IT is customary to lament that Thomas Gray declined the Laureateship left vacant by Cibber's death. 'Here at last,' runs the argument, 'was the first chance since Dryden of the office falling to a great poet.' Something like this may have been in the Duke of Devonshire's mind when, as Lord Chamberlain, he caused the offer to be conveyed to Gray, for he proposed that the New Year and Birthday odes should no longer be an obligation on the Laureate. But Gray refused, and I think rightly; for by temperament he was quite unsuited to the office.
The incident, however, is worth telling in some detail for the light it throws on the characters of those concerned. 'The best of all Johns,' as Gray called him, -- Lord John Cavendish -- had been the poet's friend for a number of years and it was he, perhaps, who prevailed upon his elder brother the Duke to offer the Laureateship to Gray. The offer itself was made through William Mason, formerly Lord John's tutor, and himself an intimate friend of Gray. It was an interesting situation, for Mason was also a poet, the author of works more admired than admirable. But the Duke of Devonshire's patronage of Mason took the form of securing for him an appointment as one of the King's Chaplains.
Gray's letter of refusal is well known, but I reproduce it again for the characteristic comments it contains on previous Laureates. It is dated December 19th, 1757.
Though I very well know the bland emollient saponaccous qualities both of sack and silver, yet if any great man would say to me, 'I make you ratcatcher to his Majesty, with a salary of £300 a year and two butts of the best Malaga; and though it has been usual to catch a mouse or two, for form's sake, in public once a year, yet to you, sir, we shall not stand upon these things,' I cannot say I should jump at it; nay, if they would drop the very name of the office, and call me Sinecure to the King's Majesty, I should still feel a little awkward, and think everybody I saw smelt a rat about me; but I do not pretend to blame anyone else that has not the same sensations; for my part I would rather be serjeant trumpeter or pinmaker to the palace. Nevertheless I interest myself a little in the history of it, and rather wish
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Publication information: Book title: The Poets Laureate. Contributors: Kenneth Hopkins - Author. Publisher: Library Publishers. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1955. Page number: 79.
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