Rare Churchill Poem Fails To Sell At Auction | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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

The Colorful, Blossoming D.C. Arts Scene In The 1950s, '60s

In 1965 the work of six local painters went on exhibit at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The show launched a movement, and the painters' work now hangs in major museums. One of those artists, now 97, lives in Arlington, Va.
NPR

Cash For Halloween Candy? Dentists' Buyback Program Is Booming

If you're like many parents, by tomorrow morning you'll be facing a candy glut. One possible solution? Sell it to a dentist participating in a program that sends candy care packages to troops.
NPR

For This Colorado Voter, Oil And Gas Debate Plays Out On His Property

Knocking on doors in Colorado, Steve Inskeep asks Antionio Covello about the election. The successful Denver business owner, a conservative, weighs mineral rights, foreign policy and division at home.
NPR

Selfies With Bears Prompt Warning From Park Rangers

Selfies with bears are showing up on Instagram. Rangers in South Lake Tahoe have been sufficiently worried to issue a warning: Wild bears are unpredictable, and could attack. #bearselfie

Leave a Comment

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