Harriet Harman has probably never heard of Alfred Austin. He was Queen Victoria’s last Poet Laureate, appointed by Lord Salisbury some years after the death of the previous Laureate, Lord Tennyson, and relentlessly lampooned in Punch and elsewhere as “Alfred the Little”, both because he was small in stature and not least because of the ineffably banal quality of his verse.
The most famous example is his poem about the severe illness of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), which contains the unforgettable lines
Across the wires the electric message came:
‘He is no better, he is much the same’.
Austin’s appointment unfortunately coincided with the dubiously legal Jameson Raid which was a precursor of the Boer War. An arch-Jingo, he leaped into the fray with a defiant poem beginning
Wrong! Is it wrong? Well, may be
But I’m going, boys, all the same…
There are girls in the gold reef city,
There are mothers and children too!
And they cry ‘Hurry up! for pity!
So what can a brave man do?...
So we forded and galloped forward,
As hard as our beasts could pelt,
First eastward, then trending northward,
Right over the rolling veldt…
This opening blast greatly annoyed Queen Victoria, but because her Prime Minister had rewarded an indefatigable party hack with the accolade there was nothing she could do about it. In reply to her protests Lord Salisbury replied: “It is a pity that this effusion was his first performance. Unluckily it is to the taste of the galleries in the lower class of theatres, and they sing it with vehemence.”
There are many entertaining stories about Austin, whose invincible self-importance was oblivious to the sometimes cruel jibes aimed at him. He once borrowed a flat from a friend, and wrote to him before taking possession asking for an assurance that no dogs would be left on the premises. His host replied that he could rest easy on that score, adding “for my part, I would be glad of an assurance that you will not leave any poems behind”. A judge who enquired whether Austin found writing poetry lucrative was assured by the Laureate that it kept the wolf from the door, whereupon he said “Oh, so do you read your poems to the wolf, Mr Austin?”
But the reason why Ms Harman might be interested in Alfred Austin is that he was an inveterate opponent of women’s’ suffrage, setting out his views in a letter to The Times in 1909:
“I cannot doubt, and have never doubted, that…women are precluded from any but an indirect share in Parliamentary elections… Of all national and Imperial issues that can arise, that of peace or war is the most important; and the preservation of peace, the most precious of all things, consistently with honour and self-protection, is much more likely to be imperilled by indulgence in sentiment than by any other cause. Calm, deliberate judgment, free from all untimely or too generous emotion, is its best protection. Will anyone deny that, in great emergencies, men are, as a rule and collectively, calmer and more submissive to sound judgment than women, whose virtues reside rather in another direction?
“Give women the franchise – and I cannot doubt it is a minority of them who wish to have it, and only the more emotionally combative of that minority who would exercise it – it is conceivable that war might be brought about by women against the effort of men to avert it, and, in that event, it would be men, and men alone, who would have to fight, and, if need were, to die…”
Women, Austin opined, have had “an unmitigatedly mischievous” influence on art. “They have ruined the stage; they have dwarfed painting until it has become little more than the representative of pretty little sentiment – much of it terribly false – and mawkish commonplace domesticities; and they have helped poetry to become, in the hand of Mr Tennyson at least, and of his disciples, the mere handmaid of their own limited interests, susceptibilities, and yearnings…On the stage, adventure, heroic courage, variety of passion – Shakespearianism, in a word – have had to give way to plays in which domestic sentiment and all that is expressed by the phrase ‘the female element’ have predominated.”
So there, Ms Harman, tell that to the Sisters and get off your high horse.
[With acknowledgements to Alfred Austin Victorian by Norton B. Crowell, 1955]