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Mark Francois reading Tennyson, and other reasons to keep politicians away from poetry | Zoe Williams


There are no words to describe puffed up politicians reciting poetry, until someone invents a verb that is between cringing and retching

Mark Francois reading all 70 lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses to a bunch of pensioners at a pro-Brexit conference while, across a corridor in the House of Commons, a panel of Tory MPs were wondering how to appeal to the under-35s, should have struck fear into our hearts. “I say to the European council, Brexit has gone on long enough. You will be facing perfidious Albion on speed. It would be better for us to face our separate futures with mutual respect,” the vice chair of the hardline Tory European Research Group said, before launching into Tennyson’s poem to demonstrate how completely unwavering he was. Yet who was frightened? I wasn’t. It was too funny; I was, in the Peter Cook coinage that has proven so useful for our times, sinking giggling into the sea.

I want to say politicians quoting poetry at any length over about four words never works, since it always amounts to puffed up, undisguised hubris. Thatcher entering Downing Street for the first time with the words of St Francis of Assisi (“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”) is hard to describe, at least until someone invents a verb that is between cringing and retching. I guess you could parse the difference between that and Jeremy Corbyn doing Percy Bysshe Shelley at Glastonbury– at least he wasn’t accruing the noblest of human qualities to himself, or even talking about himself in the third person; rather, he was trying to empower his audience (“Ye are many, they are few”). But the sheer incongruousness of the language (“Rise, like lions after slumber / in unvanquishable number”) is a plain attempt to dignify your own political proposition with a glory conceived for something quite different. Most poetry is something other people should say about you, not something you should say about yourself.

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