The Daily Telegraph
Poet laureate hails ‘promise made and kept for life’
Elegy of elegance whose lines’ first letters spell out ‘Elizabeth’ finds inspiration in her favourite flower
Thousands have laid garlands to the late Queen’s memory. Now the poet laureate offers another, in an elegy of real elegance and restraint.
We may associate death with lilies, but the “lily to light these hours” at the heart of Simon Armitage’s “Floral Tribute” is a lily only in name. It is, rather, lily of the valley, an unrelated plant, and a favourite flower of the late Queen Elizabeth II, often used to decorate at royal occasions.
It is “a namesake almost” (“lily” is a short leap from her childhood nickname “Lilibet”), which goes by another old English name, “glovewort”.
So called for its use as a salve for sore or overworked hands, it is the perfect gift for the “slender hands” of a monarch who worked tirelessly till the last week of her life, her hands now finally “relieved of a century’s weight”.
It is also a poem in conversation with other poems. The first letter of each line spelled out the name “Elizabeth” in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “An Acrostic” (c1829).
Armitage repeats that device in his own acrostic, a form that has lately come back into style in, for instance, the remarkably dextrous work of Anthony Etherin.
The opening, “Evening will come”, has a monumental ring that cannot help recalling Ian Hamilton Finlay’s most famous poem engraving, carved into a wooden sundial in Finlay’s Scottish flower garden: “Evening will come/ they will sew the blue sail”.
But this poem’s keenest influence might be the former laureate Ted Hughes – a lodestar for his fellow Yorkshireman, Armitage – who offered another floral tribute in “An Almost Thornless Crown”, part of his Masque for the late Queen’s 60th birthday.
Like Hughes, Armitage takes an indirect approach. He avoids obsequious obsequies and royal clichés by looking to the natural world, finding in the plants and landscapes of our country a “forceful grace”.
Armitage avoids royal clichés by looking to the natural world and finding a ‘forceful grace’