Not much pomp but not bad in the circumstance

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The Independent Online
WHY DO modern poets find it so hard to strike the right note in official verse, especially when some princely couple trips down the aisle? Although it may err on the side of comfort and caution, Andrew Motion's debut as Laureate at least amounts to an advance on the sad waffle that John Betjeman penned when Princess Anne wed Captain Mark Phillips. The then Poet Laureate told The Times that his insipid lines were "one of the most laborious things that I have ever written".

Motion has, by contrast, produced a gentle, straightforward hymn to private virtue over public clamour. It consists of three very traditional quatrains in iambic pentameters, the half-rhyme of the first two (air/disappear; pews/vows) yielding to the concluding harmony of the final verse (show/grow).

The idea of formal wedding-song or "epithalamium" reached England with the Renaissance, when dynastic marriages prompted verse from John Donne, Edmund Spenser and the like.

The weddings of friends or the idea of marriage have produced better poems than have noisy royal nuptials since the turn of the century. One obvious reason is that modern poets can no longer focus gleefully, as their ancestors did, on the bride's ritual loss of virginity. John Donne's 1595 "Epithalamion made at Lincoln's Inn", for example, commands the bride to get up and "put forth that warm balm-breathing thigh,/Which when next time you in these sheets will smother/There it must meet another".

Four hundred years later, we expect less sex and more solemnity in our public wedding-songs.

Recent royal weddings appear to represent a sort of Bermuda Triangle for poetic talent. Ted Hughes's nuptial ode to Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1986, "The Honey Bee and the Thistle", has a touch of mischief about it that suited the frisky pair. But it then descends into banalities and bathos.

Funerals present another set of headaches for the bard with a warrant from the Palace. Alfred Tennyson had only just begun his 40-year reign as Laureate when Wellington, the "Iron Duke" and victor at Waterloo, died in 1852. Tennyson thought he should write a funeral elegy, and the ode that resulted has a sort of stately, plodding grandeur. By that time, much of Britain considered Wellington an anti-democratic Tory despot rather than the nation's saviour. So Tennyson's reluctant tribute did render a useful service to its subject.

The Ones They Wish They Hadn't Written

Sir John Betjeman (1973)

Hundreds of birds in the air

And millions of leaves on the pavement,

Then the bells pealing on

Over palace and people outside,

All for the words "I will"

To love's most holy enslavement -

What can we do but rejoice

With a triumphing bridegroom and bride?

Written for the marriage of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips

From "The Honey Bee and the Thistle"

by Ted Hughes (1986)

Dance, dance, as Eve and Adam

Kicked their worries off

In Paradise, before they heard

God politely cough

Soft as the Thistle's crown

Then dance on, like a tuning fork

That wakes unearthly stars

In human hearts, and makes them throb

Like noble, old guitars

Gold as the Honey Bee

And dance, and dance, like Sirius

Inseparably two

Who twirls in heaven, to show the earth

What harmony can do

Soft as the Thistle's crown

For from this day, which gives you each

To each as man and wife

That's the dance, and this the song

Of a true and happy life

Gold, gold as the Honey Bee

Soft as a Thistle's crown.

Written for the marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson

From `Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington' by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1852)

Bury the Great Duke

With an empire's lamentation,

Let us bury the Great Duke

To the noise of the mourning of a mighty nation, mourning when their leaders fall,

Warriors carry the warrior's pall,

And sorrow darkens hamlet and hall.

Where shall we lay the man whom we deplore?

Here, in streaming London's central roar.

Let the sound of those he wrought for,

And the feet of those he fought for,

Echo round his bones for evermore.

Lead out the pageant: sad and slow,

As fits an universal woe, let the long long procession go,

And let the sorrowing crowd about it grow,

And let the mournful martial music blow;

The last great Englishman is low.

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