The Queen and I

William Empson

introduced by John Haffenden

On 27 October 1954 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the University of Sheffield in order to inaugurate its Jubilee Session. No other reigning sovereign had visited the principal university buildings since King Edward VII opened them in 1905. Six months before the Queen’s visit, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor J.M. Whittaker, put to his recently-appointed Professor of English Literature a ‘general idea’ – to celebrate the Queen’s visit by reviving the masques with which Elizabeth I was greeted at Cambridge in 1564 and at Oxford in 1566 and 1592. Would Empson assist in the creation of a new masque by ‘writing such parts of it as would be spoken or sung’? The vocal part should be in English and not Latin, Whittaker suggested; it should have ‘literary value’ and be in modern idiom rather than a pastiche of Elizabethan poetry. ‘At any rate,’ he gentled Empson, ‘I hope you will turn the matter over in your mind.’

As Roma Gill has reported in the Times Literary Supplement (31 July), Empson advised the Vice-Chancellor that Elizabethan masquers would have told the Queen ‘that she was God, and that she had invented steel.’ If he felt initial doubts about the venture, he nevertheless forged ahead and sketched the outline of The Birth of Steel within a few days. The plot tells how a Medieval alchemist – aptly named Smith – is baffled in his attempts to fashion a steel sword: mocked by his minions, he appeals to Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, who thereupon enters in majesty and introduces the instruments of modern science. The open-air production took full shape during Empson’s summer absence at the School of Letters in Bloomington, Indiana. The student producer, Peter Cheeseman (now Director of the New Victoria Theatre, North Staffordshire), together with the stage manager Alan Curtis, bulked up Empson’s spare and insufficiently dramatic verse with ‘alchemical mumbo-jumbo’; the composer Gilbert Kennedy ensured the grandness of the occasion with a score that incorporated blues and jazz rhythms, solemn chorales, and a triumphal tune to accompany Minerva’s entrance in a golden car; and the architect Alec Daykin designed a covered stage and backcloth. The volunteer orchestra numbered 66, with a large brass section provided by the Sheffield Transport Band; and a huge chorus included university undergraduates, students from the City of Sheffield Training College and members of the Lydgate-Crosspool Choir. Such was the scale of the operation that the three groups – student orchestra, Transport Band, chorus – had to rehearse in separate venues, and they came together only just before the performance. The assembled company filled half the quadrangle, with the conductor’s rostrum being sited directly above a central fountain. Pilkington Brothers produced a magnificent bullet-proof glass pavilion for the Queen, and so completed a setting – just as Empson had prefigured – fit for her audience with a goddess. Pamela Brown. a statuesque student contralto, played Minerva.

‘It is, I believe, the first time English royalty has been given the real old flattery for three hundred years,’ he told his publisher when requesting that the masque be included in his Collected Poems. ‘The Queen thought it funny and was sweet about it, to me and the composer (the music was terrific) and the two speaking parts. It isn’t meant to be good poetry but it’s somehow politically right (I mean, it combines queen-worship with pro-worker sentiment and fair claims for the university back-room boys) and it is really rather a curiosity.’ In truth, nothing quite like it had been achieved or attempted since Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred (1740), produced for the Prince of Wales and chiefly memorable for including the first performance of ‘Rule, Britannia’. Seven months later, when the music critic of the Times (unaware of Sheffield’s undertaking) suggested that the masque must take a modest form if it is to survive in the modern world, Empson fairly claimed in a letter to the editor (13 June 1955):

We followed the old formula without inhibitions ... The performance took just under fifteen minutes, and no doubt the old full length would have been thought too much. But, apart from that, we did not find that the modern world requires ‘modesty’ in a masque. We actually puzzled our heads over this question, and the modern world turned out to think that the more knock-down the show could be the better.

At about the same time, in 1955 – moved by the unique historical significance of the occasion and the awful implications of addressing the Queen as a goddess – he wrote this previously unpublished memoir. And in a later year, when asked why he thought he had been knighted in 1979, he promptly quipped: ‘Well, you see, I once called her a goddess. What else could she do?’ The text follows.

