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____________________