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


Francesco Petrarch, Librorum Francisci Petrarchae Basileae Impressorum Annotatio

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Since ancient times, the laurel or bay leaf, sacred to Apollo, the patron god of musicians and poets, was used to form a crown or wreath of honour for poets and heroes. There are many references in the accounts of celebrated medieval poets being crowned, their reward for some special work, or for general eminence. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) was so well known for his verse that he received two invitations to be crowned poet laureate on the same day, 8 April 1341: one from Paris University; the other from the Roman Senate. He opted for a celebration at the Senate. This 1496 Basel printing by Johannes Amerbach is the earliest authenticated edition of Petrarch's collected Latin works.

Francesco Petrarch, Librorum Francisci Petrarchae Basileae Impressorum Annotatio. Basel: Johannes Amerbach, 1496.
Sho. Swc 1496 P

Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida.

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In his Histoire of Britaine (1611), John Speed referred to 'Chaucer, our Laureate Poet', while in John Dryden's patent of 1670, which appointed him Historiographer Royal, there is mention of laureate predecessors: Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. Even though Chaucer (c.1343-1400) received an annuity of 20 marks (about £13 6s), a supplementary grant of a daily pitcher of wine, and penned works to royalty, he was not an official poet laureate. His position as 'poet of Britaine' (Lydgate) certainly helped form the future tradition of the laureateship. This modern edition of Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida contains delightful wood engravings by Eric Gill.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida. [New York: Random House, 1932].
Stk. PR 1895 KN53 1932

John Skelton, Pithy, Pleasaunt and Profitable Workes of Maister Skelton, Poete Laureate to King Henry the VIIIth

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The term laureate became associated with degrees awarded by European universities, and the holder of such a degree was recognised for his skill in rhetoric, grammar and language. A well-known example concerns John Skelton (1460-1529), who, in 1488 at Oxford, was advanced to the degree of 'poet laureate'. In that same year Skelton joined the court of Henry VII and was tutor to Prince Henry (later Henry VIII). In 1512 he became 'Orator regius' (King's orator) and held the post until his death. Even on the title page of this 1736 reprint, and the header for Speake Parrot, Skelton is called 'poet laureate'.

John Skelton, Pithy, Pleasaunt and Profitable Workes of Maister Skelton, Poete Laureate to King Henry the VIIIth. London: Printed for C. Davis, 1736.
DeB. Eb 1736 S

William D'Avenant, Gondibert.

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Ben Jonson died in August 1637, but it was not until December 1638 that Sir William D'Avenant (1605-1668) succeeded to the post, although once again the position was by tacit sanction and not by any formal appointment. At the time D'Avenant had an established reputation as a court poet. He had collaborated with Inigo Jones on The Temple of Love (1634), a masque that caught the attention of the Queen. He consolidated his position in 1636 with The Triumphs of the Prince d'Amour. D'Avenant's pension lapsed with the downfall of Charles I. The Folio edition of his Works (1673) contains a frontispiece portrait of D'Avenant wearing a laurel with the editor's note: 'Poet Laureate to two Great Kings'. This is a facsimile of his Gondibert (1651), an unfinished epic in moderate verse.

William D'Avenant, Gondibert. Menston, Scolar Press, 1970.
Cen. PR 2474 G7 1970

Ben Jonson, Masques and Entertainments

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On 1 February 1616 a patent of 100 marks was granted to Ben Jonson (1572-1637) in clear recognition of his services as a poet. In essence, Jonson was the first real poet laureate of England, although his appointment does not seem to have been formally made. In 1630, Charles I increased the payment to £100 and added the now famous 'one butt [108 gallons] of Canary Spanish wyne yearly'. Although not obliged to, Jonson compiled a sermon on the duties of the King, wrote occasional poems to the majesties, and penned odes on the New Year and significant birthdays. In his own Neptune's Triumph (1624) he summed up the post: 'The most unprofitable of his servants, I, sir, the Poet. A kind of Christmas ingine: one that is used at least once a year, for a trifling instrument of wit or so.'

Ben Jonson, Masques and Entertainments. London: Routledge, 1890.
Cen. PR 2624 A2 1890

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