Tag Archives: British history

Political poems: Wilmot sniping at King Charles II

Restless he rolls from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

When King Charles II was restored to the British thrones in 1660, eleven years after the execution of his father by Cromwell under the Commonwealth, the people were generally happy to have the Puritan government replaced by a king who was affable, witty and a patron of the arts and science. He founded the Royal Observatory and supported the Royal Society whose members included Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton. His Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, had several miscarriages and failed to produce children, but the “Merry Monarch” had over a dozen children that he recognised from seven mistresses including “pretty, witty Nell” Gwyn (and he likely had another half dozen mistresses). This life, together with various foreign wars and the fact that he was not a good administrator, left the king constantly short of cash. Hence the couplet above by John Wilmot, poet and Second Earl of Rochester.

Wilmot / Rochester also wrote:

Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing
Nor ever did a wise one.

For this the king had a relaxed answer: “Perfectly true, for my words are my own, but my actions are my Ministers’.”

Political poems: Byron on Castlereagh

Posterity will ne’er survey
a Nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and p*** !

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (which rhymes with “pray”, if you choose to have that, rather than “piss”, as the last word of Byron’s little poem) was an Anglo-Irish politician who managed to make himself throughly hated.

Though generally in favour of concessions to the Irish he did not support Catholic Emancipation from the discrimination and civil disabilities they suffered under as disenfranchised second-class citizens. He took the lead in suppressing the Irish Rebellion of 1798; he advocated leniency to the common people but had leaders executed – including a Presbyterian minister who had canvassed for him in an election. From 1812 to 1822 he was the British Foreign Secretary, instrumental in managing the alliance that defeated Napoleon; and then at the Congress of Vienna, with the conservative Bourbons back on the throne of France, he advocated leniency for France and non-intervention by the UK in European affairs – which was seen as siding with the repressive Eastern European powers. This is from the ‘Dedication’ to Byron’s ‘Don Juan’:

Cold-blooded, smooth-faced, placid miscreant
Dabbling its sleek young hands in Erin’s gore,
And thus for wider carnage taught to pant,
Transferred to gorge upon a sister shore
The vulgarest tool that Tyranny could want,
With just enough of talent, and no more,
To lengthen fetters by another fixed,
And offer poison long already mixed.

Castlereagh’s suicide in 1822 further occasioned this from Byron:

Oh, Castlereagh! thou art a patriot now;
Cato died for his country, so didst thou:
He perish’d rather than see Rome en­slaved,
Thou cutt’ st thy throat that Britain may be saved!
So Castlereagh has cut his throat!–The worst
Of this is, – that his own was not the first.
So He has cut his throat at last!–He! Who?
The man who cut his country’s long ago.

Poem: “From the Heart of Europe”

Warning, it’s long: 140 lines. And it’s a rant, a chant, with formal passages only towards the end. It is published in the current issue of Snakeskin, whose editor George Simmers expressed reservations, calling it “your monster of a poem. It’ll be interesting to see if there are indications that anyone gets to the end of it. My suspicion is that 24 lines is about the maximum most people are willing to read online. But I like having an occasional long poem in Snakeskin – gives readers a challenge.

So here it is… “From the Heart of Europe

Europe

I am the Celt, westering across Doggerland
Into the wilds – in me live
The stories of the monsters, dragons, ogres
I found as I struggled through trackless wilderness
Fighting off the wolves, bears and cavemen.
If you would see me, look to Ireland and to France,
To Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.
When verbs are forming complicated trains you’re seeing my Gaelic grammar.

And I am the Roman, bringing engineers,
Underfloor heating, square buildings and straight roads.
Ten generations of the Middle Sea –
Italians, Greeks, Egyptians, Libyans –
Braving the cold and damp, our children British…
Until the Empire falls, and some go “home”
To warmer seas, to citrus trees, and Rome.
Look for me in the priestly words,
As in the black Irish who fled the Saxons.

For I am the Angle, Saxon, Jutlander,
Displacing Britons, making Angle-land.
Like ours, all tribes move west and south as Rome succumbs.
Clearing the forests, making free men’s farms,
Avoiding ruins of the Roman towns,
Avoiding ruins of the great square buildings.
Look for me in the fields and farms
Of Essex, Sussex, Saxony,
Of Anglia in England and Anglia in Germany,
And in the daily words of common folk.

Then I am the Viking, avenging Christian slaughter,
Avenging Verden’s massacre, five thousand dead.
Looting and raiding for slaves and wives, and –
Hey, that’s nice land on a quiet river…
Let’s stay here with our meetings and our laws.
Look for me in the Yorkshireman of the Danelaw
And all across the north lands to the east.

