When the late Hilary Mantel finished her Wolf Hall trilogy, ending a twelve-year relationship with Thomas Cromwell – and, at one remove, with Henry VIII – she described a state of physical shock akin to bereavement: the same word many people, much less conversant with their own power-brokers, used when Elizabeth II died. On the throne before most were born, her reign metonymically was their lives, and all that had happened or not happened to them in that time.
Republicans lamented the coverage but some still found themselves, along with 33 million others, drawn to the box within the box, not quite sure why they were watching or why, dammit, they felt moved. Female rulers are rare, and long-lived, skilful ones rarer; funerals are faith-based and faith is divisive, so there may never be a bigger funeral for a woman. Beyond that, though, was the delayed shock of the pandemic and the millions who had died unattended and without ceremony. We all knew someone. Here was the turnout they deserved. And for the slaughtered on both sides of new, senseless wars – here were their medals, their military honours. Here was grief for the enslaved, homeless, confused and brutalised. Not to mention the species lost in the last 50 years. The victims, animal and human, past and to come, of environmental catastrophe, crass over-consumption.
It is in every monarch’s interest to embody stability, and in that role Elizabeth II – gliding swan-like towards a sluice, feet paddling frantically against the current – was exemplary. At the same time it is in every writer’s interest to posit instability: to flesh out inciting incidents, to expose the mix of character flaws, historic circumstance and what the ancients called fate, inscribed in the stick of rock that is high office. Whatever their politics, writers love a monarch. So much pomp, such a contrast to how most of us live. So much at stake.
Which is what makes a poet laureate’s role tricky. At the top of your game, having made a good fist of Owen’s mantra to ‘warn’, your new high-wire act is to balance establishment expectations against those of readers and potential readers who may want poetry for change. What befalls royals on your watch is the luck of the draw but will be part of your material. The other part will be to flag up what else is as (or more) important. And, if you dare, to make connections.