Simon Armitage reads 'The Bed' at centenary service for Unknown Warrior
The poet laureate, Simon Armitage, on Armistice Day - Wednesday 11 November - read a new poem, ‘The Bed’, to mark the 100th anniversary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey. The poem charts how the fallen soldier is transported from being “broken and sleeping rough in a dirt grave” to being buried “among drowsing poets and dozing saints” in the abbey.
Armitgae said: “The poem tells the story of the retrieval and repatriation of the body of the Unknown Warrior from the battlefields of World War I to his grave in Westminster Abbey. I was very struck by the ritualistic detail that had gone into the making of the coffin and the tomb, and thought of it as a bed, somewhere to rest in peace.
“His anonymity makes him everyone's son, everyone's responsibility, and the poem concludes that we owe him his rest, because our restfulness was paid for with his life.”
by Simon Armitage
Sharp winds scissor and scythe those plains.
And because you are broken and sleeping rough
in a dirt grave, we exchange the crude wooden cross
for the hilt and blade of a proven sword;
to hack through the knotted dark of the next world,
yes, but to lean on as well at a stile or gate
looking out over fens or wealds or fells or wolds.
That sword, drawn from a king’s sheath,
fits a commoner’s hand, and is yours to keep.
And because frost plucks at the threads
of your nerves, and your bones stew in the rain,
bedclothes of zinc and oak are trimmed
and tailored to fit. Sandbags are drafted in,
for bolstering limbs and pillowing dreams,
and we throw in a fistful of battlefield soil:
an inch of the earth, your share of the spoils.
The heavy sheet of stone is Belgian marble
buffed to a high black gloss, the blanket
a flag that served as an altar cloth. Darkness
files past, through until morning, its head bowed.
Molten bullets embroider incised words.
Among drowsing poets and dozing saints
the tall white candles are vigilant sentries
presenting arms with stiff yellow flames;
so nobody treads on the counterpane,
but tiptoeing royal brides in satin slippers
will dress and crown you with luminous flowers.
All this for a soul
without name or rank or age or home, because you
are the son we lost, and your rest is ours.