Tennyson becomes Poet laureate
The position of Poet Laureate can be seen as the natural successor of the minstrels and storytellers who entertained the courts of medieval kings, often acting as historians and hagiographers for their masters. Chaucer received royal support for his work. Ben Jonson received a pension of 100 marks a year from James I from 1616, and is seen by some as the first poet laureate, though John Dryden was the first to be named such by letters patent in 1670.
Because of the nature of the role, often requiring made-to-measure poetry on subjects where inspiration is unlikely to strike the writer; many have turned the role down – Walter Scott , William Morris and Philip Larkin to name but three.
When Wordsworth died, who filled the post from 1843, Alfred Tennyson was himself supposed to have been a second choice to a candidate of far less renown, though some had also suggested Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who would have been the first female poet laureate (indeed no woman has been appointed to the post in the intervening years) and Leigh Hunt .
Wordsworth had managed to avoid the requirement for sausage machine poetry for official occasions and to commemorate great events, but Tennyson was happy to accept the challenge, and though some of the tasks obviously failed to ignite his passion, others such as the death of Wellington and the Charge of the Light Brigade produced work of his highest quality.
When Tennyson became poet laureate he was only 41, and he remained in post for 42 years. His pay for the work was rather different from some of his predecessors who were partly recompensed with wine. Tennyson got £27 per annum from the Lord Steward in lieu of the butt of sack given in earlier times, on top of which he was paid £72 per annum by the Lord Chamberlain.
Tennyson’s poetry epitomises the Victorian age, his grand and powerful style probably suiting the laureate’s work better than any of the other members of that exclusive club. And unlike many of them, Tennyson was a friend of the monarch, his dedication of poetry to Prince Albert a mixture of sincerity and astute awareness of his audience. He was mourned by the nation from the Queen downwards when he died in 1892.
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