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Looking for a Laureate: The Difficulties of Three Prime Ministers

Peter Stansky & William Abrahams describe how, after Tennyson’s death, the problem of finding a new Poet Laureate perturbed successive British governments.

The death of Tennyson in October 1892, in his eighty-third year, deprived England not only of a Poet Laureate, but of a long-established National Monument—next to the Queen herself, he had come to represent in the public consciousness the embodiment of Victorianism, a poet “who held the proud honour of never uttering one single line which an English mother would once wish unwritten or an English girl unread.”

There was a magnificent state funeral in Westminster Abbey; outside, broadsheets of “Crossing the Bar” were sold and recited. Then the search for a successor was begun. “It is sad, but inevitable,” wrote Sir Algernon West, Gladstone’s chief secretary, “that on the death of a great man, the first thought that arises is, who is to fill, or try to fill, his place?”

The appointment of the Poet Laureate was a prerogative of the Queen, who would act upon the advice of her Prime Minister. Considering the abundance of poets from whom a choice might be made, it should not have been difficult to advise her. Yet the problem of finding a Laureate remained to irritate, harass, and challenge three successive Prime Ministers—William Gladstone, Lord Rosebery, and the Marquess of Salisbury—and it was not until December 1895 that the appointment was finally made.

Tennyson had died in the early hours of October 6th, 1892. Later that day a report of his death, in circumstantial detail, was brought to the Queen at Balmoral. The elderly Victoria, who shared the taste of her age for a memorable deathbed, wrote in her Journal:

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