Musings on Muldoon the Chameleon Poet, “The Crown,” and Sir Ringo
What shocks the virtuous Philosopher delights the chameleon poet. — John Keats
By Stuart Mitchner
Richard Starkey and Paul Muldoon have a rendezvous with the Queen. Some time in the new year, the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr will be knighted by Elizabeth II and the Princeton professor will receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect Her Majesty to dub the Beatle “Sir Ringo,” a pairing of extremes that would surely delight the chameleon poet being honored for his “restless, playful brilliance.”
Sir Paul McCartney, who was knighted 20 years ago, got his bid in early with an affectionately irreverent overture to the Queen tossed off during the Abbey Road sessions. It’s not enough that “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl” (she was 43) who “doesn’t have a lot to say” and “changes from day to day,” he wants “to tell her that I love her a lot/But I gotta get a bellyful of wine/Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl/Someday I’m going to make her mine.”
This 23-second-long jeu d’esprit — the shortest Beatles song ever and, as chance would have it, the last piece on their last album as a group — was recorded on July 2, 1969 by McCartney accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Although he originally intended to trash this royal trifle, it was rescued by one of the EMI engineers and put on the tape 20 seconds after the last listed track, “The End,” and there it stayed.
The news reports about the Queen’s poetry medal refer to Paul Muldoon as only the second poet from Northern Ireland to win the award since it was first presented in 1934. Be that as it may — a crutch phrase a poet who says he “loves clichés” could hang a nifty stanza on — Muldoon has been living and writing in the U.S. and teaching at Princeton for 30 years. While I’ve found no whimsical serenades to Her Majesty after a quick tour of his work, every time he spins his wheel of words, it finds something piquant or apt, for instance the way his 1987 poem “Profumo” lands on episode 10 of season 2 of the acclaimed Netflix series The Crown, which had its global premiere on December 8. The “Mystery Man” of the episode’s title is Prince Philip’s osteopath, Stephen Ward, who hooks Profumo up with showgirl Christine Keeler. Muldoon’s poem begins with his mother slapping “a month-long news embargo” on Profumo’s “very name,” and has him affixing “a stamp/with the Queen’s head upside down” on a “violet-scented Thirteenth Birthday card” to a girl his mother finds wanting. In “The Wishbone,” he watches “with the sound turned off” as the Queen delivers her message to the Commonwealth. There’s also a certain resonance in the opening stanza of “I Remember Sir Alfred” about the gardens of Buckingham Palace that were “strewn once with Irish loam/So those English moles that knew their place/Would have no sense of home.”
Next on “The Crown”
The next season of The Crown, in which Queen Elizabeth reigns over Swinging London, will most likely feature an appearance by the Beatles. I have mixed feelings about the prospect because the second season’s eighth episode (“Mrs. Kennedy”) was marred by Michael C. Hall’s clumsy, uncharismatic JFK, which doesn’t bode well for the fate awaiting John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Perhaps series creator Peter Morgan will dodge that bullet by running some remastered live footage of the Queen presenting the boys with MBEs in 1965. But given that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson is likely to play a prominent part in Season 3, there may be no way around a scene where Wilson, who represented a Liverpool suburb, convinces Elizabeth to make the presentation, an “outrage” that prompted some former recipients to return their medals in protest.
However Morgan decides to handle that particular royal occasion, his Queen will be played by another, older actress. As appealing as Claire Foy, 33, is in the role, Olivia Colman, 43, best known for the award-winning series Broadchurch, promises to be even better. Interviewed in Vanity Fair, Foy says of Colman, “She’s the most extraordinary actress and person in every single way …. There’s no shortcut in playing the Queen. It’s for her to discover, and she’ll probably find out lots of things that I never found out …. It’s a rolling thing, and it’s ever-changing and ever-revolving. That’s the secret in portraying the Queen — no one owns it. It’s everyone’s interpretation, and that’s also the beauty of it …. She’ll completely reinvent it and make it her own.”
Foy’s description of the ever-changing, ever-revolving nature of performance relates to the trajectory of her acting life, where she goes from Little Dorritt to Lady Macbeth to Anne Boleyn to Queen Elizabeth and now to Stieg Larsson’s embattled tech genius Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Meanwhile the ever-revolving wheel of thespian fortune has Anton Lesser, Mr. Merdle in Little Dorritt, playing both Sir Thomas More to Foy’s Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall and PM Harold Macmillan in The Crown while Mrs. Merdle, Amanda Redman in real life, ends up narrating the documentary of the moment, Prince Harry and Meghan: Truly, Madly, Deeply.
Only a chameleon poet like Muldoon could launch a flight of fancy equal to the shape-shiftings of the players in The Crown taking place on the International Movie Data Base (IMDB). Besides the serial killer and gay undertaker that Michael C. Hall played before taking on JFK, you have Jared Harris as King George VI, formerly Lane Pryce in Mad Men, a character last seen hanging from the back of his office door. As for Elizabeth’s other prime ministers, Anthony Eden is played by Jeremy Northam, who has been Mr. Knightley in Emma, Charles II in New Worlds, Sir Thomas More in The Tudors, and Dean Martin in Martin and Lewis. And if a Brit can play an Italian American crooner, why not the American John Lithgow, formerly George Washington and the White Rabbit, as Winston Churchill?
Muldoon’s virtuosity in the poetical equivalent of this randomly unrandom field of play is evident throughout his work. In “Pip and Magwitch,” from the 2015 collection, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, Anwar al-Awlaki leaves a paperback of Great Expectations “all bundled up with a printer-cartridge bomb” while “Dirty Data” features appearances by Lew Wallace and Ben Hur, Messala, Pontius Pilot, Caesar, Little Miss Sally, Billie the Kid, the Tory politician Willie Whitelaw, the “glamour-puss Haya Harareet” the actress Cathy O’Donnell, George Bernard Shaw, Lonnie Donegan, and numerous surfacings of Sir Winston Churchill, as his funeral cortege proceeds from the Royal Chapel to Woodstock: “As his carriage passes the dolphins bob/for a commoner’s mere 19- rather than a no-stops-pulled 21-gun salute.”
The Queen In Person
The last glimpse I had of the real Queen Elizabeth was while standing among an absolutely silent crowd of onlookers near Hyde Park Corner on April 8, 2002 watching the Queen Mother’s funeral procession. Seen all in black through the window of the royal limo next to Prince Philip, she looked, inevitably, old and sad. On a midsummer day in 1973, I saw her clearly and at close range riding down Queen’s Road in Bristol in an open car smiling and waving, there to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the granting of the city’s charter. Dressed in green and wearing an absurd green hat, a sort of bowler, she was disarmingly likable, without airs, enjoying the moment, a long way from the dull and dumpy monarch in newsreels reviewing troops or visiting schools. There was no sense of royal hauteur. In fact, the quality I found sympathetic that day is not unlike the quality in Claire Foy’s portrayal of the young Queen in The Crown — in both instances, there’s the sense of an actress humbled by the part she’s playing.
The “chameleon Poet” quote comes from Keats’s October 27, 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse. The poetry quoted is from Paul Muldoon’s Poems 1968-1998 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2001) and Selected Poems 1968-2014 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2016). I’ve also consulted William J. Dowdling’s Beatlesongs (Simon & Schuster 1989) and Volume 1 of Robert Lacey’s handsomely illustrated The Crown: The Official Companion (Crown Archetype 2017).