his nature poetry is better, if not brilliant. He doesn't rate an entry in the Norton Anthology of Poetry these days, but the one sample adduced in his Wikipedia entry, "To England," though its first half is awkwardly overwritten and cloying, does offer some memorable images and sounds in its final lines:
To England

(Written in mid-Channel)

Now upon English soil I soon shall stand,
Homeward from climes that fancy deems more fair;
And well I know that there will greet me there
No soft foam fawning upon smiling strand,
No scent of orange-groves, no zephyrs bland;
But Amazonian March, with breast half bare
And sleety arrows whistling through the air,
Will be my welcome from that burly land.
Yet he who boasts his birth-place yonder lies
Owns in his heart a mood akin to scorn
For sensuous slopes that bask 'neath Southern skies,
Teeming with wine and prodigal of corn,
And, gazing through the mist with misty eyes,
Blesses the brave bleak land where he was born.
Those "sleety arrows" are nice, and I admire the confidence shown by the simple repetition of "mist" and "misty" in the penultimate line, a good lead into the best moment of the poem, those harsh "b" and "k" sounds of its close, calling up as they do Dover's beautiful but unwelcoming sea cliffs.

Even in this poem, though, we can see how Austin's love of country and love of nature intertwined, so it's not hard to understand why he might have felt that forays into politics and topical verse were suitable, especially once he was the Laureate. Still, one has to wonder about a poet who, as Tuchman notes, when asked his idea of heaven, replies,
He desired to sit in a garden and receive a flow of telegrams announcing alternately a British victory by sea and a British victory by land.
I'm neither a poet nor a believer, but if I were, my idea of heaven would definitely involve more books and fewer battles, victories or not.

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