Simon Armitage has written a poem to mark the death of Prince Philip, his first to address the royals in his time as poet laureate, saying that the obituaries had taught him that Prince Philip “hated sycophancy – I didn’t want to write anything that would have sounded sycophantic in his ears”.
Titled The Patriarchs – An Elegy, the poem is published for the first time on the day of the duke’s funeral. It opens on a snowy morning – “the weather is a peculiarly British obsession,” said Armitage – and expands into a dedication to the men of Prince Philip’s generation, “great-grandfathers from birth”.
“On such an occasion / to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up / for a whole generation – that crew whose survival / was always the stuff of minor miracle, / who came ashore in orange-crate coracles, / fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea / with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes,” the poem reads.
“I’ve written about a dozen laureate poems since I was appointed, but this is the first royal occasion and it feels like a big one,” Armitage said. “I remember when I was appointed, there were conversations along the lines of ‘there are likely to be significant events during your tenure’ – this was probably one of the events they speculated about.
“I didn’t want to presume to write a personal poem about somebody I didn’t know, so I took cues from various interesting facts about his life, and thinking of him as the last in that generation of patriarchs. So there are a lot of details in the poem which are directly about him, but I tried to broaden the point out into a generational one.”
Armitage said that he wanted the poem to address the duke’s values and personality. “A lot of the commentary has been around duty and service – I saw it as a prompt for writing something dutiful, and in service of all people like him.”