Poet Laureates of the UK

Since the 1600s, the post of poet laureate has been a regular institution in the UK. Over the years, the poet laureate has been tasked with various responsibilities. These included writing and presenting official verses to commemorate various occasions. Such as royal birthdays, births and marriages. They might also write about coronations and military victories. Eventually, these obligations became optional.

 

1668-89 First Poet Laureate: John Dryden 

England’s first poet laureate, Dryden is remembered today as a poet, satirist, translator as well as the dominant voice during the Restoration period. He wrote elegies, odes, prologues and other forms of poetry. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1668-1689, 20 years
  • Famous works: ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ (1681) and the poem Marriage à la Mode (1673)

Excerpt from ‘Absalom and Achitophel’: 

He said. Th’ Almighty, nodding, gave consent; 

And peals of thunder shook the firmament. 

Henceforth a series of new time began, 

The mighty years in long procession ran: 

Once more the god-like David was restor’d, 

And willing nations knew their lawful lord.

 

1689-92: Thomas Shadwell

A poet and prolific playwright, Shadwell is most commonly remembered for his portrayal in John Dryden’s ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ and ‘MacFelck’noe’. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1689-1692, 3 years
  • Famous works: ‘Dear Pretty Youth’ and ‘Love in their little veins inspires’ 

Excerpt from ‘Love in their little veins inspires’: 

Love in their little veins inspires
their cheerful notes, their soft desires.
While heat makes buds and blossoms spring,
those pretty couples love and sing.
But winter puts out their desire,
and half the year they want love’s fire.

 

1692-1715: Nahum Tate 

An Irish poet, Tate’s career consisted of playwriting, poetry, adaptions of plays and the writing of librettos. He was commissioned by John Dryden to assist with writing the seconds section of ‘Absalom and Achitophel’. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1692-1715, 23 years 
  • Famous works: ‘Panacea, a poem’ (1700) and The History of King Lear (1681)

Excerpt from ‘Panacea, a poem’ 

Tea was not sprung—reserv’d by friendly Fate,

For last Distress of China‘s suff’ring State.

Whose Griefs and wondrous Cure I shall recite,

A Tale that may your Patience well requite.

 

1715-18: Nicholas Rowe 

Today, Nicholas Rowe is best known for his poetry, plays and translations. He is also thought to the first editor of the works of William Shakespeare. Rowe had great success with his plays, and his translation of Lucan is considered to be one of the best in English poetry. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1715-1718, 3 years 
  • Famous works: The Fair Penitent and ‘A Poem upon the Late Glorious Successes of Her Majesty’s Arms’

Except from Ode for the New Year MDCCXVI’: 

Hail to thee, glorious rising Year,

With what uncommon grace thy days appear!

Comely art thou in thy prime,

Lovely child of hoary Time;

 

1718-30: Laurence Eusden 

The youngest of England’s poet laureates, Eusden’s produced poems as well as translations. He is best-remembered today for this line from Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad: “Know, Eusden thirsts no more for sack or praise; He sleeps among the dull of ancient days.”
  • Length of Tenure: 1718-1730, 12 years 
  • Famous works: ‘The Origin of the Knights Of the Bath’

Excerpt from: The Origin of the Knights Of the Bath’

Hail glorious Off-spring of a glorious Race!

Britannia’s other Hope, and blooming Grace!

Thou smil’st already on the burnish’d Shield,

And thy weak Hand the little Sword can wield:

Already, clad in Arms, Thou mov’st along,

The Love, and Wonder of each ravish’d Throng!

 

1730-57: Colley Cibber 

An actor/manager, as well as poet, Cibber cared most for his acting career. Unfortunately, his contemporaries did not feel the same. Alexander Pope criticized Cibber’s adaptions of plays as well as his acting abilities. Today, his poetry is also considered to be poor and his appointment as poet laureate one motivated by politics. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1730-1757, 27 years
  • Famous works: An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, Comedian (autobiography) 

 

1757-85: William Whitehead 

Whitehead’s appointment as poet laureate was only confirmed after fellow writer Thomas Gray declined the position. Striking for the time, he considered himself to be a non-partisan representative of England. He did not go out of his way to defend the king of the current government. Today, he is considered to be the first laureate to look past politics and towards a more important meaning for the role. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1757-1785, 27 years
  • Famous works: ‘The Je Ne Sais Quoi’ 

Except from ‘The Je Ne Sais Quoi’ : 

Yes, I’m in love, I feel it now,

And Cælia has undone me; 

And yet I’ll swear I can’t tell how

The pleasing plague stole on me. 

‘Tis not her face that love creates,

For there no graces revel; 

‘Tis not her shape, for there the fates

Have rather been uncivil.

 

1785-90: Thomas Warton 

Warton was a poet, critic, literary historian and part of the movement of Graveyard poets. His work, and that of his contemporaries, was noted for its dark meditations on human life and death. These poems were filled with depressing and foreboding imagery.
  • Length of Tenure: 1785-1790, 5 years
  • Famous works: ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’ and ‘To the River Lodon’

Excerpt from ‘To the River Lodon’ 

Ah! What a weary race my feet have run,

Since first I trod thy banks with alders crown’d,

And thought my way was all through fairy ground,

Beneath thy azure sky, and golden sun:

Where first my Muse to lisp her notes begun!