*

I suppose I have no business to print any remarks made in comparative private by the Queen of England, or indeed by the Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield University: but as what I have to say is solely to their credit I do not expect it to annoy anyone. Indeed, you might feel that these remarks are merely a piece of boasting, and have the inherent dullness of that process: but I should expect a reader to feel, as I did, that the whole affair was anxious somehow. It was a matter of reviving the real old half-blasphemous flattery of the Renaissance which I don’t suppose has been proffered to any English royalty for three hundred years. One was bound to be rather doubtful about how it would go off.

The Queen was touring the industrial areas of the North of England, at her usual gruelling speed; Sheffield has long been a big steel town; and it was somehow protocol while she was there for her to include the University, because of a fifty-year anniversary since its royal foundation. The Vice-Chancellor decided it would be a good thing to have a masque, chiefly to recall the way the first Queen Elizabeth was habitually received on similar tours: he set up a committee to agree on the plot and production of this, and asked me to do the writing (which of course entranced me), adding a caveat that he wanted no fuss about archaic language or style. He offered a specimen draft of a plot himself, and I wish I could remember how much of the final version he had already invented. He was clear anyhow that the thing would be pointless if not all about making steel. He suggested, I remember, the display of a figure in full Vice-Chancellor’s robes first jeered at and then turned by a goddess into a real steel technician. He himself is a scientist who, as so often, is fretted by being turned into an administrator, so that the sentiment was known by the committee to be a genuine one: but we felt it was only meant to set the right tone. It was I, as I remember, who insisted that the goddess must descend from Heaven in a ‘car’, because that used to be the regular thing – not foreseeing what an enormous amount of architecture this would finally involve. In any case, I hope it is clear that I was called in as one of the technicians; it did not cross any of our minds that the ‘style’ of the poet Empson was wanted; what the writing had to do was to put across the old savage fantastic thing very shortly and clearly. On the other hand, you did need to be careful about your politics; I remember being very worried, later on in committee, at one of the changes required by the producer, until we thought of a new verse line which got our political face straight again. Clearly, it is not enough merely to worship the Queen by telling her to her face that she is the universal spirit who creates everything, nor indeed (to take the other view of the affair) is it enough just to make the steel industry look ridiculous so as to amuse the Queen, only for a moment, after she has had her nose rubbed in it very heavily and before she has her tea. Perhaps I should remark that many people in England realise that we live on food from abroad, and would actually stop eating if the steel industry went wrong. What you had got to do (even though at your great expense you were only aiming at a very light little bit of spoof) was to be fair enough to the Trades Unions and the Managements and the Back-Room-Boy specialists in the university itself, or anyhow not to sound like bad feeling to any of them. If the whole thing is a joke, and the jokes keep on being altered for technical reasons, it takes a lot of watching to make sure that one of them doesn’t slide sideways.

May I also remark that, as a literary critic, I can claim the dismal eminence of being the only expert on the subject of ‘A is B’ [see The Structure of Complex Words], so that being actually set to tell the Queen that she is a Goddess appeared to me a fascinating field of study. I am not sure that the Vice-Chancellor realised what strong forces were coming up: I suspect he first thought it would be nice to do a graceful little bit of historical reminiscence, but before you knew where you were it was really happening.

