Winston Churchill was a fascinating man, and he cultivated many vocations and avocations: soldier, politician, journalist, essayist, biographer, historian, bricklayer, painter, pilot, architect, lecturer, spymaster, head of the navy, member of Parliament, and Prime Minister—just to name a few. However, I’ll bet you never thought of him as a poet.
All students of World War II remember those inspiring and memorable speeches he gave in the House of Commons, on the radio, and in political gatherings. His speeches were carefully formulated, written out and memorized, with stage directions to himself such as “pause here” or “fumble for the correct word.” The orations he gave were typed up (by secretaries) in broken lines to aid his delivery, ‘speech form’ or ‘psalm form’, as William Manchester calls it in his biography of Churchill, titled The Last Lion.
So, after Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich, Churchill declaimed:
The whole equilibrium of Europe
has been deranged,
And the terrible words
have, for the time being,
against the Western democracies:
“Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
And do not suppose that this is the end.
This is only the beginning of the reckoning.
This is only the first sip–
the first foretaste of a bitter cup
which will be proffered to us year by year–
by a supreme recovery of our moral health and martial vigor,
we arise again and take our stand for freedom,
as in the olden time.
Or on October 1, 1939, Churchill spoke the following rather lyrical thoughts on Russia in his first wartime broadcast over the BBC, just after the Russian/German joint invasion of Poland:
I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.
It is a riddle
wrapped in an mystery
inside an enigma.
But perhaps there is a key.
That key is Russian national interest.
It cannot be in accordance
with the interest or safety of Russia
that Germany should plant itself
upon the shores of the Black Sea.
Or that it should overrun the Baltic States
and subjugate the Slavonic peoples
of southeastern Europe.
No, it doesn’t scan or follow a regular meter, but Mr. Churchill’s “poetry” certainly follows the conventions of free verse with its parallelisms and vivid images, and as I read, I can hear in my mind the familiar voice of Winston Churchill with its rolling cadences and barking baritone:
I would say to the House,
as I have said to those who have joined this Government:
“I have nothing to offer but good, toil, tears, and sweat.”
You ask, what is our policy?
I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air,
with all our might and with all the strength God can give us . . .
That is our policy.
You ask, what is our aim?
I can answer in one word: It is victory,
victory at all costs,
victory in spite of all terror,
victory however long and hard the road may be;
for without victory, there is no survival.
On June 4, 1940:
We shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end.
We shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.
Finally, perhaps Churchill’s most famous poem/speech, broadcast on June 18, 1940 after Petain’s surrender of Vichy France to the Nazis:
Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.
Upon it depends our own British life,
and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.
Hitler knows that he will have to break us on this island
or lose the war.
If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free
and the life of the world may move forward
into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world,
including the United States,
including all we have known and cared for,
Will sink into the abyss of a New Dark Age
made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted,
by the lights of perverted science.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties,
and so bear ourselves
that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth
last for a thousand years,
Men will still say:
“This was their finest hour!”
A poet indeed.