Armitage had been making notes for a poem about the Queen’s death “over the last couple of years… But then I had a computer crash about two months ago.” His notes “just disappeared – so I took that as an omen that I needed to start from scratch.” Did he feel more pressure than usual to strike the right note? “Take a wild guess!”
While in the thick of writing on the train, Armitage was interrupted. “I didn’t have the right ticket, so I had to have quite an earnest conversation with a conductor – which was a bit of a ‘Porlock’ moment.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge was famously interrupted by “a person from Porlock” halfway through writing his masterpiece Kubla Khan – and never managed to complete the poem.)
This poem’s opening, “Evening will come”, has a monumental ring that can’t help recalling Ian Hamilton Finlay’s most famous poem-engraving, carved into a wooden sundial in Finlay’s Scottish flower-garden: “Evening will come/ they will sew the blue sail”.
But the poem “Floral Tribute” most closely reminded me of is by another laureate (and fellow Yorkshireman) Ted Hughes, who offered his own floral tribute in “An Almost Thornless Crown”, part of his Masque for the late Queen’s 60th birthday.
Like Hughes, Armitage takes an indirect approach. He avoids obsequious obsequies and royal clichés by looking to the natural world, finding in the plants and landscapes of our country a “forceful grace”.
Evening will come, however determined the late afternoon,
Limes and oaks in their last green flush, pearled in September mist.
I have conjured a lily to light these hours, a token of thanks,
Zones and auras of soft glare framing the brilliant globes.
A promise made and kept for life – that was your gift –
Because of which, here is a gift in return, glovewort to some,
Each shining bonnet guarded by stern lance-like leaves.
The country loaded its whole self into your slender hands,
Hands that can rest, now, relieved of a century’s weight.
Evening has come. Rain on the black lochs and dark Munros.
Lily of the Valley, a namesake almost, a favourite flower
Interlaced with your famous bouquets, the restrained
Zeal and forceful grace of its lanterns, each inflorescence
A silent bell disguising a singular voice. A blurred new day
Breaks uncrowned on remote peaks and public parks, and
Everything turns on these luminous petals and deep roots,
This lily that thrives between spire and tree, whose brightness
Holds and glows beyond the life and border of its bloom.