I imagine that many may find the rather Kiplingesque sentiment of this poem challenging in these post-colonial times when the whole concept of empire has long been called into question. I do myself, but I think that we should, within reason, always be prepared to listen to an unfashionable viewpoint, rather than simply denying a speaker the right to hold it, and should try to be open to the possibilities of nuance, the nuance in this case being that some servants of the British Empire may have done their best to carry out their roles in a humane and beneficial way, even if the existence of those roles in the first place may be contentious.
I suppose the fact is that morality and poetry have always been imperfect bedfellows, but cohabit they must. I cannot see, for example, how a poem that extolled the virtues of cruelty or celebrated the Holocaust could be other than detestable, however technically accomplished. Yet at the same time it would be a pity to have a generation of poets grow up thinking that poetry is simply a matter of saying right things, and forgetting that it is also a matter of saying things right.
‘Here comes Sir George’
The boys wink at the boys: ‘Here comes Sir George.’
Yes, here he comes, punctual as nine o’clock
with bad jokes buzzing at his ramrod back –
‘Victoria’s Uncle,’ ‘Rearguard of the Raj’.
They do not know or, if they know, forget
the old fool held a province down larger
than England; not as a Maharaja
prodigal with silver and bayonet;
but with cool sense, authority and charm
that still attend him, crossing a room
with The Odes of Horace under his arm
and in his button-hole a fresh-cut bloom.
Honour the rearguard, you half-men, for it
was, in retreat, the post of honour. He –
last of The Titans – is worth your study.
You are not worth the unsheathing of his wit.