Today is St. George’s Day and it seems fitting to mark it with some suitable words.
I would love to have chosen “Not My Best Side” by U.A. Fanthorpe which is a hugely amusing take on the legend of St. George and the dragon with each of the characters pictured in Paolo Uccello’s oil painting having their say about the scene and the painting. We have the dragon’s rather wistful complaint: “The artist didn’t give me a chance to pose properly”, the lady’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to the situation: “It’s hard for a girl to be sure if she wants to be rescued” and the arrogant declarations of the knight: “I have diplomas in Dragon management and Virgin Reclamation.” I have included a link to the full poem in the comments.
I have instead chosen the words Shakespeare attributes to John of Gaunt as he is dying in Act II, Scene II of “Richard II”. Although the speech is a complaint against the deterioration of England under King Richard, the vivid language used by England’s great poet and playwright and the opportunity he takes to praise his country makes it memorable and appropriate for this day, though I appreciate England is not the only country to celebrate the saint.
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this EnglandWilliam Shakespeare (1564—1616)
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
The dying Duke begins by praising all that he sees as great in England, comparing it with the seat of Mars, the Roman god of war, and by contrast, with the garden of Eden: a paradise, then, with a war-like side.
He speaks of the advantage of its island nature (“This fortress built by Nature for herself against infection and the hand of war…This precious stone set in the silver sea which serves it in the office of a wall or as a moat defensive to a house”) and then goes on to speak of the line of famous kings England has bred (“Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth”) and praises their Christian service and chivalry, comparing their renown to that of the sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem.
Finally, he turns to his fears for his beloved native land: that she is being leased and bought and sold with transactions that smack more of expedience than of glory and lastly declares that if this scandal could die with him, he could pass to his reward in peace.
I choose this text because it fully displays Shakespeare’s command of the language and his love for England. The phrase “This Sceptred Isle” has become associated with England through the radio series of the same name written by historian Christopher Lee.
Another reason for choosing this speech is that the radio series included extracts from Winston Churchill’s “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples”, a set of which I remember fondly from my childhood, first admiring their colourful dust jackets sitting on the bookshelves in my parents’ house and eventually enjoying Churchill’s undeniable way with words and grasp of history (though I suspect his version suffered from all the prejudices of its time).