A brief history of the Poet Laureate

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‘Poetry, above all, is a series of intense moments- its power is not in narrative. I’m not dealing with facts; I’m dealing with emotion.’

Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate 2009- 2019

The title of Poet Laureate is one that makes its holder a salaried member of the royal household. The first instance of a poet being appointed in such a way in England was in the 17th century, when Ben Jonson was granted a pension by James I in 1616. Laureateship became official in 1668, and it was decided that it was an office that must always be filled (hence the immediate turnover between laureates today).

Of course, the notion of rewarding poetic excellence in such a way is an ancient one. The eponymous laurel tree was the tree sacred to Apollo (patron of poets) in Greek and Roman antiquity and thus the act of awarding a crown of laurel to excellent poets was a well-known practice in ancient Greece and Rome.

The notion of awarding poetic excellence in such a way is an ancient one

Originally, the Poet Laureate would hold the post for his lifetime but, since 1999, the period was set at ten years. So, this year saw the end of the term for Carol Ann Duffy, beloved Scottish poet, and so she stepped aside and Simon Armitage was chosen to succeed her.

If one were to trace the lives and works of all the Poet Laureates, it would be a time-consuming task (both to write and to read), so I will aim to look at the most influential moments in the history of poet laureateship.

The first official Poet Laureate was John Dryden, a man so influential in his era that it has been termed ‘The Age of Dryden’. He was appointed after his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, a poem commemorating the year 1666 as one of great tragedy, proved successful. The poem reaches out to the contemporary audience’s sense of awe and horror at the events of the Great Fire of London but ultimately believes that London will rise from the ashes, more glorious and eternal than ever before.

Dryden’s election to the post very much symbolises its point, that poetry can be the voice of a generation. The hope incited by this poem for a newer, brighter London was desperately needed. Dryden’s influence, message and popularity signify the role poetry can play in ideas of unity, hope and emotion.

The Poet Laureates often speak to the time in which they were writing

Indeed, the Poet Laureates that succeed Dryden often speak to the time in which they were writing. Prominent figures include William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, and Ted Hughes. Carol Ann Duffy took on the role in 2009, and she was the first female, first openly gay and first Scottish person to do so. Her poetry, with its fiery, unrelenting feminism, channels the spirit of a whole generation of girls who refuse to be silenced, and her subtle moments of touching emotion appeal even to those of us to whom poetry was never of much interest.

Armitage is a fitting figure for a role

Simon Armitage is one of Britain’s most widely studied poets in recent times. His work, influenced by Auden, Larkin and Hughes, is often dry, filled with dark humour and witty social commentary. He is a fitting figure for a role given to so many highly influential poets, each emblematic of their own time in some way or another. The change in Poet Laureate will bring discussions about the role of poetry, and art more generally, in society to the surface yet again and so that we never forget that the emotional potential of poetry must not be ignored.

Image by Paul Hudson via Flickr

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