Before the Laureateship: Jonson and Davenant
POETRY is very nearly as old as language, and from the remotest antiquity it has been employed to celebrate the deeds and virtues of the great. It has counselled in sorrow, rejoiced in fortune, triumphed in victory and mourned in defeat. By poetry we remember the names of kings dead five thousand years ago, their tombs long since crumbled, their very cities obliterated. The word of a king may determine life or death, but the word of a poet gives immortality.
It is a little surprising, therefore, that the notion of keeping a salaried poet permanently on the royal household staff seems to have occurred to none of the kings of antiquity. Many individual poets have received honours, pensions, gifts and patronage from the monarchs they served, but until the reign of Charles II in England there was nothing closely comparable with our office of Poet Laureate. In no age, and no country, until the death of Sir William Davenant on April 7th, 1668, was the passing of one court poet considered the occasion for the appointment of another with the same duties and the same emolument. It was left for the nation that has produced the greatest poetry of the world to establish the highest office to which a professional poet can aspire. And to this office, on April 13th, 1668, John Dryden was appointed.
One cannot, however, begin quite so baldly as that, especially as the Patent formally issued on August 18th, 1670, confirming Dryden in office, mentions specifically certain of his 'predecessors,' including 'Sir Geoffrey Chaucer, knight,' 'Sir John Gower, knight,' and several others, some of whom were not even poets.
Dryden's patent of 1670 appointed him Historiographer Royal and served to confirm the existing Laureateship appointment. It bestowed on him the several rights and privileges formerly enjoyed by those who held either of the offices before him, but with magnificent vagueness forebore to notice that 'Sir Geoffrey Chaucer, knight' (to look no