Tag Archives: Knaves

A Company of Knaves and Poets

I’ve been reading about some of these Poet Laureates of Great Britain. My, what a bunch of knaves and poets. I imagine a party with the entire bunch and it would be fun, provided no one was killed.

Consider Ben Jonson. He began as a bricklayer, fought with English troops in Flanders, then returned to London to become an actor, playwright, and a tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh’s son. He’s the one I’d watch at the party. He was tried for killing a fellow actor in a duel in 1598. Imprisoned for this, he converted to Catholicism to be spared death for murder. Perhaps the duel was over a play called ‘The Isle of Dogs’. That piece caused such a stir they closed all the theatres in London.

William Davenant inherited the post on Jonson’s death. He was said to be the godson of William Shakespeare and even rumored to be his love child.

Then there is John Dryden, the only one to be fired from the job. Oh, it wasn’t his poetry. Politics was his downfall. Dryden refused to take an oath of allegiance to William III.

Thomas Shadwell replaced Dryden. This would be another to watch at the party. He was a heavy drinker, and an opium user. Shadwell died from an overdose of opium, which he took in part to relieve his gout. Maybe if he hadn’t drunk he wouldn’t have had the gout.

Nahum Tate is would be a fascinating one to talk to. On one had he wrote the Christmas carol ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’. On the other hand he revised Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘King Lear’ to give it a happy ending. (I can understand the urge, but that’s akin to putting a Pepsodent smile on the Mona Lisa.)

(We will skip the boring ones. OK?)

William Wordsworth received the appointment at the age of 73. He accepted on the condition he didn’t have to write any poetry on demand. A poet Laureate who didn’t write poetry? He wasn’t the first.

Alfred Tennyson served the longest as poet Laureate, and raised the position to new levels through his dedication, his work, and his poetry. On his death he was publicly mourned by millions, and in respect, no appointment was made to the post of Poet Laureate for four years.

John Masefield was originally a merchant marine officer. That’s probably where his love of the sea came from. However, he became ill in Chile, and following that lived a Hemingway sort of life. He was a vagrant, on the tramp, working in factories and bars in the United States. He returned to England to work on newspapers. He married his wife, a woman twelve years his senior. During the WWI he served with the Red Cross in France as a hospital orderly and on a hospital ship at Gallipoli. (He wrote a book about this battle.)

After the end of WWI, Masefield’s life becomes much more ordinary than that of Hemingway. When he was appointed poet laureate (instead of Kipling), Masefield took his appointment seriously and produced a large quantity of verse. In this capacity he sent his poems to ‘The Times’, including an SASE so they could be returned if unacceptable. A modest man.

In late 1966, Masefield developed gangrene in his ankle. This spread to his leg, and he died of the infection on 12 May 1967. He outlived Hemingway by almost six years. That made him the second longest serving Poet Laureate.

Have you ever read a detective story by Nicholas Blake? Those were written by the next poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis.

Ted Hughes is most noted in this role for writing poems for royal events, such as the christening of Prince Henry of Wales in 1985. I wonder what he would say about the ginger headed Prince Harry today.

Carol Ann Duffy currently holds the laurel. This is the first time a woman, a Scott or a gay person has received the honor. With her first poem as poet laureate, she tackled the scandal over British MPs expenses in the format of a sonnet. Since the pen is mightier than the sword, I wouldn’t want to get on her wrong side.

Imagine them all in the same room, talking, eating and drinking. Jonson and Masefield might be trading war stories. Thomas Shadwell and Dryden would certainly be trading insults. That would be one heck of a party.


To see some of my short stories go to www.edwardmcdermott.net