Winston Churchill manuscript reveals his poetic side

Only known poem written by the adult Churchill, now dismissed as 'heavy-footed', expected to fetch up to £15,000 at auction

Winston Churchill was a journalist, essayist, author and novelist; a historian, biographer and renowned speaker. But now, the man praised by John F Kennedy for having "mobilised the English language and sent it into battle" has been revealed to be that most sensitive of all plants: a young poet.

Around 115 years after it was written, the only known poem written by an adult Churchill has been discovered by Roy Davids, a retired manuscript dealer from Great Haseley in Oxfordshire.

Our Modern Watchwords, which was apparently inspired by Tennyson and Kipling, will go on sale at Bonham's auction house in London in the spring. Written in 1899 or 1900, when Churchill was a cornet – equivalent to today's second lieutenant – in the 4th Hussars, the 10-verse poem is a tribute to the Empire.

The author peppers the poem with the names of remote outposts defending Britain's interests around the world, including Weihaiwei in China, Karochaw in Japan and Sokoto, in north-west Nigeria.

The paean to Britain's might, however, does not scale the heights of the literary efforts that marked Churchill's later life – including his Nobel Prize-winning History of the English Speaking Peoples.

Davids, who says the poem "is by far the most exciting Churchill discovery I have seen", admits it is merely "passable". Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, goes further, calling it "heavy-footed".

"I didn't know he wrote poems, though somehow I'm not surprised: oils, walls, why not poems as well?" said Motion. "This is pretty much what would expect: reliable, heavy-footed rhythm; stirring, old-fashioned sentiments. Except for the lines 'The tables of the evening meal/Are spread amid the great machines', where the shadow of Auden passes over the page, and makes everything briefly more surprising."

Despite its lack of literary virtues, however, the poem – written in blue crayon on two sheets of 4th Hussars-headed notepaper – is expected to raise between £12,000 to £15,000 when it goes on sale on 10 April. Its price reflects its rarity: the only other poem known to be penned by Churchill is the 12-verse The Influenza, which won a House Prize in a competition at Harrow school in 1890 when he was 15.

Churchill was well-known for his love of poetry. He won the headmaster's prize at Harrow for reciting from memory the 1,200-line The Lays of Ancient Rome, by Thomas Macaulay.

Allan Packwood, director of the Churchill Archive Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, said the wartime prime minister's interest in poetry spanned the sophisticated to the more earthy.

"In his speech accepting freedom of the city of Edinburgh in 1942, he quoted Robert Burns and ended by quoting the music hall entertainer Sir Harry Lauder, who was in the audience," said Packwood. "This was no cheap politician's trick, Churchill was an admirer of Lauder's."

Packwood also pointed out that as well as his more famous historial and biographical writings, Churchill also wrote a piece of fiction, the novel Savrola published in 1899, whose plot revolves around a dashing young politician who is leading the forces of reform against a despot.

Churchill's delight in reciting great tracts of poetry to politicians, staff and friends continued throughout his life. He is known to have startled President Roosevelt with a recital of a poem as they travelled to the Casablanca conference in 1943. While Anthony Montague Browne, Churchill's Private Secretary from 1952 to 1965, describes in his book, Long Sunset, how Churchill used to break into spontaneous, lighthearted verse of his own invention when at work. In his book, My Dear Mr Churchill, Walter Graebner, tells how the prime minister made up an "impromptu piece of doggerel" concerning Graebner's drinking habits after dinner one evening at Chartwell.

But despite the breadth of his literary interests, Douglas J Hall, from the Churchill War Rooms in London, is adamant that Churchill "was truly a poet at heart". "Churchill spoke and wrote with a rhythm which made it almost poetical,

"He arranged his notes for his speeches in a format closely resembling blank verse. Although he was never a prolific poet himself he greatly enjoyed poetry and had a remarkable capacity to commit to memory copious lines of verse which he loved to recall and recite at appropriate moments. In his writings and speeches he regularly quoted lines from Macaulay and was still able to recite long passages from memory well into extreme old age." he said.

Extract from Our Modern Watchwords

The shadow falls along the shore
The search lights twinkle on the sea
The silence of a mighty fleet
Portends the tumult yet to be.
The tables of the evening meal
Are spread amid the great machines
And thus with pride the question runs
Among the sailors and marines
Breathes there the man who fears to die
For England, Home, & Wai-hai-wai.

The Admiral slowly paced the bridge
His mind intent on famous deed
Yet ere the battle joined he thought
Of words that help mankind in need
Words that might make sailors think
Of Hopes beyond all earthly laws
And add to hard and heavy toil
the glamour of a victim(?) cause

Expert view: leader, rhetorician – but no poet

By Robert Potts

The poem invokes something it cannot quite supply – the hope of a leader to inspire his men with words – but which Winston Churchill did supply so effectively decades later, in his rousing wartime speeches. After the scene-setting first stanza, interestingly in the present tense, with its Kiplingesque admiration for the bravery of the poised troops, we move oddly into the past tense, where the admiral contemplates the place of rhetoric in a military situation.

The poem itself is perhaps too ­cliched to match that hope. Although its metre is sound, there is little energy in the language, none of the brio of Kipling, nor the deeper ethical texture. Both "twinkle" and "glamour" inadvertently strike a wrong note.

But Churchill was a great rhetorician: the conventions and requirements of verse seem here to have muted that talent. Lines such as "Breathes there the man who fears to die / For England, Home, & Wai-hai-wai" might appear to aspire to the rhetoric of Shakespeare's Henry V but they in fact land closer to Henry Newbolt's Vitaï Lampada – with the schoolboy jingoism of its exhortation to "Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Although Churchill was eventually the unlikely recipient of a Nobel prize for literature, for his historical prose, it is somewhat unfair to judge this youthful stab at poetry. Verse of this sort was turned out by countless amateurs (and still is). It takes a rare talent to breathe life into the template of commemorative verse, and Churchill's skills emerged ­elsewhere and later.

Robert Potts is managing editor the TLS and a former editor of Poetry Review

• This article was amended on 8 February 2013 to remove a reference to Churchill's army service that might have been misread as suggesting that as a young officer he visited Weihaiwei in China, Karochaw in Japan and Sokoto in north-west Nigeria, and to change the last word of the fourth line of the second stanza of the poem from "deed" to "need".


Amelia Hill

The GuardianTramp

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