About a hundred years ago, as I understand, when Queen Victoria went into retirement as a widow, the English very nearly got rid of the Crown; there was practically nobody in favour of it. They began to get fond of it when she appeared again being noticeably old, and since then it has gone steadily up and up. But you wouldn’t have revived the worship of the first Elizabeth for any of them before the second Elizabeth. However, this is not to say that the students were keen to come and do the heavy amount of work involved; I gather there was an almost alarming amount of difficulty about raising the very large requirement of supers for incessant rehearsal. One evening I went to a rehearsal which seemed to me particularly dismal, and I did what I would not have done if I had not been a little tipsy (merely more noisy and friendly than usual). When the producer said they could go and have coffee I beat on the table and said, ‘No, I wish first to address the entire cast’ – perhaps two hundred persons, all gloomy, you understand. I told them that they must not think this just tiresomely absurd, they must realise that it was wildly strange: nobody had told royalty it was a divine creative spirit for three hundred years, and the whole lay-out of this ad-hoc theatre, with the Queen in a high glass cage before them, addressed personally, and any other audience only let creep in along the sides, made it the strangest performance they were ever going to take part in. The mad king of Bavaria could not get what they were getting. And so I went on. I next found myself in the gentlemen’s lavatory, alongside a severe character who I imagine to have been an electrician, and I asked rather anxiously what he thought about my speech. His answer was surprisingly warm, but from my point of view quite off the point. ‘It was plumb right,’ he said, ‘you got just the right timing. There’s just a week to go, and they’ll be all right once they feel in the straight’ – a metaphor from horse racing – ‘but what they feel now is that they can’t bear any more rehearsing.’ The interest of this kind of thing, to me, if I may patiently explain, was that you could not get anybody to take the faintest interest in the historical revival of the Renaissance half-worship of the first Elizabeth: in one way they weren’t bothered with any idea that you could treat the thing seriously, in another way they felt it was the only adequate reception for the present Queen.

The music composed for the occasion, as I found when I got back from a trip to America, had turned out staggeringly magnificent; and I began to be afraid that the audience would be disgusted and would think the flattery of the Queen ‘fulsome’. Someone had cut out a tiny joke, which was felt to get in the way of the grandeur of the music: there I had to make another solemn harangue, this time to a large committee, fighting to get back my little joke, or whatever you might call it – it is more like a sergeant-major barking out at the audience: ‘laugh.’ I was allowed this paltry little thing back, and it did make the only laugh in the show. The point of this anecdote, may I tiresomely explain, is that the whole thing had become alarmingly more serious than we had originally expected.

Perhaps I should quote. It is just after Minerva has descended in her car, and her first words were to be:

Majesty, I am yourself. As you would wish
I now create SHEFFIELD. This poor fish

(presenting laboratory overalls to the Alchemist, who immediately dons them)

I turn into a steel technician;
And every worker to a real magician

(rehabilitation somehow of entire chorus). The producer, who brilliantly made a solid body out of the skeleton I offered, broke these couplets at the word ‘Sheffield’ and gave the goddess three new couplets, so that she could turn three serfs into three types of skilled worker, with a lot of business and music, and then they agreed to throw away the rhyme ‘fish’.

By the time the music has been copied out (with words and exact timing) for the enormous orchestra there is no question of altering this arrangement. But, as I claimed, there is an obvious difference in whether the Goddess is talking to the serfs on the stage or to the real Queen. She has only to step forward and resume her personal address to the Queen, on the words ‘This poor fish’, and will then, after the strain of this long pause, satisfy the audience by completing her first rhyming couplet. This she absolutely must do, because a pantomime fairy queen always talks in bad rhyming couplets, and always has done since the time of Shakespeare. The difficulty was to get it into the head of the student actress, whose natural dignity was otherwise splendid for the part, that she really must look at the Queen and address her unofficially and as if otherwise unheard – they are secretly plotting together. She said it was impossible (she had also to keep in time to background music), but I think she did it all right on the day. Anyhow, I won back that silly ‘fish’, and whether anybody in the audience realised it was a bad rhyme or not it did get the only laugh in the whole show. What I said in my harangue was, ‘You don’t realise – this will become intolerable unless you force a laugh into it early enough’, and when we had our delighted boasting-party after the show my opponents handsomely agreed I had been right.

