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Letters: Churchill's poem is more parody than schoolboy patriotism


I enjoyed reading the poem which Winston Churchill wrote in 1899 or 1900 (Report, 7 February), but was puzzled by the comments of such experienced critics as Andrew Motion and Robert Potts. The former refers to the poem's "heavy-footed rhythm" and "old-fashioned sentiments". The latter describes it as a "youthful stab at poetry" which, whatever its aspiration, was closer to the "schoolboy jingoism" of Henry Newbolt's Vital Lampada.

These criticisms seem to me to show a surprising lack of discernment. To me, at least, the poem is obviously a parody – a parody not so much of Newbolt, but of the poet laureate at the time, Alfred Austin. I'm sure Andrew Motion would agree that Austin was the lamest writer who ever held that distinguished position. "Breathes there the man who fears to die / For England, Home, & Wai-hai-wai" is just the sort of couplet that Austin might have written. The cliches and the bathos are pure Austin.

By 1900 Churchill had published three books describing military operations in which he had taken part. They show his growing mastery of the English language. As you point out, he was a reader of poetry and a reciter of it too. He would have known the difference between good verse and egregiously bad verse. Like Kipling, the young Churchill was an imperialist of his time but, also like Kipling, he was not a thoughtless jingo. To regard this "poem" as a seriously intended "stab at poetry" badly underrates Churchill's literary taste and his wit.
Sydney Kentridge QC
Brick Court Chambers, London

• In the last line of the newly discovered poem by Churchill, you rightly query the penultimate word: "... And add to hard and heavy toil / The glamour of a victim(?) cause". Sense requires "victor's", but if Churchill wrote that, it is hard to understand why it could have been misread. Presumably he wrote "victrix", alluding to the most famous line in Lucan's epic poem, Pharsalia (1, 128), "victrix causadeis placuit sed victa Catoni" ("the winning cause pleased the gods, but the losing cause pleased Cato"). It has been a favourite quotation of politicians for centuries and is inscribed on the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Professor James Diggle
Queens' College, Cambridge

• Churchill wrote his best verse when he wasn't trying to be a poet and the politician-cum-rhetorician knew precisely what aspects of the art he could exploit. Many of his best known lines turn out to be a spin on iambic pentameter, with suitable inversions, caesurae, line-breaks and the odd unstressed syllable: "The soft under-belly of the Axis"; "Without victory, there is no survival"; "Never in the field of human conflict / Was so much owed by so many to so few"; "Men will still say: 'This was their finest hour'": "It is perhaps the end of the beginning".
John Greening
St Neots, Cambridgeshire

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