Jan 22 2024
Poetry review – CROMWELL’S HEAD: David Rudd-Mitchell reviews Jim Greenhalf’s poetic reflections on British history and its lessons for the present
Occasionally, the premise of a poetry collection can be so intriguing and raise so many questions for a potential reader that the only rational response is to get on and read it! This was undoubtedly the response I had to Jim Greenhalf’s bold and poetically rich decision to utilise a relatively niche –yet remarkably relevant – part of British history and use it to hold a mirror up to modern attitudes, actions and leadership.
Oliver Cromwell is the only commoner to have overthrown (usurped) a royal monarch in these isles and ruled in their place. Although disbanding the monarchy appeals to many, it is noteworthy that Oliver Cromwell was so unpopular with people that after he died, the monarchy was reintroduced (albeit only in the figurehead model we have today). If that was not significant enough, Cromwell’s corpse was dug up, hung, and decapitated in order for his head to be displayed.
My curiosity was abundant: would the poetry adhere to the popular poetry forms of that period with allusions to the rhyming of Marvell or the classical metres of John Milton? Would this poetry offer pedagogy to modern readers? As a contemporary reader, would I be equipped with the knowledge of history to appreciate the work’s imagery, metaphor, humour or melancholy?
The collection is broadly surprisingly accessible, and the language that Greenhalf uses when giving voice to the thoughts in Oliver Cromwell’s head is modern. Whereas I expected to work slowly through the poems utilising ebook searches andhistorical resources, I moved with relative ease through the 64 pages of poetry. I much admired the “cavalier approach” to crafting accessible yet challenging poetry with its references linked to history.
The poetry is not all linked to Cromwell’s head, which wasn’t a huge disappointment, although it seemed a potentially lost opportunity for such a poetically rich idea. Greenhalf makes many poignant and timely connections between the demise of Charles the First, the post-burial beheading of Cromwell, and recent contrasting attitudes toward royalty that were displayed at the coronation of Charles the Third.
The passing of the “second Elizabethan era” works well as a point for reflection on how twenty-first-century Britain views itself and its past. The reflections on a state losing its head are juxtaposed with a historical epoch where two consecutive state leaders lost their heads. Greenhalf recalls Memorial Sunday of 2022 – the first that Queen Elizabeth 2nd could not attend – and reflects divided views regarding the end of an era. There was a feeling among some that when the Queen died, the dying art of behaving like a royal would perish with her; and there was equally a fear amongst others that it wouldn’t. Greenhalf captures this
as the nation, collectively, bids goodbye or good riddance, to the second Elizabethan era Big guns will salute her passing into history, as they announced her entry in 1953. When she’s gone, I fear, we’ll all be charlies.
This theme of not learning from the past runs through these poems. These are the thoughts of an older mind that has lost optimism about change. The poem “Breaking the Circle” is an excellent example of this. Greenhalf links the ancient and the recent neatly;
Aristotle told world-conquering Alexander: beware of history repeating itself. First as tragedy, then as farce, Karl Marx or Brian Rix added two thousand years later.
The poems that focus on the Crowell theme were often my favourites. My knowledge of this part of history was quickly exhausted, but between the back cover blurb and the author’s notes at the back, I could engage with the humour, melancholy and poignant pessimism.
The theme of headless leadership also occurs in two poems about former Prime Minister Johnson, including the playful “Boris Dancing”. Enoch Powell and Liz Truss are also here, along with Kings Charles the First, Second and Third.
A too-easily deceived public is partly the focus of the poem “A Tricksy Fella” about Jimmy Saville’s abuse of the system and privilege. It reflects on how monsters can move freely amongst us all, hiding behind ‘The batty Back to the Future hair, Churchillian cigar, harlequin clothes.’ And the poem makes a more sinister point when Greenhalf writes that Savile was ‘Confidante of prime ministers, royalty, West Yorkshire Police, the church.’
There are poems dedicated to lost friends and some personal thoughts on poetry. I enjoyed these more personal moments, and I recommend the prose of “What Difference Does it Make”, which reflects on the power of poetry.’
Greenhalf’s collection portrays a world that seems reluctant to learn and is a nihilistic acknowledgement that time has probably taught us many lessons to which, by and large, we didn’t listen. Alexander’s Empire, The Roman Empire and the British Empire proved empires to be unsound and unsustainable. As I write this review, we seem to be drifting closer to a third world war and are running short of working royals..
In spite of the pessimism I enjoyed reading this collection; it is one which requires rereading and keeps revealing connections between the past and present. Spending time in the company of Greenhalf and Cromwell’s head has been an unexpected delight and one I would recommend. The Greenhalf glass may be half empty, but Greenhalf wit is never half-witted.
David Rudd-Mitchell is a reviewer, occasional poet and writer. His poetry has been included in two shared chapbooks from The Black Light Engine Room Press. A short run of his first novella P was published by The Plastic Brain Press as D Rudd-Mitchell.