10
Henry James Pye

ONCE more George III was left without a Laureate, and once more the appointment went to a poet of whom posterity hardly approves; but whereas Warton was a considerable man of letters, Henry James Pye was strictly speaking an amateur, though a voluminous one.

' Cowper was alive!' it has since been objected, but it must again be emphasised that the Laureate tradition did not call for the appointment of 'the best living poet.' Originally, the Laureate had been the political/ poetical defender of his royal master; then gradually he became rather a panegyrist, a paid flatterer; and now, in 1790, what was wanted was a safe, unambitious writer who could be relied upon to say the right thing twice a year. A character in one of Hilaire Belloc's novels is promoted 'for not having done anything silly' and Pye received the laurel for very similar reasons. After all, in 1790 nobody could be expected to foresee that there would be such victories as Trafalgar, in the celebration of which a Pye would be taxed beyond his resources.

As for Cowper, he had his chance, for Southey1 thinks the office would have been readily secured for him, if he had allowed his cousin Lady Hesketh to seek it. But knowing his uncertain temper in these affairs, she prudently sounded him before going forward with the idea, and received a firm refusal to entertain it:

Heaven guard my brows from the wreath you mention, whatever wreath beside may hereafter adorn them! It would be a leaden extinguisher, clapped on all the fire of my genius, and I should never more produce a line worth reading. To speak seriously, it would make me miserable, and therefore I am sure that thou, of all my friends, would least wish me to wear it.

To another friend he said in conversation, 'I could neither go to court, nor could I kiss hands, were it for a much more valuable consideration.' All the same, he was much amused and possibly flattered a few days

____________________
1
Life of Cowper, prefixed to Southey's edition of the Works ( 1836) which is still the most attractive set to possess, and fortunately is not uncommon.

-109-

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The Poets Laureate
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 7
  • Preface 11
  • I - The Poets Laureate 13
  • 1 - Before the Laureateship: Jonson and Davenant 15
  • 2 - The First Laureate: John Dryden 21
  • 3 - Thomas Shadwell 32
  • 4 - Nahum Tate 44
  • 5 - Nicholas Rowe 55
  • 6 - Laurence Eusden 62
  • 7 - Colley Cibber 68
  • 8 - William Whitehead 79
  • 9 - Thomas Warton 92
  • 10 - Henry James Pye 109
  • 11- Robert Southey 124
  • 12 - William Wordsworth 145
  • 13 - Alfred, Lord Tennyson 153
  • 14 - Alfred Austin 166
  • 15 - Robert Bridges 178
  • 16 - John Masefield 185
  • II - Selections from the Works Of the Poets Laureate 193
  • Ben Jonson 195
  • Sir William Davenant 198
  • John Dryden 200
  • Thomas Shadwell 204
  • Nahum Tate 208
  • Nicholas Rowe 213
  • Laurence Eusden 220
  • Colley Cibber 225
  • William Whitehead 230
  • Thomas Warton 235
  • Henry James Pye 243
  • Robert Southey 248
  • William Wordsworth 254
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson 260
  • Alfred Austin 267
  • Robert Bridges 272
  • John Masefield 277
  • Select Bibliography 281
  • Index 285
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