Poet Laureates

The role of Poet Laureate often involves carefully containing public truths in poetic form to make it easier for the public to swallow.

‘Finishing It’, a poem by Simon Armitage, was engraved by a micro-artist onto one tiny pill. Symbolic of the continued fight against cancer by researches, it is one of only two poems he has written since he was appointed to the post of Poet Laureate this year.

‘Finishing It
I can’t configure
a tablet

chiselled by God’s finger
or forge
a scrawled prescription, 

but here’s an inscription, formed
on the small white dot of its own
full stop, 

the sugared pill
of a poem, one sentence that speaks ill
of illness itself, bullet with cancer’s name carved brazenly on it.’

The connection of poem, pill and poet laureate is perhaps somewhat ironic, as their role is one that often involves carefully containing public truths in a poetic form, designed to make it easier for the public to swallow.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

No one, perhaps, did this more famously, than Tennyson (poet Laureate 10 poets down the line from Armitage). The most renowned of all Tennyson’s Poet Laureate poems, is, of course, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’:

‘“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.’ 

However, ‘The Charge of the Lightb Brigade’ was only one of many poems that Tennyson wrote whilst in the position of the Poet Laureate, and many of them, such as ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’ were critically lampooned, or at least divided opinion. The task of the Poet Laureate, is perhaps, an impossible one: As they reach forwards to contain not only the events but also the feelings of the public within their poetry, it gets lost within their language and their personal opinion. Most often poetry is at its most comprehensive when it is at its most personal, rather than its most public, the more touching lines of Tennyson’s poetry are not those written under his public role, but those about his own private grief.

‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ – ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’


It is this eternal dichotomy of the role that is directly tackled in Simon Armitage’s first poem as Poet Laureate, ‘Conquistadors’ in commemoration of the first moon landing:

‘In this afterthought
he’s just turned six,

the astronaut in him

doing his damnedest to coincide the moon landing

with his first kiss,

hoping to plant his lips on ----- --------’s

distant face

as Simon Armstrong
steps from the module

onto Tranquillity Base.

But as Tricky Dicky clears his throat to claim God’s estate

as man’s backyard

from the Oval Office,
and the gap narrows

to feet then inches,

suddenly stars recoil
to further dimensions

and heaven flinches.’

The personal moment, the ‘first kiss’ and the moon landing upon the ‘distant face’ come together within a moment where the sensations of both viewers and subject are the same, yet even as it seems that poetic unity between the public and the private has been reached it continues to elude us, ‘suddenly stars recoil/to further dimensions/and heaven flinches’, remaining ever out of reach.

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