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Remember, Remember! The Third of November!

The rich relationship between politics and poetry provides a welcome diversion from the coronavirus.

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to offer you this third installment of a bi-weekly series exploring poetry.  Click here to see the previous installment.

With apologies to Guy Fawkes for stealing his poem, let me note that those few thinking moments that aren’t dedicated to the coronavirus these days are likely directed to the coming Election Day on November 3rd. And it leads this column to consider how politics and poetry have companioned in times past.

On the bottom rung, the most succinct poems have been the slogans beloved by American electioneers. In 1840, William Henry Harrison, who had won a battle at Tippecanoe, and his running-mate, John Tyler, campaigned under the banner:

and Tyler too!

Even more brevity was displayed in 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower’s supporters shouted (and sometimes sang to a tune by Irving Berlin):

I Like

Then there was the quirky exchange during the campaign of 1884, when Democrat Grover Cleveland, who was believed to have fathered an illegitimate child, was taunted by Republicans with this ditty:

Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?

When Cleveland then won the election, the Democrats finished the rhyme:

Gone to the White House.

Grover Cleveland Cartoon. Campaign of 1884.

To move to a higher plane, and none too soon, many distinguished poets have written political poetry, notably including Milton, Wordsworth and Yeats. Some of such political verse is supportive and laudatory, but more often it’s critical and caustic. Here is a passage from Percy Shelley’s no-holds-barred description of England and its government in 1819:

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.

On the other hand, here is John Dryden (1631-1700), soon to be England’s first Poet Laureate, warmly welcoming Charles the Second to the throne in 1660 after a seven year interregnum headed by Oliver Cromwell and his followers:

At home the hateful names of Parties cease,
And factious Souls are weary’d into peace.
The discontented now are only they
Whose Crimes before did your Just Cause betray:
Of those, your Edicts some reclaim from sin,
But most your Life and Blest Example win.
Oh, happy Prince! whom Heav’n hath taught the way,
By paying Vows to have more Vows to pay!
Oh, Happy Age! Oh times like those alone,
By Fate reserved for great Augustus’ throne!
When the joint growth of Arms and Arts foreshew
The World a Monarch, and that Monarch You.

(Did you catch the demeaning reference to the previous administration in Lines 3 and 4? Hmm.)

Portrait of Rudyard Kipling by John Collier

Can political verse go awry? Well this is the stuff of legend and unproven, but some believe that Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was passed over as Poet Laureate because of a dialect poem he wrote referring to Queen Victoria as the Widow at Windsor who was not being mindful of her troops in India: (excerpts)

‘Ave you ‘eard o’ the Widow at Windsor
With a hairy gold crown on ‘er ‘ead?
She ‘as ships on the foam — she ‘as millions at ‘ome,
An’ she pays us poor beggars in red.
(Ow, poor beggars in red!)

There’s ‘er nick on the cavalry ‘orses,
There’s ‘er mark on the medical stores —
An’ ‘er troopers you’ll find with a fair wind be’ind
That takes us to various wars.
(Poor beggars! — barbarious wars!)

Then ‘ere’s to the sons o’ the Widow,
Wherever, ‘owever they roam.
‘Ere’s all they desire, an’ if they require
A speedy return to their ‘ome.
(Poor beggars! — they’ll never see ‘ome!)

Rumor hath that the Queen was “not amused.”

* * * * * * * *

Political oratory . . . that is, speeches on the stump or nowadays on television. . . may be effective, but it rarely rises to the level of poetry. With, in my lifetime, one personal exception. In November of 1953, Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in part “for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” And in November of 1953, by sheer happenstance, I found myself following Lady Clementine Churchill into the House of Commons to hear her husband speak. And indeed, Churchill’s oratory rang out with an inspirational and poetic command of language that was thrilling to hear.

Winston Churchill in November, 1953.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as “the best words in their best order.” With this is mind, just consider the stirring call to action delivered by Churchill on June 4, 1940, a remarkable piece of poetry and a defining example of leadership of the highest order.

We shall fight in France,
We shall fight on the seas and oceans,
We shall fight with growing confidence
And growing strength in the air.
We shall defend our island,
Whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.

At the end of the day, political campaigns and elections are indeed primarily about leadership, and nowhere is it better demonstrated than in the words Shakespeare gave to Henry the Fifth in addressing his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt. Here is Alan Howard of the Royal Shakespeare Company introduced by Norman Snow and George Backman of the First Poetry Quartet. The setting is Warwick Castle.



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