The poet laureate has held an elevated position in British culture over the past 350 years. From the position’s origins as a personal appointment made by the monarch to today’s governmental selection committee, much has changed about the role, but one thing hasn’t changed: the poet laureate has always produced poetry for events of national importance, particularly in relation to royalty. Recent poet laureates have produced poetry commemorating the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the oldest surviving World War I veteran, and various royal weddings over the years.
This May, a new poet laureate is due to be announced in the UK. In celebration of this occasion, enjoy these eight facts about past poet laureates from 1668 to the present day.
1. Ben Jonson was the unofficial first poet laureate
Playwright and poet Ben Jonson is sometimes cited as the first poet laureate: in 1616, James I granted him a royal pension in recognition of his services to poetry. However, the post was not made official until the appointment of John Dryden by Charles II in 1668, when a formal warrant was issued awarding Dryden the title
2. One laureate was dismissed on religious grounds
After twenty years as laureate, John Dryden became the first – and only – poet laureate to be removed from the post in 1688. Dryden was dismissed for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the new sovereigns, William and Mary; he was a Catholic convert, and risked being prosecuted for treason by remaining in public office in the court of the Anglican monarchs, so the Anglican Thomas Shadwell became laureate in his place.
3. Laureates composed odes to the monarch’s birth
Thomas Shadwell didn’t waste his three years as poet laureate, establishing a new tradition: writing poetry in honour of the monarch’s birthday each year. Subsequent poet laureates were also required to write poems for other major court and national occasions such as marriages, deaths, and victories. This requirement died with Robert Southey in 1843; since then, laureates have been expected to write poems for any significant country-wide events on a voluntary basis.
4. Young or old can fill the role
Whether seasoned poet or a young prodigy, any poet could become laureate regardless of age or writing experience. The youngest poet to be appointed laureate was Laurence Eusden, who accepted the position in 1718 at the age of 30. In this case, youth did not spawn brilliance: Eusden’s poetry was mocked and satirised by other writers at the time, and his poems aren’t widely known or circulated today. The eldest to be named laureate was well-known romantic poet William Wordsworth, who was 73 when he became laureate in 1843. Wordsworth was initially reluctant to accept the post due to his age, but when he was assured that nothing would be expected of him as poet laureate, he accepted, and did not write a single official verse throughout his tenure.
5. Three years passed with no laureate following the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The longest serving poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson, was so well-loved by Queen Victoria that there was a break of over three years following his death in 1892 before the next laureate was appointed. Indeed, Tennyson’s legacy extends beyond his 42 year tenure as he remains a widely revered poet today, with poems including “The Charge of the Light Brigade” – which he wrote as laureate during the Crimean War – still being circulated and studied widely.
6. Three poets have refused the post
In the search for the next poet laureate, several poets – notably Benjamin Zephaniah – have ruled themselves out of the shortlist; this aversion to becoming poet laureate is nothing new. In the past, the laureateship has been officially refused on three occasions: by Thomas Gray in 1757, by Sir Walter Scott in 1813, and by Samuel Rogers in 1850.
7. Serving as laureate is no longer a lifelong commitment
Until recently, poets were awarded the laureateship for the remainder of their lives. The longest serving poet laureate was Tennyson, who held the position for 42 years during Queen Victoria’s reign. Since Andrew Motion was appointed in 1999, the laureateship has been offered on a ten year fixed term basis to allow more poets the opportunity to be poet laureate.
8. Few laureates have left a lasting legacy
How many poems do you know that were written by poet laureates? While the first and most recent laureates’ names likely ring a bell – John Dryden and Carol Ann Duffy – there have been few notable poets in between, and even fewer notable poems. Among those you have likely come across are “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by Wordsworth, “In Memoriam” by Tennyson, and the Christmas carol “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” by Nahum Tate. How long will the next laureate’s legacy last? That remains to be seen.
Featured image: Writing, desk, paper, and stationary by Clark Young. Public Domain via Unsplash.