… a set of thoughts on the British poet laureate’s poem about Prince Philip. As in: It is the responsibility of laureate-induced poems to be forgotten. Compelled into existence by one’s acceptance of a public position, compelled to praise the high-born to a large audience, these are so unlikely to be non-piffle. Yet – as with Philip’s surprisingly moving brief funeral – this particular poem is surprisingly good. I’m not going to argue it’s all that good, but as an example of its type, it’s way better than it should have been.

The tone throughout is non-heroic, casually musing; the poet avoids grandiosity for a man who, while physically imposing and genetically way royal (his DNA was used to verify that remains found in a Russian forest belonged to the slaughtered Romanovs), seems in fact to have had a spartan and self-effacing disposition. The poem will feature little direct reference to Philip; rather, in a series of natural metaphors, it will evoke his wartime generation.

The weather in the window this morning
is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,
a slow winter’s final shiver.

He has died in April, and his singularity as the sovereign’s husband will, as the poem begins, be evoked through the singularity of the unseasonal snow. His long life and long physical decline is nicely captured in a slow winter’s final shiver.

On such an occasion
to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up
for a whole generation – that crew whose survival
was always the stuff of minor miracle,
who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,
fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea
with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.

Unusually self-referential, this official eulogy will ask questions about eulogies for the sort of person Philip was. So marked for life was he by his wartime experience, it makes more sense to remember him in his collective military identity than in his singularity. His funeral ritual (designed by Philip himself) was overwhelmingly a military affair.

Indeed looked at in its entirety, Philip’s survival, much less his longevity, does seem a minor miracle – smuggled out of Greece (in an orange crate!) during the Greco-Turkish War when he was eighteen months old, he went on to “finagle” (to use the poet’s wonderfully non-heroic word) modes of survival under punishing battle conditions.

Husbands to duty, they unrolled their plans
across billiard tables and vehicle bonnets,
regrouped at breakfast. What their secrets were
was everyone’s guess and nobody’s business.
Great-grandfathers from birth, in time they became
both inner core and outer case
in a family heirloom of nesting dolls.
Like evidence of early man their boot-prints stand
in the hardened earth of rose-beds and borders.

There’s a nice subtle evocation here of the soft touchy feely world we’ve become, in which only faint ancient traces of “hardened” boot-prints indicate the bygone, born old (great-grandfathers from birth), men among whom Philip belonged; the patriarchs (this is the poem’s title) who kept their thoughts and feelings to themselves and (in the phrase everyone attaches to Philip) just got on with it.

They were sons of a zodiac out of sync
with the solar year, but turned their minds
to the day’s big science and heavy questions.
To study their hands at rest was to picture maps
showing hachured valleys and indigo streams, schemes
of old campaigns and reconnaissance missions.
Last of the great avuncular magicians
they kept their best tricks for the grand finale:
Disproving Immortality and Disappearing Entirely.

Relentlessly and ingeniously pragmatic, men like Philip spent their post-crate lives fashioning further escapes, further solutions to a world always perilously out of sync, until the very veins in their hands became strategic maps of (to use Graham Greene’s title) ways of escape. Their final Houdini maneuver, of course, was the whole slipping the surly bonds of earth thing.

The major oaks in the wood start tuning up
and skies to come will deliver their tributes.
But for now, a cold April’s closing moments
parachute slowly home, so by mid-afternoon
snow is recast as seed heads and thistledown.

The poem concludes with a return to the present, to a continued observation of a singular April day in which enormous sturdy old trees (this one in particular) whistle their elegy, to be joined in time by tears of rain. Enormous sturdy old Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (thus the poet’s thistle-homage – thistle being the Scottish national emblem) has done his final magic trick, leaving a world “recast” for the better by his having been here — winter turns to spring, the world regenerates itself, and the prickly thistle (Philip was notoriously prickly) is now thistledown, the feathery white top of the thistle, which will disperse in the wind and scatter its seeds.

Really, take whatever position you want on patriarchs, royalty, Philip, blahblah – this is on its own terms a more than respectable poem, a clever finagled triumph.


Found it! The rule for the dead is that they should be forgotten. Ravelstein.

Trackback URL for this post:

2 Responses to “It is the responsibility of the dead to be forgotten, wrote Saul Bellow somewhere. Can’t find the quote. Maybe I made it up. Anyway, it seemed a clever way to introduce…”

  1. Anon Says:

    Thank you, UD. I enjoyed this.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    You’re welcome, Anon!

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE