poet laureate

poet laureate

poet laureate, title conferred in Britain by the monarch on a poet whose duty it is to write commemorative odes and verse. It is an outgrowth of the medieval English custom of having versifiers and minstrels in the king's retinue, and of the later royal patronage of poets, such as Chaucer and Spenser. Ben Jonson seems to have had what amounted to the laureateship from Charles I in 1617, but the present title, adopted from the Greek and Roman custom of crowning with a wreath of laurel, was first given to John Dryden in 1670.

Dryden's successors have been Thomas Shadwell (1688-92), Nahum Tate (1692-1715), Nicholas Rowe (1715-18), Laurence Eusden (1718-30), Colley Cibber (1730-57), William Whitehead (1757-85), Thomas Warton (1785-90), Henry Pye (1790-1813), Robert Southey (1813-43), William Wordsworth (1843-50), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850-92), Alfred Austin (1892-1913), Robert Bridges (1913-30), John Masefield (1930-67), Cecil Day Lewis (1968-72), John Betjeman (1972-84), Ted Hughes (1984-98), Andrew Motion (1999-2009), the first poet to serve a fixed 10-year term, and Carol Ann Duffy (2009-), Britain's first female laureate. In recent years the position's ceremonial duties have largely been eliminated, and it is no longer a lifetime post.

In the United States, the poet laureate is charged with raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." An annual position, chosen by the Librarian of Congress, it was instituted in 1937 as the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. This position was held by 30 poets before a 1985 act of Congress changed the name to poet laureate. In 1986, Robert Penn Warren became the first to hold the title in United States. Since then, American poets laureate have been Richard Wilbur (1987-88), Howard Nemerov (1988-90), Mark Strand (1990-91), Joseph Brodsky (the first foreign-born laureate; 1991-92), Mona Van Duyn (the first woman laureate; 1992-93), Rita Dove (the first African-American laureate; 1993-95), Robert Hass (1995-97), Robert Pinsky (1997-2000), Stanley Kunitz (2000-2001), Billy Collins (2001-3), Louise Glück (2003-04), Ted Kooser (2004-06), Donald Hall (2006-07), and Charles Simic (2007-).

See K. Hopkins, The Poets Laureate (1954, repr. 1966).

A Poet Laureate is a poet officially appointed by a government and is often expected to compose poems for State occasions and other government events. The plural form is poets laureate.

In England, the term has for centuries been the title of the official poet of the monarch, appointed for life since the time of Charles II. Poets laureate are appointed by many countries. In Britain there is also a Children's Laureate.

Origin of the term

In ancient Greece the laurel was sacred to the god Apollo, and was used to form a crown or wreath of honour for poets and heroes. This custom has since become widespread, both in fact and as a metaphor. The word laureate or laureated thus came in English to signify eminence or association with glory. Laureate letters were once the despatches announcing a victory. The term laureate became associated with degrees awarded by European universities (the term baccalaureate for the degree of bachelor reflects this idea). As a royal degree in rhetoric, poet laureate was awarded at European universities in the Middle Ages. The term might also refer to the holder of such a degree, which recognised skill in rhetoric, grammar and language.

According to the historian Edward Gibbon, Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–74) of Rome, perhaps best known for his sonnets to the fair-haired, blue-eyed Laura, took the title of "poet laureate" in 1341 for the poem "Africa".


From the more general use of the term "poet laureate" arose its restriction in England to an official office of Poet Laureate, attached to the royal household. James I essentially created the position as it is known today for Ben Jonson in 1617, although Jonson's appointment does not seem to have been formally made. The office was a development from the practice of earlier times when minstrels and versifiers formed part of the King's retinue. Richard Coeur de Lion had a versificator Regis (King's Poet), Gulielmus Peregrinus, and Henry III had a versificator named (Master Henry). In the 15th century, John Kay, also a "versifier", described himself as Edward IV's "humble poet laureate".

No single authentic definitive record exists of the office of Poet Laureate of England. According to Wharton, Henry I paid 10 shillings a year to a Versificator Regis. Geoffrey Chaucer 1340–1400 was called Poet Laureate, being granted in 1389 an annual allowance of wine. W. Hamilton classes Chaucer, Gower, Kay, Andrew Bernard, Skelton, Robert Whittington, Richard Edwards, Spenser and Samuel Daniel, as "volunteer Laureates".

John Skelton studied at Oxford University in the early 1480s, and was advanced to the degree of "poet laureate" in 1488. The title of laureate was also conferred on him by the University of Louvain in 1492, and by Cambridge University in 1492–3. He soon became famous for rhetoric, satire and translations. In 1488 Skelton joined the court of Henry VII, tutored Henry VIII and was the official royal poet for most of the next 40 years. He was held in high esteem: "But I pray mayster John Skelton, late created poete laureate in the unyversite of Oxenforde, to oversee and correct this sayd booke" — Caxton in the preface to The Boke of Eneydos compyled by Vargyle 1490.

The title of Poet Laureate, as a royal office, was first conferred by letters patent on John Dryden in 1670, two years after Davenant's death. The post then became a regular institution. Dryden's successor Shadwell originated annual birthday and New Year odes. The poet laureate became responsible for writing and presenting official verses to commemorate both personal occasions, such as the monarch's birthday or royal births and marriages, and public occasions, such as coronations and military victories. His activity in this respect has varied according to circumstances, and the custom ceased to be obligatory after Pye's death. The office fell into some contempt before Southey, but took on a new lustre from his personal distinction and that of Wordsworth and Tennyson. Wordsworth stipulated, before accepting the honour, that no formal effusions from him should be considered a necessity; but Tennyson was generally happy in his numerous poems of this class.

On Tennyson's death there was a considerable feeling that no possible successor was acceptable, William Morris and Swinburne being hardly suitable as court poets. Eventually, however, the undesirability of breaking with tradition for temporary reasons, and thus severing the one official link between literature and the state, prevailed over the protests against allowing anyone of inferior genius to follow Tennyson. It may be noted that abolition had been similarly advocated when Warton and Wordsworth died. Edward Gibbon had condemned the position's artificial approach to poetry:

The salary has varied, but traditionally includes some alcohol. Ben Jonson first received a pension of 100 marks, and later an annual "terse of Canary wine". Dryden had a pension of £300 and a butt of Canary wine. Pye received £27 instead of the wine. Tennyson drew £72 a year from the Lord Chamberlain's department, and £27 from the Lord Steward's "in lieu of the butt of sack".

List of Poets Laureate of England


Under the Tudors

From 1599 to the Present


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