The term Poet Laureate is something familiar to many people but as to its true meaning and origin perhaps there is less clarity. Traditionally laureate refers to a position of appointment conferred upon a person by a government or institution, for composing in this case poetry, for specific occasions. As far back as the thirteen hundred the Italians Francesco Petrarca and Alberto Mussato were given the position of poet laureate following the classical period of that time.
Famous Poet Laureates
At various times throughout history other countries have established the tradition of naming a poet for this role, perhaps most notably in England with the appointment of Bernard André during the reign of Henry Vll. The office did not exist as an official royal appointment until several hundred years later when in 1668 John Dryden was conferred with the honor. Prior to this time the royal court would no doubt consist of various poets, but the establishment of this specific official position was a new thing and came with some form of pension or allowance. This would facilitate the poet’s ability to devote time to composing as the need arose for state occasions and specific events of note.
Following Dryden in this position was the poet Thomas Shadwell who became the poet laureate in 1689 for the duration of his life. The emphasis at this time was very much upon reflecting the glory of the monarchy and he instituted the tradition of composing verse to celebrate the monarch’s birthday.
Subsequent poet laureates such as William Wordsworth and Alfred Tennyson were somewhat liberated from the expectation to produce works for every state occasion and could focus on raising the level of poetry, giving the position more status, especially among those in the literary world. With this new level of excellence established by the afore mentioned poets it is interesting to note that following Tennyson’s death there was no immediate successor announced, in deference to the impact he had made and the legacy he left. Finally, four years following his death the new poet laureate was named and Alfred Austin assumed the role. Subsequent laureates held the tenure for the duration of their lives until the appointment of Andrew Motion in 1952, when it was determined that the tenure should be only ten years long and thus in 2009 he was succeeded by the first woman to hold the position, Carol Ann Duffy.
The Role of the Laureate Today
Where previously the monarchy took responsibility for the choice of poet the monarchy simply announces and confers the honor on the advice of the government who in turn most recently take advice from experts in this field. Consequently, the position of poet laureate now reflects a more liberal and modern approach to the role of poetry in society. As with all the countries and various regions who elect to honor the contribution poetry has to play in today’s world in this way, we can be encouraged and gratified that its importance as a commentary is still validated.