Jonathan Fryer

What Use Is the Poet Laureate?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd April, 2007

andrew-motion.jpgOn the occasion of Shakespeare’s birthday, the Society of Authors (the writers’ union, with literary added value) held a party in the Great Hall of King’s College London this evening — nice wine, execrable ‘savoury snacks’. Many writers spend their days huddled over word processors in tiny rooms, so it is good to give them an excuse to get out. The guest of honour was the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, who spoke admirably briefly, before reading two Shakespearian sonnets. In this day and age, one might with justification ask: just what is the Poet Laureate for? The post has existed for centuries; probably the first example of the title being used referred to Geoffrey Chaucer (14th Century). Amongst his successors, some more glorious than others, one thinks of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (the very embodiment of the Victorian age), and Sir John Betjamen (the nation’s teddy-bear). No wonder young Mr Motion has been finding it hard to define his role, though he does it elegantly and with modesty. However, my nerves were set on edge by the hostess of the evening, who had had the excellent idea of organising this event, but who declared that in future years it had probably better be on other dates, as it wouldn’t be right to celebrate the birthday of a white male each time. Political correctness gone mad. Are we so blind to our heritage that we no longer recognise Shakespeare’s unique quality, irrespective or ethnicity or gender? If anyone needed reminding, Andrew Motion did so movingly by reciting Sonnet Number 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments. Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove:/O No! it is an ever-fixed mark,/That looks on tempests, and is never shaken/It is the star to every wandering bark,/Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken./Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/Will in his bending sickle’s compass come;/Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom./If this be error, and upon me prov’d,/I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

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