Simon Armitage has written a poem to mark the death of Prince Philip, his first to address the royals in his time as poet laureate, saying that the obituaries had taught him that Prince Philip “hated sycophancy – I didn’t want to write anything that would have sounded sycophantic in his ears”.
Titled The Patriarchs – An Elegy, the poem is published for the first time on the day of the duke’s funeral. It opens on a snowy morning – “the weather is a peculiarly British obsession,” said Armitage – and expands into a dedication to the men of Prince Philip’s generation, “great-grandfathers from birth”.
“On such an occasion / to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up / for a whole generation – that crew whose survival / was always the stuff of minor miracle, / who came ashore in orange-crate coracles, / fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea / with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes,” the poem reads.
“I’ve written about a dozen laureate poems since I was appointed, but this is the first royal occasion and it feels like a big one,” Armitage said. “I remember when I was appointed, there were conversations along the lines of ‘there are likely to be significant events during your tenure’ – this was probably one of the events they speculated about.
“I didn’t want to presume to write a personal poem about somebody I didn’t know, so I took cues from various interesting facts about his life, and thinking of him as the last in that generation of patriarchs. So there are a lot of details in the poem which are directly about him, but I tried to broaden the point out into a generational one.”
Armitage said that he wanted the poem to address the duke’s values and personality. “A lot of the commentary has been around duty and service – I saw it as a prompt for writing something dutiful, and in service of all people like him.”
One line – “They were sons of a zodiac out of sync / with the solar year” – refers to Philip’s birth in Greece in 1921, two years before the country switched from using the Julian calendar to Gregorian.
Armitage said he had made a few attempts to write elements of the poem before the duke’s death, “but when it happened, I just pushed them all to one side and started again. I think I always knew that that would happen, because I always try to write to the moment. Preparatory work doesn’t really go a long way.”
As laureate, Armitage has written poems about scientific discoveries, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and coronavirus. Lockdown, written in March 2020, opens in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, which quarantined itself in the 17th century to prevent bubonic plague from spreading to neighbouring areas. In May, it was announced that the poem would have a charity release, with Armitage collaborating with actor Florence Pugh on a musical version. He is also working on a documentary about lockdown, with the working title Where Did the World Go?
Reflecting on his time as laureate, Armitage said he could see a difference between the poems he writes for the role, and his other works. “I think they have a slightly different tone, in as much as I understand that the audience is going to be different. When you publish books of poems you are, to some extent, writing for a specialised audience, whereas laureate poems come before readers who are not used to poetry. Mainly, I’ve tried to avoid pomposity.”
The Patriarchs – An Elegy
The weather in the window this morning
is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,
a slow winter’s final shiver. On such an occasion
to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up
for a whole generation – that crew whose survival
was always the stuff of minor miracle,
who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,
fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea
with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.
Husbands to duty, they unrolled their plans
across billiard tables and vehicle bonnets,
regrouped at breakfast. What their secrets were
was everyone’s guess and nobody’s business.
Great-grandfathers from birth, in time they became
both inner core and outer case
in a family heirloom of nesting dolls.
Like evidence of early man their boot-prints stand
in the hardened earth of rose-beds and borders.
They were sons of a zodiac out of sync
with the solar year, but turned their minds
to the day’s big science and heavy questions.
To study their hands at rest was to picture maps
showing hachured valleys and indigo streams, schemes
of old campaigns and reconnaissance missions.
Last of the great avuncular magicians
they kept their best tricks for the grand finale:
Disproving Immortality and Disappearing Entirely.
The major oaks in the wood start tuning up
and skies to come will deliver their tributes.
But for now, a cold April’s closing moments
parachute slowly home, so by mid-afternoon
snow is recast as seed heads and thistledown.