I found a poetopographical monument I’d not seen before as I passed through Queen Square Gardens yesterday. This one made me wince, and think. Queen Square is the famous former address of Faber and Faber, formerly poetry-edited by T.S. Eliot at Russell Square, now based at Bloomsbury House, Great Russell Street.
The ‘memorial planter’ was erected to celebrate the Silver Jubilee in 1977, and because it was in the proximity of the publisher, someone had the mawkish idea of including lyrical tributes from the two outstanding Faber poets of the era, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. The Larkin is semi-visible in the above photograph. It is attributed to ‘Larkin’. The full quatrain reads:
In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange
There was one constant good:
She did not change
The Hughes quatrain is also attributed merely to ‘Hughes’ and reads as follows:
A soul is a wheel
A nation’s a soul
With a crown for a hub
To keep it whole
It seems as if the verses were specially commissioned. If they are quoted from other works, I’m glad to say I haven’t read them. The sentiments are unpalatable. The Larkin is something you regularly hear from monarchists i.e. that through the bloody chaos of modern English history, Elizabeth II is the fixed star, a reassuring portent, a symbol of constancy. The Hughes is more cod-mystical, more redolent of the vomitarium. Hard to believe ‘The Incredible Hulk’ could have come up with it.
The discovery of this embarrassing, overweening plot confirmed my suspicion – is indeed public evidence – that Faber and Faber is a monarchist press, one which serves to uphold the ‘courtly tradition’ of English poetry, a brilliant tradition which includes poets as diverse as Chaucer, Skelton, Shakespeare, Rochester, not to mention the ‘individual talent’ of the arch-royalist T.S. Eliot, prodigal son of the New Englanders returned home.
True, Faber has published Northern Irish poets that would count themselves Republicans, but its choice of English poets seems calculated as to how they might respond to a royal invitation. Even the young faux-communist Auden was more than happy to shake hands with King George V. The very teleology of being a Faber poet presupposes sumptuous occasions and studied protocols. Funeral orations at Westminster Abbey…
In 1977, the be-knighted royalist John Betjemen was presiding Poet Laureate, but he was published by John Murray, not Faber, which is presumably why he was disregarded for the Queen Square job. Strange, though, as you’d think that providing monarchical ditties on demand was the whole point of being Poet Laureate. Why should he have to suffer rivals? Strange also that the two poets featured here were both offered the post when Betjemen died in 1984. Were they also rivals for the laureateship as they certainly were for laurels? Tellingly, when Larkin sent his royal quatrain to Charles Monteith at Faber, he also included a parody of Ted Hughes’, joking that he was sure Ted would do better:
The sky split apart in malice
Stars rattled like pans on a shelf
Crow shat on Buckingham Palace
God pissed himself…
Larkin turned the laureateship down, not because he was a Republican but because he only had a year to live and was not given to public appearances. Hughes was second choice. He accepted it. Fishing in the Queen’s private grounds, he probably felt safe from a latter-day Orphic dismemberment by feminist hordes. His various pronouncements on royalism and monarchy, as well as his awful occasional poems, are the worst of Hughes, but this outlook imbues his oeuvre. He’d always been ripe for royal co-option.
21st century poets writing in England need to become more aware of this division, not so much between mainstream and avant-garde but poets of the courtly tradition and those who reject it. We need to undermine a culture in which people just ‘go along with it’. Tony Harrison is a mainstream poet but a firm Republican and deserves to be properly understood as such. Check out his witty poem ‘Untitled’ which he wrote as a reprimand to his friend, the director Richard Eyre, who had accepted a knighthood. It takes attitude to come out as a Republican, and many poets are still in the closet. Of the 300 poets that attended Buckingham Palace late last year, quite a few claimed to be Republicans, but they were still willing to make obeisance to the Windsors.
The courtly tradition needs to be semtexed into a very red-faced and distant past, and this is the century that can manage it.