In Competition No. 3097 you were invited to submit a poem about Englishness in the style of a well-known poet.
The line-up was mostly predictable — from Chesterton, so-called ‘prophet of Brexit’, through Larkin, Betjeman, Brooke, Housman and, of course, Kipling. But it was an American, Ogden Nash, whose pen portrait of us prompted me to set this challenge:
Let us pause to consider the English
Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
Because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz:
That to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is…
The winners, in a field where the mood ranged from elegiac to caustic, earn £25.
If you can take control back of your border
And sing of Agincourt and Waterloo
And think your mates are all well out of order
To lose their jobs and blame it all on you;
If you can moan and never tire of moaning:
Your belt won’t fit; your neighbour’s on the fiddle;
The trains are late; the Nanny State; it’s raining;
You can’t squeeze through the aisle of a Lidl;
And Brexit’s got you hot under the collar;
You can’t get Heinz baked beans in Magaluf;
And there’s no Burger King in Fuengirola;
The price of curry’s going through the roof.
If you can meet with Spanish, French and German
And treat those Johnny Foreigners as one:
Towels? In the pool. Act innocent, stay firm and
Then you’ll be an Englishman, my son.
David Silverman/Rudyard Kipling
Oft have I travelled in those foreign realms
Where ‘breakfast’ is a concept hardly known,
A dismal meal that sadly underwhelms;
I view the wretched table with a groan.
The Germans offer cheeses, ham, salami;
The Swedes, fish paste that’s horrid, salty, briny.
The Belgians and the French are just as barmy:
A croissant and a cup of coffee (tiny).
My English stomach needs, when I awaken,
Not foreign fare that leaves me feeling wispy,
But eggs and beans, two sausages, some bacon,
Tomatoes, mushrooms, bread that’s fried till crispy,
Washed down, of course, by cups of strong, sweet tea.
An English breakfast is the one for me!
Brian Allgar/John Keats
The time has come, the leavers said
To talk of ‘English’ things,
Of Morris dancers on the green
And Henley — wasps and stings.
We’ll slay the fox, and on the turf
Pursue the sport of kings.
We go to Wimbledon and Lords,
Our way of having fun,
We don’t like foreigners: the Poles,
The Frenchies and the Hun,
It’s scarcely odd we’re all alone,
We’ve chucked out every one.
Sylvia Fairley/Lewis Carroll
In villages named Piddlewallop, Crapplecock and Haw,
We little English niggle out our lives.
We’ve a snobbish type of silence that you’re wisest to ignore
That’s hardened in us nightly by our wives.
The games we play are oaky-croquet, natterjack and guff:
We play them with the earnestness of war.
But look again; this earnestness is no more than a bluff,
Our defeats the highest prized in sporting lore.
We work all day as sagger-knocker, fiddlery or quark
To build a world that’s all askew and odd.
Most all the other nations think us mad or in the dark
As we genuflect to no one but our God.
In villages named Tummywuckle, Uddershape and Smelm,
We little English toddle off to bed
Where dreams suggest we look beyond our own sweet little realm —
But we’re English and so nothing more is said.
Adrian Fry/G.K. Chesterton
Had I been born, I often think,
To write my thoughts in English ink
Far from the rags and peasant stink
Of humble Ayr,
My bonnie Jean would walk in mink
And princes bear.
What’s Englishness but etiquette,
Belief the world is in your debt,
Ruling the waves with no regret,
Shorn of all shame?
When we are dead it’s safe to bet
We look the same.
But when I want to speak to those
That take my verses seriously
I cast aside my ploughman’s clothes
And write imperiously.
Max Ross/Robert Burns
It’s England’s isle I here invoke
Which shapes the soul of English folk.
Oh! how this land has been endowed
To make its people quietly proud;
It boasts no grandly towering heights
But offers calm and gentle sights:
Hedge-folded fields, cool woods and streams
The eye delight, not wild extremes.
Its seasons, too, brook no excess
But each will in its turn express
Its spirit in a measured way.
And these deep patterns, I will say,
Have worked invisibly to fashion
A character not fierce with passion
But made by nature temperate
As if it were its native state.
W.J. Webster/Rupert Brooke
No. 3100: life support
You are invited to supply an ode to either Alexa or Siri (the virtual assistants). Please email entries of up to 16 lines to firstname.lastname@example.org by midday on 22 May.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10