“Any man’s death diminishes me,” wrote John Donne in his well-known poem. A beautiful sentiment, that, but is it true?
I don’t mean philosophically or poetically true. It probably is. But is it something we really feel in our viscera when a public figure or, for that matter, any stranger dies? Do we ever have a sense of personal loss with the passing of someone we didn’t know personally?
Possibly. Sometimes. Twice, in my life. The first time was in 1982, when Glenn Gould died. The second time was on Friday, when the news of Prince Philip’s death broke.
This feeling caught me by surprise. After all, there have been other public figures – writers, musicians, thinkers, even the odd politician or two – who occupied a larger niche in my life. When they died, the words “so sorry to hear that” crossed my lips, and I usually meant it. But I didn’t feel that their death diminished me.
Some of my friends met Prince Philip, and everything I’ve heard about him is eminently likeable, as is everything I’ve read. But then some other dignified, honourable, sage, witty, irascible and likeable men have died in my lifetime without producing this sense of personal loss.
Why now then? It has taken me two days to get my head around this, and I still can’t explain my grief cogently enough. I see no structure in my mind’s eye, just the blinking lights of single words flashing through.
The brightest of them are love and unity, the two words that can go a long way towards explaining England, and therefore Prince Philip, to the uninitiated.
“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh,” wrote Paul, and this is the starting point of my meandering journey.
The sacrament of marriage turns two people into one before God. However, for many couples this remains a purely metaphysical concept, even assuming – and this is an unsafe assumption nowadays – that they believe in it.
Peeking into other people’s marriages is a futile pastime, but from everything one hears, reads and sees the Queen and her lifelong consort embodied Paul’s prescription in every sense. Yet they were no ordinary couple, and their love and unity transcended just any old happy marriage.
For Prince Philip was one flesh not only with Her Majesty, but also with the monarchy, which in turn is one with the country. This unity is a ship sailing on a reservoir of love.
Just as the Royal spouses were inseparable, so are the monarchy and Britain. And love makes it so by reinforcing the monarchy’s legitimacy.
At this point pedantic scholars will throw their arms up in horror. The legitimacy of the monarchy derives from the whole constitutional history of the country, not from some nebulous touchy-feely emotions.
The monarchy is the link between generations past, present and future. Even though devoid of executive power, it’s a key institution not only for Britain but also for the whole Commonwealth.
All true. However, observing the on-going mayhem of constitutional vandalism, one has to believe that political tradition alone can’t protect our vital institutions. Had our monarchy depended solely on constitutional probity, it would have gone the way of the House of Lords, succumbing to subversive sentiments sprouting at the grassroots, as they are generously watered by assorted malcontents.
The reason it hasn’t, yet, is that most Britons love their monarchy. For them, it’s the same as loving their country, being one flesh with it.
This is a British love, undemonstrative, taciturn, but so much the firmer for it. Most people may even be unable to declare it, to put into words or express it with gestures, such as putting a hand over the heart.
They just know they and their country are one, and therefore they are one with the Queen and her lifelong consort. Let’s not ask them to rationalise that feeling – if they try, it may well wither like a poppy plucked out of the ground.
A politician may be liked, respected, venerated even. But a politician can seldom, if ever, be loved in the same intuitive, unspoken way.
Yes, a ship sailing on a reservoir of love. But that reservoir can be depleted, which is why one looks with apprehension at His Royal Highness’s descendants. As Burke put it, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” The same applies to those who are one with their country – they must continue to deserve love.
That’s what Prince Philip did, over a long life of duty and service underpinned by love.
Men like him used to run mighty kingdoms, but mighty kingdoms no longer exist, and neither do men like him, not in any significant numbers at any rate. But he did exist, one flesh with his wife, his monarchy and his adoptive country.
Hence anyone who loves Britain as I do is bound to feel diminished by the death of His Royal Highness the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. May he rest in peace.