It’s a good thing the Gettysburg Address didn’t end up in verse. Just four months before he delivered his famous speech, Lincoln was scrawling homespun rhymes on the momentous Union victory, as seen from the perspective of Robert E. Lee:
In eighteen sixty three, with pomp,
and mighty swell,
Me and Jeff's Confederacy, went
forth to sack Phil-del,
The Yankees they got arter us, and
giv us particular hell,
And we skedaddled back again,
And didn't sack Phil-del.
The Great Emancipator had been churning out doggerel since his youth; this would be his last poem. Other leader-poets connected best with the muses after the numbing prose of governance was over and done with: take John Quincy Adams, who published his Dermot MacMorrogh or the Conquest of Ireland, an epic poem in four cantos, at a time when rival Andrew Jackson was already ascendant; or Jimmy Carter, described by Harold Bloom as “literally the worst poet in the United States” for the plain-spoken sentiments of his 1995 collection Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems:
We couldn’t feel the tears and sweat that fell
with shovelfuls of earth. And then a cross—
a cross, I guess, so when I pass that way
I’ll breathe his name,
and think of him alive,
and somehow not remember yesterday.
Legislators are more often the unacknowledged poets of the world than vice versa. The Victorian literary world turned up its nose at Disraeli’s youthful romance novels (perhaps with good reason). The Athenian politician Solon, when he wasn’t laying the basis for the Western democratic tradition, tried his clumsy hand at martial hexameter, exhorting Athenians to “sentence hubris to obscurity and make the flowers of mischief wither.” The psalms of King David have outlasted his bloody conquests. The last of the Mughal emperors, Bahadur Shah II (pen name Zafar), lamented the collapse of his authority in well-formed Urdu ghazals:
I feel ill-at-ease on this wasted heath
Who in this transient world has ever found relief!
The taint of political self-justification and self-pity is rarely far from the surface. The poems of Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, the nineteenth century founder of the modern Montenegrin state, burn with the shame of Turkish conquest, while presaging national revival:
Our idle arms are all covered with rust.
Our land has been left without its leaders.
The high mountains are reeking with heathens.
The short stories of Muammar al-Gaddafi, “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution”, became a best-seller in Egypt. In his collection The Village, the City, the Suicide of the Astronaut, and Other Stories, he pauses for a quick, thought-provoking defense of dictatorship: “The tyranny of a single man is the most tolerable of all tyrannies; after all, he is just one man and can be removed from power in a single blow.” Chairman-poet Mao drew inspiration from the Long March, but wasn’t above suspiciously bourgeois-sounding lyricism:
The mountains dance like silver snakes
And the highlands charge like wax-hued elephants,
Vying with heaven in stature.
Wordsmithing might come naturally to garrulous politicos—painting potentates are a more exclusive group. Churchill’s canvas habit began in the throes of depression and introspection, as he mulled the Gallipoli disaster. The comforting, traditionalist watercolors of Prince Charles have their real-life policy double in the village of Poundbury, the prince’s nostalgic vision for Britain’s future. Vladimir Putin revealed a winking primitivism in his Pattern, a self-confessed “collaboration” with a well-known St. Petersburg painter. Most famous, of course, are Hitler’s appealing scenes in the South German style, postcard-perfect, giving little hint of inner tempests.
Bollywood stars in the Indian Congress and Hollywood strongmen in Sacramento should come as little surprise in our celebrity-driven democracies—it makes no difference that acting was once for slaves and lowlifes. When painters were considered artisans and dancers slave-girls, their works were anonymous; only the most debauched of royals would dare join in. Today, if certain arts have lost their stigma, others have ceded their aura—“the arts” are now an indeterminate mass of mildly prestigious doings, tolerated at the margins of our national life, ever in search of a model to monetize.
So why do our politicians—okay, a small but spirited subset of them—keep vying in the world of arts and letters? Why Orrin Hatch’s saccharine verses, the war novels of Jim Webb, Al Gore versifying global warming, why Clinton’s saxophone? We might call them mere hobbies—private foibles enjoyed in the midst of public life—but this would miss the point. Some ancient connection between these decadent pursuits, the making of art and the wielding of power, refuses to go away. Ars longa, res publica brevis.
Whatever their reasons, however foolish their arts, let us be clear in our gratitude to these men: to create is not to commission. Any prince can be Maecenas. For art’s sake, they have debased themselves.March 25, 2010
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