Who Will Be Poet Laureate?
— It is Popularly supposed that it belongs to the Queen to decide the question of the successor-ship to Tennyson’s vacant chair, but that does not prevent us all from giving her advice, and continuing to give it after she has made her choice. It is a comment on the rise of public opinion into the place of sovereignty that we are just as ready to have a plebiscite in America on the laureateship in England as we are to instruct publishers of magazines whom to appoint in the place of dead editors. If any body of voters should be respected, the Contributors’ Club has the first place.
It seems to me that there are only two English poets whose achievement entitles them to consideration, — Mr. Swinburne and Mr. William Morris. The latter, however, has turned anarchist, and is out of the question. Mr. Swinburne is a lyrical poet of the first order ; no poet since Shelley has wakened such subtle and various music ; and though he once said something about a poet laureate being a hummingbird on a queen’s wrist, and in his early youth was too fond of unconventional themes, he is Tennyson’s natural successor, if genius counts for anything. The duties of the laureateship are not onerous ; at least Tennyson has not set a high standard in his purely official poems. They have been very ordinary, with a few exceptions. The Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, the dedication of the Idyls to the Prince Consort, and one or two other pieces in this kind are poems which Tennyson would doubtless have written even if he had not been court-singer. They sprung from exceptional and splendid moods ; the occasion was merely a coincidence. One of our newspapers has said that if we had in this country such a post as the laureateship, there would be at the present time no one worthy to fill it. There are at least half a dozen men in America who write better occasional verse than Tennyson has produced. For example, Tennyson never wrote a strictly perfunctory poem of so high an order as the little elegy on his death which the Rev. Henry van Dyke printed in the New York Tribune the other day. Compare any passage of the Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition, in 1864, with this noble stanza : —
Silence here — for grief is voiceless when the mighty poets fail;
Silence here — but far above us many voices crying, Hail ! ”
But to return to the English minstrels. There is no lack of aspirants for the official wreath. Among the rest are Mr. Lewis Morris, Mr. Alfred Austin, and Sir Edwin Arnold. Mr. Lewis Morris is the author of several long and tiresome narrative poems. If one had to choose between reading his Epic of Hades and going there, one would prefer to go there. Mr. Alfred Austin is a well-meaning and amiable gentleman who composes harmless verses, addressed chiefly to ladies of quality, — Lines to Lady Pimple, on hearing of the Death of her Ladyship’s Pug at Pimple Place, Pimple Park, Cholmondesley, Surrey. Sir Edwin Arnold has written several admirable things, among which I should not include his lively ballad or Mrs. Potiphar. I should say that none of these three gentlemen (who are understood to be very hopeful in the matter) runs the slightest chance of cooling his forehead with the laurel that came to Tennyson
Of him that uttered nothing base.”
If the laureateship is not given to Mr. Swinburne, so much the worse for the laureateship.
I have not mentioned Mr. Robert Buchanan, for nobody has thought of him in this connection excepting Mr. Robert Buchanan himself. He has thought of him. His prospects, however, are much less bright than those of several gentlemen who have not thrust themselves forward in the matter, — Sir Theodore Martin and Mr. William Watson, for instance, the latter a young English poet of whom the world is to hear more hereafter.