The Poets Laureate: William Davenant

Years in office: 1638-1668

Who was he: Although he never bore the title, Sir William Davenant (or D'Avenant; 1606-1668) was effectively England's second poet laureate. He was probably born in Crown Inn, Oxford, and attended Lincoln College, Oxford University, but did not complete his degree. Davenant's godfather was William Shakespeare, but it is generally believed Shakespeare had an affair with his mother, and rumoured Shakespeare may have been his father. A playwright (The Witts, Albovine), poet (Madagascar), and theatre impresario, Davenant's early drama was in a bloody Jacobean idiom, but later he was more influenced by French theatre.

Getting the job: When laureate Ben Jonson grew disenchanted with the court and quarrelled with court architect Inigo Jones, Davenant swept in to write masques such as The Temple of Love (1634) and Britannica Triumphans (1637). Although the latter was criticised for premiering on a Sunday, his position made him ideally placed to succeed Ben Jonson, and a year after the great playwright's death, Charles I appointed him as replacement. While Jonson and Davenant are not always included in lists of official laureates, the role they filled and the salary they earned (including a butt of Canary wine) was similar to that of John Dryden and later incumbents.

Non-laureate verse: His most famous poem is probably "Aubade":

The lark now leaves his wat'ry nest,
    And climbing shakes his dewy wings.
He takes this window for the East,
    And to implore your light he sings
Awake, awake! the morn will never rise
Till she can dress her beauty at your eyes.
The merchant bows unto the seaman's star,
    The ploughman from the sun his season takes,
But still the lover wonders what they are
    Who look for day before his mistress wakes.
Awake, awake! break thro' your veils of lawn!
Then draw your curtains, and begin the dawn!

Laureate verse: "To the Queen, entertain'd at night by the Countess of Anglesey"

Faire as unshaded Light; or as the Day
In its first birth, when all the Year was May;
Sweet, as the Altars smoak, or as the new
Unfolded Bud, sweld by the early dew;
Smooth, as the face of waters first appear'd,
Ere Tides began to strive, or Winds were heard:
Kind as the willing Saints, and calmer farre,
Than in their sleeps forgiven Hermits are:
You that are more, then our discreter feare
Dares praise, with such full Art, what make you here?
Here, where the Summer is so little seen,
That leaves (her cheapest wealth) scarce reach at green,
You come, as if the silver Planet were
Misled a while from her much injur'd Sphere,
And t'ease the travailes of her beames to night,
In this small Lanthorn would contract her light.

His laureateship: Owing to the political conflict of the time, Davenant spent more time as a partisan promoting the cause of the king than he did writing poetry. In 1642 the English Civil War began, leading to his patron's defeat and execution. In 1645 Davenant fled with the majority of the Stuart court to Paris, where he began Gondinbert, an epic poem in quatrains, which he never finished. When he tried to sail to America to rally support for the Stuarts in 1650, he was captured by Oliver Cromwell's government and imprisoned in the Tower of London (he may have been released thanks to the intercession of John Milton). He was briefly jailed again in 1659 for supporting Sir George Booth's revolt.

Davenant spent his later years trying to reestablish the theatre in Oliver Cromwell's England; in an attempt to avoid the puritan distrust for plays, he threw in a few songs, creating what are reckoned the first English operas, such as The Siege of Rhodes (1656). Following the Restoration he was granted one of only 2 patents to start a theatre company.

Critics and enemies: While historically important, his poetry is not esteemed. The 1911 Britannica is damning:

The personal character, adventures and fame of Davenant, and more especially his position as a leading reformer, or rather debaser, of the stage, have always given him a prominence in the history of literature which his writings hardly justify. His plays are utterly unreadable, and his poems are, usually, stilted and unnatural.1

Could have been laureate: Thomas May (1595-1650) felt he should have got the job, but posterity disagrees. John Milton (1608-1674) was the greatest figure of the time, but no royalist. Alternatively, Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), Thomas Carew (1594-1640), Robert Herrick (1591-1674).

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  • 1 "Sir William Davenant", Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911, online at