poet laureate (lô´rēĬt), title conferred in Britain by the monarch on a poet whose duty it is to write commemorative odes and verse. It is an outgrowth of the medieval English custom of having versifiers and minstrels in the king's retinue, and of the later royal patronage of poets, such as Chaucer and Spenser. Ben Jonson seems to have had what amounted to the laureateship from Charles I in 1617, but the present title, adopted from the Greek and Roman custom of crowning with a wreath of laurel, was first given to John Dryden in 1670.
Dryden's successors have been Thomas Shadwell (1688–92), Nahum Tate (1692–1715), Nicholas Rowe (1715–18), Laurence Eusden (1718–30), Colley Cibber (1730–57), William Whitehead (1757–85), Thomas Warton (1785–90), Henry Pye (1790–1813), Robert Southey (1813–43), William Wordsworth (1843–50), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850–92), Alfred Austin (1892–1913), Robert Bridges (1913–30), John Masefield (1930–67), Cecil Day Lewis (1968–72), John Betjeman (1972–84), Ted Hughes (1984–98), Andrew Motion (1999–2009), the first poet to serve a fixed 10-year term, and Carol Ann Duffy (2009–), Britain's first female laureate. In recent years the position's ceremonial duties have largely been eliminated, and it is no longer a lifetime post.
In the United States, the poet laureate is charged with raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." It is an annual position but may be held for a series of years; the poet is chosen by the Librarian of Congress. It was instituted in 1937 as the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress and was held by 30 poets before an act of Congress (1985) changed the name to poet laureate. Robert Penn Warren became (1986) the first to hold the title of poet laureate in United States. His successors have been Richard Wilbur (1987–88), Howard Nemerov (1988–90), Mark Strand (1990–91), Joseph Brodsky (the first foreign-born laureate; 1991–92), Mona Van Duyn (the first woman laureate; 1992–93), Rita Dove (the first African-American laureate; 1993–95), Robert Hass (1995–97), Robert Pinsky (1997–2000), Stanley Kunitz (2000–2001), Billy Collins (2001–3), Louise Glück (2003–4), Ted Kooser (2004–6), Donald Hall (2006–7), Charles Simic (2007–8), Kay Ryan (2008–10), W. S. Merwin (2010–11), Philip Levine (2011–12), and Natasha Trethewey (2012–).
See K. Hopkins, The Poets Laureate (1954, repr. 1966).