British Poet Laureate

While preparing for my presentation on Carol Ann Duffy I did some research about her role as the British Poet Laureate. One of the first things I found out was that during her first year in the position Duffy wrote a poem for David Beckham called “Achilles” after he injured his Achilles tendon and was unable to play in the 2010 FIFA world cup. I quickly became confused as to why such a prestigious sounding role was responsible for writing original verse about soccer stars and decided to delve a little deeper.

According to the official website of the British Monarchy, the role of Poet Laureate is an honor given to someone whose poetry is of national significance. When the post was first created the intention was for the Poet Laureate to write original verse for special occasions such as royal birthdays, anniversaries and events. Now however, the position has taken on a more honorary nature and there is no obligation for the poet to produce work for such occasions. In its current form the Poet Laureate holds their position for ten years with a stipend of 5,750 pounds and may choose if and when to write.

The Poet Laureate is chosen by the Monarch following advice from the Prime Minister. In Duffy’s case Prime Minister Tony Blair recommended her along with a list of other candidates to Queen Elizabeth II who made the final decision. It took ten years on the short list for Duffy to finally be appointed to the role. She was originally passed over in 1999 when Andrew Motion was given the position. It was speculated that she wasn’t chosen because she is not a typical “establishment.” Blair was nervous about how “Middle England” would respond to Duffy being the lesbian daughter of a dedicated unionist. Now that she has been appointed, however, Duffy is the first woman, first openly gay, and first Scottish Poet Laureate.


Carol Ann Duffy being appointed by Queen Elizabeth II

As you can imagine the position has changed significantly since Henry VII appointed the first Poet Laureate in the early 1500’s. Originally poems were written exclusively for royal events, however, Duffy’s list of works demonstrates an increasing diversity in themes. As previously mentioned she has written about David Beckham’s injury but she has also covered LGBT rights events, climate change, the banking crisis and the Icelandic volcanic activity that disrupted air traffic in 2010.

While you probably haven’t heard of most of the past Laureates there are some familiar names on the list including William Wordsworth and Cecil Day-Lewis (Daniel Day-Lewis’ father).


Cecil Day-Lewis with his wife, daughter and son (Daniel)


The Red Kite


This week while reading Alan Llwyd’s poems I noticed (as a avid animal enthusiast) that many of his works were animal related. Specifically I was struck by the first poem in the anthology, “The Hawk Above Felindre,” which I found to be extraordinarily beautiful. I am constantly evaluating the role animals play in literature and while reading this poem I was interested in Llwyd’s choice to portray the hawk as an all-powerful and all seeing creature. Llwyd writes:


Wheeling and wheeling above the woods
the hawk spinning in the invisible
whirlpool of his flight in the thin
sunshine’s radiance
on a cold morning:
primeval rite,
the rhythmic movements of the hawk’s
dance, round and around,
on the line of his own horizons:
the day stock-still, and his fire-dance
one with the dance of all the planets,
one with the dance of the universe.

Every timorous heart beneath his wide
hovering, underneath his spirallings,
fills with terror and thumps through the silk
of the thin bosom. The world billows
within his wingspan:
animals, creatures and man
whirling about in his eyes,
in the vast vacancy that is the cleft
of his eyes, every living soul
held fast by the dance’s motion.

He turns overhead on his axle,
his flight-path around his own
equator: he is the ripple in the middle
of the lake, that spreads
in waves around
the dint of a skipped stone.
The circle widens, widens as he hangs
on wings of fire,
and as he spirals he cuts an enormous
hole in the cosmos,
opens a hole through God’s creation,
and through the gap our civilization collapses,
falls through to its death.

It is clear that Llwyd’s hawk is not just any bird but holds more significant meaning as an omniscient presence in its landscape. Its view from the sky places all “animals, creatures and man” in the hawk’s control giving it enough power to cut a hole through God’s creations with its spiraling dance. This overwhelming presence made me consider whether hawks have specific significance in Wales. I did some research and found that in fact Wales is known for its birds, both on its extensive coastline and throughout the interior of the region. Among the most famous of these birds is the Red Kite (a type of hawk), which is considered by many to be the Welsh national bird. Although Red Kites once bred throughout Britain, they became extinct in England and Scotland by the end of the 18th century after being hunted by farmers who saw them as a threat to expanding agriculture. However, the birds continued to survive in Wales and became iconic due to their beauty and their distinctive and elaborate areal displays.

