This month, we are celebrating the announcement of the new UK poet laureate, Simon Armitage, by revisiting the works of past laureates on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO).
The poet laureate has held an elevated position in British culture over the past 350 years. Despite the changes in the world and the responsibilities of the role, one thing hasn’t changed: the poet laureate has always produced poetry for events of national importance.
John Dryden (1668-1689), the first official poet laureate, was also the first – and only – poet laureate to be removed from the post in 1688. Dryden was dismissed for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the new sovereigns, William and Mary; he was a Catholic convert, and risked being prosecuted for treason by remaining in public office in the court of the Anglican monarchs.
- Absalom and Achitophel
Written in heroic couplets, this satirical poem by Dryden uses the Biblical tale of the rebellion of Absalom against King David as a political allegory.
- The Medall
Dryden wrote “The Medall” shortly after “Absalom and Achitopel” was published as further anti-Whig propaganda. Both poems were published anonymously.
Nahum Tate (1692-1715), the third poet laureate, may not have become a household name like some other poet laureates, but it is likely you have encountered his work before through hymns, such as the Christmas carol “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”.
- A Commendatory Poem to Dryden’s “Absalom and Achitophel”
“Hail Heav'n-born Muse! hail ev'ry Sacred page!” writes Tate in response to Dryden’s satire. Tate later wrote an unofficial second part to the original poem satirising political events which occurred after Dryden’s version was published.
- A Commendatory Poem to Dryden’s “The Medall”
As a friend of Dryden, Tate clearly had no lack of praise for the first poet laureate’s satirical verse, this time telling the poet to “Accept our Thanks, for you transcend our Praise.”
William Wordsworth (1843-1850), the eleventh poet laureate, was initially reluctant to accept the post due to his age, but when he was assured that nothing would be expected of him as poet laureate, he accepted, and did not write a single official verse throughout his tenure.
- I wandered lonely as a cloud
Wordsworth’s most well-known poem was inspired by when William and his sister, Dorothy, came across a patch of daffodils in the Lake District. Two of the lines were in fact written by his wife, Mary.
- To a Highland Girl
Composed near Loch Lomond, Wordsworth hopes that he will remember the highland girl he saw until old age, later writing a note saying “I have a most vivid remembrance of her” as his 73rd year came to an end.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850-1892), the twelfth poet laureate, was so well-loved by Queen Victoria that there was a break of over three years following his death in 1892 before the next laureate was appointed.
- In Memoriam, section 1
Written in honour of his friend who died suddenly, Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson’s magnum opus was found to be comforting by Queen Victoria following the death of Prince Albert.
- In Memoriam, section 27
In this section, Tennyson’s arguably most famous pair of lines are composed: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
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