I pass now to the reactions of the Queen, who was so generous to everybody concerned and so determined to be as much in public as possible that it seems correct to report her. The mechanics of our being presented to her had to be a bit out of shape; lots of people were going to be presented to her. I was told to come down and talk to her in the crowded room (such was the elaborate planning of the few minutes), until the producer and the composer and the two speaking actors could get round from the stage, so I rather unfairly had the first reactions alone. Late in the boasting-party the producer formed a dark suspicion, and said to me rather crossly: ‘Professor Empson, had you really never met the Queen before?’ When I die, I shall still think that the most exquisite flattery I have ever received. It seems to be regular that you are first filtered through the Duke of Edinburgh, who seriously (and plausibly) thinks that the Queen might work herself to death if he wasn’t there to stop it. I naturally had my piece to say to him about the masques done for the first Queen Elizabeth when on tour, and he caught me up sharp when I said they wouldn’t have given her dancing because they couldn’t do it. He says: ‘Of course they could.’ Empson says: ‘Yes, of course they had their own dancing, but they couldn’t do court dancing, the court masque is an entirely different thing, with no audience at all really, because the Queen herself would often dance. But when on tour the first Elizabeth would always be received with a bit of music and a bit of poetry, just like we have here.’ This seemed enough to handle it, and then he said (of course he is very much an English military officer, a type of man who is very much pleasanter to deal with than the English legend pretends) that he thought it was a good plan to have this sort of show, because it gave a lot of them something to do, and they would always rather have something to do, really. ‘Yes,’ I said, lying, and I crawled across and told this story exactly as if it was my own straight back to the Queen, because I had been briefed. I shall always think this rather a mean action, because the truth was that it had become rather rough to get enough students to perform in this thing. But I shall always be far more thankful that I wasn’t fool enough to tell a tiny nasty truth to the Queen. The first fact about the Queen is that she is magical, because she is a charming woman who actually has by law the peculiar position which every charming woman feels she ought to have. At this point she had to wait and let me talk, with about two hundred people waiting to be presented, because it had been agreed that the subject of the play had better be finished off first. I thus found myself in the position of being required to hold the staggering royalty in conversation, before a large audience of my resentful colleagues, for an indefinite length of time. It was extremely short.

This has happened to me before, about 1932 in Japan, in the Japan-British Society, to which Prince Chichibu [younger brother of Emperor Hirohito] liked to come (he had been educated in England and was at that time heir to the throne). I went there after a bit of grumbling at the expense, because, though a professor is practically invisible, I didn’t want to be out of any fun. A British minor diplomat yanked me by the collar and said, ‘You talk to Chichibu’ – because a diplomat could only address him in the very peculiar Japanese used only to royalty, where I would without breaking protocol address him in English, which of course he knew perfectly. It is like suddenly finding yourself on a lighted stage without knowing your lines. I shall always think better of myself because I thought at once of a tolerable thing to say to this friendly character. I said, ‘Why don’t you start a pack of hounds here in Japan?’ and these were the only words I needed to say. Chichibu immediately said that there was a fortune waiting for the first man who would start a pack of hounds in Japan, but the master would have to work in with the very peculiar fox-superstitions of the peasants. He must be both a fox god himself and a saviour of the fox god, but it wasn’t hard to do, and Chichibu was going into great detail about this when suddenly I was yanked from the collar because a British diplomat had arrived who was prepared to address Chichibu in the very peculiar Japanese used only to royalty. Considering that after my first sentence I had expressed nothing except cries of pleasure, I hope I do not appear vain in reporting that I thought this interruption must have appeared tiresome to Chichibu: after all, he could not possibly have come to this peculiar club unless he had wanted to behave like he was doing to me. This incident was my only previous contact with royalty, and it left stuck in my head that royalty wants to be addressed in an unfrightened manner, so long as the manner is not impudent or politically wrong.

I am deliberately sporting with the impatience of my reader, and he or she has worse to come. I have made a serious rule in my life never to take part in post-mortems over a party or write nasty books about what my kind hosts said to me in any part of the world; and, as I found myself having to say very soon after this incident, I literally do not know what was said. However, I am afraid I do know what really happened. I lectured the Queen (please remember it was protocol – I had been told to hold her in conversation) and as always when lecturing I shut my eyes. This is a very stupid thing to do when talking to the Queen, because her face ought to be watched incessantly. All the same, a flat lecture about the behaviour of the first Elizabeth could not appear off the point.

