Simon Armitage is the Poet Laureate – a post that is coveted more for the prestige than the remuneration. It’s not an onerous post, but there is an expectation that you turn out the odd poem to mark significant national events.
And what is more significant than the coronation of the King; the first since 1953, but with a tradition that goes back around thousand years. The current King was 3 when his mother became Queen, and 4 at the time of her coronation. Now, at 74, Charles 111 is the oldest monarch at the start of his reign (though also the youngest to be on the throne for more than two decades – think about it!) Henry V1, aged 9, was the youngest to be coronated, but actually became king when only 10 months old. In recognition of his youth, the ceremony was cut from 12 hours to 7.
In 1953 the ceremony was shorter, at 3 hours, than previous coronations. But it was an hour longer, and there was more pomp, than this time round. There was also a desire to include ordinary people who had done something significant in their own community, and this was important at Charles’s coronation too. This is the theme that Simon Armitage picks for his recent Coronation Poem, alongside a nod to the enduring traditions via Pepys’s recollections of the coronation of Charles 11.
An Unexpected Guest
featuring Samuel Pepys
She’s treated herself to new shoes, a window seat
on the fast train, a hotel for a night.
She’s been to the capital twice before,
once to see Tutankhamun when she was nine
and once when it rained. Crossing The Mall
she’s just a person like everyone else
but her hand keeps checking the invitation,
her thumb strumming the gilded edge of the card,
her finger tracing the thread of embossed leaves.
In sight of the great porch she can’t believe
the police just step aside, that doors shaped
for God and giants should open to let her in.
She’s taken her place with ambulance drivers
and nurses and carers and charity workers,
a man who alchemised hand sanitiser
from gin, a woman who walked for sponsored miles,
the boy in the tent. The heads of heads of state
float down the aisle, she knows the names
of seven or eight. But the music’s the thing:
a choir transmuting psalms into sonorous light,
the cavernous sleepwalking dreams
of the organ making the air vibrate,
chords coming up through the soles of her feet.
Somewhere further along and deeper in
there are golden and sacred things going on:
glimpses of crimson, flashes of jewels
like flames, high priests in their best bling,
the solemn wording of incantations and spells,
till the part where promise and prayer become fused:
the moment is struck, a pact is sworn.
And got to the abby . . . raised in the middle . . .
Bishops in cloth-of-gold Copes . . .
nobility all in their parliament-robes . . .
The Crowne being put on his head
a great shout begun. And he came forth . . .
taking the oath . . . And Bishops . . . kneeled
. . . and proclaimed . . . if any could show
any reason why Ch. . . . should not be the King . . .
that now he should come and speak . . .
The ground covered with blue cloth . . .
And the King came in with his Crowne . . .
and mond . . . and his sceptre in hand . . .
She’ll watch it again on the ten o’clock news
from the armchair throne in her living room:
did the cameras notice her coral pink hat
or her best coat pinned with the hero’s medal she got
for being herself? The invitation is propped
on the mantelpiece by the carriage clock.
She adorned the day with ordinariness;
she is blessed to have brought the extraordinary home.
And now she’ll remember the house sparrow
she thought she’d seen in the abbey roof
arcing from eave to eave, beyond and above.
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