THE world of letters in the seventeenth century was a small one and it was natural for the Laureates to be men drawn from a comparatively restricted circle. The poets living when Shadwell died -- Dryden apart -- were mainly employed in the drama, and included none whose fame then or now rested on any considerable body of fine poetry. The prolific Sir Richard Blackmore had written Prince Arthur, an heroick poem in ten books, to which he had obligingly added an index. But even thus early in his career nobody took him seriously except himself. Pomfret, whose talent for fine-sounding emptiness might have been noted, had not yet published the work which made his name. Prior, after Dryden the best living poet, was busy with more important affairs. Congreve, who might have made a satisfactory Laureate, was overlooked.1 The choice fell upon Nahum Tate. I cannot discover that anybody has ever been enthusiastic over Nahum Tate; it seems that from birth he was the kind of man who survives in footnotes. 'Who knows whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not____________________
Oh that your brows my laurel had sustained, Well had I been deposed, if you had reigned: The father had descended for the son; For only you are lineal to the throne.
-- To My Dear Friend Mr. Congreve on his Comedy call'd The Double Dealer.
Dryden goes on to complain that Shadwell and Rymer were given respectively the Laureateship and the office of Historiographer Royal; but when the verses were published Shadwell was already dead. These lines addressed to himself in The Mourning Muse of Alexis, a pastoral lamenting the death of our late Gracious Queen Mary of Blessed Memory ( 1695) suggest that Congreve entertained no very high opinion of his own laureate pretensions:
Wert thou with ev'ry Bay and Lawrel crown'd, And high as Pan himself in Song renown'd, Yet wou'd not all thy Art avail to show Verse worthy of her Name, or of our Woe.
Congreve might have made a respectable Laureate in the eighteenth century manner, but we may well be satisfied to have his comedies instead.