We at Sheffield wondered whether to do a dance masque, I was telling her, but I am glad we didn’t because it would have been historically unlike what the first Elizabeth would have seen on tour. The Devil here [in the masque] is a fully-trained ballet dancer, and she has made the entire cast do fantastic physical-training exercises before every performance. But it would be historically wrong to make a court masque of it. Consider, I said, opening my eyes and at last looking at her, after talking much longer than this account, that in a real court masque the Queen herself danced. She met the eyes, and the subject dropped. I am not only a bad reporter, I have positively taught myself to be a bad reporter, so I do not know at what point the Queen (who of course had simply taken into her head that she was in favour of this entertainment, and wasn’t surprised that the various characters concerned with it seemed a bit rough when presented) said to me that she liked the play because it was so light. The possibility of saying, ‘Come, come, mam, what degree of blasphemous flattery would you call heavy?’ not only could not but did not attract the mind of Empson. What the Queen said was not only true but sensible. I said: ‘Well, it was meant to be funny, but the way it turned out, we only got one laugh in the whole show.’ She said – and unless you consider the extraordinary architecture of this performance run up for the Queen alone, you do not realise the startling effect of this sane reply: ‘Yes, I was very interested in that too, I was watching the audience with great interest. I thought that the reason why they didn’t laugh at the jokes was that they had all heard them several times before.’ ‘Yes, mam, quite right,’ I said, lying again; if I had thought to discuss that, the thing would have been too long altogether.

You must remember that the actual capacities of the Queen really appear above human; the wildly strange facts about her begin to cross the mind of a man who considers her behaviour. From what I gather, she can take on two hundred presentations within ten minutes, finishing on the dot, and every man jack feels he has been spoken to personally. A certain reverence is always felt towards a race-horse, because it is such a staggeringly delicate and highly-trained animal, and it is wonderful to stumble by accident in walking across country upon one of the secret paddocks deeply curtained by trees where these animals are growing up in seclusion. Now if you take breeding seriously, as a farmer has to do, you want all the mothers as well, and the only conclusion you could get to in the case of the Queen is that she comes from healthy stock; it is a mere delusion to think that she has been inbred like a race-horse. But such is the basic fact, felt by anybody who comes near the Queen – that what you are really dealing with is not as you might think a charming woman but a slightly legendary animal, like a race-horse, for instance. You had better be very careful about it.

I could not conceivably have enough time to discuss the matter. What had happened was that the old worship of Kings (it isn’t so old – it is just a result of breaking with the Pope in Europe, though of course among savages it is ancestral) had really been felt again. It is already felt about Elizabeth, whose personal charm I have not yet had occasion to mention: but it did occur to me, while I was allowed to yatter to her merely to wait for the cast of the play to turn up, in front of the mob of two hundred or so who were waiting to be presented to her, that the joke had become true. This is a rather unnerving position for an imaginative writer, as Paul Goodman very well and rather thrillingly insisted when he said: ‘Suppose the two things happen together; suppose the deep ancestral unconsciousness which the man has fully and successfully repressed is merely the same as what his society asks him to do. This is not only probable, it happens nearly all the time. Doesn’t he feel pleased?’ I greatly respect the good sense of this remark, but the pleasure I want to boast about is a rather unusual one. When Minerva turned up in her full warpaint to meet the Queen at tea (please remember that the whole purpose of the play was to say that she is identical with the Queen), I cried out with a natural ironical rich friendly pleasure, ‘Now, at last, they meet,’ and the Queen said: ‘I envied you your ride in the car.’ She could not have answered better after a week of Sundays with ten committees. It was so gracious that it came pretty near accepting a legend. Now, in the old days (very recent) when it was the custom to do this kind of flattery to royalty, other persons were extremely noisy all the time about what a wicked thing it is to do to royalty, because it goes to their heads, as anybody can see, and makes them behave badly. Do you know, I was so genuinely 16th-century that I became anxious not to turn Elizabeth’s head, when I found everybody around madly determined to turn Elizabeth’s head. As so often, my anxieties were ridiculous, but they were in the right direction. Elizabeth would have had a kick like a mule if she had thought anything wrong, but, after she had watched the audience carefully throughout the performance (and the architecture had been addressed so singly to herself that it was actually physically hard for her to realise that there were any other spectators), she had decided that the thing had been in bad taste.

