Tuesday 19 November saw an extraordinary gathering. When I arrived, there was already a long queue outside the main gates of Buckingham Palace. Police were carefully checking passports and driving licenses. But once we were in, it was like walking into an architectural expression of grace – open courtyards, great staircases, and as many magnificent paintings and as much gold leaf as you dare to imagine – in short, the royal palace of many people’s imaginations. I’d never gone further than putting my head through the railings as a small child, and suddenly I was walking in through the wide open door.
Around four hundred of us were invited to a reception to celebrate contemporary British poetry. What I had not really reckoned for was that suddenly – just around the corner from our first glass of champagne – there would be Her Majesty the Queen and, alongside her but about four feet away, The Duke of Edinburgh. She was there to shake everyone’s hand and to reflect back to us her role as icon for the nation. She sparkled; she seemed to be surrounded by light; and I was proud and pleased to bow as countless others have done. The line had to keep moving, but I managed to look her in the eye and say ‘God Bless you, ma’am.’ I shall always be pleased I did that.
And then into a room with two thrones at the end of it and a Scottish piper playing different kinds of wind instruments. Carol Ann Duffy was sitting on the edge of the room at the front as we all went in. When the room was full, the large doors opened. We stood. The Queen entered, accompanied by The Duke of Edinburgh, The Princess Royal and Princess Michael of Kent.
There then followed a short – an excellently short – poetry recital of around twenty-five minutes. Ian Mcmillan introduced five poets who all said a few words and spoke one poem: Sinead Morrissey (from Northern Ireland), Gillian Clarke (from Wales), Liz Lochhead (from Scotland), John Agard (representing the Commonwealth), and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
At the end of the recital Carol Ann stepped forward and bowed in front of the Queen who then rose and, together with The Duke of Edinburgh, stood on either side of their Poet Laureate and led the procession out.
(The thrones, alas, had remained empty all this time.)
Then the evening continued with much chatter and much laughter. ‘The poets here can’t believe their luck’, I heard someone say.
Nor could I mine.
Carol Ann Duffy read the poem she’d written to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee – which alludes to Shakespeare’s ‘hollow crown’ in Richard II.
‘The crown translates a woman to a Queen –
endless gold, circling itself, an O like a well,
fathomless, for the years to drown in – history’s bride,
anointed, blessed, for a crowning. One head alone
can know its weight, on throne, in pageantry,
and feel it still, in private space, when it’s lifted:
not a hollow thing, but a measuring; no halo,
treasure, but a valuing; decades and duty. Time-gifted,
the crown is old light, journeying from skulls of kings
to living Queen.
Its jewels glow, virtues; loyalty’s ruby, blood-deep; sapphire’s ice resilience; emerald evergreen;
the shy pearl, humility. My whole life, whether it be long
or short, devoted to your service. Not lightly worn.’
by Carol Ann Duffy.