Poetry In Motion

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The British royal family is steeped in tradition, some elements more bizarre than others. But still having an assigned royal poet in 2013 is, even by anyone’s standards, rather indulgent…

By Chris Ritchie

Poetry may be subjective, but for hundreds of years the British royal family has selected a poet to be the official Poet Laureate. It all started in mediaeval England. Richard I, who reigned from 1189 to 1199, took on Richard Canonicus as versificator regis, his replacement being Gulielmus Peregrinus. One ‘Master Henry’ is said to have assisted Henry III with his poetry needs. Further mediaeval ‘versificators’ included one Geoffrey Chaucer and another notable annotator, John Kay. The aim, simply, was for a wordsmith to speak and script the grace, charm and achievements of royalty – an historic spin doctor, if you will.

Until 1707, each was known as the Poet Laureate of the Kingdom of England, though the Acts of Union, which joined England and Scotland, meant a name change: Poet Laureate of the Kingdom of Great Britain. Finally, following further acts of union in 1800, they became subjects of the United Kingdom.

The honorary post remains appointed by the reigning monarch, and is advised on such a choice by the Prime Minister. Before 1999, when Andrew Motion (pictured left) was appointed for a period of 10 years, it was a post held for life. That is, with the exception of John Dryden, who was dismissed from the post – the only poet laureate to have been – in 1688 for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to King William II.

Poet Laureate does not appear to be a particularly taxing role – the laureate is expected to write verse for major national events – but it certainly is a prestigious one. Prestige takes precedence over pay: at a mere £5,760 (circa CAD$9,200), the immediate riches of such a task will probably go no further than a few relaxing breaks in order to recharge the batteries and prompt some new poetic creativity. Still, there’s always the 477 litres of sherry to look forward to – traditionally, each poet laureate is presented with this liquid gift, or a cash alternative!

When Andrew Motion’s tenure ended in 2009, the royal family demonstrated its ability to keep step with society by appointing openly gay Carol Ann Duffy, also notably the first woman – and first Scot – to the post. She is joined by a children’s poet laureate, the wildly successful Julia Donaldson, of The Gruffalo fame.

With such highly respected wordsmiths going before them, such as William Wordsworth, John Betjeman, Lord Tennyson and the great Thomas Shadwell, the role of Poet Laureate remains a royal curiosity steeped in historical significance.