The point of this story is that I was down-right thrilled to hear the Queen herself show that she wasn’t a lunatic. I want to put it in the flattest possible language, because we ought never to forget that this worship of royalty has in the past taken very bad forms: but what she really did was to show that she saw all round the question. What the well-meaning (and in the event very right) Vice-Chancellor had asked me to do was not merely a short old-world reminiscence for the University but a raising of deep sentiment which involved a very serious test of the sanity of the Queen. Her husband and her mother would agree at once that this kind of thing would have to be stopped if it was going to her head. But, as it couldn’t conceivably go to her head, as she would automatically be watching the audience with great interest, whatever the performance was, I need not have puzzled you about this legally conceivable difficulty. But there it is: you can’t have a man doing this kind of work unless he is imagining for himself the various kinds of difficulty that might possibly crop up.

I have not yet mentioned the decisive fact, what I am really talking about, though you will think it a bore when it comes: it is the charm of the Queen. Well now, to start with, you can’t laugh it off. We have a very good American staying with us here this year, and he will not grudge my reporting that after sitting among six random English teachers at lunch in the teachers’ club, with every one of them praising the charm of the Queen, he was at last stung into telling stories which proved the decisive and thrilling charm of General Eisenhower. This was considered a joke, in its way, among plenty of other jokes about royalty: but he was telling something true there. They both have wide mouths. I have told my little boys that if they want to become kings they have only to put their two thumbs in their mouths every night and rip their cheeks apart. An enormous mouth is essential to modern royalty. You are probably thinking back on me, that I can only talk in this easy way because my whole upbringing makes me feel good enough class to speak to the Queen, so it is only a typical English boast. You are quite right, and what is more I had quite enough to say to the Queen during the very brief time when I was required by protocol to speak to her, so when I confess I ended by feeling downright awe, without having been snubbed for a moment but only treated with a kind of determined kindness till the other characters from the play arrived, it is perhaps plausible to report that the Queen was quite enough to handle Empson. I did not see her beauty till the other characters arrived, so I felt comparatively at leisure. It is an astonishingly mobile performance when the Queen wishes to congratulate – not only the incredibly wide movement of the mouth. I had seen her just before the show reading an official statement of approval to Sheffield University, for which we were all grandly dressed, and my heart sank to my boots because she looked as cross as a camel, and maybe you don’t know how cross a camel looks, but if she felt like that our little bit of fun was going to be quite hopeless. When she came back from the 13 minutes of this enormously planned performance in her honour, and could at last sit down to her cup of tea, her face was not so much changed as mobile again and prepared to go through all its changes. I was kindly spoken to by one of the secretaries of the Queen, after my performance was over, and he naturally spoke of her with the reverence, and the anxiety for her health, that a man feels for his own peculiar performing animal. It was hard for her to have to read that speech, he said, but now of course it’s all right. ‘Now’ was just when she was giving just enough praise to each one of two hundred men, each of whom would go home and boast of it for the rest of their lives. It struck me at once, as I said to him, that this must be a different kind of animal to me. I could read out any speech without bothering, if it was short enough to look over during a few minutes in the lavatory: but if ever I tried to do what she’s doing now, while you say she’s feeling comfortable, it would put me straight into a lunatic asylum.

I ought to have said before that Mr Kennedy, the composer of the masque, got on very well with the Duke of Edinburgh, because the composer is really an expert on cancer,[*] and so is the Duke, and so all this elaborately staged scene could thankfully be let drop while they talked quite seriously. At any moment, it always struck me, you might get this startling drop onto the facts of life, but when you did drop it was always onto a solid pavement. All the same, the persons concerned could not have built up this eerie note of fantasy about the whole affair unless they could feel certain beforehand that they were dealing with a Queen who was not only personally charming enough to carry it off but also sensible enough.

[*] Dr Kennedy was actually an expert not on cancer but on natural pigments; the Duke of Edinburgh talked to him about porphyrins.