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Poets Laureate

( Originally Published 1894 )

ABOUT forty years ago two ingenious gentlemen, Mr. Austin, of Exeter College, and Mr. Ralph, a member of the Bar, published a book containing short sketches of the lives of Poets Laureate of this realm, beginning with Ben Jonson and ending with Wordsworth, and also an essay on the title and office. It has sometimes been rudely said that Laureates came into fashion when fools and jesters went out, but the perusal of Messrs. Austin and Ralph's introductory essay, to say nothing of the most cursory examination of the table of contents of their volume, is enough to disprove the truth of this saying.

A Laureate was originally a purely University title, bestowed upon such Masters of Arts who had exhibited skill in the manufacture of Latin verses, and it had nothing to do with the civil authority or royal favour. Thus, the famous Skelton (1460-1529) was laureated at Oxford, and afterwards obtained permission to wear his laurel at Cambridge ; but though tutor to King Henry VIII., and, according to Miss Strickland, the original corrupter of that monarch, he was never a Poet Laureate in the modern sense of the word ; that is, he was never appointed to hold the place and quality of Poet Laureate to his Majesty. I regret this, for he was a man of original genius. Campbell, writing in 1819, admits his `vehemence and vivacity,' but pronounces his humour ` vulgar and flippant,' and his style a texture of slang phrases ; but Mr. Churton Collins, in 1880, declares that Skelton reminds him more of Rabelais than any author in our language, and pronounces him one of the most versatile and essentially original of all our poets. We hold with Mr. Collins.

Skelton was popularly known as a Poet Laureate, and in the earliest edition of his poems, which bears no date, but is about 1520, he is de-scribed on the title-page as ` Mayster Skelton, Poet Laureate,' as he also is in the first collected edition of 1568, ` Pithy pleasaunt and profitable works of Maister Skelton, Poete Laureate.' This title was the University title, and not a royal one.

Spenser is sometimes reckoned amongst the Poets Laureate ; but, as a matter of fact, he had no right to the title at all, nor did he or his publishers ever assume it. He is, of course, one of the poetical glories of Cambridge, but he was never laureated there, nor did Queen Elizabeth ever appoint him her poet, though she granted him L50 a year.

The first Laureate, in the mod-ern sense of the word, is undoubtedly Ben Jonson, to whom Charles I. made out a patent conferring upon this famous man £loo a year and ' a terse of Canary Spanish wine,' which latter benefit the miserable Pye commuted for L27. From Jonson to the present distinguished holders of the office there is no breach of continuity, for Sir William Davenant, who was appointed in 1638, survived till the Restoration, dying in 1668. The list is a curious one, and is just worth printing : Jonson, Davenant, Dryden, Shadwell, Nahum Tate, Rowe, the Rev. Laurence Eusden, Colley Cibber, William Whitehead, the Rev. Thomas Warton, Henry James Pye, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson.

One must be charitable in these matters. Here are fourteen names and four great ones—Jonson, Dryden, Wordsworth and Tennyson ; two distinguished ones—Nicholas Rowe and Robert Southey ; two clever names—Shadwell and Colley Cibber; two respectable names—Tate and Warton ; one interesting name—Davenant ; and three unutterable names—Eusden, White-head and Pye. After all, it is not so very bad. The office was offered to Gray, and he refused it. Pope, as a Roman Catholic, was out of the question. It would have suited Thomson well enough, and have tickled Goldsmith's fancy mightily. Collins died too young.

But Eusden, Whitehead and Pye, how did they manage it? and what in the name of wonder did they write ? Eusden was of Irish extraction, but was born the son of an English clergyman, and was like most poets a Cambridge man. He owed his appointment in 1718 to the Duke of Newcastle of the period, whose favour he had won by a poem addressed to him on the occasion of his marriage with the Lady Henrietta Godolphin. But he had also qualified for the office by verses sacred to the memory of George I., and in praise of George II.

' Hail mighty monarch ! whom desert alone
Would, without birthright, raise up to the throne,
Thy virtues shine peculiarly nice,
Ungloomed with a confinity to vice.'

To do Grub Street justice, it was very angry with this appointment, and Hesiod Cooke wrote a poem, called ` The Battle of the Poets,' in which the new Laureate was severely but truthfully handled in verse not conspicuously better than his own :

'Eusden, a laurelled bard by fortune rais'd,
By very few been read—by fewer prais'd.'

Eusden is the author of ` Verses Spoken at the Public Commencement in Cambridge,' published in quarto, which are said to be in-decent. Our authors refer to them as follows :

`Those prurient lines which we dare not quote, but which the curious may see in the library of the British Museum, were specially composed and repeated for the edification and amusement of some of the noblest and fairest of our great-great-grandmothers.' Eusden took to drinking and translating Tasso, and died at his living, for he was a parson, of Coningsby in Lincoln-shire.

Of William Whitehead you may read in Campbell's ` Specimens of the British Poets.' He was the son of a baker, was school-tutor to Lord Lymington, and having been treated at Oxford in the shabby way that seat of learning has ever treated poets—from Shirley to Calverley—proceeded to Cambridge, that true nest of singing-birds, where he obtained a Fellowship and the post of domestic tutor to the eldest son of the Earl of Jersey. He was always fond of the theatre, and his first effort was a little farce which was never published, but which tempted him to compose heavy tragedies which were. Of these tragedies it would be absurd to speak; they never enjoyed any popularity, either on the stage or in the closet. He owed his appointment—which he did not obtain till Gray had refused it — entirely to his noble friends.

Campbell had the courage to re-print a longish poem of White-head's called ` Variety: a Tale for Married People.' It really is not very, very, very bad, but it will never be reprinted again ; and so I refer `the curious' to Mr. Campbell's seventh volume.

As for Pye, he was a scholar and a gentleman, a barrister, a member of Parliament, and a police magistrate. On his father's death he inherited a large estate, which he actually sold to pay his parent's debts, though he was under no obligation to do so, as in those days a man's real estate was not liable to pay the debts he might chance to leave undischarged at his death. He was not famous as a Parliamentary orator, but he was not altogether silent, like Gibbon ; for we read that in 1788 he told the House that his constituents had suffered from a scanty hay-harvest. I fear they will do the same this year, and have no Pye to point it out. He was appointed Laureate in 1790, and he died in 1813. He was always made fun of as à poet, and, unfortunately for him, there was another poet in the House at the same time called Charles Small Pybus; hence the jest, `Pye et Parvus Pybus,' which was in everyone's mouth. He was a voluminous author and diligent translator, but I do not recollect ever seeing a single book of his in a shop, or on a stall, or in a catalogue. Great Pye is dead —as dead as Parvus Pybus, M.P.

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