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.”