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

H. J. Pye

Henry James Pye, Poems on Various Subjects

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William Cowper was alive when Warton died. And true to the laureate tradition, the appointment was not given to 'the best living poet'. Originally the laureate had been a poetical defender of his royal master; then gradually a paid flatterer. By 1790, what was required was a safe unambitious writer who could be relied upon to say the right thing twice a year. Henry James Pye (1745-1813) was that man, conventionally described as England's worst poet laureate. Pye was, however, a capable translator, literary theorist, and textual critic, with some abilities that some future laureates would not emulate. One of his most interesting poems is Aerophorion (1794), probably the first poem in English to celebrate hot-air ballooning.

Henry James Pye, Poems on Various Subjects. London: Printed for John Stockdale, 1787. DeB. Eb 1787 P


'Henry James Pye, Alfred; An Epic Poem

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Henry Pye will go down in laureate history as the man who lost the wine. For some unknown reason, he commuted the 'butt of sack' for the princely sum of £27. Although he envisaged it would top up his pension, it was actually included within the £100 payment. Thus, even up to the 1920s, the laureate was paid £72 plus £27 'in lieu of sack'. Here is Pye's epic work on Alfred the Great and the description of the burning of the cakes.

'Henry James Pye, Alfred; An Epic Poem. London: Printed by W. Bulmer and sold by J. Wright, 1801.
DeB. Ec 1801 P

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