Poets Laureate - The Laureateship
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The Laureateship was the highest honour that a poet could be given. It was their responsibility to write poetry for state occasions and it meant a steady flow of paid work. However, to Chaucer, Skelton and Spenser it was simply an academic honour. It was through Ben Johnson that poets were appointed by royal patent.
The members of the Laureateship were usually replaced when a previous Laureate died. For example Lord Alfred Baron Tennyson was offered his Laureateship after the death of Wordsworth on April 23rd 1850. Wordsworth admired Tennyson and saw him as the first of their living poets.
At the time when Tennyson was appointed the following people were members: Sir Edwin Arnold, Mr. Lewis Morris, Mr. Alfred Austin, Mr. Algernon Charles Swinburne, Mr. Austin Dobson, Mr. William Watson, Mr. Coventry Patmore, Mr. Rudyard Kipling, Mr. Robert Buchanan, Mr. William Morris and Mr. George Meredith. All of which earned their position by demonstrating great aptitude for their craft. Such poets as Swinburne, Meredith, Patmore, Morris, Watson and Dobson were chosen for their classical distinction. In the case of William Watson this was second-to-none. Algernon Charles Swinburne was seen as the most superlative lyrical poet in the English language since Shelley. Meredith's "Modern Love" was predicted to be one of the most accomplished poems of the 19th century.
Buchanan was seen as being, very nearly, an extremely fine poet. He was adept at a wide variety of subjects and styles, however, he tended to produce more quantity than quality. Rudyard Kipling, belonging to a newer era, wrote 'Barrack Room Ballads' that contained a strong, heavy rhythm with a high level of visual imagination and were written in a particular dialect. The poems that he wrote in 'traditional' English didn't demonstrate the same strength and power.
Morris, Austin and Arnold were, unfortunately, disparaged by the advertisement that they received. Belittling their true prowess. Austin was considered to have the most genuine gift out of the three, he had an in-depth knowledge of English nature and a vivacity of expression. However, he would get carried away often and write poetry to epic proportions. Morris had written outstanding, moving work with glamour and almost monotony all of its own. Patmore's "Unknown Eros" showed him to be a poet of extremely high order, of all the poets mentioned, if the honour was to be bestowed upon one man (excluding Swinburne), it would be him.
Not all poets that were offered a position accepted and some only embraced this honour on condition. For example, Southby refused to fill his chair unless he was responsible for the compulsory composition of New Year and Birthday odes. Gray, Rogers and Sir Walter Scott, all of which were distinguished poets, declined membership. Gray remarked that the office humbled it's possessor.
The Laureateship began with Ben Johnson but was not honoured as it should have been until Tennyson became a member. He brought his own fame to it and therefore the respect of the nation.
All the poets mentioned above were extremely talented, but in different areas of the craft. They were all of the highest order, however some shone out above the others at different times. All were capable of producing the most brilliant of works in their own, individual way. Also all of them have written work that undermines their true talent.
After Tennyson died in 1892, it was decided that the title 'Laureate' would again be more of a gift of the Universities. It was determined that it should be a dignity given to all who had achieved a high standard of poetic distinction rather than to bestow it upon just a few elite poets.
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