At a meeting on Tuesday of the Bruges Group, one of the proliferating and fissiparous Tory sectlets devoted to hatred of the European Union, Mark Francois topped off a speech of near-hallucinatory weirdness by lapsing into Poetry Voice – cod solemnity with pauses and emphases scattered at random – and sweating his way through the last few lines of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, a doughty lump of patriotic Victoriana to ginger up a senescent audience.
The poetry didn’t make headlines: Francois is a phrasemaking machine unimpeded by self-awareness, so his threats of ‘Perfidious Albion on speed’ gave journalists what they needed. His co-religionists’ fulminations about the loss of empire and Michelin restaurants – connected in an impressively tortured metaphor – filled the rest of the column space. The conference looked like a distress call. Outbreaks of literature in British politics – transgressing the taboo on anything but the plainest speaking – are rarely a good sign, used only in an emergency to distract from a crumbling enterprise.
It’s tricky stuff, literature. Francois presumably picked the poem for its stirring talk of striving and seeking, heroic hearts and so on. Unaccountably, he skipped Ulysses’ early grousing about doling ‘unequal laws unto a savage race’. Consonant with the headbangers’ approach to Europe, it’s the mood music that matters – who cares what it actually says? ‘Ulysses’ could teach them a thing or two, if they bothered to read it: the mismatch between the Odyssean temperament and the finite, terrestrial, domestic injustices with which politics necessarily deals, or the vain hopes that nostalgia raises in us, or the spasmodic sense of self-loss it can entail (‘I am become a name’). In any case, you might think a poem that culminates in a shrugging off of responsibility, sailing towards death and a plunge into the maw of the absolute, a questionable template for government.
Had Francois even read it? The same lines were recited – rather better – by Judi Dench in a Bond film, and they float unmoored from their poetic context as a much-anthologised bromide. Francois is not the only Tory politician to draw on the canon, however digested, to hammer home his point: the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, another figure teetering on the edge of Dickensian caricature, boomed some choice lines from Milton at an enraptured if largely uncomprehending audience at last year’s Conservative Party Conference. Cox recently confessed to Nick Robinson that he kept an anthology of great poets by the bedside – he singled out Yeats – and praised poetry’s capacity to crystallise thought, ‘give order to the emotions and calm to the spirit’.
I don’t doubt Cox’s sincerity, and though I dislike the idea of poetry as elite therapy for noble minds, it’s hardly without precedent. But note his emphasis: poetry may order and calm one’s thoughts, but its capacity to argue, disturb or change one’s mind is absent; poetry’s ambit is purely personal. This is a common enough thought, though one bedevilled by contradictions – if art is powerful enough to order the soul, does it do so in a space empty of ideas or politics? Still, that isn’t quite my complaint, nor is it simply discomfort that people I dislike politically can quote poetry, even sometimes perceptively (I find schmaltzy choruses from Shelley grating, too).
What’s really objectionable here is twofold: first, the arid English canon, in which interesting, complex poets are strip-mined for fine phrases, all their unruliness and ambivalence corralled into a thudding frogmarch of changeless national sovereignty. Will we pluck the least interesting lines from Areopagitica for a bit of borrowed grandeur, and not pause for a moment to wonder if Milton’s plea for an animate, vital public life was really satisfied by our referendum process? Or perhaps pause to think that Milton was a regicide, and the author of the kind of subtle meditation on political terrorism which usually gets government ministers queuing to condemn it on the Today programme – so perhaps unsuited for use as cheap nationalist tinsel.
Perhaps my deeper discomfort is this: Francois’s heaving through some lines of Tennysonian kitsch was intended to circulate rapidly on social media; Cox’s basso profondo rendition of The Waste Land did likewise. That is a condition of modern politics: catchphrases, taglines, gaffes and aperçus pump at dizzying speed around the internet, enlisting authority in place of argument, tone in place of thought. The master of this form is Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has turned a mouldering pile of half-remembered Latin liturgical tags into an ersatz learnedness. At its best, poetry can arrest this degrading whirligig, force its readers to stop, pay attention to its difficulties, ask why a phrase resounds or how it holds a contradiction in place. Perhaps as Parliament rises for Easter, MPs could retire with some poetry, not to fillet for easily digested platitudes, but to come face-to-face with its depth and difficulty. One can dream.