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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
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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,
Stk. PR 1895 KN53 1932
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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
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
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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
William D'Avenant, Gondibert. Menston, Scolar Press, 1970.
Cen. PR 2474 G7 1970
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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