The Poets Laureate: Alfred Austin

Years in office: 1896-1913

Who was he: Reckoned among the worst of the poets laureate, Austin (1835-1913) was born in Headingley, Yorkshire, his father a merchant. He was schooled at Stoneyhurst College and St. Mary's College, in Oscott, and the University of London; Austin trained as a lawyer, while publishing Randolph: A Poem in Two Cantos (1855), and was called to the Bar in 1857, briefly practiced as a barrister on the Northern Circuit. While his early work was a failure, Austin kick-started his literary career in the next few years with some blunt satire including the poem "The Season".

Subsequently, he worked as a critic, novelist and journalist, editing the periodical The National Review and writing for the London Evening Standard. Politically, he supported Polish and Italian patriots and hated Tsarist Russia; as a journalist he worked abroad in the Vatican and at the headquarters of the King of Prussia during the Franco-Prussian war. He also stood for parliament as a Conservative candidate for Taunton in 1865 and Dewsbury in 1880, but lost both times.

Although he made a decent living, Austin was never a terribly popular writer, with his only real public success being The Garden that I Love (1894), a prose diary. He proved a bad judge of literary merit in others, disparaging Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne and Whitman in criticism such as The Poetry of the Period (1869).

Getting the job: There was a laureateless four-year gap following the dead of Tennyson in 1892; this is normally attributed to respect for Tennyson, but judging by his replacement, desperation may have been the real reason. It should be obvious from the above that when Austin was chosen as Laureate by Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, it was because of his politics rather than his verse. Indeed, Austin probably owes his laureateship to the British electorate, who put the Conservative Party in power in 1895; Salisbury replaced liberals William Gladstone and the Earl of Rosebery, whom it is safe to say would not have chosen Austin in a million years.

Non-laureate verse: Aside from his official compositions, Austin produced some verse dramas, satires, and songs, as well as a number of sonnets. Here is part of a drinking ditty, "The Haymakers’ Song":

Here's to him that grows it,
    Drink, lads, drink!
That lays it in and mows it,
    Clink, jugs, clink!
To him that mows and makes it,
That scatters it and shakes it,
That turns, and teds, and rakes it,
    Clink, jugs, clink!
The sonnets are rather bland and not bad enough to be funny (and remember, this is the late 19th century, not the 17th). "Love's Blindness" (1880) is one of his most-anthologised, so it is reasonable to expect it is one of his best:
Now do I know that Love is blind, for I
Can see no beauty on this beauteous earth,
No life, no light, no hopefulness, no mirth,
Pleasure nor purpose, when thou art not nigh.
Thy absence exiles sunshine from the sky,
Seres Spring's maturity, checks Summer's birth,
Leaves linnet's pipe as sad as plover's cry,
And makes me in abundance find but dearth.
But when thy feet flutter the dark, and thou
With orient eyes dawnest on my distress,
Suddenly sings a bird on every bough,
The heavens expand, the earth grows less and less,
The ground is buoyant as the ether now,
And all looks lovely in thy loveliness.1
Other poems by him, generally of about 14 lines, include "Love's Trinity", "Unseasonable Snows", "A Sleepless Night", "Love's Wisdom", and "When Acorns Fall, And Swallows Troop For Flight".

Laureate verse: Most notorious of his official verse is Austin's triumphant ode on the Jameson Raid, an 1895 British military mishap which helped start the Boer War. Austin perhaps intended his poem to stand alongside Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade"; in fact, it bore more resemblance to William McGonagall, as in these famous lines:

They went across the veldt,
As hard as they could pelt.2

His laureateship: Britain nearly managed an entire century of reputable laureates with Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, but the political appointee Austin crept in at the last. In general the years of his office are given short shrift in histories of poetry, coming as they do between the late Victorians and the innovation of the war poets and modernism; while some poets of the era were unfairly dismissed, the contempt towards Austin is well-deserved. He may have been a competent prose writer, but there are few defenders of his verse.

Critics and enemies: According to OldPoetry.com: "he carries the reputation of having been the worst and least read English poet", and he was caricatured as Alfred the Little following his play about Alfred the Great. In his final years, he wrote his life story, Autobiography of Alfred Austin, Poet Laureate (1911), about which one critic observed:

His autobiography is almost incredible in its calm assumption that its writer was a great genius; it may survive his poems as a document portraying the vagaries of human self-deception."3
P.F. Bicknell remarked of the same book:
The world has a cruel way of refusing to take altogether seriously a man who takes himself too much so; and thus our autobiographer, with his somewhat conspicuous lack of humor, becomes, in a manner the reverse of Falstaff's, the cause of humor in other men.4
Stuart P. Sherman was similarly unflattering, calling Austin
the last minstrel of Toryism. As he writes, he feels himself soothed, sustained, and magnified by the support of the landed gentlemen of England. He is not, he fancies, dipping his pen into the shallow well of egotism, but into the inexhaustible springs of English sentiment. ... The sentimental romantic Toryism of Mr. Austin is not so much dull as false; false and at the same time obsolete; obsolete but not yet old enough to have acquired an antiquarian interest.5
Earlier, Robert Browning attacked him in the preface to Pacchiarotto, calling him "Banjo Byron" after the poet Austin most admired (although he did not closely resemble Lord Byron, he hoped to emulate the great poet's satires if not his lifestyle).6

Could have been laureate: It is said that Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) and William Morris (1834-96) were both considered for the laureateship, but were not offered the position because the former was an alcoholic and pagan and the latter was a socialist. The post was also rejected by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), who turned down Lord Salisbury's offer in 1896. Kipling is surely the greatest laureate manqué: the Indian-born poet and novelist wrote "If", which remains one of Britain's favourite poems, and "Recessional" for Victoria's Jubilee in 1897, a masterpiece of contemplative public verse; his Barrack-Room Ballads were immensely popular and he even won the Nobel Prize. It also is fun to imagine Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) or Oscar Wilde (1855-1900) in the position; indeed it is fun to imagine Oscar Wilde in any position.


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  • 1 Poems from OldPoetry.com, http://oldpoetry.com/authors/Alfred%20Austin; since they were published before 1923, they are out of copyright.
  • 2 Tony Rogers, "Inadvertent Doggerel", Bikwil, http://www.bikwil.zip.com.au/Vintage05/Inadvertent-Doggerel.html
  • 3 "Alfred Austin", OldPoetry.com, http://oldpoetry.com/authors/Alfred%20Austin
  • 4 Quoted in ibid.
  • 5 Quoted in ibid.
  • 6 See: George Saintsbury, "Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century", in A.W. Ward, et al (eds), The Cambridge history of English and American literature: An encyclopedia in eighteen volumes, Cambridge University Press, England, 1907-21, XIII.VI.47.

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