The Poets Laureate: Laurence Eusden
Years in office: 1718-1730
Who was he: Born in Spofforth, Yorkshire, and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, Eusden (1688-1730) seems to have been regarded even by his contemporaries as a second-rate poet; he never published a book of original verse. He was, however, a contributor to The Spectator and translated Hero and Leander by Musaeus. He became rector of Coningsby, Lincolnshire.
Getting the job: In those days before wedding photographers, it is said a flattering poem about the Duke of Newcastle's nuptials led to his appointment as poet laureate on Christmas Eve, 1718.
Laureate verse: In the Birthday Ode for 1721, Julius Caesar arrives in England to be informed by a druid bard of the coming greatness of Eusden's Hanoverian King George I:
"Tho' thy flatt'ring Minions tell thee,
"None can rise who shall excell thee;
"In revolving Years, believe me,
"(Heroe! I will not deceive thee)
"From distant German Climes shall rise
"A Heroe, more, than Julius, Wise;
"More Good, more Prais'd, more truly Great,
"Courted to sway BRITANNIA's State.1
Following the arrival of the foreign king George I to succeed Queen Anne, the succession was a major cause of dissent, and Eusden saw his job as being to promote the House of Hanover and their lovely new kingdom, while disparaging the Stuarts. According to Peter F. Heaney, Eusden lacked the good judgment of his predecessors who had often proffered advice for the king; Eusden went instead for all-out flattery:
In his laureate odes, Eusden is so blinded by the monarchical sun that the panegyric's concern for the national interest and the need to offer guidance to the monarch, passes him by.2
George I died in 1727, and Eusden produced a suitably grandiose tribute to his military greatness, and then welcomed his successor George II
with "A Poem On the happy Succession, and Coronation of His present Majesty
" (1727), proudly declaring "'Tis a GEORGE only can a GEORGE succeed!"
Critics and enemies: Alexander Pope was strongly opposed to the laureates (and indeed to their Protestant Hanoverian kings) and wrote in the Dunciad:
Know, Eusden thirsts no more for sack or praise;
He sleeps among the dull of ancient days; 3
In the notes to the Dunciad
, Pope also quotes the following:
Eusden, a laurel'd Bard, by fortune rais'd,
By very few was read, by fewer prais'd
He adds to this "Mr Eusden was made laureate ... because there was no better to be had" and produces the following lines about the poet's obscurity, which he attributes to the Duke of Buckingham
In rushed Eusden, and cry'd, Who shall Have it
But I, the true Laureate, to whom the King gave it?
Apollo beg'd pardon, and granted his claim,
But vow'd that 'till then he ne'er heard of his name. 4
Could have been laureate: William Congreve (1670-1729) was the greatest playwright of the time, though John Gay (1685-1732) was not far behind. One suspects that Alexander Pope would have leapt at the chance too.
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1 Quoted in Peter F. Heaney, "The Laureate Dunces and the Death of the Panegyric", Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 4.1-24,
2 Heaney, ibid.
3 Alexander Pope, Four-book Dunciad (1743), Bk 1, ll. 292-294
4 See: Alexander Pope, Dunciad (1728), note to Bk III, l. 319.