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Carol Ann Duffy poem celebrates Dover's famous white cliffs


National Trust commissions new work from Britain's poet laureate to mark £1.2m purchase of important stretch

The "marvellous geology" of the white cliffs of Dover has been celebrated by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy in a poem published for the first time by the Guardian. The poem was commissioned by the National Trust to mark the success of a public appeal to buy one of the last stretches of the famous landmark that was still in private ownership.

Duffy describes the towering chalk cliffs as "a glittering breastplate", and references literary antecedents such as Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear, who describes the "dreadful trade" of the samphire pickers clinging to the cliff face, and Matthew Arnold, who wrote of "the eternal note of sadness" sounded by the waves and shingle in Dover Beach.

The National Trust appeal raised £1.2m in just 133 days after more than 16,000 donations from organisations and individuals. The target was reached ahead of the December deadline, with a major donation from the Dover harbour board, which is overlooked by the 1.35km stretch of the cliffs. Julian Baggini was appointed as the cliffs' first philosopher-in-residence last summer as part of the appeal.

The success is a parting triumph for the trust's director, Dame Fiona Reynolds, who leaves her post this week after 11 years to become the first female master of Emmanuel College in Cambridge.

The cliffs have been the first view of England for travellers arriving by boat by the narrow Channel crossing, from the Bronze Age Britons who built the Dover boat 3,500 years ago to Caesar and his galleys and second world war troops evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches. The cliffs are also home to a wealth of rare plants and wildlife.

The trust now owns more than 7km of the coast between the South Foreland lighthouse and the visitor centre on Langdon Cliffs. The appeal was supported by celebrities including Dame Judi Dench, the singer Joss Stone, and Dame Vera Lynn, whose 1941 recording of (There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover – written by two Americans who had never actually seen the cliffs and who ignored the fact that there are squawking seagulls and croaking ravens but no blue birds – became her greatest hit.

• This article was amended on 7 November 2012. The original referred to the Fool's, rather than Edgar's speech about the samphire picker in Shakespeare's King Lear. This has been corrected.

White Cliffs

Worth their salt, England's white cliffs;
a glittering breastplate
Caesar saw from his ship;
the sea's gift to the land,
where samphire-pickers hung from
their long ropes,
gathering, under a gull-glad sky,
in Shakespeare's mind's eye;
in Arnold's glimmering verse;
marvellous geology, geography;
to time, deference; war, defence;
first view or last of here, home,
in painting, poem, play, in song;
something fair and strong implied in
what we might wish ourselves.

© Carol Ann Duffy 2012

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