Recently discovered Winston Churchill poem expected to fetch five-figures at auction

by |February 7, 2013

Early attempts at poetry are one of those things that most of us want to keep hidden. For one of the greatest figures in the 20th century, it appears a sparse work of poetry has been found nearly half a century after his death.

Although former British Prime Minister William Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”, one doubts he ever wished for his early efforts at poetry to see the light of day, believed to be written as a 25 year old officer during the Boer War.

Roy Davids, a retired manuscript dealer from Great Haseley in Oxfordshire discovered the 10-verse work, the only known poem written by an adult Churchill. Davids said the poem “is by far the most exciting Churchill discovery I have seen”, while admitting the quality is “passable”. Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, goes further, calling it “heavy-footed”.

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.

Douglas J Hall, from the Churchill War Rooms in London, was quoted in The Guardian saying Churchill “was truly a poet at heart…. speaking and writing with a rhythm which was almost poetic”.

“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.

The pro-empire poem is filled with names of remote outposts defending Britain’s interests around the world – many of which he would have visited as a young officer and even fought at – including Weihaiwei in China, Karochaw in Japan and Sokoto, in north-west Nigeria.

The manuscript will auctioned off at Bonham’s auction house in London in April, and is expected to fetch up to £15,000.

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 deed
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

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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