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Sundry poets laureate were followed by the “hermit of Keswick”

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Tuesday, 30 July 2013

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This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 354 published on 26 October 1968.

Robert Southey, picture, image, illustration

Robert Southey by Ralph Bruce

Several famous poets (Sir Walter Scott among them) thought so little of the post of Poet Laureate that they flatly declined the “honour”.

Thomas Gray, who wrote the famous poem, “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, could have been Poet Laureate when Colley Cibber died, but he wrote bluntly, “For my part I would rather be sergeant-trumpeter or pin-maker to the palace.”

Instead, the appointment went to William Whitehead, son of a Cambridge baker, and the first laureate to “back Britain”. In a long series of official odes, Whitehead’s verse was devoted to his country’s part in world affairs. He had a genuinely patriotic spirit and, unlike so many laureates who preceded him, would not stoop to flattery.

Whitehead’s first official task was to produce an Ode in honour of George II’s fifty-fifth birthday. He wrote about Wolfe’s victory and death at Quebec, and in 1761 welcomed the accession of George III, the King who “gloried in the name of Briton”. Two years later, Whitehead was recording the end of the Seven Years War, and the birth of an heir to the King and Queen Charlotte (the baby grew up to become George IV).

Whitehead was Poet Laureate for more than a quarter of a century, and after him came Thomas Warton, a distinguished man of letters, who was appointed on 26th April, 1785. Warton held the office for five years.

No New Year Ode was forthcoming in January, 1789. The King’s mind failed – and his poet maintained a discreet silence. But the monarch soon recovered, and Warton’s Birthday Ode reflected the nation’s delight and relief.

Early the following year, Warton’s brief career as Poet Laureate ended, and Henry James Pye (“eminently respectable in everything but his poetry”, as Byron put it) took his place. Then, in 1813, George III was for the third time without a laureate. Walter Scott refused the laureateship outright, and it was left to Robert Southey to take over Pye’s “rights, privileges and benefits” as from 4th November, 1813, when he was 39.

Southey was born in Bristol in 1774. He came from a family of farmers and tradesmen, and by the age of eight had read the works of Shakespeare, and Beaumont and Fletcher. As a poet and author, his work brought to the laureateship a prestige it had not had before.

Southey, a sincere Christian, was very concerned for his country’s moral and political welfare. Like Whitehead, he hoped his laureate poems would strengthen the patriotic spirit of the nation. He was the author of a “Life of Nelson” and of several major political works – but he is probably best known for writing The Story Of The Three Bears.

Throughout his laureateship, and in spite of many inducements to come to London, Southey (the “hermit poet” who spoke only as the spirit moved him) never moved from Keswick, in the Lake District. He was respected at Court – but the less he saw of it, the better he liked it.

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