University of Otago

"£100 & a butt of sack yearly"

The Office of the Poet Laureate
Eusden & Cibber
Austin & Bridges
Lewis & Betjeman
Hughes & Motion
Refusals & Rejects


Richard the Lionheart had a versificator Regis, Gulielmus Peregrinus the King's poet, Henry III had versificator Master Henry, Edward IV's 'humble poet laureate' was John Kay, and Edmund Spenser had a £50 pension from Queen Elizabeth I. Prior to Spenser, Bernard Andreas, a blind Augustinian friar, wrote Latin verses on a number of official occasions and like John Dryden held the title of Historiographer Royal. He enjoyed an annuity of ten marks under Henry VII and is described as 'Poet Laureate' in the bill granting this sum.

The title of Poet Laureate was first conferred by letters patent on Dryden in 1668. The post then became a regular institution, with the successful candidate officially appointed by the government for life. Poems written for state occasions and other government events were expected, although for some, like William Wordsworth, it was not obligatory. The pension was originally stipulated at £100 and a butt of sack (108 gallons of sweet wine) yearly. The office fell into some contempt before Robert Southey, but took on a new lustre from his personal distinction and that of Wordsworth and Alfred Tennyson.

Up to 2005, there have been nineteen poet laureates. The current incumbent, Andrew Motion, receives £5000 and wine from the Sherry Institute of Spain. While there is no formal requirement to write anything, there is an expectation that major events in the Royal calendar will be documented in verse.

This exhibition, '£100 & a butt of sack yearly: the office of the poet laureate' offers a historic overview of the post, beginning with John Dryden and ending with Andrew Motion, the current laureate. There is also coverage of the 'prelaureates', poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Skelton, and Sir William D'Avenant who happily adopted the title even though it was not an official royal household position, and those poets who either refused the position or were simply overlooked. Thomas Gray and Sir Walter Scott are but two who refused the appointment.

New Zealand has its own equivalent with the Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate, established by the winery in 1997 to celebrate its centenary year. Recipients of this two-year post have included Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare, Elizabeth Smither, Brian Turner, and, more recently, Jenny Bornholdt. Te Mata's commitment to poetry in New Zealand is an excellent initiative and one cabinet is dedicated to celebrate their achievement.

Please enjoy the exhibition.

« Previous | Next »