A Red Kite

While Llwyd makes no mention of a specific type of hawk in his poem, he makes continual references to the bird’s “rhythmic movements,” and its “fire dance” which is “one with the dance of all the planets,/ one with the dance of the universe.” The poem is also set in Felindre which is a Welsh town surrounded by countryside and woods, the perfect habitat for the Red Kite. I am therefore concluding, both due to textual evidence and for the sake of my argument, that Llwyd’s hawk is in fact a Red Kite and thus the Welsh national bird.

After reaching this conclusion I now see the poem in a slightly different light. The hawk is a symbol of Welsh identity, an icon of a natural beauty that the rest of Britain did not manage to preserve. In this sense I now see Llwyd’s poem as not only a tribute to a majestic animal, but I believe he is identifying the bird as a protector of the land. For centuries the hawk has been circling the Welsh skies, witnessing hundreds of years of repetition and change. The bird represents the survival of a national identity, an identity that holds significance for all in its sight.

The last two lines of the poem, however, are still causing me some difficulty. Llwyd concludes by describing how civilization collapses to its death into the hole formed by the hawk’s spiraling dance. One could interpret this image as a statement surrounding the strength of national identity. It is possible that Llwyd is suggesting that the survival of a civilization is inherently dependent on nationalism. Conversely it can be seen as illustrating the dangers of nationalist identities and emphasizing the manner in which nationalism has repeatedly led to destruction.

I would love to hear what others think!

Also if you are interested in birds BBC has some great videos including this one:


Maud Gonne

As we’ve worked our way through many of Yeats’ poems we’ve come across his main muse, Maud Gonne. I thought it would be interesting to do a little research into their relationship in order to get a better idea of where Yeats’ poetic inspiration came from.


Gonne was of Anglo-Irish decent and the daughter of a British Army Officer. Although she was part of the Viceregal Court, Gonne dissociated herself from British society and became an activist for Irish nationalism. It was her desire to build a new Irish identity that intrigued Yeats when he first met Gonne in 1889. He too was looking to create a new Irish consciousness through his poetry. Yeats later revealed that his infatuation with Gonne began before he even set eyes on her.  He felt a “premonitory excitement” just upon reading her name and admited that it was then that the “troubling of my life began.”

In 1892 Yeats wrote Countess Kathleen as a play for Gonne to act in in Dublin. The role Yeats created for her was that of a beautiful aristocratic woman who ends up selling her own soul in order to feed the starving Irish. Gonne never ended up acting in the play yet Yeats dedicated the work to her and it was well know that Gonne was the inspiration behind the character of Countess Kathleen.



A depiction of Countess Kathleen walking among the poor

During their twenty-year relationship Yeats proposed to Gonne three times. She declined each time and spent a brief three years married to John MacBride, an Irish Nationalist. During her separation with MacBride in 1906 Yeats acted as Gonne’s main source of support. After briefly becoming lovers in 1908 Gonne insisted that they return to being strictly platonic friends because she feared that a sexual relationship would ruin her power as a muse.

Despite the fluctuations in their relationship, Gonne remained a presence through much of Yeats’ work.  Specifically Yeats depicted Gonne as Helen of Troy in many of his poems including A Woman Homer Sung and No Second Troy. Just like Helen of Troy, Yeats found Gonne’s beauty to be so intense that it spread destruction and violence around her.


If anyone is interested in doing some additional reading about Gonne or any of Yeats’ other muses I suggest checking out W.B Yeats and the Muses by Joseph M. Hasset which is available in Magill Library. I found it to have the best account of their relationship and it has additional chapters on the other muses who influenced Yeats’ work. Also if you are interested in Gonne’s life as a Irish Nationalist I recommend Women and the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses by Mary K. Greer which is also available in Magill.