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A Poet Laureate (plural: Poets Laureate) is a poet officially appointed by a government and is often expected to compose poems for State occasions and other government events.

In the United Kingdom the term has for centuries been the title of the official poet of the monarch, since the time of Charles II. Poets laureate are appointed by many countries. In Britain there is also a Children's Laureate.


In ancient Greece the laurel was sacred to the god Apollo, and was used to form a crown or wreath of honour for poets and heroes. This custom has since become widespread, both in fact and as a metaphor. The word laureate or laureated thus came in English to signify eminence or association with glory (cf. Nobel laureate). Laureate letters were once the despatches announcing a victory. The term laureate became associated with degrees awarded by European universities (the term baccalaureate for the degree of bachelor reflects this idea). As a royal degree in rhetoric, poet laureate was awarded at European universities in the Middle Ages. The term might also refer to the holder of such a degree, which recognised skill in rhetoric, grammar and language.

According to the historian Edward Gibbon, Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–74) of Rome, perhaps best known for his sonnets to the fair-haired, blue-eyed Laura, took the title of "poet laureate" in 1341 for the poem "Africa".


From the more general use of the term "poet laureate" arose its restriction in England to an official office of Poet Laureate, attached to the royal household. James I essentially created the position as it is known today for Ben Jonson in 1617, although Jonson's appointment does not seem to have been formally made. The office was a development from the practice of earlier times when minstrels and versifiers formed part of the King's retinue. Richard Coeur de Lion had a versificator Regis (King's Poet), Gulielmus Peregrinus, and Henry III had a versificator named (Master Henry). In the 15th century, John Kay, also a "versifier", described himself as Edward IV's "humble poet laureate".

No single authentic definitive record exists of the office of Poet Laureate of Englandmarker. According to Wharton, Henry I paid 10 shillings a year to a Versificator Regis. Geoffrey Chaucer 1340–1400 was called Poet Laureate, being granted in 1389 an annual allowance of wine. W. Hamilton classes Chaucer, Gower, Kay, Andrew Bernard, Skelton, Robert Whittington, Richard Edwards, Spenser and Samuel Daniel, as "volunteer Laureates".

John Skelton studied at Oxford Universitymarker in the early 1480s, and was advanced to the degree of "poet laureate" in 1488. The title of laureate was also conferred on him by the University of Louvain in 1492, and by Cambridge Universitymarker in 1492–3. He soon became famous for rhetoric, satire and translations. In 1488 Skelton joined the court of Henry VII, tutored Henry VIII and was the official royal poet for most of the next 40 years. He was held in high esteem: "But I pray mayster John Skelton, late created poete laureate in the unyversite of Oxenforde, to oversee and correct this sayd booke" — Caxton in the preface to The Boke of Eneydos compyled by Vargyle 1490.

The title of Poet Laureate, as a royal office, was first conferred by letters patent on John Dryden in 1670, two years after Davenant's death. The post then became a regular institution. Dryden's successor Shadwell originated annual birthday and New Year odes. The poet laureate became responsible for writing and presenting official verses to commemorate both personal occasions, such as the monarch's birthday or royal births and marriages, and public occasions, such as coronations and military victories. His activity in this respect has varied according to circumstances, and the custom ceased to be obligatory after Pye's death. The office fell into some contempt before Southey, but took on a new lustre from his personal distinction and that of Wordsworth and Tennyson. Wordsworth stipulated, before accepting the honour, that no formal effusions from him should be considered a necessity; but Tennyson was generally happy in his numerous poems of this class.

