1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Laureate

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LAUREATE (Lat. laureatus, from laurea, the laurel tree). 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, literary or military. “Laureate letters” in old times meant the despatches announcing a victory; and the epithet was given, even officially (e.g. to John Skelton) by universities, to distinguished poets. The name of “bacca-laureate” for the university degree of bachelor shows a confusion with a supposed etymology from Lat. bacca lauri (the laurel berry), which though incorrect (see Bachelor) involves the same idea. From the more general use of the term “poet laureate” arose its restriction in England to the office of the poet attached to the royal household, first held by Ben Jonson, for whom the position was, in its essentials, created by Charles I. in 1617. (Jonson’s appointment does not seem to have been formally made as poet-laureate, but his position was equivalent to that). The office was really a development of the practice of earlier times, when minstrels and versifiers were part of the retinue of the King; it is recorded that Richard Cœur de Lion had a versificator regis (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.” Moreover, 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. W. Hamilton classes Chaucer, Gower, Kay, Andrew Bernard, Skelton, Robert Whittington, Richard Edwards, Spenser and Samuel Daniel, as “volunteer Laureates.” Sir William Davenant succeeded Jonson in 1638, and the title of poet laureate was conferred by letters patent on Dryden in 1670, two years after Davenant’s death, coupled with a pension of £300 and a butt of Canary wine. The post then became a regular institution, though the emoluments varied, Dryden’s successors being T. Shadwell (who originated annual birthday and New Year odes), Nahum Tate, Nicholas Rowe, Laurence Eusden, Colley Cibber, William Whitehead, Thomas Warton, H. J. Pye, Southey, Wordsworth, Tennyson and, four years after Tennyson’s death, Alfred Austin. The office took on a new lustre from the personal distinction of Southey, Wordsworth and Tennyson; it had fallen into contempt before Southey, and on Tennyson’s death there was a considerable feeling that no possible successor was acceptable (William Morris and Swinburne being hardly 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 following Tennyson by any one of inferior genius. It may be noted that abolition was similarly advocated when Warton and Wordsworth died.

The poet laureate, being a court official, was considered responsible for producing formal and appropriate verses on birthdays and state occasions; but his activity in this respect has varied, according to circumstances, and the custom ceased to be obligatory after Pye’s death. 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. The emoluments of the post have varied; Ben Jonson first received a pension of 100 marks, and later an annual “terse of Canary wine.” To Pye an allowance of £27 was made 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.”

See Walter Hamilton’s Poets Laureate of England (1879), and his contributions to Notes and Queries (Feb. 4, 1893).