THE present article is a sketch of the history of POETS LAUREAT, from a memoir of the French Academy, by the Abbé Resnel.
The custom of crowning poets is as ancient as poetry itself; it has indeed frequently varied: it existed, however, as late as the reign of Theodosius, when it was abolished as a remnant of paganism.
When the barbarians overspread Europe, few appeared to merit this honour, and fewer who could have read their works. It was about the time of PETRARCH that POETRY resumed its ancient lustre; he was publicly honoured with the LAUREL CROWN. It was in this century (the thirteenth) that the establishment of Bachelor and Doctor was fixed in the universities. Those who were found worthy of the honour obtained the laurel of Bachelor, or the laurel of Doctor; Laurea Baccalaureatus; Laurea Doctoratus. At their reception they not only assumed this title, but they also had a crown of laurel placed on their heads.
To this ceremony the ingenious writer attributes the revival of the custom. The poets were not slow in putting in their claims to what they had most a right; and their patrons sought to encourage them by these honourable distinctions.
The following formula is the exact style of those which are yet employed in the universities to confer the degree of Bachelor and Doctor, and serves to confirm the conjecture of Resnel.
“We, count and senator,” (Count d’Anguillara, who bestowed the laurel on Petrarch) “for us and our College, declare FRANCIS PETRARCH, great poet and historian, and for a special mark of his quality of poet, we have placed with our hands on his head a crown of laurel, granting to him, by the tenor of these presents, and by the authority of King Robert, of the senate and the people of Rome, in the poetic, as well as in the historic art, and generally in whatever relates to the said arts, as well in this holy city as elsewhere, the free and entire power of reading, disputing, and interpreting all ancient books, to make new ones, and compose poems, which, God assisting, shall endure from age to age.”
In Italy these honours did not long flourish; although Tasso dignified the laurel crown by his acceptance of it. Many got crowned who were unworthy of the distinction. The laurel was even bestowed on QUERNO, whose character is given in the Dunciad:
“Not with more glee, by hands pontific crown’d,
With scarlet hats wide-waving circled round,
Rome in her capitol saw Querno sit,
Thron’d on seven hills, the Antichrist of wit.”
This man was made laureat, for the joke’s sake; his poetry was inspired by his cups, a kind of poet who came in with the dessert; and he recited twenty thousand verses. He was rather the arch-buffoon than the arch-poet of Leo X., though honoured with the latter title. They invented for him a new kind of laureated honour, and in the intermixture of the foliage raised to Apollo, slyly inserted the vine and the cabbage leaves, which he evidently deserved, from his extreme dexterity in clearing the pontiff’s dishes and emptying his goblets.
Urban VIII. had a juster and more elevated idea of the children of Fancy. It appears that he possessed much poetic sensibility. Of him it is recorded, that he wrote a letter to Chiabrera to felicitate him on the success of his poetry: letters written by a pope were then an honour only paid to crowned heads. One is pleased also with another testimony of his elegant dispositions. Charmed with a poem which Bracciolini presented to him, he gave him the surname of DELLE-APE, of the bees; which were the arms of this amiable pope. He, however, never crowned these favourite bards with the laurel, which, probably, he deemed unworthy of them.
In Germany the laureat honours flourished under the reign of Maximilian the First. He founded in 1504 a Poetical College at Vienna; reserving to himself and the regent the power of bestowing the laurel. But the institution, notwithstanding this well-concerted scheme, fell into disrepute, owing to a crowd of claimants who were fired with the rage of versifying, and who, though destitute of poetic talents, had the laurel bestowed on them. Thus it became a prostituted honour; and satires were incessantly levelled against the usurpers of the crown of Apollo: it seems, notwithstanding, always to have had charms in the eyes of the Germans, who did not reflect, as the Abbé elegantly expresses himself, that it faded where it passed over so many heads.
The Emperor of Germany retains the laureatship in all its splendour. The selected bard is called Il Poeta Cesareo. APOSTOLO ZENO, as celebrated for his erudition as for his poetic powers, was succeeded by that most enchanting poet, METASTASIO.
The French never had a Poet Laureat, though they had Regal Poets; for none were ever solemnly crowned. The Spanish nation, always desirous of titles and honour, seem to have known that of the Laureat; but little information concerning it can be gathered from their authors.
Respecting our own country little can he said but what is mentioned by Selden. John Kay, who dedicated a History of Rhodes to Edward IV., takes the title of his humble Poet Laureat. Gower and Chaucer were laureats; so was likewise the rhyming Skelton to Henry VIII. In the Acts of Rymer, there is a charter of Henry VII. with the title of pro Poeta Laureato.
It does not appear that our poets were ever solemnly crowned as in other countries. Selden, after all his recondite researches, is satisfied with saying, that some trace of this distinction is to be found in our nation. It is, however, certain that our kings from time immemorial have placed a miserable dependent in their household appointment, who was sometimes called the King’s Poet, and the King’s versificator. It is probable that at length the selected bard assumed the title of Poet Laureat, without receiving the honours of the ceremony; or at the most, the crown of laurel was a mere obscure custom practised at our universities, and not attended with great public distinction. It was oftener placed on the skull of a pedant than wreathed on the head of a man of genius.
¶ This article is revised and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. In previous versions of the piece, D’Israeli added the following by way of conclusion:
It is impossible for me to close this article without recollecting, that the laurel has resumed its original lustre from our late, and our present esteemed Laureat. I will take leave to record their various merits in verse.The Grove, when Cibber, violating; trode,
Night fell, and gloom’d the Muses’ green abode;
With rumbling notes the rumbling echoes ring;
Each Muse affrighted, clos’d her secret spring.
But sudden, o’er the fading clouds of night
The day-spring stream’d its animating light;
Soft notes from Castaly’s fair bowers were flung;
The Muses listen’d as their Whitehead sung.
Warton, collecting every burning ray,
Mounts high, and pours a blazing noon of day.
His Gothic grandeur won the musing train,
And Spenser, smiling, lov’d his own sweet strain.
Now breaks a milder beam, more soft, more fair;
A chasten’d radiance on the glowing air;
’Tis thus on evening skies, so lovely bright,
Shines the departing gleam of the impurpling light.
The ‘esteemed Laureat’ who inspired this doggerel was Henry James Pye, who had been the young D’Israeli’s first literary friend. Pye has been characterised as the least distinguished of all laureates; a ‘poetaster’ who was ‘not so much a bad poet as no poet at all.’