Possibly mindful of the scorn that greeted President Nixon's notion to dress up the White House guards in chocolate-soldier finery, the announcement that the United States will have a poet laureate was made apologetically. We are backing into it, with precautionary disclaimers from the officials who did the choosing, and from Robert Penn Warren, the first title-holder.
The job, we hear, is to be defined mainly by what it is not. No lifelong incumbency, as the British have; but only a one-year term. No royal, or in this case, presidential appointment. A librarian does the hiring. Even if it is the librarian of Congress, this seems studiously nongrand. When the United States lost its republican innocence, around the time it became a republic, it bowed to the need to send ministers to the courts of Europe. But no uniforms, Benjamin Franklin insisted, covering his regal joie de vivre with a rust-colored frock coat. Our laureates will tuck their laurels inside their shirts.
Penn Warren will not write love masques for Nancy Reagan and her friends to perform. He will not, he says, do celebratory verse. Even the British dropped that requirement when pressing the job upon a reluctant Wordsworth. (Later, though, there were plenty of voluntary panegyrics. Alfred Austin even managed to thump a versified tub for the Boer War's Jameson Raid. That is as if Penn Warren were to write an ode to My Lai.)
I'm not sure that we are getting the spirit of the thing. Penn Warren and Daniel Boorstin, the congressional librarian, seem to be signaling with their disclaimers a sense of mild absurdity. But you can't run a poet laureate on mild absurdity. You need magnificent absurdity to do it right. The British saw this almost from the start; as soon as the laureateship stopped being a minor but useful court function.
Kenneth Hopkins, who wrote a sprightly history of the poets laureate 20 years ago, and from whom much of what follows is impenitently borrowed, tells us that Henry VII, for example, needed someone to write Latin verse for auspicious occasions. He hired a blind monk named Bernard Andreas and paid him 10 marks a year. Charles I required texts around which Inigo Jones could put on his splendid masques. Ben Jonson was taken on, and, after a series of negotiations, which he conducted in verse, his wage was fixed at 100 pounds yearly plus a tierce of Canary wine. The tierce became a butt and then a pipe--quite a lot, in any case--and the wine became sack or sherry.
Dryden was employed by Charles II for polemical odes appropriate to the stormy times. But he also turned out lines that fed directly into the high period, the golden age of laureateship; the time, that is, of sublime foolishness. Here is Dryden with an early example, written about the doctors' efforts to cure King Charles of his last illness:
The impregnable disease their vain attempts did mock
They mined it near, they battered from afar
With all the cannon of the medicinal war.
Dryden was a great writer, but this kind of thing showed what the laurels would become: a kind of poetic poison ivy. The wreath was a dunce's cap; and for the next 150 years or so, it was bestowed so as to make as many poets as possible as happy as possible. Happy that they were not chosen; and even happier in being able to deride the choice. A long line of nonentities were elevated into the protagonists of a literary pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
William Shadwell, who followed Dryden, was not quite a nonentity, but he moved his patron, Lord Dorset, to a line that was to characterize the game: "I will not pretend to determine how great a poet Shadwell may be, but I am sure that he is an honest man."
It took Nahum Tate to get things going, with Alexander Pope to wield the pins. Tate managed to rewrite King Lear with a happy ending. He translated "Syphilis," a versified account of the disease and its remedies by the Italian Girolamo Fracastro. "I hold no Cucumber nor Mushroom good / and Artichoke is too salacious food" were two stellar lines. A contemporary said that the poet "was remarkable for a downcast look and had seldom much to say for himself." Pope wrote of "the mild limbo of our father Tate."
With Laurence Eusden, the pins sharpened. "Know Eusden thirsts no more for sack or praise / He sleeps among the dull of ancient days," Pope wrote after he was gone. And when Calley Cibber and Stephen Duck were the leading contenders, Pope advised the King to forget the whole thing: "Oh save the salary and drink the sack."
William Whiteside, entirely amiable, is largely remembered as the butt of the satirist Charles Churchill who called his poetry "a mongrel kind of tingly prose." Henry Pye was a country gentleman who was rewarded by William Pitt with the laureateship after losing his seat in Parliament. He wrote poems about hunting and shooting, but his real sin was to trade in the annual pipe of sack for cash, "leaving the Laureate," as Hopkins writes, "richer and dryer."
It has been dry times since. Thomas Gray said he would no more accept laureate than royal rat-catcher. Sir Walter Scott was warned off by the Duke of Buccleuch who wrote that the laureateship was "a situation which by the general conscience of the world is stamped ridiculous."
Wordsworth and Tennyson raised its prestige somewhat; Bridges, C. Day-Lewis and Betjeman were at least creditable choices; and the present British incumbent, Ted Hughes, is one of his country's best poets. But the fun is gone out of it. It has become a respectable vestige from a disgraceful past.
Which puts us, of course, in a awkward situation. How do you launch a vestige? What good is the institution as a timid, one-year affair which, as such, does not stick its neck out either for brilliance or scandal? Penn Warren is worthy but perhaps not much more. For our laureateship to get any liveliness, it needs the courage of its convictions or, lacking that, of its pomposity. Name even a hack for life, and you will generate indignation, scorn and maybe--who knows?--a latter-day Pope.