The Poetry of Leadership

In early 1941, defeated Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie visited London.  He took with him a handwritten note from the American President  for the British Prime Minister.  Franklin D. Roosevelt had written out five lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Building of the Ship.”

Sail on, Oh Ship of State!

Sail on Oh Union strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hope of future years

Is hanging breathless on thy fate.


Roosevelt’s note to Winston Churchill read: “I think this verse applies to you people as it does to us.”  At that point, it was the British ship of state that was sailing on alone against Nazi Germany – as the United States remained on the far shores even as it ramped up military shipments to Britain. The Prime Minister was in no position to complain.  His country desperately need the additional assistance that Lend-Lease legislation, then pending in U.S. Congress, would provide.


A few months later in early May 1941, Churchill closed a BBC address with a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough – “Say not the struggle naught availeth,” – although the Prime Minister did not mention the author nor explicitly refer to the assistance he expected from a country across the Atlantic, the message was clear:

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,

Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back, through creeks and inlets making,

Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light;

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!

But westward, look the land is bright.[1]


From the time that Nazi Germany had invaded France in May 1940, Churchill knew that Britain’s salvation would come only with America’s entry into the war.  It was not until that August 1941 that Churchill and Roosevelt actually met aboard warships secretly anchored in Placentia Bay off Newfoundland.  Churchill was seeking American involvement in the European war effort, but he had to settle for American support for an “Atlantic Charter” setting out joint aims for a war in which the United States was not yet actively involved.  Only a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December would end America’s official  neutrality.


In May 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt were passing through Frederick, Maryland on the way to the presidential retreat at Camp Shangri-la (now Camp David).  Spotting a signs about “Barbara Fritchie” candy, FDR described the candy’s namesake, reciting two lines from John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem about Union supporter Fritchie’s confrontation with Confederate soldiers:

Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,

But spare your country’s flag.


The literary memory of Churchill kicked in and he proceeded to recite the remainder of the poem for Roosevelt.  Thus did the British Prime Minister, who had trouble passing the exam for Sandhurst military academy, show up the Harvard-educated President.  Churchill later remarked that the poem had been out of his mind for three decades.  The performance was not so unusual.  In secondary school at Harrow, Churchill had committed to memory and recited 1,200 lines from Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s poem, “Lays of Ancient Rome.”


After his recitation of the Whittier poem, the British Prime Minister proceeded to discourse at length to the American President on the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.  Less than five months after that battle, Abraham Lincoln had commemorated it with one of the English language’s great prose-poems.  Churchill aide John Colville recalled: “Churchill was thrilled by the romance of America – ‘Westward look the land is bright’ was a line of Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem he loved to quote – and he was deeply stirred by the history of the Civil War, which he had studied in detail.”[2]


Like Abraham Lincoln, Churchill’s mind had been formed by his understanding of the verses of Shakespeare and the Bible.  Churchill’s knowledge of the Bible allowed him to write General Wavell in December 1940: “St. Matthew, Chapter7, Verse 7.”  That verse declared: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”  In early 1944, Churchill learned of the death in the Pacific of U.S. Marine Stephen P. Hopkins, the 18-year-old son of FDR’s top diplomatic aide Harry Hopkins.  In consolation, Churchill sent Hopkins a scroll with a quotation from Macbeth to commemorate the demise of Hopkins’ youngest son:

Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier’s debt:

He only liv’d but till he was a man;

The which no sooner his prowess confirm’d

In the unshrinking station where he fought,

But like a man he died.[3]


Like Churchill, Abraham Lincoln liked to recite Shakespeare and other poetry.  His favorite poem was the twelve stanzas of “Why Should the Spirit of mortal be proud?” by William Knox – though Lincoln never knew the name of the poem’s Scottish author.  Fifteen years before he became President, Lincoln wrote: “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”  Lincoln was fond of the poems of another Scotsman, Robert Burns, especially “Letter to a Young Friend.”  When the future president saw busts of both Shakespeare and Burns in the office of the Chicago Record, he remarked: “They are my two favorite authors, and I must manage to see their birthplaces some day, if I can contrive to cross the Atlantic.”


Lincoln, unlike the well-traveled Prime Minister, never crossed the Atlantic.  As a young man serving in India with the British Army, Churchill wrote the only long poem from his pen that has ever surfaced.  In one of the ten verses, he evoked the long Civil War through which Lincoln led the Union and the world wars yet to come:

The shadow falls along the shore

The search lights twinkle on the sea

The silence of a mighty fleet

Portends the tumult yet to be.


The Prime Minister was particular fond of the 16 lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus.”  Speaking to the House Commons in the dark days of September 1941 when the United States had not yet entered the war, he said: “The mood of Britain is wisely and rightly averse from every form of shallow or premature exultation.  This is not time for boats or glowing prophecies; but there is this – a year ago our position looked forlorn and well night desperate to all eyes but our own.”  He concluded with a paraphrase of the final words of Henley’s poem: “We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.”[4]


The poet Walt Whitman often observed the President as he drove through the streets of Washington. After Lincoln had been assassinated in April 1865, Whitman used a similar metaphor to commemorate his passing:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won

[1] Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance: The Second World War, Volume III, p. 237.

[2] R. Crosby Kemper II, editor, Winston Churchill: Resolution, Defiance, Magnanimity, Good Will, p. 123  (John R. Colville, “The Personality of Winston Churchill”).

[3] Warren Kimball, editor, Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, Volume III, p. 46 (Churchill to Harry Hopkins, February 13, 2016).

[4]  The Churchill War Papers: The ever-widening war, 1941, p. 1196.

Posted in Essays