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Poet Laureate Simon Armitage on ‘personal’ poem for the Queen

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has written a floral tribute to Queen Elizabeth II following her sudden death at Balmoral Castle in Scotland aged 96.

September 13, 2022
By Kerri-Ann Roper and Alex Green, PA
13 September 2022

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has said he used the Queen’s name in his tribute piece to her because it was a name the late monarch probably rarely got to hear as it would often have been prefaced with “ceremonial nominals”.

His poem, Floral Tribute, to mark the death of the Queen, employs the form of a double acrostic, meaning the first letter of each line spells out Elizabeth when taken together.

It is composed of two stanzas of nine lines each, describing the coming of a September evening and the appearance of a lily as “a token of thanks”, with lily of the valley having been one of the Queen’s favourite flowers, even appearing in her coronation bouquet.

Chelsea Flower Show
Lily of the valley, one of the Queen’s favourite flowers (Buckingham Palace/PA)

Since then the flower has held special associations and grows in the garden of Buckingham Palace.

Armitage told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I was sort of staring at a blank page really, I’d had a few ideas a couple of years ago and lost them.

“And I just remembered that it might be worthwhile and interesting to try and write through the metaphor of the lily of the valley, which was said to be the Queen’s favourite flower.”

He added: “And then I had the idea of making an acrostic poem. So this is a poem where the first letters of each line spell out the Queen’s name. So the poem has two verses and if you run your eye down the left hand margin, it will spell out her name.

“I was trying to be personal and write a poem of condolence, but without being intrusive.”

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage

“I was thinking as well that, it’s a lovely name, but a name that she probably rarely got to hear very much because everybody had to preface that with ceremonial nominals and so I was trying to be personal and write a poem of condolence, but without being intrusive and there’s always that sense of potential pomposity and sycophancy and cliche and you’re stood at the edge of that.

“So, trying to write something small, I guess, about a very, very big idea.”

In the first stanza, Armitage writes of “A promise made and kept for life – that was your gift.”

Later he adds: “The country loaded its whole self into your slender hands / Hands that can rest, now, relieved of a century’s weight.”

The 59-year-old, who has served as Poet Laureate since May 2019 when he met with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, added of Floral Tribute: “I also think it’s an opportunity to just try and step away from some of the other commentaries that we’ve been hearing, many of them incredibly eloquent, and to try and do what poetry does best, which is to make the most of how unexpected combinations of language can bring about unexpected thoughts.

The Queen receives Simon Armitage to present him with the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry upon his appointment as Poet Laureate during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, in 2019 (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“So you had to try and do something slightly outside of the language and commentaries that we’ve already heard.”

He succeeded Dame Carol Ann Duffy, who was also at the palace for an audience with the Queen to relinquish the role.

For the Platinum Jubilee, Armitage wrote a poem, Queenhood, to mark her 70 years of service.

The poet, who was brought up in Marsden, West Yorkshire, has published some 30 collections of poetry and his work is studied by children as part of the national curriculum.

He worked as a probation officer in Greater Manchester until 1994 before focusing on poetry.

– Floral Tribute by Simon Armitage

Evening will come, however determined the late afternoon,
Limes and oaks in their last green flush, pearled in September mist.
I have conjured a lily to light these hours, a token of thanks,
Zones and auras of soft glare framing the brilliant globes.
A promise made and kept for life – that was your gift –
Because of which, here is a gift in return, glovewort to some,
Each shining bonnet guarded by stern lance-like leaves.
The country loaded its whole self into your slender hands,
Hands that can rest, now, relieved of a century’s weight.

Evening has come. Rain on the black lochs and dark Munros.
Lily of the Valley, a namesake almost, a favourite flower
Interlaced with your famous bouquets, the restrained
Zeal and forceful grace of its lanterns, each inflorescence
A silent bell disguising a singular voice. A blurred new day
Breaks uncrowned on remote peaks and public parks, and
Everything turns on these luminous petals and deep roots,
This lily that thrives between spire and tree, whose brightness
Holds and glows beyond the life and border of its bloom.

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