Cod Solemnity

James Butler on Tory poetry recitals

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.


  • 11 April 2019 at 10:30pm
    Jean Millais says:
    Puerile. A lukewarm bath of literary snobbery. What makes Butler think that Cox, for example, doesn’t have just as much of a real engagement with the poetry as he does.? The whole article is designed to parade Butler’s own cleverness and superiority over these misguided politicians who of course could never have an intelligent appreciation of the lines they mindlessly incant.

    • 13 April 2019 at 6:19am
      clinical wasteman says: @ Jean Millais
      "What makes Butler think that Cox [whoever that is]doesn't have just as much of a real engagement with the poetry as he does?" Besthort answer is the one already given, i.e. this Cox person's breezy unconcern with 'The Tenure of Kings & Magistrates', 'Eikonoklastes' and what they imply for his Faith and its Defender (along with Defender-friendly real estate and other sinecures of a 459-year reign in Hell.) Old Boys who learned to bellow a few lines of Blake's 'Milton' preface in the upscale prison hulks of British private schooling probably don't "engage" all that much with Plates 17-20 of 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' either.

    • 16 April 2019 at 2:54pm
      Jean Millais says: @ clinical wasteman
      No. It just this intellectual snob’s assumption that Cox, does not understand perfectly well the literary and historical context of Areopagitica. But is convenient for the cultural historian and all round clever dick to imagine ones own infinite superiority. As for Milton’s arguments for the execution of Charles 1., one can surely accept arguments for free speech without accepting a universal case for cutting off the heads of Kings.

  • 12 April 2019 at 2:54am
    DolanP53 says:
    Fascinating. Among all the accusations of antisemitism, they're reciting Eliot.
    Is Pound next?

  • 12 April 2019 at 8:07am
    Tony Barrett says:
    @Jean Millais. Nah, mate. I know bugger all about poetry but I know Francois is a numpty who thought reading out loud from a book would impress other numpties.

  • 12 April 2019 at 4:21pm
    Bisenzio says:
    Mark Francois might just as appropriately quoted Paradise Lost Book 1:
    “What though the field be lost? [ 105 ]
    All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
    And study of revenge, immortal hate,
    And courage never to submit or yield:
    And what is else not to be overcome?”

  • 12 April 2019 at 5:35pm
    Alan Geal says:
    More Latin: a purely argumentum ad hominem presentation.
    More poetry (Shakespeare will serve, if one ignores the fate of Brutus):

    There is a tide in the affairs of men,
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
    On such a full sea are we now afloat;
    And we must take the current when it serves,
    Or lose our ventures.

    I would be interesting to have a argument about the actual issues...

  • 12 April 2019 at 5:39pm
    Alan Geal says:
    With typos corrected:
    It would be interesting to have an argument about the actual issues...

  • 14 April 2019 at 4:55am
    DonalODanachair says:
    One Miltonian tag which seems to encapsulate the attitude of Brexiteer politicians (you know who I mean)

    Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven

  • 16 April 2019 at 5:56pm
    Martin Pearce says:
    I stumbled over this the other day:

    We had fed the heart on fantasies,
    The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
    More substance in our enmities
    Than in our love; O honey-bees,
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    The sentiments seem appropriate enough. Somehow, though, it seems far too grand for the current debacle.

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