In modern times the Poet Laureate has tended to be mocked by the literary world, and ignored by the public. The exception to this rule was John Betjeman, who also happened to be the Nation's Teddybear (a post now held by Alan Bennett), which meant he was loved by the public. True, his official poems as Laureate were mocked, on the grounds that they were, as he cheerfully acknowledged, "not much good", but his reputation has survived.
The centenary of his birth is currently being celebrated in various events, in two biographies (an abridged edition of Bevis Hillier's monumental one, and a brisk and bracing one by AN Wilson), and in a new edition of his Collected Poems, with an introduction by Andrew Motion, the current Laureate.
Motion cannot realistically hope to measure up to dear old Betj, let alone to such previous incumbents as Jonson, Dryden or Tennyson, but so far - he was appointed in 1999, so he has four more years in office - he has made a surprisingly good fist of the job.
The main reason for this is that he actually treats it as a job. Philip Larkin, to whom Motion was acolyte, friend, literary executor and biographer, turned down the laureateship not only because he had ceased to write poetry but also because, as he put it in a letter, "...it has been suggested that the Laureate should be a kind of 'Mr Poetry' and concern himself (or herself) with promoting poetry on a national basis... The office itself, linking as it does poetry and sovereignty, is a unique honour and should be treasured and preserved, but the temptation to turn it into a 'job' should be resisted."
To turn it into a job is precisely what Andrew Motion has done. For a start, he insisted that his modest stipend be paid in modern money (£5,000 a year), and revived the Laureate's ancient perquisite of "a butt of sack per annum", which is quite a lot of sherry, about 700 bottles. He has enthusiastically embraced - invented, even - the role of "Mr Poetry". He is comfortably the busiest laureate, and a tireless campaigner - complaining, for example, that the media do not pay poetry nearly enough attention, giving blanket coverage to the Booker Prize, while ignoring the Forward Poetry Prize. He sits on innumerable committees and charity boards, gives readings, visits schools and colleges. He has helped set up the Poetry Archive, a website on which dead and living poets read their work.
"I see myself," he declares on his own website, "as a town-crier, can-opener and flagwaver for poetry, as well as wanting to write poems about various events that seem suitable to me."
It is the latter part of his unofficial job description that Motion finds hardest to perform. Although a member of the Labour Party, he has no objection to the monarchy: "I like the variety and unpredictability and ancientness of it. They give a valuable sense of constancy in a fast-moving world." The problem is one of sincerity: "I have to feel these poems" - written to commemorate royal or historic occasions - "are authentic. They can't be just sycophantic."
Some of them - on the millennium, for instance, or the Paddington rail disaster - have been quite good. Others - the one for Prince William's 21st birthday ("Stand back, it's an age attack") or the Queen's 80th ("The Golden rule, your constancy survives") - have been less so. But Motion continues to produce them with a rare conscientiousness.
Most poets would not want to be Laureate, but Motion, if not a great poet, is a career poet, and the laureateship is a fitting culmination of that career. He has done other things (taught at Hull, University of East Anglia, and now Royal Holloway, London) and written other books (four biographies, three novels), but his 10 volumes of verse, and his past jobs as editor of the Poetry Review and poetry editor of Chatto & Windus make him uniquely qualified for his present post.
"He's a nice lad, I think," wrote Larkin to a friend in 1980, "but I think not really tough enough - in his writing, that is. Probably tough enough otherwise."
A poet needs to be tough in England, where poets are subject to mockery. At his public school (Radley), Motion was known as "Fotherington-Thomas", after Molesworth's poetical schoolmate at St Custard's ("Hullo clouds, hullo sky"), for his adolescent verses as much as for his golden curls and Grecian good looks. "There's too much poetry in Motion" is quite an old joke by now, about 35.
To some of the less mature undergraduates at his Oxford college he was known as "Bowel Motion", and to Larkin he was "the Kneeless Motion" (since his teens he has suffered from an arthritic condition, chondro-malatia patella).
His first marriage, to Joanna Powell, ended in divorce in 1983. Last year, after the collapse of his second marriage (to Janet Dalley, by whom he has three children), over his affair with a younger woman, the Daily Mail dubbed him "Pelvic Motion".
"The sort of attention about things that are not to do with work," he told this newspaper at the time, "can be intensely tiresome, not only for me but for my nearest and dearest as well."
The distinction between public and private is not always an easy one for any poet to maintain, and is especially difficult for Motion, much of whose poetry is directly or indirectly about the death of his mother. Her death is the starting point of In The Blood, a memoir of what he calls his "post-war, middle-class rural upbringing", to be published by Faber & Faber next month.
In an Essex field in 1968, between Christmas and New Year, the 16-year-old Motion enjoyed his first kiss with a girl called Julia. At the same moment, by his calculation, his mother fell from her horse while hunting in another Essex field; she landed on her head, on a concrete tractor track, and never recovered. "For most people," he writes, "childhood ends slowly, so nobody can see where one part of life finishes and the next bit starts. But my childhood has ended suddenly. In a day... I want to lock into my head everything that's happened in my life up to now, and make sure it never changes. If I can help keep it safe, I'll be able to look back and feel safe myself."
The only paradises are those we have lost, and the bulk of Motion's poetry has evidently been written as an attempt to recover his. Pop psychology suggests that his entire career has been devoted to the same end. "The Laureate is a mysterious position," he writes on his website. "It's very ancient and very honourable, but it hasn't always been clear what a person in such a position might do." The one obvious thing that such a person might do, other than to write the occasional poem, is bask in the favour of the Queen.Reuse content