I am also the Northman who settled in France –
Where Romans had ruled Celts 500 years –
And now claim the rights of the Viking,
The rights of the Saxon,
Under Roman religion
To rule Angle-land.
I come with the Conqueror, follow the Bastard,
The Builder of Castles and Cities,
With renaissance of learning,
Enlightenment, Parliament,
Even including the poor, and then even women…
Look for me where I continued to conquer –
Where I fought other Europeans to control the world –
My branches spread everywhere – North America, India –
Hong Kong, Australia, Kenya, Jamaica –
But my roots… my roots are in Europe,
From Northlands to Rome and from Ireland to Greece.
You can prune back the branches,
But don’t think of cutting the roots.

When I see a wishing well – my roots
When I see an aqueduct – my roots
When I see men wear trousers – my roots
When I see women’s braids – my roots
When I eat bread and cheese – my roots
When I drink wine and beer – my roots
When I see people vote – my roots
When I hear legal judgement – my roots
When I smell farms and forests – my roots
When I hear waves and seagulls – my roots

And my roots are not without warfare.

In the Great War my grandfather died, so too both his brothers, all in their 20s.
This was not unusual in that war.
Then came a second world war. Europe said “Enough!”
The end of the war. Twin towns were an answer, building links.
Their history begins with Paderborn, Germany, and Le Mans, France.. in 836.
(The UK was a little late to the table, its first twin town was in 1905…)
Coventry now twinned with Dresden and Stalingrad.
The end of the war. The Treaty of Paris of ’51 for the European Coal and Steel Community,
The Treaty of Rome, the EEC of the western 6.
(The UK joined a little late in ’73.)
With Denmark and Ireland in the north, then adding 3 more in the south,
Then 3 more in the north, then 14 in the east,
Until almost Turkey, almost Russia, almost Morocco, Israel…
The Eurovision Song Contest, building links from ’56
(The UK joined late, ’57).
The It’s A Knockout! silly sports on TV (De Gaulle’s idea) from ’65
(The UK joined late, ’67).

Ah, that Europe of 50, 60 years ago…
When north and west and south worked to build links,
And you could wander freely, even go
Into the east (with bureaucratic waits and stamps and inks)…

And I have stood
Under the Transylvanian full moon
And eaten moon-green apples in a smooth wet field
And the lorry-driver spoke no English.

I have hitched
A ride from a Cologne motorway stop
With a limping German who spoke no English
In a fine car with leather seats
Over 250 miles to Hamburg in 2½ hours! – as if he said
“You only think you won the war.”

I have sat
In front of Goya’s Cowherds – Duel with Cudgels –
In the Prado in Madrid, and cried
For me, for us, for Europe, for the world.

I have slept
On the top steps of a Greco-Roman amphitheatre
In the tourist-Turkey fishing village summer nights,
And tourists took my picture.

I have eaten
In the impounded lorries of the smuggling Swiss
At the Turkish-Bulgarian customs zone
And got a ride to Munich.

I have seen
There is one street in Copenhagen no one knows but I.
Invisible, unless you watch those using it go by;
It winds above the buildings, up and down about the sky,
In single file ten thousand go by each day, and no lie! –
(The seagulls heading for the City Dump from out at sea.)

I have walked
South from Glasgow illegally on the motorway
With my thumb out as the snow began to fall.
The Police said “Get in”. They drove in silence 30 miles
And dropped me at a service station.

And still I think of that long night
When through and through the lorry-park
Rutted six inches deep in mud
The madman prowled, distraught and barefoot
Under the full moon, running his fingers through his hair,
Muttering and complaining, shouting aloud,
And the lorry-driver talked with him,
Explained to me
(And I through sparse Spanish guessed at his Romanian)
That the madman in the mud
Had killed someone
Or run him over
Or was on the verge of suicide,
Perhaps all three together…
And the madman muttered barefoot through the mud
Until the sun rose and we went our way.

That was my Europe, yesterday,
as still the British Isles today:
we are where the world meets.
We came, long past, from far away –
and more still come, some go, some stay…
the heart of Europe beats.

-.-.-.-.-

For what it’s worth, instead of those last 6 lines the poem originally had six 4-line stanzas. George Simmers was kind enough to critique them, attacking them from several directions and giving me the opportunity to write something better. They were the most formal section of the entire piece, and in being rejected they help people like Mike Burch make the case that “formal” isn’t the be-all and end-all of poetry.  🙂

Here is the original ending, giving a slightly different meaning and direction to the poem… Anyway, better or worse? What do you think?

But now England may
(Yes, I say May)
Go, with Wales, its own way –
(Though Scotland and Northern Ireland said stay.)

The peace we’ve been blest
With, the growth we’ve possessed
Has led the obsessed
To stoke enmity. Laws were transgressed

In winning the vote.
Weasel words, like a stoat
Changing colour of coat,
Were all lies. May they stick in their throat.

Our Europe is one:
Celt, Roman and Hun
May be how it’s begun,
But now, like the UK, everyone

From all round the globe,
In a suit, in a thobe,
In blue jeans, in a robe,
Has their place – each distinct as in strobe

Light, is lit as a part
Of the waves of fresh start
That newcomers impart
With, like all Europeans, their heart.