Then and now: Poetry, the President and the Prime Minister

I wonder whether in their exchanges of private messages President George W Bush and our Prime Minister, Tony Blair, ever quote poetry to each other?  It seems, on the face of it, unlikely, although any suggestions as to poems that either might appropriately quote to the other will be most welcome in Comments. 

This idle thought is prompted by the experience, commoner as one gets older, of being haunted for days by a phrase from a poem which one can't quite place, often — as indeed in this case — because it isn't quite right.  The phrase that's been keeping me awake in recent nights is: "Slowly, O how slowly", which I have finally tracked down as an unforgivable misquotation from Arthur Hugh Clough's "Say not the struggle nought availeth":

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
    But westward, look, the land is bright. 

This poem, in itself pretty unremarkable, has acquired a huge potency for people of my generation (and earlier, if any such still survive) by having been quoted by Winston Churchill in one of his great wartime speeches in early 1941.  He did so in reply to a shorter quotation from an American poet which had recently been sent to him by President Roosevelt to encourage Britain to continue its desperate war effort against Nazi Germany at a time when Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941) and Hitler's subsequent declaration of war on the US had not yet brought the Americans into the war. The lines by Longfellow quoted by Roosevelt to Churchill, and also quoted by Churchill in another of his speeches, have also acquired a special emotional charge for those of us who remember them in that war-time Anglo-American context. 

For the benefitof those who weren't even a calculating glint in their grandmother's eye at the time, here are both the items concerned, the full text of Clough's poem and the lines of Longfellow actually quoted, or slightly misquoted, by Roosevelt in a manuscript letter to Churchill.  This is how Churchill introduced Clough's poem in his speech to the nation on 27 April 1941:

Last time I spoke to you I quoted the lines of Longfellow which President Roosevelt had written out for me in his own hand. I have some other lines which are less well known but which seem apt and appropriate to our fortunes tonight and I believe they will be so judged wherever the English language is spoken or the flag of freedom flies…

 And he quoted the last eight lines of Clough's poem:

Say not the struggle nought availeth,
    The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
    And as things have been, things remain;

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
    It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
    And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves vainly breaking
    Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
    Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
    When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
    But westward, look, the land is bright.

— Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–61), Say not the struggle nought availeth, 1855

And the Longfellow, in a manuscript letter from Franklin D Roosevelt to Churchill: 

Dear Churchill

Wendell Wilkie will give you this — He is truly helping to keep politics out over here.

I think this verse applies to you people as it does to us:

"[Thou too, S]ail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hope of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!"

As ever yours
Franklin D. Roosevelt
— Roosevelt to Churchill, 20 January 1941 [punctuation and text corrected]    []

Quoted in Churchill’s broadcast of 9 February 1941, his celebrated appeal to North America, ending:
"Give us the tools and we will finish the job."

Tailpiece:  An interesting example of how styles change is Roosevelt's opening salutation in a hand-written and quite intimate letter to his friend and colleague, Winston Churchill: "Dear Churchill".  ("Dear Mr Churchill" would have been regarded as suitable only for a letter to a tradesman or other social inferior, of course.)  No-one can doubt that if Blair received a manuscript letter from George W Bush beginning "Dear Blair", he would wonder what he had done to give such dire offence, although he probably wouldn't realise that "Dear Mr Blair" would have been even worse.  He won't even allow his own civil servants to address him as "Prime Minister"!  Still, I'm happy in these informal times to sign myself off as plain old —


7 Responses

  1. Peter Harvey says:

    To comment on your tailpiece, at least in English there is not the decision of whether you address someone in the polite or familiar verb form. I have recently required the services of a professional IT consultant. My first contact was through his web site. (I suspect that despite the plethora of email addresses it is a one-man band – and none the worse for that. I am all in favour of supporting that kind of thing.) I sent a mail in the polite plural form, as to an organisation. The reply came back with the formal Usted and no personal salutation. Soon we were on Peter and Oriol terms but still using Usted. Then his mail switched to the familiar , just after he had been to my flat to do some work here. I changed too, but now in his mail he has gone back to Usted. It’s all terribly confusing. The rules are difficult, and they vary from one language to another, of course. Even, Peninsular Spanish uses the polite form much more than the American version of the language. The King calls everyone . That does make things easy for him!

  2. Brian says:

    Peter, I can quite see that it's much more difficult in tu/vous (or equivalents) languages, but it's quite bad enough even in English these days.  Even back in the 1960s when I was a relatively junior member of the UK delegation to the UN in New York, choosing between first name and surname with handle could be difficult, with colleagues whom one got to know quite well but not especially intimately.  One Swedish delegate, then late middle-aged (most of us on the same Committee were considerably younger), was always very friendly and most people automatically addressed her as 'Brita'.  Because she was older, and hadn't invited me to use her first name, I always called her 'Mrs Ahman'.  One day she told me how much she had appreciated my courtesy in waiting to be invited to call her 'Brita' before doing so, and of course she told me to call her Brita from then on.  We became very friendly as time went on (my wife, small son and I went and stayed with her in Goteborg later), but I never fogot that old-world exchange.  Wouldn't happen now, I suppose.  She'd be 'Britty' (or worse) to everyone from day one. 

    I'm still a bit disapproving, although I wouldn't dare to show it, when instantly addressed as 'Brian' (without being asked first how I want to be addressed) by every last nursing assistant in a hospital or newspaper hack cold-calling me on the telephone, although realistically the only alternative is not to call me anything, not always an option, and my secret reaction probably makes me a terrible snob.  Age is a sort of excuse, though.  That's my story, anyway.  Tu es d'accord?

    PS: "Dear John Jones" is often a useful compromise between "Dear John", "Dear Mr Jones", and, commonest of all, I suppose, "Hi John!"   But I doubt whether Mr Tony would be pleased to receive a letter from Bush starting "Dear Tony Blair", either, especially after they have reportedly shared the same toothpaste.  (Actually I think, to be fair, it was just the same brand of toothpaste.  But how did Bush know it was the same brand?  That's never been satisfactorily explained…)

  3. Baralbion says:

    When I joined the organisation of which Brian and I were members "Dear [surname]" was standard practice.

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    Doctors are notorious for using first names. A few years ago, when I had a Compuserve account, I found that I was receiving mail for a Dr Peter Harvey. I always returned the mail to the full list asking them to change their address books. In the end I found out that he was Dr Peter G Harvey, an oncologist in Birmingham, and I wrote to him. I started my mail: Dear Dr Harvey. The answer came back: Dear Peter.

  5. Baralbion says:

    I, too, am still a little taken aback when strangers address me by my first name, especially when they’re trying to sell me something. But there it is, tempora mutantur.

    I am sympathetic to the "Dear [first name / last name]" approach. I would not mourn the passing of Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms.

  6. Tim Weakley says:

    I was doing research at the University of Oregon while aged 54 to 70 and at once got used to being plain Tim to the graduate students in their twenties.  It made me feel young.  There are two situations where I’d dislike being so addressed  by people I hadn’t met before.  One, if I was being interviewed by reporters, having for no fault of my own got my name in the papers.  I’m not public property.  Two, if I was being questioned by police – patronising, and smacks of the insincere ‘We’re only trying to help you’ mode of eliciting a statement of guilt.

  7. Peter Harvey says:

    My aunt is 83 years old and lives alone (in a house that is far too big for her, but that’s another story). In the summer she was burgled – for the fifth time – just the day before I arrived in fact. The burglary wasn’t too much of a shock. She’s seen off Hitler and she’s seen off the IRA, so what’s another minor burglary? But she didn’t like having a young whippersnapper of a policeman calling her Eileen.

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