Motion makes media wait for his royal wedding verse

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AS THE old showbiz motto puts it: "Make `em laugh, make `em cry - and make `em wait."

Film studios and publishers have taken that advice to heart as they have tried to slap legally binding embargoes on the media to prevent prompt, impartial coverage of every over-hyped cultural event from the Star Wars "prequel" to Thomas Harris's fictional resurrection of Hannibal Lecter.

Now, the standard ruse of American entertainment lawyers has even taken over the customs of the Royal Family.

The new Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has opened his account with a 12- line poem in celebration of this weekend's marriage of Prince Edward to Sophie Rhys-Jones. His agents, Peters Frasers & Dunlop, have offered it to the media for a fee of pounds 200. All of the proceeds will go to Kosovo refugee charities. Yet, newspapers eager to support and discuss this latest poetic tribute to a grand state occasion, have had to sign a formal undertaking not to use Motion's text until tomorrow.

Thus, a proud, 400-year-old English tradition of courtly nuptial verse joins novels about serial killers and the memoirs of clapped-out politicians under the chilly bureaucratic aegis of media contract law. For an event that might conceivably stir a poet to think about, say, the values of privacy and trust, Motion's official debut will be marked by more of the former than the latter.

Journalists who find their curiosity piqued by this embargo might like to know that the first poet to practise the wedding song, or "epithalamium", was probably Sappho of Lesbos,around 600BC. The idea reached English poetry with the Renaissance, and dynastic weddings then prompted a torrent of memorable verse from the likes of Ben Jonson, John Donne and Philip Sidney.

This century, however, the weddings of friends or the abstract idea of marriage have tended to produce better poems (by WH Auden and Philip Larkin, for example) than have royal occasions brimming with pomp. Some sort of nadir came with the grim doggerel that John Betjeman penned as Laureate when Princess Anne married Captain Mark Phillips. Whatever Andrew Motion produces is likely to be a major improvement on the Betjeman benchmark.

Perhaps the greatest English marriage verse remains the Prothalamion that Edmund Spenser wrote for the double wedding of the Earl of Worcester's daughters in 1596. Each verse ends with the line "Sweet Thames! run softly till I end my song" as the two brides sail into London and past the Temple, "where now the studious lawyers have their bowers".

If some impatient tabloid jumps the gun, maybe some of those studious lawyers will have an unusual sort of writ to draft today.