SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

From Elton John to William Blake, rhymes have been used -- and misused -- in the service of royalty.

Published September 11, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

on Labor Day, as the railings of Buckingham Palace were being transformed into an impromptu Wailing Wall of kitsch, a CNN reporter faced the camera. Up to his thorax in posies and wreaths and cards, he held a piece of paper in his hand. It was, he said, a verse left by an adoring fan of the dearly departed. In a moist and husky voice, he spoke of the deep well of poetic talent in the hearts of ordinary English people that was thus evidenced. And then a tremulous stanza:

She was my north, my south, my east and west
My working week and my Sunday rest.
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

It is, I agree, a beautiful poem. I liked it when I first read it, as W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues." And I liked it when I heard it read out in the movie "Four Weddings and A Funeral." Originally written as a gay epitaph with a male pronoun, it is sufficiently polymorphous to be pressed into royal service. There's no further point in protesting at its "Hollywoodization." If it hadn't been Hollywoodized, it wouldn't have been so easily adaptable to the death of the Princess of AIDS, or so easily mistaken for a doggerel offered up by one of the rank and file.

Neither is it the first time poetry has been pressed into the service of the monarchy and its offshoots. The royal family is the patron of the office of Britain's Poet Laureate -- which is almost certainly why the great English poet Philip Larkin didn't get the post. "They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad," Larkin's best known opening line, from "This Be The Verse," would have had multiple bad resonances with the current house of Windsor. The job went instead to Ted Hughes, widower of Sylvia Plath. In 1985 he produced a truly awful piece of deferential mystification to celebrate the birthday of the Queen Mother:

It was an eerie vision! The Land of the Lion!
Each clear creature, crystal bright,
Honey-lit with lion-light,
All dreaming together the Dream of the Lion.

The poem ended with the queen a hostage to fortune:

A Queen's life is hard. Yet a Queen reigns
Over the dream of her people, or nowhere.

In his role as courtier, Hughes cannot have foreseen the moment when the Windsors would watch all charisma fly away from them, and realize as Diana's hearse rolled past that their own corteges would be much smaller and witnessed by eyes much drier. Apologists for the monarchy claim that it can summon national unity, act as a model family and give dignified expression to popular emotion. Even assuming these things to be desirable, what can one say of a monarchy that manages to fail at such tasks?

Diana's aspirations seemed to be of a different order. Shortly before her death, she told Tina Brown that she wanted her son to model himself on John Kennedy Jr. Elton John's rephrasing of "Candle In the Wind," his lament for Marilyn Monroe, is a perfect iconographic match for this dubious desire. Thus, "Goodbye England's rose" replaces "Goodbye Norma Jean." Perhaps one day Elizabeth Hurley can be trained to sing breathily for William V, "Happy Birthday, Mr. King."

The chorus lines of the re-worked "Candle in the Wind" read:

And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England's greenest hills

William Blake's magnificent "Jerusalem," which is Britain's unofficial national anthem and an old favorite of the radical and working-class songbook, begins by asking, "And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England's mountainous green?" The question refers to the misty pre-Arthurian legend whereby Joseph of Aramathea brought the boy Jesus to Britain. It also summons the folk memory of a utopian past, before monarchy and despotism and the "dark Satanic mills," and calls for chariots of fire to assist the struggle against what Blake called "the Kingdom of the Beast." Blake was a republican and a revolutionary, and it was good to see one of his tropes, however subliminally, surfacing in an Elton John jingle and echoing in the religious belly of the beast, in Westminster Abbey.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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