THE LAST LAUREATE ?
BY RICHARD JENNINGS.
RECENT rumour asserts that there will be no further, appointment to the Poet Laureateship after its honoured holder, Dr. Robert Bridges, leaves it vacant in the course of nature and time. We all hope that the decision may not soon be thrust upon a Prime Minister. But not all of us believe that the Laureateship will end with this Laureate. Such threats have been uttered. before.
When Tennyson died, in 1892, there was an interreg- num. Arguments (apparently about to be renewed) resounded amongst the late Victorians. It was pointed out that poets cannot be punctually inspired to " show up " set pieces at regular intervals. A popular theory about the afflatus, or divine mania of the- bard, had been encouraged by- Tennyson's picturesque appearance and secluded habits_ May it also have been assisted by the rising generation's contempt- for his• official verse ? In any case, it seemed that. the Laureateship should " go, out in a blaze of glory."
Next,..there was an • obvious embarrassment in choice. There were too many possibilities. Mr. Bernard Shaw, then full of Fabianism and Ibsen and Wagner, remarked that the job ought to be offered to Swinburne who had always been worshipping somebody, and who ought to find it easy to put' the Prince of Wales in the place of Victor Hugo. And indeed, under Watts-Dunton's pres- sure, Swinburne achieved unexceptionable Laureate odes, on patriotic, if not precisely monarchicali themes, in his songs before sunset at Putney. There • was William Morris too. But he was a Socialist, which was then as bad as being a Republican. Lord Salisbury may have remembered Morris's Utopianism and Swinburne's early vociferations against priests and kings.
Had he surveyed the minors he would have seen poets of merit, undoubtedly—Gordon Hake, R. W: Dixon, and Lord de Tabley, whom Mr. John Drinkwater has just revived in a Selection. Venerable too—or aged—were the " spasmodic " Bailey of " Festus " ; and Aubrey de Vere, Tennyson's friend ; and one could quote W. J. Linton, Roden Noel, Wilfrid Blunt, Austin Dobson. There was also Edwin Arnold. But he appeared to be a Buddhist. Sir- Lewis Morris was mentioned—by him- self. He compiained, as- we know, that there was a conspiracy of silence against his claims. And Oscar Wilde told him he had better join it.
A tedious controversy—at last extinguished-. by the appointment of Alfred Austin, Tory leader writer ; though another Conservative journalist, who was a better poet, existed- in Sebastian Evans. • " What has he written ? Who is he ? " everybody began asking. Mr. Austin had written some satire, some " copies of verses," and a " celestial love drama." In later days he was content to wander in gardens that he loved with persons named Lamia and Veronica—ladies not to be associated with Keats or with Wells. Certainly it was an anti-climax. And an exhibition (people murmured) of Lord Salisbury's " cynicism." But may not that great traditionalist have known more of literary history than his critics ? I suggest that- he had followed the rhythm and alternations of the office—a celebrity by chance, an obscurity by rule. Tennyson. had had his. chance. Lord Salisbury, like Newcastle and Pitt in the eighteenth century, would not look upon eminences. He remembered that the Laureateship was as much a party appointment as a poetical position. He; would forget Spenser and Ben Jonson, Dryden and Wordsworth ; even Daniel and Davenant and Southey ; even Shadwell, upon whom Dryden conferred immortality and who was at least no contemptible dramatist of manners ; even Colley Cibber, an amusing rattle. It was time to revert to the precedents of Nahum Tate, of Lawrence Eusden, of William Whitehead and of Pye—all Laureates of their day.
It has long been disputed which of these is _the most obscure. Their mockers have followed them about with literary microscopes, in order to discover them. If we adopt this, test of relative invisibility I am inclined to suppose that the Laureate leaves are divided between Eusden and. Pye. As to. Nahum Tate, he is certainly one of the world's worst, poets, but he has achieved a posthumous existence- as a pair with Brady. Like Sternhold and Hopkins, Beaumont and Fletcher, Gilbert and Sullivan, or Moody and Sankey, he walks arm-in-arm with another in the Elysian fields. I admit to a weakness, for Tate—not, indeed, on account of his association with Brady, his new versions of old psalms, his " As pants the hart " or "- As shepherds watched," but because of the excessive metaphors that entangle his flowers of speech,. In sorrow for the death of a negligible Countess he wrote thus :-
"Tears our Refreshment are, our sole Relief, To give Despair free scope, To set the Slums ope, And Bowl with the impetuous Tide of Grief."
