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Sun April 21, 2013
World

Rare Churchill Poem Fails To Sell At Auction

Originally published on Sun April 21, 2013 4:23 pm

Around the turn of the 19th century, before he became Britain's revered prime minister, a young Winston Churchill found himself in South Africa. He was serving in the Army and as a war correspondent covering the Boer War.

One day, he put a blue pencil to army-issued notepaper and conveyed his thoughts about the conflict in a 40-line poem. More than a century later, "Our Modern Watchwords" was discovered by a retired manuscript dealer.

It is the only known poem written by an adult Churchill. So when it recently went up for auction at Bonhams in London, it created a lot of buzz; experts said it should easily fetch $23,000.

But the results were decidedly underwhelming. The poem failed to sell, with the bidding never getting high enough even to reach the reserve price.

Now, "Our Modern Watchwords" has been returned to its owner — its future uncertain.

Only an excerpt of the poem has been released. You can read it here.

So did its failure to move at auction have something to do with its poetic attributes?

"The general pressure per square inch here, I think it's fair to say, is not very high," says New Yorker Poetry Editor and Princeton University humanities professor Paul Muldoon.

"One of the things that he does, of course, is to use more words than are absolutely necessary," Muldoon says.

But, he adds, "this is very early on" in Churchill's life. The man who would become known for his stirring wartime speeches and later win the Nobel Prize in Literature was only in his mid-20s when he wrote "Our Modern Watchwords."

"The fact of the matter is, of course, that Churchill was a fabulous writer, he was a terrific prose stylist," Muldoon says.

And if the poem is lacking some of the finesse of Churchill's later work, it does give readers a glimpse at the front lines. During the Boer War, Churchill was captured and imprisoned before making a dramatic escape.

Muldoon says: "He prefigures some of the great English soldier poets who in their reports from the front line gave us some sense of what it was like to fight under those terrible conditions."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Around the turn of the 19th century, a young Winston Churchill found himself in South Africa. He was serving in the army and as a war correspondent covering the Boer War. One day, he put a blue pencil to army-issued notepaper and conveyed his thoughts about the conflict in a 40-line poem. More than a century later, the poem, "Our Modern Watchwords," was discovered by a retired manuscript dealer.

It went up for auction at Bonhams in London. It created a lot of buzz. The experts said it should fetch about $23,000. But the results were underwhelming. "Our Modern Watchwords" failed to sell at all. Now, it's been returned to its owner, the future uncertain for the poem. So we called in a professional poetic assessment by Paul Muldoon who is The New Yorker's poet and Princeton University humanities professor. Paul Muldoon, thank you so much for joining us.

PAUL MULDOON: It's a pleasure.

LYDEN: You had a chance to look at an excerpt of the poem. Would you be kind enough, Paul Muldoon, to read a few sterling words?

MULDOON: (Reading) 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 and Wai-hai-wai.

LYDEN: Well, it is a war poem. It is a poem that is speaking to adversity. Where do you put this?

MULDOON: You know, I think one of the reasons why there may not have been as much interest in it in the auction and indeed one of the reasons why there are not so many more poems by Winston Churchill is that the general pressure per square inch here, I think it's fair to say, is not very high. One of the things that he does, of course, is to use more words than are absolutely necessary.

So for example, when he talks about the sailors and Marines, it's a little difficult to distinguish between those two. There's a little bit of a redundancy there. The fact of the matter is, of course, that Churchill was a fabulous writer. He was a terrific prose stylist.

LYDEN: Of course, he's really famous for the speech, "Never Surrender" after the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk in 1940.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINSTON CHURCHILL: We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.

MULDOON: I'd say that in general, there's nothing that's going to be passed on from generation to generation here. But this is very early on, as you say. We think it's from about 1900, and there's that strange reference to Wai-hai-wai, which was part of the British colony sometimes known as Port Edward, which the British had taken over in 1898.

LYDEN: Here's one thing I really do like. It's (unintelligible) he would even try to do it. We have seen a lot of contemporary soldiers write poetry, and he's trying to commemorate.

MULDOON: That's right. And in that sense, of course, he prefigures some of the great English soldier poets, something of Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, of Wilfred Owen, the poets who fought in what would be the Great War 14 years down the road, and who, in their reports from the front line, gave us some sense of what it was like to fight under those terrible conditions. This poem is written ever so slightly at a remove. It's a - has a slightly haughty tone. And, of course, we know that Churchill saw battle, but one wouldn't necessarily believe that from what we have here.

LYDEN: Paul Muldoon, The New Yorker poetry editor, Princeton University humanities professor, thank you again.

MULDOON: It's a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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