Culture and Recreation


What is a poet laureate?

A poet laureate is someone who is recognized by his or her country or state as its most eminent and representative poet. Officially, a poet laureate is appointed or named by the government. England’s first, if unofficially titled, poet laureate was Ben Jonson (1572–1637), a contemporary of Shakespeare. (Shakespeare acted a leading role in the first of Jonson’s great plays, Every Man in His Humour, 1598.) In 1605 Jonson began writing a series of masques (short, allegorical dramas that were performed by actors wearing masks) for the court. Years later, in 1616, he was appointed poet laureate and in that capacity received a “substantial pension.” Among Jonson’s works are Volpone (1605), Works (a collection of poetry published in 1616, and which includes the oft-quoted line, “Drink to me only with thine eyes”), and Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618).

Some sources trace the first British poet laureate back to Edmund Spenser (1552 or 1553–1599), who is called the “Poet’s Poet.” However, the title of poet laureate was not officially conferred on an English writer until 1638, when poet and dramatist William Davenant (1606–1668), who was reputed to be the godson or even the illegitimate son of Shakespeare, was given the honor. Other poet laureates of England include John Dryden (1631–1700), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), and Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892).


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