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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
DeB. Ec 1736 D
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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
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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
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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
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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:
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
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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
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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
Perhaps the next poet laureate will be a woman? It is certainly
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)