His " Panacea, or a Poem on Tea," of which two charming copies in the original edition turned up recently at the Britwell sale, is an engaging encomium on a bever- age he finds to be at once a balsamick, a diuretick, a pectoral, a sudorifick and an emetick. He positively swims in tea, after having survived his earlier peril of drowning in his own tears. Even Dr. Johnson cannot rival his tea-inebriation. Tate somehow emerges from his tea and tears.
Whitehead, too, whose invariable birthday odes in praise of " Brunswick " are nowadays unreadable, showed sprightliness in his tripping verse-tale of " Variety.' And-this, son of a Cambridge baker appears to have led an exemplary life. We are left with Eusden and Pye.
Eusden simply cannot be discerned. The exhaustive Chalmers and Anderson could not find room for him in their collections. Even in his own time nobody had- wer heard of him, except Newcastle, who appointed him .- " Apollo begged pardon and granted his claim,
But vowed that till then he'd ne'er heard of his name."
All you can say of him is that (in Gray's words) he " turned out a drunken parson "-a " parson much bemus'd with beer," in Pope's. For the tierce of canary once attached to the Laureateship seems to have prompted a certain bibulousness in Poets Laureate after Dryden. If Eusden was beery, Tate, according to Oidys, was a " free good-natured fuddling companion," and even the respectable Thomas. Warton loved a glass, and hailed Oxford ale as " juice benignant ! "
If Salisbury " saw " Austin, and Newcastle invented Eusden, Pitt, I believe, picked out Pye, one of the most copious of -unheard-of poets ; an excellent police-magis- trate (for Westminster) ; mentioned in Burke's Landed Gentry, and M.P.. fcu. Berkshire in 1784—a type, in fact, of the would-be literary squire. Byron makes fun of him in " The Vision of Judgment," that nineteenth-century Dunciad. For the rest, Pye (as poet) followed the distressing fashion, set by Akenside, of embroidering on abstract themes at incredible length. His " Beauty," a poetical essay, his " Triumph of Fashion," his " Progress, of Refinement," his " Amusement "—the titles are enough So much for these unknown names. I mention them only to indicate one line that could be taken, suppose, by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald.
He could revert to eighteenth-century practice and go about beating up some poet now lying perdu in the suburbs. Or, realizing again that the old Court appoint- ment has become a party office, he could choose and inspire a new. Ebenezer Elliot, an Ernest Jones, a Joseph Skipsey- someLabour Laureate who would report (perhaps in better rhymes than -Mrs. Browning's) the cry of the children, or of -the =housed ; who would write Pindarically upon Poplar; or greet May Day with anarchic odes. Fatally, and best of all, he could offer the Laureateship to some modern " independent," begging him or her to make the most of it on impressionistic lines, with neglect of obvious ceremonial efficiency.
In this connexion I have heard it suggested that the Laureateship might be put into commission with the Sitwell family. But as there seems to be so little to divide; and as composite odes are as dull as bouts-rimes, I cannot help wondering whether Miss Sitwell might not be induced to redecorate the green of faded laurels. Imagine bow the old scenery would be touched up. by the poet of " The Sleeping Beauty," as an ancient tale peeps out, fantastically adorned, in that delightful poem ! And why not a satirist as Laureate—the first of merit in the office since Dryden ? The age loves bitterness, or the bitter-sweet. I could play with the thought of a Royal wedding, or an opening of Parliament, recreated by a -writer of true originality. The buds on those tired trees of St. James's Park would turn to lacquer, or drip emeralds. " Apricocks," distilling amber, would gleam about the frontage of a Buckingham Palace, new-turreted like Jerusalem or Jericho. A frosty window would open on the balcony level, and there, gold-peruked in palan- quins, clothed in shrill bombazine, the Royal personages would drop silver-spangled kisses upon the goatish faces sipping Bohea below them. This would be renewal ! But Mr. Ramsay MacDonald would never suggest it. Or Miss Sitwell would never consent.