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Farewell words and music reflect a patriotic austerity and insularity


In life, Thatcher commanded a philistine government disdainful of culture. In death, she returns to the Lincolnshire of her beginnings: flat, provincial and boring

Margaret Hilda Roberts, the shopkeeper's daughter who studied X-ray crystallography, celebrated Gladstonian thrift and liked to compare national to household belt-tightening, might deprecate the costly pomp and circumstance of her non-state state funeral, over which she now has no say. But there is no getting away from the patriotic austerity of the language – in words and music – that she has chosen for her final exit.

Thatcher's order of service, officially released this weekend, has all the uplift and exuberance of a brass plate on a Victorian coffin. This is a nonconformist, profoundly English declaration of posthumous intent from a woman raised in the Methodist tradition.

In her prime, she used to praise the novels of Jeffrey Archer and rarely, if ever, attended a Shakespeare production. On the way out, she has played it safe musically (Brahms, not Bach; Elgar, not Fauré) and in her chosen prose, much of it from the King James Bible, she crosses over to the other side with scriptural iron rations, slightly leavened with some of Wordsworth's best lines and the dry periods of TS Eliot's Little Gidding. Funeral buffs, who cherish the literary opportunities of the graveside, will be dismayed at the meagre and predictable insularity of this selection. A Churchill, a Pitt or even a Gladstone, Thatcher's great predecessors, would have done better.

I remember that, at Ted Hughes's magnificent memorial service in Westminster Abbey, after Seamus Heaney's deeply felt eulogy, there was an extraordinary coup de théâtre – the shadowy parts of the national shrine filling with the recorded voice of the poet reciting "Fear No More The Heat o' the Sun" from Cymbeline. A frisson passed through the congregation.

Our greatest poet was giving a kind of absolution to an honoured successor in the loveliest language: "Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney sweepers come to dust." The lines became a kind of literary ear-worm: subtle, rich and subversive.

Leaving aside "Fear no more the frown of the great, Thou art past the tyrant's stroke...", Thatcher was never going to choose Shakespeare, Milton or Donne, or indeed any of the English canon, apart from Wordsworth – who comes close to qualifying as the national bore.

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