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Every country needs a poet laureate

By Steven Schwartz - posted Friday, 31 December 2021

Oxford-educated and possessed of considerable charm, Michael Massey Robinson was a rogue and a scoundrel. Convicted of extortion in London, he was sentenced to death in 1796. Luckily for him, educated convicts were desperately needed in Britain's antipodean colony. So, instead of dangling from a noose, Robinson found himself clinging to the rails of the ship that transported him to New South Wales. He arrived in 1798 and immediately went to work as a legal secretary to the newly arrived judge advocate whom he had befriended on the voyage.

After only a fortnight, Governor John Hunter granted Robinson a conditional pardon, but old habits did not take long to reassert themselves. In 1802, Robinson was convicted of extortion and transported again for a sojourn on Norfolk Island where the Bounty mutineers landed.

When he returned to Sydney, Robinson's erudition, courtly manners, and knowledge of literature impressed the new governor, Lachlan Macquarie, who appointed him to a government post. As a sideline, Robinson composed patriotic odes for royal birthdays and state occasions. Macquarie granted Robinson two cows "for his services as poet laureate."


There were poets in the New South Wales colony before Robinson arrived-their anonymous "pipes" satirising the king were well known-but Robinson was the first colonial poet to be published and the first to use the noun "Australia" in his works.

Rarely quoted today, Robinson's verse sounds strained and unctuous to modern ears:

For, while beneath these southern skies,
Thy public works and temples rise,
Men yet unborn thy worth shall prize,
And bless thy honor'd name!

Macquarie may have been flattered by such fawning but his successor, Thomas Brisbane, was unmoved and quickly dispensed with Robinson's services. Still, his place in history was assured. Robinson was not only ​Australia's first poet laureate but also the last. The post has remained unfilled for 200 years. With a few digressions, and a brief polemic, the remainder of this article presents a what, where, why, how, and who case for the post of poet laureate.

What and where?

The leaders of renaissance Europe revived the ancient custom of crowning military heroes with laurel wreaths. Over the years, the term "laureate" evolved to designate any form of outstanding achievement (as in Nobel Laureate).


The first British poet laureate was John Dryden, appointed to the post in 1668 by King Charles II. Dryden, the foremost literary figure of his time, composed panegyrics praising the monarch:

For his long absence, church and state did groan;
Madness the pulpit, faction seized the throne:
Experienced age in deep despair was lost,
To see the rebel thrive, the loyal crost.

Dryden's heroic couplets earned him an annual salary of £200 and a "butt of Canary wine." His tenure as poet laureate continued into the reign of James II. As a Catholic convert, Dryden was happy to serve as a spin-doctor for the Catholic king, but the poet was no hypocrite. When James was deposed, Dryden refused to declare loyalty to the Protestants William and Mary. William promptly dismissed him, making Dryden the only poet laureate ever to be fired. Indeed, until recently, British poets laureat were appointed for life.

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This article was first published in a modified version by Quadrant, and published in its current version on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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