Richard – Carol Ann Duffy
On the 26th March 2015, we in Britain laid to rest one of this country’s most illustrious Kings. In life, he was a mystery, an enigma. Indeed, William Shakespeare penned him in his now infamous play in a certain way, to make him sound like the villain of the piece, the one person responsible for young, Royal deaths, for the demise of his Kingdom. He was, in the Bard’s eyes, partly responsible for so many wrong things in this country.
When Shakespeare wrote Richard III, he did so with a political and/or moral point in mind, so when a short time ago, an archaeological dig found human remains in their first trench dug in Leicester, under a car park, the world watched on as DNA testing took place. Eventually, there came the news that they had found the remains of the late, King Richard III, slain at Bosworth and hastily buried by Monks at the time. He had been there for nearly 500 years so the story was, and is, immense.
As part of the decision to lay him to rest in Leicester Cathedral, the poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, was asked to write a poem that tried to encapsulate Richard in one go. Given the fact that 500 years of British history had gone by, opinions formed and with most of us being able to quote “A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse,” or “now is the winter of our discontent,” it made for an intriguing story.
So, I watched last night on the television, the highlights of the reburial in Leicester Cathedral, and heard the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, himself related loosely to Richard III, read this poem. He began with his usual gravitas, just as, I believe, Duffy would want, when he read the first line, with the voice of Richard sounding through the centuries to us in this modern age.
Those words: “My bones, scripted in light,” resonated the meaning straight away. The reader, if you are ever studying this at some point later in GCSE or other studies, is left in no doubt that Richard is speaking and that is a very clever skill from Duffy, who gives such an enigma his voice at last.
Gone are the myths. Gone are the rumours. All we have is this one, lone voice, who has laid “upon cold soil, a human braille” for so long now. His burial would have been hasty. In those days, Kings won their power in battle and tended to lose their heads at the hands of their victor. Anyone who has read and studied Macbeth will know what I mean.
His voice asks us to consider certain certain things in this poem. He says “my skull, scarred by a crown, emptied of history” which is meant to make us think of the time when he did wear the crown of England and would have done so with pride. But there is a deathly element to the words as well for his skull is indeed, scarred by the rigours of being buried where he was for such a length of time.
“Describe my soul,” he asks, and see what you get. Can we describe a soul? Not really, but the myths that surround Richard III are ones that develop his mystique in such a way as to be villainous and we do not really know if this is true or not. “Describe my soul as incense” makes a little more sense in the fact that this poem was meant to be read out by someone at a church service for Richard III’s funeral. Incense is used at such a burial in the Church of England and in Catholic Churches.
The word “votive” is a strange one, so please do not get hooked up on it. You are better suited looking at the rest of the words, like “vanishing,” reflecting the vanishing nature of Richard’s remains over time. Each word is a reminder of where such a nobleman has been hiding for the last half of a Millennium. This, coupled with the words “Grant me the carving of my name” lead to a powerful pause in the thoughts of those who read or hear this.
Up until now, this poem has been more about Richard and his soul. Now, he refers to the “relics” and asks us to “bless” them. We hear him say that he imagines us as we “re-tie a broken string and on it thread a cross.” This Christian symbol is one that was taken from him when he died, so Duffy relates this as she has the King uttering “the symbol severed from me when I died.” It is as if the King himself is not dead, but speaking to us directly in a very powerful manner.
And then we see a change in direction as Duffy refers us to the “end of time.” This is a Christian belief in what will happen at the end of days, when God will end this world as we know it and all things will be made new, as it says in the book of Revelation. But as this happens, there will be “an unknown, unfelt loss,” according to Richard III and Carol Ann Duffy, unless there is actually something we call “the Resurrection of the Dead.” The ellipsis at the end of the line is meant to make you think of what comes next; heaven, Nirvana, rebirth, reincarnation etc.
Many a great and wonderful war poet has tried to get over to the reader the idea of what it is like to be on the battle field. But here, Duffy does this in a different way, for she has Richard telling us all, as readers, that as a man, he “once dreamed of this, your future breath in prayer” for him as he was lost in clay. But now, after all this time, he is now “forever found.” To some readers, there is a clear spark of recognition here at these words because some of us know about the story in the Bible of the Prodigal Son. We know what happens and how the son “comes to his senses” and returns home to a fully welcoming father. There are words there that remind us that once, Richard was lost, but now, he is found. The poem is meant to make that connection [cf Luke 15 – The Bible].
In all the time he has been hidden from our view, he has “sensed [us] from the backstage of [his] death, as Kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.” What a powerful ending that is! It is the sort of ending that if read correctly, as Mr Cumberbatch did, is meant to bring forth the idea that even in death, we can sense that which is around us, as if in all that time, the missing King has been waiting to be found. And that is how it came about – someone said we should dig in a certain place and when they did, they found a body that matched the DNA of King Richard III of England. It was a once in a million chance and it came off.
What Carol Ann Duffy has done here is produce a piece of work that quite simply gives the King a voice, and it is one that does so in such a unique manner, for it allows us to humanise that which has been dehumanised. Now that is very clever indeed! The King is dead. Long live the King!
RJ March 27th. 2015