Rare Churchill Poem Fails To Sell At Auction

Play associated audio

Around the turn of the 19th century, before he became Britain's revered prime minister, a young Winston Churchill found himself in South Africa. He was serving in the Army and as a war correspondent covering the Boer War.

One day, he put a blue pencil to army-issued notepaper and conveyed his thoughts about the conflict in a 40-line poem. More than a century later, "Our Modern Watchwords" was discovered by a retired manuscript dealer.

It is the only known poem written by an adult Churchill. So when it recently went up for auction at Bonhams in London, it created a lot of buzz; experts said it should easily fetch $23,000.

But the results were decidedly underwhelming. The poem failed to sell, with the bidding never getting high enough even to reach the reserve price.

Now, "Our Modern Watchwords" has been returned to its owner — its future uncertain.

Only an excerpt of the poem has been released. You can read it here.

So did its failure to move at auction have something to do with its poetic attributes?

"The general pressure per square inch here, I think it's fair to say, is not very high," says New Yorker Poetry Editor and Princeton University humanities professor Paul Muldoon.

"One of the things that he does, of course, is to use more words than are absolutely necessary," Muldoon says.

But, he adds, "this is very early on" in Churchill's life. The man who would become known for his stirring wartime speeches and later win the Nobel Prize in Literature was only in his mid-20s when he wrote "Our Modern Watchwords."

"The fact of the matter is, of course, that Churchill was a fabulous writer, he was a terrific prose stylist," Muldoon says.

And if the poem is lacking some of the finesse of Churchill's later work, it does give readers a glimpse at the front lines. During the Boer War, Churchill was captured and imprisoned before making a dramatic escape.

Muldoon says: "He prefigures some of the great English soldier poets who in their reports from the front line gave us some sense of what it was like to fight under those terrible conditions."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Shante, He Stays: RuPaul Reflects On Decades Of Drag — And 2 Emmy Nominations

RuPaul is the most recognizable drag queen in America. His hit show, RuPaul's Drag Race is up for two Emmy Awards as it begins filming its ninth season. But drag, he says, will never be mainstream.
NPR

Food World Rallies For Quake-Hit Amatrice, Home Of Famous Pasta Dish

In Italy and the U.S., restaurants are pledging to use sales of Amatrice's signature dish, spaghetti all' amatriciana, to raise funds for the Italian town devastated by Wednesday's earthquake.
NPR

Former White House Doctor Outlines Gray Areas In Candidates' Health

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Rob Darling, a former White House physician, about how much voters have a right to know about the medical histories of presidential candidates.
NPR

WhatsApp Will Start Sharing Data, Including Phone Numbers, With Facebook

It will also test new ways for businesses to communicate with users on the app. The privacy policy changes mark the long-expected move by Facebook to begin making money from the free app.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.