A hymn, not a poem

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john-betjeman2“Hymns are not good poems,” was the defense offered of the jubilee hymn Sir John Betjeman wrote in honour of the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II.

As Poet Laureate, there was an expectation that he would pen a contribution to the celebrations. When it was premiered at the Albert Hall, with music by Master of the Queen's Musick, Malcolm Williamson, the performance received enthusiastic applause. However, critics put that reaction down to patriotic loyalty. The hymn was widely mocked in the press and even by members of Parliament. Conservative MP, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who described Betjeman’s effort as “pathetic”, was challenged by the press to write his own. It began: “Queen Sovereign universal, / Queen my Queen, / Silver Queen, glint of Britain, / Queen woman serene.”

Even the Adelaide Advertiser published a Betjemanesque pastiche by Australian poet Max Fatchen on Betjeman's struggle to produce a Jubilee Hymn.

Betjeman’s own text began:

In days of disillusion,
However low we've been
To fire us and inspire us
God gave to us our Queen.

Attempting to integrate the public with the personal, a later verse runs:

From that look of dedication
In those eyes profoundly blue
We know her coronation
As a sacrament and true.

Faced with criticism and ridicule, Betjeman was reportedly “very upset” that the text was being treated as poetry instead of the hymn it was.

That response echoes a familiar belief that the poetry and hymnody are incompatible arts, and it’s true that few great poets have set out to write hymns. Nevertheless, some great poems have made fine hymns (William Cowper, a prominent example) and there is memorable poetry to be found in the texts of many hymn writers – Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Brian Wren, Shirley Erena Murray. . .

When a successor poet laureate, Andrew Motion, partnered with the master of the Queen's music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, to write a work marking the Queen's 80th birthday in 2006, they avoided producing a hymn and created a 15-minute cantata instead, The Golden Rule. It was described by Motion as setting the perceived changelessness of the monarch’s presence against "changes in the natural world, and people accelerating those changes, sometimes positively, sometimes not”. Like Fred Pratt Green’s Silver Jubilee hymn, it offers observations that chime closely with our awareness of climate change its impact:

The waves unfurl and change the shape of coasts,
The shrinking woods fall backwards through their leaves,
The night-horizons twist in chains of light:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

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