On Tennyson's death there was a considerable feeling that no possible successor was acceptable, William Morris and Swinburne being hardly suitable as court poets. Eventually, however, the undesirability of breaking with tradition for temporary reasons, and thus severing the one official link between literature and the state, prevailed over the protests against allowing anyone of inferior genius to follow Tennyson. It may be noted that abolition had been similarly advocated when Warton and Wordsworth died. Edward Gibbon had condemned the position's artificial approach to poetry:

The salary has varied, but traditionally includes some alcohol. Ben Jonson first received a pension of 100 marks, and later an annual "terse of Canary wine". Dryden had a pension of £300 and a butt of Canary wine. Pye received £27 instead of the wine. Tennyson drew £72 a year from the Lord Chamberlain's department, and £27 from the Lord Steward's "in lieu of the butt of sack".

Poets Laureate by country


The Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate is appointed as an officer of the Library of Parliamentmarker. The position alternates between an English and French speaking laureate each term. Candidates must be able to write in both English and French, must have a substantial publication history (including poetry) displaying literary excellence and must have written work reflecting Canada, among other criteria.

The first ever Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate was awarded to George Bowering in 2002. In 2004, the title was transferred to Pauline Michel and in 2006 to John Steffler. His term ended on December 3, 2008 and nominations for the position were open to residents of Canada up to September 2008. Pierre DesRuisseaux was named the new laureate on April 28.

New Zealand

New Zealand has only had an official poet laureate for a few years. Originally sponsored by Te Mata vineyards and known as the Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate, the award is now administered by the National Library of New Zealandmarker and the holder is officially called New Zealand Poet Laureate. The post is held for two years. Unlike the butt of sack traditionally offered to English poets laureate, New Zealand offers a Tokotoko, which is a carved wooden ceremonial orator's staff.

The first holder of the title was Bill Manhire who held the post of Poet Laureate from 1998-99. Other former Poets Laureate include, Hone Tuwhare (2000-01), Elizabeth Smither (2002-03), Brian Turner (2004-05) and Jenny Bornholdt (2006-07). The current (2008-09) Poet Laureate is Michele Leggott.


The Edinburgh Makar is the unpaid equivalent of a poet laureate to represent and promote poetry in Scotlandmarker. On 16 February, 2004, Professor Edwin Morgan was named to the post. Morgan is also known as the "Poet Laureate of Glasgow."

United Kingdom

Originally, laureates were of the Kingdom of England (to 1707), then of the Kingdom of Great Britainmarker (1707-1801), then of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Irelandmarker (1801-1922); and since 1922 of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irelandmarker.

United States

The United States Library of Congressmarker has since 1937 appointed an official Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. An Act of Congress changed the name of the position in 1985 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. A number of the American states' legislatures have created official government positions which are occupied by poets who are prominent either locally, nationally, or sometimes both.

On June 17, 2008, the Library of Congress announced Kay Ryan as the country's sixteenth Poet Laureate. Laureates receive a US$35,000 stipend and are given the responsibility of overseeing an ongoing series of poetry readings and lectures at the library, and a vague charge to promote poetry. No other duties are specified, and laureates are not required to compose for government events or in praise of government officials. However, after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, the Poet Laureate then in office, Billy Collins, was asked to write a poem to be read in front of a special joint session of Congress. Collins wrote "The Names,"[8491] which he read on September 6, 2002, which is available in streaming audio and video. When the $35,000 stipend was originally instituted, the amount was quite large and was intended to allow the poet laureate to abandon worries about earning a living and devote his or her time entirely to writing poetry. That amount has remained the same over the years, so the intent of making it a nice living for a poet is no longer being fulfilled. Now it functions as a bonus for a poet who usually is teaching at a university and earns the bulk of his or her living that way.

Previous U.S. Poets Laureate have included Charles Simic, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Karl Shapiro, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Joseph Brodsky, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Hass, Donald Hall, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, and Maxine Kumin, among others.


Wales has had a long tradition of poets and bards under royal patronage, with extant writing from mediæval royal poets and earlier. An office of National Poet for Wales was established in April 2005. The first holder, Gwyneth Lewis, was followed by Gwyn Thomas.



  1. New Zealand Herald article
  2. University of St. Andrews: "University to Honour Robert Burns' Favourite Poet." 11 January 2000.

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