Tag Archives: politics

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.

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc, on elections

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge)
Broke–and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

The precise phrasing of Hilaire Belloc‘s little squib may have been outdated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Kamala Harris… but the complaint by the common voter (or disillusioned non-voter) is valid, that professional politicians live in a very comfortable club that takes care of all its members regardless of who actually wins an election; and no fundamental change occurs.

A nice little quatrain, iambic pentameter, the simplicity strengthened by the bite of the repetition contradicting the idea of change. Easy to remember and quote because – of course – it rhymes and scans.

“2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush, President Elect Barack Obama, Former Presidents George H W Bush, Bill Clinton & Jimmy Carter, Standing” by Beverly & Pack is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc’s epitaph on a politician

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician’s corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

The US and UK have been so polarised for the past several years that it seems everyone has a politician they would like to see executed–or jailed at the very least. But this is neither a recent phenomenon nor a merely Anglo-American one. All round the world notorious pillagers of their countries go to the grave with great pomp, while most of their countrymen and -women are simply glad that they are finally going.

This sarcastic little poem by Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc suggests two things: that all successful political leaders are loathed by a large percentage of the population; and that to make your sarcastic comment truly memorable if it is more than five or six words long, you do well to put it in verse. The rhyme and meter not only make the words easier to remember, they also lend a magical impression of inevitability and authenticity to the idea expressed. Well-constructed verse provides a fraudulent but powerful proof that the idea expressed is valid. Rhetoric and oratory inhabit this area also. Well-expressed ideas have more credibility than badly expressed ones, regardless of the relative merits of the ideas themselves.

Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that few politicians exhibit much interest in poetry…

Photo: “President Cyril Ramaphosa attends former President Robert Mugabé’s State Funeral in Harare” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Politics’

He played the game and loved its vicious tricks,
deceit, despair, all power-politics;
and made good progress, never in retreat,
with no despair at politics’ deceit…
and now still climbs that endless rain-slick stair
of power-politics, deceit, despair.

If you search for photos of politicians, this is the kind of thing you get… There are (occasionally) really, really good people who devote their lives to trying to improve their part of the world; but… Anyway, it seems like a good time to blog this poem!

This short piece was originally published in Snakeskin. Couplets of iambic pentameter, with politics, deceit and despair in the second line of every couplet and providing the rhymes. But you could see that.

Photo: “President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017 President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017” by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Odd poem: Jimmy Carter, on dead people voting in Georgia

‘Progress Does Not Always Come Easy’

As a legislator in my state
I drew up my first vote to say
that citizens could never vote again
after they had passed away.

My fellow members faced the troubling issue
bravely, locked in hard debate
on whether, after someone’s death had come,
three years should be adequate

to let the family, recollecting him,
determine how a loved one may
have cast a vote if he had only lived
to see the later voting day.

My own neighbors warned me had gone
too far in changing what we’d always done.
I lost the net campaign, and failed to carry
a single precinct with a cemetery.


Jimmy Carter’s collection of poems ‘Always a Reckoning’ is unexpectedly good for a politician, and it was a best seller when published in 1995. And this particular poem is not only amusing, but it resonates strangely with 2020 presidential election, and claims of fraud in the Georgia results. It would appear from the poem that Georgia politics is more honest than it was in the 1960s, anyway.

Jimmy Carter followed a bizarre and contradictory path in politics, always having been firmly committed to racial integration and equality, but having to constantly support people like Alabama segregationalist George Wallace in order to get elected. Then, once elected, trying to move the state’s politics in a direction that many of his backers did not like. Whether things played out the way they are presented in the poem is not something I can determine from a superficial review of his career. But it’s a fun poem, anyway.

Photo: “39 Jimmy Carter” by US Department of State is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Poem: “Agenda for a Political Career”

Help the peaceniks
With their cut-backs
To the Army,
It’s fulfilling;

Once elected,
Buy cheap arms stocks,
Start a war and
Make a killing.

This poem was originally published in Lighten Up Online, edited by Jerome Betts. I dislike war, but even more I loathe “chicken hawks“, those who personally avoided combat when their country called them up but who later in their careers advocated war and made a fortune from it. That includes a lot of American politicians.

Good guys: Eisenhower and his military-industrial complex warning. Kennedy, assassinated when he was trying to pull US troops out of Vietnam. Jimmy Carter. All military men who understood war.

Total jerks: Johnson, ramping up the Vietnam war while everyone was distracted by the Kennedy funeral. Kissinger even more than Nixon. Cheney even more than George W. Bush. Trump. Chicken hawks.

The US doesn’t have a monopoly on avaricious politicians. The UK’s Tony Blair has been rewarded by the world of oil and wars to the extent of acquiring an estimated $90 million and a property portfolio worth $37.5 million in the first eight years since leaving office (i.e. 2007-2015).

Poem: “The Moral Aesthetics of Politics”

The sense of poetry pervades all life:
Intense sensation, far-abstracted math,
Calm observation, passion-fired strife,
The glorious rise, the decadent aftermath.

Forgive me, pitying gods, for loving all
When “all” includes the tortured, starving, mad.
Symphonic raptures round pride’s bugle call
Drown out the truths where glory would be sad.

The very movement of the people lives,
Starring a missionary, or clown, or thief;
The moral climate either steals or gives –
It faith-filled strives, or slumps in disbelief.

So, in these patchwork years of peace and war,
Detached to calm the passionate lies that lurk,
We love life’s good and ill, but, more and more,
Our sympathetic vision makes us work.

“The Moral Aesthetics of Politics” was first published in The Penwood Review, which apparently possesses a faith-driven sense of superiority, something I was unaware of when I submitted the poem. Without warning, let alone a request for permission, they changed the word “gods” to “God”. Then, either as an apology or because the change glorified their self-righteousness, the poem was awarded the Editor’s Choice certificate.

I have always felt irritated by this, partly at them, partly at myself for not having checked them out more carefully. I used the word “gods” to signal a lack of belief. That’s how I’ve always understood the word, anyway: “The gods must be smiling on us” means “We’ve been lucky”. It is a deliberately tongue-in-cheek word used by the non-religious. But the editors made my poem religious, damn them. My only consolation is that I don’t think it is a very good poem.

Technically, the poem is okay: quatrains of iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB. Nothing special. And the overall gist is clear enough: you should help people. But the title? “The Moral Aesthetics of Politics”? What does that even mean? Why “aesthetics”? (Maybe the British spelling held a charm for them. Maybe “Dimension” would have been a better word, but it’s not as flamboyant.) From the first line on, the meaning is often vague, or arguable.

But then again, politics “starring a missionary, or clown, or thief”… I admit that resonates. Maybe the poem does have a couple of redeeming lines, after all.