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Sad stories of the death of kings

by James Graham 

Posted: 29 March 2014
Word Count: 330
Summary: A pair of poems now. Some surprising facts about the Kaiser - it's all true!

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Sad stories of the death of kings

The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges...as absurd as an hereditary mathematician...and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureat. Thomas Paine
Kaiser Wilhelm II
He couldn’t do his job. They might as well have called
a man from off the street to keep the peace, or run
a war. He blathered playground speeches, swearing
to vanquish, crush, annihilate. The peasant boy
from Uckermark, the apprentice silversmith
of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, were toy soldiers.
Chance sightings of reality beyond the easy
phrase, unnerved him. Decisions were demons.
Bemused by treaties, overtures, diplomacy, his own
perfunctory blunders, he made play with suicide.

At war’s end, an estate in Holland, where he whiled away
another twenty years, felled twenty thousand trees,
fired blanks at Jews and socialists, read Wodehouse.
He disliked the vulgar Austrian, but warmed to him
as the great comeuppance for the Jews began, and wrote:
‘I pledge my loyalty to you, my Führer’ – who skim-read,
made a face, said: ‘Idiot’, and changed the subject.
The Tsarevich Alexei

His father was already dead, who had not known
the seven-times-table of good governance. His rule
was doggerel. He wore the black cap of ignorance.

His father was already dead. The Red Guards
dispatched his mother Alexandra next, not easily.
He and his sisters cowered in a corner. For five minutes

he was Tsar, consumed with fear. The function of his life
had been ordained before the earliest motion of the seed.
Like his dead father he was born to be at once

a king and slave. In all his fourteen years he could not wish
to be an engine-driver, sailor, clerk, or any kind
of common man. And he was born to bleed. One graze

and the Royal Disease would drain his body. As it was
they left him to the last, and then both stabbed and shot him,
and the mess of his ancestral blood was hosed away.

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Comments by other Members

RalphFSmith at 14:29 on 30 March 2014  Report this post

Historical poems are intriguing and yours is no exception.  I do not think you need to provide additional historical notes to assist the reader.  The allusions are clear enough for most readers to know you are talking about one of the great turning-points in western history (or Russian at least) in 1917. 

Your quotation from Thomas Paine connects the poem to another revolution, the American one of 1789, and the spirit, but not the actuality, of the Russian Revolution. 

The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureat. Thomas Paine

In this context you show us the butchery that is part of the revolution and we feel, as readers, empathy towards some of the victims, the family of the Tsar, most particularly the tsarevich who is the focus.  However, I wonder if Payne's quote is too dogmatic for a poem that contrasts the brutal actions of the state which claims to have given power to the people with personal pain and massacre.  Thus, making the link between the quote and the poem requires a pretty deep mental process. 

I like your poetic rendering of the history of the military and economic blunderings of Nicholas II, the Tsar. 

His father was already dead, who had not known
the seven-times-table of good governance. His rule
was doggerel. He wore the black cap of ignorance.

I also like the various images of blood throughout the rest of the poem.  You connect the tsarevich's real history of hemophilia (that he inherited from his mother) with fate (born to bleed), privilege (Royal blood) and finally the reduction to nothingness (blood that is hosed away). 


James Graham at 20:31 on 31 March 2014  Report this post
Thanks for commenting, Ralph. It’s good that background notes aren’t necessary. Historical poems can be hard to write because any historical event is complex, and while a historian can place the event in its full context it’s hard to do so in a poem.
This is a lengthy reply, but I hope you’ll bear with me, and if you have any other thoughts let me know.
As soon as the poem was finished I felt that it presented a very narrow view of the execution of the Tsar and his family. It was certainly an act of brutality, but... For the historian there are many ‘buts’. It happened at a critical stage of the Russian Civil War: anti-Bolshevik forces had occupied a whole region near to Yekaterinburg where the family were being held; all members of the regional administration had been shot, and about 5,000 others summarily executed. The Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg, believing that the Tsar would be allowed to escape abroad and rally Western support, panicked and decided to kill him and his family. But...all the evidence shows that the leaders of the counter-revolutionary forces had no intention of reinstating the Tsar, because they knew how incompetent he had been; instead, they wanted a military dictatorship that could crush the revolution. But...perhaps the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg had no way of knowing that. I suppose if one could write a modern epic à la Paradise Lost, all this could somehow be worked in. As you say, the poem does show

the butchery that is part of the revolution

but for me it gives an impression that the execution was gratuitous – just plain wickedness – whereas, cruel though it was, I don’t think it was entirely gratuitous.
I’m glad you feel readers would find in the poem

empathy towards some of the victims, the family of the Tsar, most particularly the tsarevich who is the focus

