Laureate’s poem on Queen’s demise 

Prof Timothy Wangusa

What you need to know:

  • The second feature is that, as the Queen’s name comprises nine letters, Armitage cleverly performs two structural tricks: each stanza has nine lines, and the first letter of each line read downwards (acrostically) together form the Queen’s name!

One of the most powerful expressions of deep grief upon the passing of Queen Elizabeth II was in the form of a poem by the United Kingdom’s poet laureate Simon Armitage. Entitled Floral Tribute – and published in The Guardian of September 12 – the poem endearingly and metaphorically portrays the Queen as ‘a lily of the valley’, the lily being said to have been the Queen’s favourite flower, and which appeared in her beautiful coronation bouquet.

Ah, but what is this about a poem from a poet laureate at a time as grave as this has been, one might ask? 
There were, of course, endless verbal expressions of heartfelt condolences and grief throughout – in journalistic prose and other modes of prose, as well as in verse; but Armitage’s poem, coming from the UK’s current poet laureate (appointed 2019), has had a special appeal and meaning for me, and hence these jottings of mine for sharing with ‘whoever passes by’.

And this has nothing to directly do with my recent discovery that Armitage (CBE, FRSL) is presently professor of poetry at the University of Leeds, my alma mater of the late 1960s, and the alma mater of now my famous or eminent African predecessors in the same department of English – Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Uganda’s Peter Nazareth and Pio Zirimu (RIP). 
Ah-ha-ha-ha, we were severally all consciously or unconsciously being groomed in speaking – not just BBC English but ‘the Queen’s English’!
Armitage happens to be one of those rare literary artists who have crafted publishable works in all three major literary genres of drama, prose fiction, and poetry. 

It is a historical fact, however, that Britain has never had dramatist or novelist laureates; but it has continuously had poet laureates ever since 1668, beginning with John Dryden.
Come to think of it, it is most unlikely that Armitage could have contemplated quickly writing a novel or a stage play to immediately commemorate the Queen’s passing! Indeed, I cannot imagine that anyone under the sun, upon the sudden passing of a loved one, or a revered one – can within minutes or hours or even a couple of days, quickly pen down their grief in the form a novel or a play for immediate stage performance. But as for poetry, it is the mother-tongue of all spontaneous feelings and experiences.

A digression here in the form of retrospection may advance my conviction. Here in East Africa decades ago, following the abrupt news of the sudden demise of president Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya in 1978, we were all struck with uttermost grieving. 
A spontaneous poem composed and immediately set to music by a player of the seven-string Elgonian lyre (litungu) from Bungoma District memorably spoke the mind of an entire community. And this was in a mere four verse lines, translated as follows: 
‘We would have stood him bail/We would have stood him bail/O we would have stood Jomo Kenyatta bail/Had we espied death approaching!’  

Back to Armitage’s excellent poem: it has very noteworthy musical, structural, and aesthetic features. 
One is the very fact that the poem has two stanzas or verses – not one stanza, or three or more stanzas, but precisely two stanzas – to signify the fact that the late monarch was Elizabeth number two. 
The second feature is that, as the Queen’s name comprises nine letters, Armitage cleverly performs two structural tricks: each stanza has nine lines, and the first letter of each line read downwards (acrostically) together form the Queen’s name! 

The third feature is that the stanza of nine lines (the Spenserian stanza) was the invention of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), a patriarch of English literature. 
His famous poem, The Faerie Queene, pre-eminently employs this stanza form to celebrate the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) and Elizabeth I; and this is the very form that Armitage exploits to celebrate Elizabeth II, the latter-day ‘queen of fairyland’. 

Prof Timothy Wangusa is a poet and novelist.

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