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

Refusals & Rejects

Stephen Duck, Poems on Several Occasions

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When Laurence Eusden died, it looked liked the post would go to Stephen Duck, the 'Thresher Poet'. After humble beginnings as an agricultural labourer, Duck's working-class poems attracted the attention of Queen Caroline. She gave him £30 a year and appointed him librarian at Richmond. Jonathan Swift was convinced that Duck would be the next poet laureate. However, it was not to be: the 'comet of a season' missed out, and Cibber won the coveted prize. This is the first edition of Duck's Poems (1736).

Stephen Duck, Poems on Several Occasions. London: Printed for the author, 1736.
DeB. Ec 1736 D

Poems by the late William Cowper, Esq., 2 vols

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William Cowper's cousin Lady Hesketh sounded the fragile poet out on the idea of the laureateship, which he surely would have secured if he had wanted to. Cowper's reply was: 'Heaven guard my brows from the wreath you mention, whatever wreath beside may hereafter adorn them! It would be a leaden extinguisher, clapped on all the fire of my genius, and I should never more produce a line worth reading. To speak seriously, it would make me miserable, and therefore I am sure that thou, of all my friends, would least wish me to wear it.'

Poems by the late William Cowper, Esq., 2 vols. London: Printed by W. Lewis; Published by W.H. Reid, 1820.
Bra. PR 3380 A2 1820

William Hayley, The Life and Letters of William Cowper, Esq.,

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William Hayley, biographer of Cowper, friend of William Blake's, and celebrated author of The Triumphs of Temper (1781) was William Pitt's first choice of laureate to succeed Warton. Hayley, however, did not want the post and refused it. True to his calling as a poet, his refusal was in verse.

William Hayley, The Life and Letters of William Cowper, Esq., 4 vols. Chichester: Printed by W. Mason for J. Johnson, London, 1809.
DeB. Eb 1809 H

The Works of Mr Congreve. 2 vols

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When Shadwell died, poets major and minor were considered for the post: Sir Richard Blackmore, John Pomfret and Matthew Prior. John Dryden, the first poet laureate, proclaimed William Congreve (1670-1729), the dramatist, to be his true successor. 'Oh that your brows my laurel had sustained,/ Well had I been deposed, if you had reigned:/ The father had descended for the son;/ For only you are lineal to the throne' - To My Dear Friend Mr Congreve on his Comedy call'd The Double Dealer. Congreve was overlooked.

The Works of Mr Congreve. 2 vols. London: printed for W. Lowndes, J. Nicholls, W. Nicholl, S. Bladon, and J. Barker, 1788.
DeB. Eb 1788 C

William Blake's Water-colour Designs for the Poems of Thomas Gray.

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Thomas Gray (1716-1771), author of Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, was offered the post but refused it. Gray's reply to William Mason, dated 19 December 1757, is worth recording:

'Dear Mason,
Though I very well know the bland emollient saponaceous qualities both of sack and silver, yet if any great man would say to me, 'I make you rat-catcher to his Majesty, with a salary of £300 a year and two butts of the best Malaga; and though it has been usual to catch a mouse or two, for form's sake, in public once a year, yet to you, sir, we shall not stand upon these things,' I cannot say I should jump at it; nay, if they would drop the very name of the office, and call me Sinecure to the King's Majesty, I should still feel a little awkward, and think everybody I saw smelt a rat about me; but I do not pretend to blame anyone else that has not the same sensations; for my part I would rather be serjeant trumpeter or pinmaker to the palace. Nevertheless I interest myself a little in the history of it, and rather wish somebody may accept it that will retrieve the credit of the thing, if it be retrievable, or ever had any credit. Rowe was, I think, the last man of character that had it. As to Settle, whom you mention, he belonged to my lord mayor, not to the king. Eusden was a person of great hopes in his youth, though at last he turned out a drunken parson. Dryden was as disgraceful to the office, from his character, as the poorest scribbler could have been, from his verses. The office itself has always humbled the professor hitherto (even in an age when kings were somebody), if he were a poor writer by making him more conspicuous, and if he were a good one by setting him at war with the little fry of his own profession, for there are poets little enough to envy even a poet-laureat…'.

John Windle, the West Coast antiquarian book dealer claims the Trianon Press facsimile of William Blake's illustrations to Gray's poems (of which this is one sheet) is the best book produced in the 20th century. It is truly superb.

William Blake's Water-colour Designs for the Poems of Thomas Gray. London: Trianon Press, 1972.
Stk. ND 1942 B55 A4 1972

The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott

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When Henry Pye died, Sir Walter Scott, author of the Last Ministrel, Marmion, etc., was offered the position. Scott consulted the Duke of Buccleuch, the head of his clan, about accepting it. Buccleuch's response in part was: 'The poet laureate would stick to you and your productions like a piece of court plaster…Only think of being chaunted and recitatived by a parcel of hoarse and squeaking choristers on a birthday, for the edification of the bishops, pages, maids of honour, and gentleman-pensioners! Oh, horrible, thrice horrible!' Scott promptly recommended Southey.

The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott. Edinburgh: Printed for Archibald Constable & Co., 1823.
DeB. Eb 1823 S; vols. 1 and 4


Selected Poems of Alice Meynell

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The Poems of Alice Meynell

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Of the 19 laureates since John Dryden, no woman has ever been appointed. When Austin died in 1913, 'possible successors' included Thomas Hardy, Laurence Binyon, Rudyard Kipling, William Watson, and Alice Meynell (1847-1922). Although Meynell was a leading literary figure in her era, and was actually nominated twice, she failed to secure the position. Her Catholicism may have had something to do with her non-appointment.
Perhaps the next poet laureate will be a woman? It is certainly time.

The Poems of Alice Meynell (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1927. Bra. PR 5021 M3 A1 1927) and Selected Poems of Alice Meynell (London: Nonesuch Press, 1930. Leith Street, Bliss YI MeyS M)

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