Thomas Gray spent nine years writing his "Elegy, Written in a Country Churchyard." Thomas Hardy often spent months perfecting a single poetic line. Ted Hughes used to lose sleep for nights on end over the placement of a single comma.
And then there's Andrew Motion, the contemporary British poet who says he would like to be considered as serious a practitioner of the craft as those pillars of English verse. Just four weeks ago, Motion became Britain's new poet laureate. That left him barely the blink of an eye, in a poet's time frame, to meet the first deadline of his new post: a marital hymn honoring Saturday's royal wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones.
Motion's 12-line effort, "Epithalamium--St. George's Chapel, Windsor" was published this weekend, and drew a surprising response: Almost everybody liked it.
"You know, it's a right nice poem," said the BBC anchorman Gavin Esler, reflecting the consensus view in media and literary circles here. "A good poem by any standards, and quite a moving one," agreed Oxford University professor John Bayley.
That's a surprise because Motion, a previously obscure 46-year-old professor of creative writing, has been savaged in literary circles here since he beat out such better-known candidates as Derek Walcott, Carol Ann Duffy, and even Paul McCartney for the laureate's laurels.
All the pundits--in Britain there are pundits of poetry--compared him with the much-loved former laureate, Ted Hughes, who died last year. And Motion came out on the short end of the comparisons.
But a reading of Motion's "Epithalamium"--the title is a Greek word for a marital hymn--alongside the poem Hughes produced for the 1986 royal wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson suggests that the new man can outperform his predecessor, at least when it comes to official versifying.
Hughes's wedding-day poem, "The Honey Bee and the Thistle," starts out near the level of doggerel and never goes much higher:
Upon this day in Westminster
That brings the Prince his bride
Out of the sun there swoops a song
That cannot be denied.
In contrast, Motion's quiet verses proceed more subtly, floating smoothly along on a conversational meter and a pair of indirect rhymes ("air" and "disappear," "pews" and "vows"). The poem doesn't mention the royal couple, but it deals directly with two of their major concerns.
Prince Edward, 35, has made no secret of the fact that he wants his union with Sophie to turn out better than the failed marriages of his three older siblings. Princess Anne, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew all had lavish public weddings followed by bitter public divorces amid reports of adultery, cruelty and furious arguments.
In a series of interviews before the ceremony, the latest royal bride and groom have expressed their determination to "work at" their marriage and thus keep their love alive. Sure enough, Motion's poem lists that as the first of four wedding vows: "to work--so what is true today remains the truth."
As the youngest child of Queen Elizabeth II, Edward has almost no chance to take the throne. He ranks a remote seventh in the monarchial succession and will fall back even further under pending legislation that would give female royals--such as his sister and his two nieces--equal status in the hierarchy. Accordingly, he has begun a film production company to fill his days with something other than ribbon-cutting ceremonies. His 34-year-old bride is co-director of a small public relations firm.
Despite their media jobs, however, both bride and groom are determined to keep their distance from the notoriously intrusive royal-watchers in the British media. That's one reason they eschewed the big London cathedrals and held their wedding some 20 miles down the Thames, at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. When the newlyweds left yesterday morning for their honeymoon--traveling by helicopter, since the Queen has disposed of the royal yacht on which her other children honeymooned--there was no explanation of where they were headed.
Motion's poem catches that facet of the royal couple as well, listing as a second wedding vow "to hope--for privacy and what its secrets show."
The success of Motion's first official ode is all the more surprising because he admits that--like most Britons--he had little more than passing interest in Saturday's wedding. He has never met either the bride or groom and concedes that he probably would have ignored their marriage if he didn't feel required to produce a manuscript as part of his $8,000-per-year official position.
The contemporary event that has really caught Motion's attention is the plight of Albanian refugees in Kosovo. This weekend he took the unprecedented step of demanding a $320 contribution to a refugee fund from any newspaper that wanted to publish his "Epithalamium" on Saturday.
On Tuesday, the poet laureate plans to publish a new poem on Kosovo. And this time, the literary elite will be looking forward to it.
St. George's Chapel, Windsor
One day, the tissue-light through stained glass falls
on vacant stone, on gaping pews, on air
made up of nothing more than atom storms
which whiten silently, then disappear.
The next, all this is charged with brimming life.
A people-river floods those empty pews,
and music-torrents break--but then stop dead
to let two human voices make their vows:
to work--so what is true today remains the truth;
to hope--for privacy and what its secrets show;
to trust--that all the world can offer it will give;
to love--and what it has to understand to grow.
CAPTION: Andrew Motion
CAPTION: Sophie Rhys-Jones, the newly titled Countess of Wessex; and Prince Edward, the new Earl of Wessex, after their wedding Saturday.