In Ford Madox Brown’s famous Victorian-era painting The Last of England, a man and woman, two emigrants, stare straight ahead, steadfast and chilled, as the White Cliffs of Dover recede behind their dauntingly open boat. Andrew Motion’s poem of the same title invokes their clenched expressions as the poet, talking to himself to get up his nerve, prepares to push off from his native England for a fresh start in the United States.
The occasion for the poem was his relocation from London to Baltimore, where he joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars in 2015—a move in which more was at stake than adjusting to a new address and employer. Motion, the former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, is a quintessentially English poet, as reflected in the sources, audience, style, and subject matter of his work. A conscious inheritor of Wordsworth and Edward Thomas, and the biographer of Keats and Larkin, he is a plain-style lyric poet known for his subtle evocations of the countryside, the heroism and human costs of military service, and the entanglements of family life across generations. Motion’s elegance and poise are personal, of course. But they are cognate with the manners and values of a national culture.
“Hawthorn” is an example of his sensibility and the way it links up with British history, in this case with the still-reverberating trauma of the First World War. Here, Motion fixes on a single hawthorn in a French field that was once No Man’s Land, seeing in the tree a young boy abandoned on the battlefield by his parents and his society. The poem honors the memory of a soldier from the Royal Irish Rifles, probably too young to serve, who was shot for desertion in 1916. With tender attention to the landscape that discreetly expresses his feelings for the dead boy, Motion conveys something of the beauty of the world in manifestly beautiful poetry. At the same time, with a moral realism attuned to suffering and injustice, he makes us ask ourselves whether any landscape or poem should be called beautiful, “things being as they are.”
Can this deeply rooted English sensibility be transplanted? Motion takes on that question in “Surveillance,” a poem very much about America today. Its unfolding anecdotal structure gives us the impression that we are following along as, over time, a man settles into life in a new place. Or it may be that Motion’s position as an alien in this country allows him to describe with clarity what is a new world for all of us, overseen by the NSA and dramatized on The Wire, in which everyone is being watched and watching everyone else. By the end of the poem, Motion seems to feel both at home and no less a stranger than he did at first.
Perhaps it helps that Baltimore isn’t such a strange place. Others have landed there before (for instance, George Keats, the poet’s brother), and the New World is full of reminders of the Old one. Googling the coffee shop called The Daily Grind, mentioned in “Surveillance,” turns up its address on Thames Street. That’s in Fells Point, Baltimore’s historic shipbuilding district and once a point of entry for immigrants. Motion’s “Fells Point Songs” celebrates his own arrival. When the turtle dove sings, reminding him of childhood, it turns out to be a homecoming.
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