which is just what I hoped it would achieve. I wanted to portray the Tsarevich, and even the Tsar, sympathetically. Alexei was only fourteen and deserved, had it been possible, to be liberated from the shackles of monarchy and allowed to live as an ordinary citizen. His sisters too, of course. But even Tsar Nicholas hadn’t chosen to be born into a royal dynasty; nevertheless, even if he was out of his depth he still had to rule Russia. The poem does say that he too ‘was born to be at once a king and slave’. They were all victims of what Thomas Paine says in that quote, about the absurdity of monarchy.
As for the quote, you’re right that

making the link between the quote and the poem requires a pretty deep mental process

and so probably the quote should go. The first three lines do refer to it – the seven-times-table refers to Paine’s ‘hereditary mathematician’ and the other two images connect to his hereditary poet laureate and judge. These connotations would be lost, but perhaps the lines can stand without Paine to prop them up.
Thanks again for commenting, and for reading through all this stuff as well.

Bazz at 13:43 on 04 April 2014  Report this post
Hi james, this makes for a realy interesting series of poems. Both give a lot of detail, with neither needing any background information. The second is perhaps more interesting, as it takes in more of the Tsar's life, whereas the first ends perhaps a bit abruptly.

James Graham at 15:16 on 06 April 2014  Report this post
Hi Barry - back in business!
The second is perhaps more interesting
Yes, I think I agree with that. The ending of the first, though, is like that because I wanted to show that the end of the Hohenzollerns and that of the Romanovs were somewhat different (more of a 'whimper' in the Kaiser's case) but essentially the same. Both treated with contempt. The Kaiser died not long after his letter was ignored by Hitler, and just before the Nazi invasion of Russia. Still, there's more feeling in the second poem, and that may be what makes it better. It could still stand alone.


RalphFSmith at 22:24 on 07 April 2014  Report this post

I like both parts of the poem and now, with its expanded meaning, the opening quotation by Thomas Paine seems no longer an adjunct as I thought it perhaps did in the original poem. 

You paint a darkly comic picture of Kaiser Bill.  I like it, especially the second stanza.  I have a couple of questions about one small part in the first stanza: 

In the age of Maxim he preferred
to have his enemies ‘perish by the sword’.

"Perish by the sword" is of course a biblical reference and, for most readers,  it implies the remainder of the reference, admonishing those who live by the sword that they will die by the sword.  The only quote by the Kaiser on a sword that I could find on Google is “With heavy heart I have been compelled to mobilise my army against a neighbour at whose side it has fought on many a battlefield. With genuine sorrow do I witness the end of a friendship, which Germany loyally cherished. We draw the sword with a clean conscience and clean hands.” As you know it was in his speech from the throne as Germany was about to invade France. In the context that the Kaiser used this, was it a maxim?

In the same section I also wondered about "the age of Maxim."  Was the early twentieth century regarded as such?  The pragmatists in America (Peirce and William James) promoted a maxim but theirs was a fairly narrow world.  With the capital letter only on "Maxim" it might be seen as an allusion to Maxim Gorky (this is highly unlikely, however).  I think the true Age of the Maxim was the 17th Century . . . when de la Rochefoucauld was living. 

These are very tiny questions.  As I said before, I really like your history poems.


James Graham at 11:34 on 09 April 2014  Report this post
Ralph, thank you for adding a further comment. You’re right that Kaiser Bill wasn’t as fixated on swords as the poem suggests. He made many belligerent speeches but referred much more often to cannon and ‘force of arms’. So these lines will have to change. Maxim refers to the inventor of the Maxim gun, so it’s saying that the Kaiser still talked about swords in the age of the machine gun. But he hardly ever did, so this will have to change too. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a new satirical point to make about him; he’s wonderfully self-satirising – at least with our hundred years’  hindsight. The problem you had with Maxim and swords showed up a fault in the poem, and will (hopefully) help improve it. So thanks again.


James Graham at 15:40 on 10 April 2014  Report this post
I've taken out the lines about swords and the Maxim gun, and put in two young Germans whom the Kaiser and his circle treated as if they were 'toy soldiers'.


RalphFSmith at 16:17 on 10 April 2014  Report this post
James the replacement lines work very well.  Good luck with this!


James Graham at 11:50 on 11 April 2014  Report this post
Thanks again, Ralph. There was a little technicality in writing these replacement lines - one you may have experienced yourself. To begin with, my scribble was

The peasant boy
from (German region, rural) the apprentice silversmith
of (German town), were toy soldiers.

Then search a map of Germany for names that more or less fell into the rhythm of the lines. And look for a long enough name to fill the third line. Not so easy. It's more often plain words rather than names - you have a blank in your line but can't find the word that is perfect in meaning and rhythm. That's when a thesaurus comes to the rescue. I wonder if you go through this routine sometimes.


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