What Is A Poet Laureate?
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A poet laureate is the officially recognized poetic spokesperson of a nation. The title was originally conferred in Great Britain by a monarch (king or queen) on a poet who then took on the duty of writing verses to honor the nation. This was an outgrowth of an English custom that began in the Middle Ages (A.D. c. 450–c. 1500), when versifiers and minstrels in the king's court were appointed to praise him in poetry and song. The term poet laureate is derived from ancient Greek and Roman tradition of honoring a poet with a wreath made of laurel (type of shrub or tree) leaves.
The first unofficial poet laureate was Ben Jonson (1572–1637) who was recognized for his poetry by King Charles I (1600–1649) in 1617. Years earlier, in 1605, Jonson had started work on a series of masques (short, allegorical dramas that were performed by actors wearing masks) for the king's court. While he was not officially granted the title and ceremony of a laurel poet, he nonetheless worked in that capacity and received funding for the role.
The first person to receive the official title of poet laureate was John Dryden (1631–1700), who was given the honor in 1670 by King Charles II (1630–1685). Dryden lost his laureateship and court status when William III (1650–1702) took the throne, but he enjoyed a long and productive career that earned him much respect. Other poet laureates have included William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892). In 1985 the U.S. Congress authorized the naming of a national poet laureate and conferred the title on poet Robert Penn Warren (1909–1992). Other American recipients have included Mona Van Duyn, the first woman to hold the post, and Rita Dove, the first African American to receive the honor.
Further Information: Hopkins, Kenneth. The Poets Laureate. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966; "Poet Laureate." Electric Library. [Online] Available http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/10322.html, October 23, 2000.
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