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The Poet Laureateship

The Nation,  19th June 1913

NEW YORK — It seems a pity that the vacancy has occurred in summer. To discuss the claims of possible candidates would have been such an entertaining and edifying pastime for the long winter evenings. The competition might even have suggested an idea for a new card game.

Only four days have passed since Alfred Austin’s death, and already seventeen names, at least, have been mentioned for the succession. The entries for the poetical Derby include writers as diverse as Rudyard Kipling and Austin Bobson, Mrs. Meynell and John Masefield, Thomas Hardy and Richard Le Gallienne.

It may be as well to complete the list while one is about it. The other names put forward are those of William Watson, Stephen Phillips, Alfred Noyes, Henry Newbolt, Robert Bridges, W.B. Yeats, Maurice Hewlett, Arthur Symons, Laurence Binyon, Alfred E. Housman, and W. H. Davies, the “super-tramp”. If any reader of contemporary verse cannot find here a favorlte to back, his tastes must be eccentric indeed.

Several of these press nominees are disqualified, however, for one reason or another, before the race begins. Kipling, for instance, is such a violent Tory partisan in politics that his appointment by a Liberal Government is almost unthinkable. In the case of others a difficulty arises from the incompatibility of their Muse with the associations of Buckingham Palace.

For this Laureateship is not so much a national office as a court post. There is what the Daily Chronicle calls “a serving-man flavor” about It. If you look for it in Whitaker’s Almanack, you may search in vain through the academic and literary sections of the book. It is not to be found even among the knighthoods and orders. You must turn to the’ section “His Majesty’s Household” and the subsection “The Lord Chamberlain’s Department.”

After discovering who are the lords in waiting, the grooms in waiting, the extra grooms in waiting, and the gentleman ushers, you will arrive at this:

Gentleman Usher of Black Rod, Admiral Sir Henry P. Stephenson, G.C.V.O., K.C.B.
Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin.
Surveyor of the King’s Pictures and Works of Art, Lionel Henry Cust, M.V.O.
Keeper of the King’s Armory, Guy Francis Laking, M.V.O.

And so the roll of honor continues, with the grooms of the great chamber, the keeper of the swans, the page of the chambers, the pages of the presence, the pages of the back stairs, etc!, until it winds up with the leader of the music. It takes one back to the time when Fanny Burney thought herself lucky to be appointed second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte.

It would be absurd, of course, to describe the Laureate as a mere magnified lackey. He is not even expected nowadays, as some occupants of the post were, to celebrate every royal marriage or birth in an obsequious ode. Still the requirement of being able to sing in buckles and knee breeches is a distinct handicap to a modern man of genius.

It mattered little to Tennyson. Whitman’s description of him as a “feudal” poet was perhaps an exaggeration, but at any rate his whole method of thought was in harmony with the environment of the palace, and there was no touch of insincerity when he celebrated in his poetry the virtues of the Prince Consort.

Today there is no one of Tennyson’s rank as a writer who could bring himself without painful effort to utter such sentiments as those in the dedication of The Idylls of the King. The real problem of filling the present vacancy is that our inspired poets are too inspired to fit the post, whereas the lesser sort would only accentuate the difference between a court functionary and a prophet of the national life and character.

Alfred Austin had genuine literary merits, but it would have been better for his ultimate reputation if he had been content with the comparative obscurity of a minor poet. As the Manchester Guardian has put it, the pedestal on which Lord Salisbury set him became inevitably a pillory. Strong support, therefore, is given to the proposal that the Laureateship should be recognized as an anachronism, and that advantage should be taken of the present opportunity to abolish it.

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