From William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Sir John Betjeman and Ted Hughes, some of Britain's most famous poets have held the position of Poet Laureate. This special honour, and appointment to the Royal Household, is awarded by the Sovereign to a poet whose work is of national significance. An exhibition opening at The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse
in August is the first ever to explore this royal tradition and the relationship between poet and monarch over 350 years.
Through historic documents from the Royal Library and newly commissioned works of art, Poetry for the Palace: Poets Laureate from Dryden to Duffy marks the halfway point in the tenure of the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. The exhibition includes original manuscripts and rare editions presented to monarchs by Poets Laureate from the 17th century to the present day, many personally inscribed, handwritten or illustrated by the poets themselves. Over three-quarters of the 52 items will go on display for the first time.
Born in Scotland, Carol Ann Duffy was appointed the 20th Poet Laureate by The Queen in 2009 and is the first woman to hold the position. Her poems cover a range of subjects, from the Royal Wedding in 2011 (Rings) and the 60th anniversary of The Queen's Coronation (The Crown), to the publication of the Hillsborough Report (Liverpool) and climate change (Atlas). The poems are brought to life in the exhibition by the textual artist Stephen Raw, including works in ink, watercolour, ceramic and paper cut-out.
Poets Laureate have marked numerous royal events, from births, deaths and marriages to investitures and jubilees, although they have not been obliged to do so since the 18th century. Both Cecil Day-Lewis (19041972) and John Betjeman (19061984) wrote poems for the investiture of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales in 1969. Work by Ted Hughes (19301998) includes a special edition of his Laureate poems published at the request of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and the original draft of The Dream of the Lion, written to mark The Queen Mother's 85th birthday in 1985. A handwritten copy of The Golden Rule by Sir Andrew Motion (b.1952) celebrates Her Majesty The Queen's 80th birthday in 2006.
The first official Poet Laureate was John Dryden (16311700), appointed by Charles II in 1668. He was also the only one to be dismissed, when he refused to swear allegiance to William III and Mary II in 1689. The exhibition includes a copy of the poem written by Dryden to mark the death of Charles II in 1685. The oldest item in the exhibition is a musical score by Henry Purcell for an ode by the third Poet Laureate, Nahum Tate (16521715), who is best known today for writing While Shepherds Watch their Flocks by Night. The ode, Celebrate this Festival, marked the 31st birthday of Queen Mary in 1693.
Poets Laureate were required to write regularly for the Sovereign until the time of William Wordsworth (17701850), who took on the role at the age of 73. Wordsworth accepted the position only on the understanding he would not be required to write anything. The exhibition includes an anthology of his poetry with a poem handwritten by Wordsworth on the flyleaf, dedicating the volume as a gift to Queen Victoria. Poets Laureate are now free to write as little or as much as they choose.
The tenure of a Poet Laureate is now ten years until 1999 it was a lifetime appointment. The longest serving Laureate was Alfred, Lord Tennyson (18091892), who was in post for over 40 years from 1850 to 1892. The exhibition includes Queen Victoria's own copy of The Charge of the Light Brigade and a Book of Common Prayer with a dedicatory poem by Tennyson, presented to Queen Victoria by her children on what would have been her Golden Wedding anniversary in 1890. Her husband, Prince Albert, had died in 1861.
The second longest-serving Poet Laureate, John Masefield (18781967), wrote many poems for the royal family during his 37-year tenure. The exhibition shows several presentation works, many written out by a calligrapher and beautifully illustrated in watercolour and ink by Masefield himself. His poems marked events such as the coronation of King George VI and the marriage of Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Poets Laureate have often worked closely with the Master of the King's Music or other leading musicians of the day. A poem in memory of Queen Alexandra, consort of King Edward VII, was set to music by the Master of The King's Music, Sir Edward Elgar, in 1932, and the original manuscript score is shown in the exhibition.
The Poet Laureate is given a small annual stipend and a 'butt of sack', a wooden cask containing full bodied wine (now known as sherry). This unusual custom began in 1630 with a gift to the poet Ben Jonson (15721637), who wrote for James I and Charles I, but was never formally appointed Poet Laureate. Henry Pye (17451813) ended the sherry tradition in 1790, relinquishing his portion in lieu of £27 per year. The tradition was revived during the tenure of Ted Hughes by the Sherry Producers of Spain, and the gift now consists of 720 bottles of sherry, the equivalent of a barrel. It is traditional for the Poet Laureate to sign their barrel, and the exhibition includes the barrel head signed by Carol Ann Duffy.