The Poets Laureate: Colley Cibber

Years in office: 1730-1757

Who was he: Colley Cibber (1671-1757) often sought to stir a laugh, as a comic writer and actor, but he has gone down in history as a figure of fun for different reasons. Born in London, the son of a Danish sculptor, Caius Gabriel Cibber, and an English heiress, Jane Colley, he was schooled at Grantham, Lincolnshire, then rejected from Winchester College. In response, Cibber headed back to London to work in the theatre, joining the Theatre Royal in 1690.

There he became a prolific playwright, specialising in moralistic, sentimental comedies, and grew to be a respected actor known for playing eccentric characters; his own plays were often written to fit his comic skills rather than being particularly witty in themselves. William Congreve said of his debut, Love’s Last Shift (1696), "It has only in it a great many things that were like wit, that in reality were not wit."1 Other plays included She Wou’d and She Wou’d Not (1702), The Careless Husband (1704), and The Nonjuror (1717) which was based on Molière's Tartuffe.

In 1700 he adapted Shakespeare's Richard III to great acclaim: playing Richard himself, he heavily cut the text, removing the opening lines

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.
In compensation, Cibber added bloodshed and sensationalism, including the following advice from Richard to Tyrrel, who murdered the princes in the tower (Act IV, Scene iii):
... Get me a Coffin
Full of holes, let 'em be both cram'd into't;
And, hark thee, in the night-tide throw 'em down
The Thames; once in, they'll find the way to th'bottom2
Cibber's version of Richard III was the one usually staged from 1700 until the mid 19th century.

Cibber was manager of the Drury Lane theatre from 1710 to 1740, though he largely retired from the stage in the 1730s. In 1740 he published an autobiography, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, which was well-received, Cibber's vanity being countered by his liveliness and humour.3 As an actor, manager and writer he was highly successful in commercial terms if not always critically. His son Theophilus Cibber (1703-1758) and daughter, Charlotte Clarke (died ?1760) both followed him onto the stage. ("Cibber" is pronounced with a soft C: "sibber").

Getting the job: Cibber moved in high circles from an early age: he befriended William Cavendish, Earl (and later Duke) of Devonshire, in 1687 or 1688, and served in the armed force that attended on William III's arrival, although he received no further advancement at that stage. He was a staunch supporter of the Whigs, as demonstrated in his play The Nonjurer, and Cibber's politics almost certainly played more role than his poetic gifts in his appointment in 1730.

His laureateship: By the time of Cibber, there was no pretence that the Laureate did anything other than produce piss-poor flattery; the long years of Whig rule seemed to have imposed a stifling conformity on the poets laureate of the time and nobody dared write anything that was not straightforward sycophancy. Cibber kept up the birthday and new year odes until his death, with one small gap in 1745-1746, the years of the second Jacobite Rebellion: in these dangerous times the laureate poems were supplied by mysterious deputies.4

Critics and enemies: Cibber was the principal target of the 1743 edition of the Tory Alexander Pope's Dunciad, but the poem had originally been written about another man, Lewis Theobald (1688-1744), who had criticised Pope's dubious editing of Shakespeare. Pope had first mocked Cibber in his Epistle to Arbuthnot where he asked:

And has not Colly still his Lord, and Whore?5
Cibber had responded by publishing a letter in which he wittily explained how he had once rescued Pope from dubious company.6 Pope's rage grew, and in the four-book Dunciad he swapped the name Cibber for Theobald. According to Pope in the Dunciad, one anonymous wag wrote on Cibber's appointment:
In merry old England, it once was a rule,
The king had his poet, as well as his fool;
And now we're so frugal, I'd have you to know it,
That Cibber may serve both for fool and for poet.7
Elsewhere, Pope advised the king to spend Cibber's salary on wine instead:
Great G--! such servants since thou well can'st lack,
Oh! save the Salary, and drink the Sack!8
Cibber retaliated, and is generally reckoned to have given as good as he got in the dispute. And Pope's fury probably weakened his poem: while he may have been just in calling Theobald boring in the Dunciad, the charge could hardly be applied to the lively and comical Cibber. Despite this, Pope's fame means Cibber is now a figure of ridicule far in excess of his actual flaws.

Could have been laureate: When Cibber won the laurels, the other main candidate was Stephen Duck (1705-1756), a farmworker and self-taught poet, who became quite a celebrity (and friend of Queen Caroline) and of whom Pope punned, "One year may make a singing Swan of Duck."9 Since swans are not known for singing, and since Pope was intensely jealous of Duck, this is not a compliment. Duck eventually drowned himself; the Cambridge History of English and American Literature remarks "his poems were dead before him; and nobody has ever attempted to revive them."10

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  • 1 Quoted 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, VIII.VI.24,
  • 2 Cibber's 1700 reworking of William Shakespeare's Richard III, online at
  • 3 G.A. Aitken, "Colley Cibber's Apology", 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, IX.V.9,
  • 4 Peter Heaney is able to offer no explanation of who these writers were or what exactly Cibber did instead: Peter F. Heaney, "The Laureate Dunces and the Death of the Panegyric", Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 4.1-24,
  • 5 Alexander Pope, An Epistle to Arbuthnot, edited by Jack Lynch,
  • 6 Edward Bensly, "The New Dunciad and Colley Cibber", 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, IX.III.21,
  • 7 Quoted in Alexander Pope, Dunciad (1728), note to Bk III, line 319; also Dunciad (1743), note to Bk I, line 104.
  • 8 In Alexander Pope, The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt, Routledge, London, 1963, p 811, lines 5-6.
  • 9 Ibid, line 4.
  • 10 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. Volume IX, VI.31.

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