The Big Question: What's the history of Poet Laureates, and does the job still mean anything?

By Andy McSmith
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:21

Why are we asking this now?

Carol Ann Duffy is expected to be named today as the new Poet Laureate, the first woman to hold that distinction. Her admirers will consider it belated justice. She was in line for the title 10 years ago, but Andrew Motion was selected instead. It was rumoured that the reason Tony Blair decided against her was that he was nervous about how "Middle England" would react to a poet laureate who is openly gay. Not that she would necessarily be the first gay poet laureate – just the first who is open about it.

What is a Poet Laureate?

There is no job description as such, and the salary is small. In the old days there used to be a butt of best canary wine thrown in, but not any more. The holder is not absolutely required to do anything, but is expected to produce some verse if something really, really important happens – such as, Prince William getting married. It used to be a job for life until, on the death of Ted Hughes in 1999, Andrew Motion was appointed for a fixed term of 10 years. His output included works in honour of the wedding of the Earl of Wessex, Prince William's 21st birthday, the Queen's diamond wedding anniversary and, bizarrely, the TUC. "The job has been incredibly difficult and entirely thankless," Motion told a literary festival last year.

How much does it cost to have a Laureate?

When Andrew Motion was appointed, the government decided that he should be paid £5,000 a year, which has gone up each year in line with inflation, so that last year he was paid just under £5,760. Impressed by the amount of work he was doing in schools, the Department of Education decided in 2003 to contribute £15,000 to his costs, so by 2008, the total cost to the public purse had risen to just over £25,000.

How is the Laureate chosen?

Officially, the Laureate is appointed by the Lord Chamberlain by issuing a warrant on behalf of the monarch. For at least 200 years, however, the choice has actually been made by the Prime Minister and his/her advisers. But who advises the Prime Minister? Philip Collins set out to find the answer when he was Tony Blair's adviser on cultural matters at the time of Motion's appointment and failed utterly. Not only is the process secret, but "even the reason why it is a secret is a secret," he concluded.

Who was the first?

The office of Poet Laureate has existed continuously, with just one short gap, since 1668, when John Dryden was appointed to act as a propagandist for the recently restored Stuart monarchy. His duties included writing court odes on the king's birthday. He was not only the first official Poet Laureate, he was also the only one ever to be sacked. He converted to Catholicism, but when James II was deposed and sent into exile by William III, Dryden refused to swear an oath of loyalty, for which he was excluded from the court. He was followed by a long line of mediocrities.

Who was the worst?

Some people believe that Alfred Austin, appointed Poet Laureate in 1896, was the worst rhymester ever to hold the title. It is alleged that when the Prince of Wales was ill, Austin wrote: "Across the wires the electric message came, He is no better, he is much the same." But even he surely had more poetry in him than Henry Pye, the MP for Berkshire, who gave up his seat in 1790 and was rewarded for the loyal support he had given William Pitt the Younger by being appointed the first salaried Poet Laureate, on £27 a year. The compiler of the Cambridge History of English Literature judged that Pye "was, in fact, not so much a bad poet as no poet at all... his house was the house of typically 18th-century verse, empty and swept of all poetical life..."

And the best?

No one else had filled the post as successfully as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate for 42 years during the reign of Queen Victoria, who produced lines in praise of the Duke of Wellington, and in honour of the men killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade. After his death in 1892, the post was left vacant for four years because he seemed irreplaceable.

Who should have been Poet Laureate but wasn't?

There are a very large number of poets whose work is still read and enjoyed, but who were never considered by the government of their day to be suitable for the post. And, conversely, there are painfully few laureates who have left behind any memorable poetry. Some of the great English poets were deliberately passed over because they were politically unreliable, like John Milton or Alexander Pope, or their private lives were scandalous, like Lord Byron, or they were women. The Victorians did offer the post to William Morris, who was a socialist, and the Thatcher government offered it to Philip Larkin, but both turned it down. When Henry Pye died in 1813, the government could, if they had wanted to, have chosen William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth or Byron, but preferred to offer the laureateship to the romantic novelist, Sir Walter Scott. When he turned it down, the title went to Robert Southey, who was a vast improvement on most of his predecessors, and yet is forgotten now, except that we still remember a brilliant parody of a Southey poem, "You Are Old Father William", by Lewis Carroll. Wordsworth had to wait another 30 years until Southey died. At 73, he was the oldest person ever appointed Poet Laureate. When he died, Queen Victoria wanted her next Poet Laureate to be someone named Samuel Russell, but he said no.

What are the most memorable lines written by a Laureate?

There is "I wandered lonely as a cloud", which Wordsworth wrote many years before he was the laureate, or "Theirs not to reason why" by Tennyson – but, actually, of all the verses written by all the Poets Laureate past and present, the one best known to the greatest number of people is, "While shepherds watched their flocks by night", written by Nahum Tate, an Irish poet who was made Poet Laureate in 1692. Apart from writing hymns, his biggest contribution to literature was to rewrite King Lear, with a happy ending in which Lear was restored to his throne and Edgar, after marrying Cordelia, ended the action by proclaiming: "Our drooping Country now erects her head, Peace spreads her balmy Wings, and Plenty blooms."

Why do we continue with the tradition?

The office of Poet Laureate cannot really be said to do much for the creative output of those who hold it, but Andrew Motion demonstrated its real value by using his position to whip up public interest in good poetry. And he has won plaudits for responding spontaneously to events, for example producing a poem after the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster of 1999. Motion founded the online Poetry Archive, which he says that he could not have done if he had not been Poet Laureate, campaigned for the Heritage Lottery fund to be used to preserve poetry manuscripts, and chaired the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

Do we need someone to mark national events with a poem?


* This is an old tradition evoking Britain down the ages and it costs next to nothing. Why end it?

* The Laureate is an ambassador for poetic craft from whom school pupils, and others, can take inspiration.

* In an age of shallow celebrity, the Poet Laureate is someone famous for genuine achievement.


* It is an insult to expect a serious poet to compose verses to mark a royal wedding or some such event.

* In most cases, being appointed seems to have a deadening effect on the office-holder's creativity.

*Since when was a Prime Minister qualified to nominate the country's foremost poet?

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