Wednesday 10 May 2023

Of Simon And Samuel

Early on Saturday morning, I listened to a wonderful radio interview with Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, about the piece he had written to celebrate the Coronation. 

He said some really interesting things about the ideas that had led him to this poem...
  • this was a special event - but things are only special if there is something ordinary to compare them with.
  • The King had said he wanted ordinary people at the ceremony, not just bishops and heads of state and other royalty. Charity workers, covid heroes and others
  • any poem needed to reflect that - not just the grandeur of the Abbey, the pomp and ceremony of the rituals, but also how it was viewed by the people there.
Armitage said he looked back to the coronation of the last Charles, in April 1661 - after the Commonwealth, and Cromwell and all that. New crown jewels commissioned and on display. And at the Abbey, there was the great diarist Samuel Pepys - a man who really was just an 'ordinary bloke', but through his work had come into contact with the rich and powerful, and the royal family - and he had kept a record of it all. I'm re-reading Pepys at the minute [another blogpost will explain why, sometime] 
Armitage writes from the point of view of a 60 year old woman whose invitation from the Palace was totally unexpected, for whom a trip to London was something special and unusual. She marvels at the other people there - many who had done 'good things' and been invited as an acknowledgement of their service to the nation. She cannot quite believe she is there - clutching her precious invitation, waved in through the great doors - along with heads of state, high priests, NHS heroes and that boy-in-the-tent. It is a marvellous, magical day for her
And in the middle of his poem, Armitage quotes the passage from Pepys' diary, where he shares his thoughts on the coronation of the other King Charles. It becomes a collaborative effort. Having heard the poem on the radio, I had to look it up - I have read and re-read it since. For me it really hits the spot - how a Poet Laureate's poem ought to be. Commemorating the national event, and setting it in the context of the people, and of history. 

An Unexpected Guest - by Simon Armitage [featuring Samuel Pepys]

She’s treated herself to new shoes, a window seat
on the fast train, a hotel for a night.
She’s been to the capital twice before,
once to see Tutankhamun when she was nine
and once when it rained. Crossing The Mall
she’s just a person like everyone else
but her hand keeps checking the invitation,
her thumb strumming the gilded edge of the card,
her finger tracing the thread of embossed leaves.
In sight of the great porch she can’t believe
the police just step aside, that doors shaped
for God and giants should open to let her in.
She’s taken her place with ambulance drivers
and nurses and carers and charity workers,
a man who alchemised hand sanitiser
from gin, a woman who walked for sponsored miles,
the boy in the tent. The heads of heads of state
float down the aisle, she knows the names
of seven or eight. But the music’s the thing:
a choir transmuting psalms into sonorous light,
the cavernous sleepwalking dreams
of the organ making the air vibrate,
chords coming up through the soles of her feet.
Somewhere further along and deeper in
there are golden and sacred things going on:
glimpses of crimson, flashes of jewels
like flames, high priests in their best bling,
the solemn wording of incantations and spells,
till the part where promise and prayer become fused:
the moment is struck, a pact is sworn.
And got to the abby . . . raised in the middle . . .
Bishops in cloth-of-gold Copes . . .
nobility all in their parliament-robes . . .
The Crowne being put on his head
a great shout begun. And he came forth . . .
taking the oath . . . And Bishops . . . kneeled
. . . and proclaimed . . . if any could show
any reason why Ch. . . . should not be the King . . .
that now he should come and speak . . .
The ground covered with blue cloth . . .
And the King came in with his Crowne . . .
and mond . . . and his sceptre in hand . . .
She’ll watch it again on the ten o’clock news
from the armchair throne in her living room:
did the cameras notice her coral pink hat
or her best coat pinned with the hero’s medal she got
for being herself? The invitation is propped
on the mantelpiece by the carriage clock.
She adorned the day with ordinariness;
she is blessed to have brought the extraordinary home.
And now she’ll remember the house sparrow
she thought she’d seen in the abbey roof
arcing from eave to eave, beyond and above.

That's the poem - 
What do YOU think of it?
[NB Pepys mentions a  mond/monde, meaning 'world', this is the orb located near the top of the crown. It represents, as the name suggests, the world that the monarch rules. It is the point at which a crown's arches meet. It is usually topped off either with a cross for Christian monarchs]


  1. That poem is just right. It expresses the awe and the ordinariness. Splendid.

  2. Simon Amitage is brilliant! We very much enjoyed doing the Words in the Air walks 'with him' around Northumberland. This poem is very evocative! Kxx

    1. Of course, you and your family know that area very well, so his words would hold special meaning, Kezzie 👍

  3. I have long had a great admiration for Simon Armitage and his poetry. He is from such an ordinary background himself. There are several contemporary references taken from the news in the second stanza, including the pandemic; I wonder if future generations will get them. I like the line: " her best coat pinned with the hero’s medal she got
    for being herself".

    1. Yes, there were some clever references. "Best coat" is a phrase which reminds me of my Mum, and those occasions where you had to Make An Effort with your clothes. This poem would make a good piece to be studied for an exam in a few years time!

  4. It is a wonderful poem. How lovely to contrast the ordinary person with all the pomp and splendour. Just right I felt. Thank you for sharing, I would have missed it.

  5. It is an interesting poem. I like the focus on an ordinary woman, like so many of us who lead ordinary lives.

    1. Exactly [glad you liked the Sri Lankan leaf on the Anointing Screen too]

  6. How clever to write from that viewpoint, you can feel the wonder emanating from her.

    1. Oh what a lovely description - it fits well with Mary's "awe and ordinary" above

  7. What a wonderful poem and I love the perspective!

    1. I guess the majority of those reading the poem are ordinary, not high-powered, which is why it resonates.

  8. The poem is brilliant. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. Thank you for sharing this wonderful poem celebrating ordinary people called to witness the splendour of a coronation. Catriona

  10. What a perfectly worded poem. Ta for sharing this wonderwork!


  11. I love Simon Armitage. He is a genius. You feel like you know the lady. I read Claire Tomalin's biography of Pepys. It's excellent. He certainly lived a full life!

    1. Yes, I agree about both SA &CT !! Her book is brilliant

  12. That is a wonderful poem, a story in itself. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. I love the poem and the unusual perspective he chose to write it from. It just suits the occasion and the times we live in so well.

    1. I think it does suit the occasion AND these post COVID days, as you say. An excellent piece of work

  14. I'm a bit late commenting, but I really enjoyed this poem. When I first read it, I didn't know about the inclusion of Pepys' words. I wondered if it was supposed to represent a radio broadcast with poor reception! Good to have my confusion sorted out! I liked Simon Armitage's Winter Walk on the NE Coastal path as well. He seems a Good Sort. Love FD xx

    1. Pepys loved to use half sentences and enigmatic incomplete words in his diary.


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