Silence of the poets – did an ancient tradition of memorial verse die with the queen?

Not so long ago, the death of a monarch would have given rise to outpourings of poetic elegies and commemorations. One would have thought that the end of the second Elizabethan era would trigger something similar – but apparently not.

So far, the death of Queen Elizabeth II has had only a muted response from our poets, both in the UK and here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Does this reflect changing priorities in the national imagination? Are we witnessing the disappearance of poetry from public occasions?

One need only look back to the 1936 death of the Queen’s grandfather, George V, for comparison. John Betjeman and John Masefield were among the poets who marked the occasion. Betjeman was England’s Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984, and also wrote on the Queen Mother’s birthday and Charles and Diana’s wedding.

Betjeman was part of a long line of British poet laureates dating back uninterruptedly to John Dryden in 1668, and poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer before that. But the culture of poetry responding to the death of monarchs also flourished outside of official position.

The unexpected death in 1612 of Prince Henry, aged 18, son and heir of James VI and me, provoked an outpouring of poetic tears. John Donne wrote an elegy, as did George Herbert, John Webster and Sir Walter Raleigh.

A Deluge of Poetry: The Execution of King Charles I, artist unknown, circa 1649.
National Portrait Gallery, LondonCC BY-NC-ND

Elegiac Energy

The flood of poetry that met the execution of King Charles I at the height of the English Civil Wars in 1649 was particularly voluminous. His dramatic beheading on scaffolding erected outside the Palace of Whitehall made him a martyr to his loyal supporters.

Literary historian Nigel Smith has described how the elegy became a royalist genre, as the king’s death “sucked all the elegiac energy into its own subject”.

Poetic “sighs” and “groans”.
State Library of Victoria

And there are close connections to these elegies on King Charles I. Melbourne’s State Library Victoria holds the John Emmerson collection of over 5,000 early modern English books, including poems, pamphlets and other publications. on the death of Charles I feature prominently.

Among the poetic treasures in the collection is a copy of Monumentum Regale: Or a Tombe, Erected for that Incomparable and Glorious Monarch, Charles I, a volume of elegies and poetic “sighs” and “groans” published three months after the execution of the king. Royalist poets wonder how they can possibly commemorate an “incomparable” king. The Earl of Montrose claims to have written his poem with “blood”, “wounds” and the tip of his sword.

Read more: How the news of Elizabeth I’s death in the 17th century was communicated in ballads and proclamations

In Aotearoa, New Zealand, the Alexander Turnbull Library is famous for its collection of works by a poet from across the 17th century political divide, John Milton. Turnbull (1868–1918) took a personal interest in Milton, an ardent Republican. Even Turnbull’s collection, however, contains a notable number of volumes celebrating Charles I, including several editions of Eikon Basilike (The King’s Book), which depicted Charles I as a Christ-like martyr.

Former New Zealand Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh speaking at a reception at Government House in 2018.
Getty Images

Public poetry is not dead

This large body of public poetry about previous monarchs stands in stark contrast to the response to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Even in the UK, the current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, seems to have struggled. The form of her poem “Floral Tribute”, an acrostic on the name “Elizabeth”, seems archaic at best and banal at worst.

New Zealand Poet Laureate Chris Tse, inaugurated just a few weeks ago, has been particularly quiet. When I asked him why, he said writing a poem for the Queen “would be a step down from where I want the role to go”.

Tse’s reluctance perhaps echoes the complicated thoughts of Selina Tusitala Marsh, the most recent former winner, on performing her poem “Unity” for the Queen in 2016. For Marsh, the colonial legacy of British Crown (as she put it, “Her homies also colonized my homies”) made writing and performing the poem a complex commission to accept.

Read more: What do Britain’s tears mean to Queen Elizabeth?

As a winner, Marsh preferred to write poems on occasions such as the birth of a baby Prime Minister. But the fact that New Zealand even has a Poet Laureate in 2022 suggests there is still an appetite for public poetry, even if the days of poems about a queen’s death are numbered.

The modern monarchy itself, of course, provides rich material for poetry of a less commemorative genre. Bill Manhire, the first New Zealand winner, speculated on Twitter that we’re expecting an acrostic on “Andrew”. And the most remarkable poem of the morning we woke up hearing of the death of the queen was that of essa may ranapiri “The queen is dead”.

Immediate and visceral, it is a shameless anti-colonialist spat against the monarchy. Some will find it shocking, others will gasp in appreciation. But even those surprised by his straightforward approach and timing can share the sense of distance he captures, in his formal displacement of news from afar by scrambled eggs, spring sunlight and the joy of love. daily as a new day begins.

Public poetry is not dead. But our poets’ responses to the queen’s death – the silence, the awkwardness, the confrontation – tell us a lot, as always, about the societies in which we live.