 

1790-1813: Henry James Pye 

Pye was the first laureate to receive an actual salary, verse the payment of wine that had been traditional up until this point. He was also a member of Parliament and a police magistrate for Westminster. Today, his poetic works are not considered to be of any significant merit, but his prose has last through the centuries somewhat more successfully. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1790-1813, 23 years
  • Famous works: “Commentary on Shakespeare’s commentators” 

 

1813-43: Robert Southey 

A Romantic poet, Southey, along with contemporary William Wordsworth, is considered to be a Lake Poet. He was an avail scholar of Spanish literature and translated from both Spanish and Portuguese into English. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1813-1843, 30
  • Famous works: The Story of the Three Bears and ‘The Battle of Blenheim’ 

Excerpt from The Battle of Blenheim’: 

It was a summer evening,

Old Kaspar’s work was done,

And he before his cottage door

Was sitting in the sun,

And by him sported on the green

His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

 

1843-50: William Wordsworth 

Perhaps the most famous of England’s poets laureate, Wordsworth is remembered as the leader of the Romantic movement. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1843-1850, 7 years 
  • Famous works: The Prelude and Songs of Innocence and Experience 

Excerpt from ‘Daffodils’ (‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’) 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

1850-92: Alfred, Lord Tennyson 

Unlike many of the poets laureate who came before Tennyson, he has remained one of Britain’s most loved writers. His writings helped to establish the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and he is known today for works such as ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1850-1892, 42 years 
  • Famous works: ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’

Excerpt from In Memoriam A.H.H.’: 

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

 

1896-1913: Alfred Austin

Today, little remembered, Austin’s tenure as poet laureate was inauspicious. He came into the position after several other candidates were deemed inappropriate or refused the offer. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1896-1913, 7 years 
  • Famous works: ‘Love’s Blindness’ and ‘A Country Nosegay’ 

Excerpt from ‘Love’s Blindness’ 

Now do I know that Love is blind, for I

Can see no beauty on this beauteous earth,

No life, no light, no hopefulness, no mirth,

Pleasure nor purpose, when thou art not nigh.

 

1913-30: Robert Bridges 

Bridges was a doctor, a dedicated Christian and came to fame as a poet late in life. His writing is known today for its precision and expressive strength. More often than not, religion was his source of inspiration when he wrote. 

Clear and gentle stream !

Known and loved so long,

That hast heard the song,

And the idle dream

Of my boyish day ;

 

1930-67: John Masefield 

Masefield was a poet and writer of children’s novels such as, The Midnight  Folk.He spent much of his life as an accomplished writer who went back and further between novels and poems. Masefield was an incredibly prolific writer. 

 

1968-72: Cecil Day-Lewis 

Day-Lewis was a poet and mystery writer who penned these stories under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake. He became the vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature. He is the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1968-1972, 4 years
  • Famous works: ‘Is it Far to Go?’ and ‘Walking Away’

Excerpt from ‘Is it Far to Go?’: 

Shall I be gone long?

For ever and a day.

To whom there belong?

Ask the stone to say.

Ask my song.

 

1972-84: Sir. John Betjeman 

Betjeman was a poet, broadcaster and a founding member of the Victorian Society. By the time of his death, he was loved as both a television presenter and poet. His humorous, everyday poems had underlying deeper meanings that connected with British society.

Excerpt from ‘‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’: 

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,

And Robbie, please give me your hand —

Is this the end or beginning?

How can I understand?

 

1984-98: Ted Hughes 

Today, Hughes is considered to be one of the best poets of the twentieth century. In some circles he is better known for his disastrous marriage to writer Sylvia Plath. His legacy has become haunted by allegations of abuse and mistreatment of his then-wife, which some believe helped drive her to suicide. 

Excerpt from ’Snowdrops’: 

Now is the globe shrunk tight

Round the mouse’s dulled wintering heart.

Weasel and crow, as if moulded in brass,

Move through an outer darkness

 

1999-2009: Andrew Motion 

Motion is a poet, novelist and writer who was the first to begin a series of ten-year tenures in the role. He is the founder of Poetry Archive, one of the most popular online resources for poems. After his time as laureate, he stated that the appointment has been “very, very damaging” to his work as a writer. 
  • Length of Tenure: 1999-2009, 10 years
  • Famous works: ‘Regime change’  and ‘The Ring’ 

Excerpt from ‘A Moment of Reflection’: 

Although an assassin has tried

and failed to blow him to pieces earlier this morning,

Archduke Ferdinand has let it be known

he will very soon complete his journey

as planned along the quay in Sarajevo.

 

2009-2019: Carol Ann Duffy 

The first woman, and LGBT person, ever named to the position of poet laureate, Duffy only accepted to role as to break the string of male laureates reaching back to John Dryden in 1668. She currently teaches contemporary poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University. 

Excerpt from ‘The Love Poem’: 

Till love exhausts itself, longs
for the sleep of words –

my mistress’ eyes –

to lie on a white sheet, at rest
in the language –

let me count the ways –

 

2019 – (Current Poet Laureate): Simon Armitage 

Armitage is a professor of poetry at the University of Leeds. His writing is witty and accessibility.  He also writes for television and the stage. 
  • Length of Tenure: 2019 – Present (2020)
  • Famous works: ‘Poem’ and A Vision 

Excerpt from ‘The Shout’ : 

We went out

Into the school yard together, me and the boy 

Whose name and face 

I don’t remember […]

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