A rare poem by Winston Churchill will be up for auction this spring. Churchill wrote the 40-line work "Modern Watchwords" at the turn of the century while serving as an army correspondent in India and Africa (exactly where and when the poem was written isn't known). The verse is handwritten in blue pencil on the letterhead of the 4th Hussars, Churchill's regiment at the time, and it stirringly describes the eve of a naval battle. Here's the opening stanza:
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.
Churchill is known to have admired poetry -- he loved to recite his favorite passages by heart -- but he wrote very little of his own. The only other serious poem of his on record is "The Influeza," an impressive effort that won 15-year-old Churchill a prestigious House Prize at Harrow School. According to The Churchill Centre, it also "went some way towards redeeming his position, both with his schoolmasters and parents who had been less than impressed by his recent behavior." Here's an excerpt:
O'er miles of bleak Siberia's plains
Where Russian exiles toil in chains
It moved with noiseless tread;
And as it slowly glided by
There followed it across the sky
The spirits of the dead.
It should come as no surprise that the Nobel Prize winning author of History of the English Speaking Peoples was, at least, a passable poet. The Churchill archive at Cambridge University described "Modern Watchwords" as "quite competent." It certainly reveals a young writer with an ear for meter and a talent for rousing rhythms -- no surprise if you've ever heard how the man delivered a speech.
It's doubtful, though, that Britain's bulldog is in line for another literary prize. Former British poet laureate Andrew Motion--who had some praise for the poem -- faulted it for being "heavy-footed" -- in other words, there's nothing subtle about its rhythm. It's a fair criticism, but let's not forget that this is Churchill we're talking about -- didn't he do everything with a heavy foot?
Experts estimate that the poem, up for auction on April 10, will fetch upwards of 15,000 pounds.