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Poetry Guide: Poet Laureat

A Poet Laureate is a poet officially appointed by a government and often expected to compose poems for state occasions and other government events.

The term has in England for centuries been the title of the official poet of the monarch, appointed for life since the time of Charles II by letters patent, and before that less formally. Recently the office has been held only for a ten-year term. Its holder still receives a salary as a member of the Royal Household, but since 1843 has had no specific poetic duties.

Holders of similar positions in other countries have been honoured with similar titles. Poets laureate are appointed by many countries, some U.S. states and the UN. In Britain there is also a Children's Laureate.

Origin of the term

The laurel, in ancient Greece, was sacred to Apollo, and as such was used to form a crown or wreath of honour for poets and heroes; and this usage has been widespread. The word laureate or laureated thus came in English to signify eminent, or associated with glory. Laureate letters were once the despatches announcing a victory. The term laureate became associated with degrees awarded by European universities. The name baccalaureate for the university degree of bachelor involves this idea.

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 areas of rhetoric, grammar and language. This might be the academic equivalent of a modern day doctorate of poetry. According to Gibbon, Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) of Rome, perhaps best known for his sonnets to the fair-haired, blue-eyed Laura, took the title poet laureate in 1341.

Medieval English kings included versifiers and minstrels in their retinues, and lent their patronage to poets such as Chaucer and Spenser. Academic institutions honoured some such men with the poet laureate degree.


From the more general use of the term "poet laureate" arose its restriction in England an official office of Poet Laureate, the poet attached to the royal household. Charles 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 really a development of 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 (Master Henry). In the 15th century, John Kay, also a "versifier", described himself as Edward IV's "humble poet laureate." The crown had shown its patronage in various ways; Chaucer had been given a pension and a perquisite of wine by Edward III, and Spenser a pension by Queen Elizabeth.

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. Geofrey 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 was first conferred by letters patent on 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 traditionally responsible to write and present official poetry to commemorate occasions both personal, such as the monarch's birthday and royal births and marriages, and public, 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:

From Augustus to Louis, the muse has too often been false and venal: but I much doubt whether any age or court can produce a similar establishment of a stipendiary poet, who in every reign, and at all events, is bound to furnish twice a year a measure of praise and verse, such as may be sung in the chapel, and, I believe, in the presence, of the sovereign. I speak the more freely, as the best time for abolishing this ridiculous custom is while the prince is a man of virtue and the poet a man of genius. — Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Chapter LXX (footnote)

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

British Poets Laureate


Gulielmus Peregrinus employed by Richard Coeur de Lion
Master Henry was Versificator Regis, or King's Poet employed by Henry III (according to Thomas Warton)
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400)
John Kay in the reign of Edward IV, 1461-1483


Bernard Andre of Toulouse (1450-1522), author of Vita regis Henrici Septimi called himself Poet Laureate under Henry VII
John Skelton was the Poet Laureate under Henry VIII
Edmund Spenser died in 1599


After Spenser's death, the office was awarded on a more regular basis. Once chosen, poets laureate would serve for life. They received an annual pension, and were expected to write poetry for formal occasions.

1599 Samuel Daniel
1619 Ben Jonson
1637 Sir William Davenant (a godson of William Shakespeare)

Appointed by letters patent

1670 John Dryden
1689 Thomas Shadwell
1692 Nahum Tate
1715 Nicholas Rowe
1718 Rev'd Laurence Eusden
1730 Colley Cibber
1757 William Whitehead, on the refusal of Thomas Gray
1785 Rev'd Thomas Warton, on the refusal of William Mason
1790 Henry James Pye
1813 Robert Southey, on the refusal of Sir Walter Scott
1843 William Wordsworth
1850 Alfred, Lord Tennyson
1896 Alfred Austin, on the refusal of William Morris
1913 Robert Bridges
1930 John Masefield, OM
1967 Cecil Day-Lewis, CBE
1972 Sir John Betjeman, CBE
1984 Ted Hughes, OBE (widower of Sylvia Plath), on the refusal of Philip Larkin
1999 Professor Andrew Motion

Scotland and Wales

The Scots Makar is the unpaid equivalent of a poet laureate to represent and promote poetry in Scotland. On 16 February 2004, Professor Edwin Morgan was named to the post.

It was announced in February 2005 that Wales is to have its own national poet. The Arts Council of Wales gave a £5,000 lottery grant for the role.

Poets Laureate in other countries

Other countries have implemented similar official positions to that of the British Poet Laureate.

The United States Library of Congress has since 1937 appointed an official Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. An act of Congress changed the name of the position in 1985 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Other countries (e.g. South Africa) and organisations (e.g. the United Nations) have been keen to follow this lead. Australia, however retains a disdainful attitude.

Canada has a Parliamentary Poet Laureate, who is appointed as an officer of the Library of Parliament. Candidates must be able to write in either English or French, must have a substantial publication history (including poetry) displaying literary excellence and must have written work reflecting Canada, among other criteria.

Many US States also have official Poets Laureate. The fashion has also spread to some cities. Most holders of the these titles reach eminence by public competition; some have also brought disrepute by what they do in office and, as in the case of Amiri Baraka,
have sometimes been removed.

Kannadasan was the poet laureate of tamil nadu at the time of his death