Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: poet laureate from Philip's Encyclopedia

Title conferred by the British monarch on a poet whose duty is then to write commemorative verse on important occasions. Poet laureates include Robert Southey (1813-43), Wordsworth (1843-50), Tennyson (1850-92), John Masefield (1930-67), Cecil Day-Lewis (1968-72), Sir John Betjeman (1972-84), Ted Hughes (1984-98) and Andrew Motion (1999- ).


Summary Article: poet laureate from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(lô'rēĭt), title conferred in Britain by the monarch on a poet whose duty it is to write commemorative odes and verse. It is an outgrowth of the medieval English custom of having versifiers and minstrels in the king's retinue, and of the later royal patronage of poets, such as Chaucer and Spenser. Ben Jonson seems to have had what amounted to the laureateship from Charles I in 1617, but the present title, adopted from the Greek and Roman custom of crowning with a wreath of laurel, was first given to John Dryden in 1670.

Dryden's successors have been Thomas Shadwell (1688–92), Nahum Tate (1692–1715), Nicholas Rowe (1715–18), Laurence Eusden (1718–30), Colley Cibber (1730–57), William Whitehead (1757–85), Thomas Warton (1785–90), Henry Pye (1790–1813), Robert Southey (1813–43), William Wordsworth (1843–50), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850–92), Alfred Austin (1892–1913), Robert Bridges (1913–30), John Masefield (1930–67), Cecil Day Lewis (1968–72), John Betjeman (1972–84), Ted Hughes (1984–98), Andrew Motion (1999–2009), the first poet to serve a fixed 10-year term, and Carol Ann Duffy (2009–), Britain's first female laureate. In recent years the position's ceremonial duties have largely been eliminated, and it is no longer a lifetime post.

In the United States, the poet laureate is charged with raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." It is an annual position but may be held for a series of years; the poet is chosen by the Librarian of Congress. It was instituted in 1937 as the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress and was held by 30 poets before an act of Congress (1985) changed the name to poet laureate. Robert Penn Warren became (1986) the first to hold the title of poet laureate in United States. His successors have been Richard Wilbur (1987–88), Howard Nemerov (1988–90), Mark Strand (1990–91), Joseph Brodsky (the first foreign-born laureate; 1991–92), Mona Van Duyn (the first woman laureate; 1992–93), Rita Dove (the first African-American laureate; 1993–95), Robert Hass (1995–97), Robert Pinsky (1997–2000), Stanley Kunitz (2000–2001), Billy Collins (2001–3), Louise Glück (2003–4), Ted Kooser (2004–6), Donald Hall (2006–7), Charles Simic (2007–8), Kay Ryan (2008–10), W. S. Merwin (2010–11), Philip Levine (2011–12), Natasha Trethewey (2012–14), and Charles Wright (2014–).

  • See K. Hopkins, The Poets Laureate (1954, repr. 1966).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article poet laureate
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

A title bestowed by the British monarch on a contemporary poet, whose traditional duties include the writing of commemorative odes on...

Full text Article Poet Laureate
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

Originally a title given generally to British poets in recognition of their achievement, it became in later times an official post awarded to...

Full text Article Poets Laureate
Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent

The term poet laureate has existed since before 1619, when Charles I appointed Ben Jonson the first poet laureate in Great Britain. A poet...

See more from Credo