Poetry Corner

English History in Verse

In my (relatively still) new post as Education Officer at Oxford’s University Church, I have the privilege to think about poetry and history and the way they intertwine. Imagine my delight, then, on finding the Faber Book of History in Verse in one of my favourite Jericho charity shops. I’ll be dipping into this, gleefully, for months.


Here’s a post I wrote for the Heritage Blog on the University Church’s website (to be found here: http://www.universitychurch.ox.ac.uk/heritage/heritage-blog/). Check the website, too, for news of the workshops and poetry events I’m running there.


A Groom of the Chamber’s Religion in Henry VIII’s Time (published 1618)


One of King Henry’s favorites began

To move the King one day to take a man

Whom of his chamber he might make a Groom.

“Soft,” said the King, “before I grant that room,

It is a question not to be neglected,

How he in his religion stands affected.”

“For his religion,” answered then the minion,

“I do not certain know what’s his opinion;

But sure he may, talking with men of learning,

Conform himself in less than ten days’ warning.”


Sir John Harington (bap. 1560, d. 1612) was the “saucy Godson” of Elizabeth I and, perhaps even more impressively, the inventor of the flushing toilet, a prototype for which was installed at Richmond Palace. In this short satirical piece he lampoons the religious and political uncertainty of the times in which his father served in Henry VIII’s court. A Groom of the Bedchamber holds a position of trust in the Royal Household, dealing daily with the monarch’s affairs.


By the time his poem was published, Henry was long deceased; Marian rule and the Counter-Reformation were over. Now Elizabeth presided, who sought “not [to] open windows into men’s souls” – that is, she would not force Catholics to become Protestant and, as long as Catholics were discreet in their beliefs and loyal to her, she would not question their religion. In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, England was liberal enough to produce poets like Harington who could tackle such radical – and dangerous – subjects as the Reformation in cheeky heroic couplets.


Writing Process Blog Tour

Many thanks to Richard Skinner for inviting me to answer these questions.

What am I working on?

I’m slowly putting together what I’m thinking of as a mini historical collection. I say “putting together”: really I’m mainly writing down two-word sentences and thinking “I should write a poem about that”. I have an obsession with eccentricity, all the better if it’s historical, and I keep lighting on various eccentrics from the past as potential poem-fodder. Dr Johnson, castrati, hermits, tiger-hunters – they’re all there, kicking about, not yet becoming poems.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure about genre, but I suppose my writing might seem different because my poems might come across as impersonal, often featuring long-gone figures or situations – though I don’t see them as emotionless. Either way, I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly personal, or confessional, poet.

Why do I write what I do?

When I first got acquainted with contemporary poetry, I loved poems that were at once accessible (this generally boiled down to being syntactically straightforward) while at the same time having a secret mechanism at work behind the words, making them in some measure slightly unsettling. My tastes haven’t changed much, and I aim for that in my own poems; though quite often what I write is different from what I seek out in others’ writing. At the moment two of the poems haunting me are John Stammers’ “Mr Punch in Soho” and this great poem by Janet Remmington: neither is very like mine, both feature sticks, and with both of them I find snippets coming back to me. They’re both very musical poems, and I’m envious of how right some of their phrases sound. As Wallace Stevens said, poems should “resist the intelligence, almost successfully” – I think these poems flit round the edges of cognitive comfort.

How does my writing process work?

I sometimes think of poetry as a sort of parlour game – a push and pull between poet and reader. So a lot of the time I’m trying to satisfy my own sense of what a good poem is, and whether it works for me as a reader, too. I always run my poems past my great friend Rebecca, who is a brilliant poet and a very meticulous editor: generally if I feel that I wouldn’t want her to see a poem, it’s not ready, or it’s never going to be a real poem.

I think it’s quite difficult knowing you’re writing for a poetry audience, which I think is quite unique for its high proportion of writers who are also readers. It can sometimes be a bit prohibiting, knowing how much expert scrutiny will be applied to your writing. But I think that’s also the challenge.