Who is the Poet Laureate of the United States? What about the U.K., or any other place for that matter? While most people have heard references to a poet laureate at some time or another, the honor is not widely trumpeted outside literary circles today. By the way, Tracy K. Smith is the current United States Poet Laureate. I did not know this until looking it up while writing this article. A poet laureate is officially appointed by a government or institution to honor a talented poet. Drawing on ancient traditions, the modern tradition of recognizing poets in such a way derives from the Italian Renaissance. Renaissance poets, most notably Francesco Petrarch, revived the ancient tradition of wearing a laurel crown.
The laurel crown was used in ancient times to crown poets and Olympic winners. The laurel wreath was associated with the story of Apollo and Daphne. The libidinous god Apollo chased Daphne with only one goal in mind. Daphne, a mere mortal, was unable to outrun a god. She prayed to Peneus, a river god, to protect her from Apollo. Peneus intervened, turning Daphne into a laurel tree.
Two people were responsible for the revival of the post of poet laureate —
Albertino Mussato and Francesco Petrarch. Mussato (1261–1329), though far more obscure than Petrarch, was the first person to be named poet laureate since ancient times. He was a proto-Humanist who promoted the revival of literary Latin in Padvoa. He was also a key influence on Francesco Petrarch.
Francesco Petrarch is often referred to as the ‘father or Renaissance Humanism.’ This is well-deserved and relatively accurate. Petrarch was not some ivory tower academic, he was a popular poet, passionate lover, self-promoter, and driven by a deep interest in the Classical Roman world. He rediscovered some of Cicero’s letters, coined the term ‘Dark Age’ to refer to the time after the fall of Rome climbed Mount Ventoux for recreational purposes, had an enormous impact on the development of the Tuscan dialect (which would later become the official Italian language), and developed a philosophy which emphasized the importance of using one’s talents to the fullest in the service of higher ideals. He popularized the sonnet and wrote letters to long-dead people from the ancient world (most notably his hero Cicero). In short, Petrarch was the fourteenth century’s ‘most interesting man in the world.’
Petrarch was crowned poet laureate in Rome on 8 April 1341 in a palazzo on the Capitoline Hill. During the crowning ceremony, Petrarch delivered a Coronation Oration. The oration displayed Petrarch’s outlook to those in attendance and survives for posterity in the written accounts. Here is an excerpt: “there was a time, there was an age, that was happier for poets, an age when they were held in the highest honor, first in Greece and then in Italy, and especially when Caesar Augustus held imperial sway, under whom there flourished excellent poets: Virgil, Varius, Ovid, Horace, and many others.” Petrarch was well-read in the ancient Roman classics (though lamented that he could not read Greek and had far more limited access to the works of ancient Greek authors). Petrarch’s Coronation Oration has been described by historians as the first great manifesto of the Renaissance. It is indeed a great philosophic opening for the early stages of what would come to be identified as Renaissance thought. Though nowadays a poet laureate is unlikely to be consciously reviving the Classical past in dynamic and innovative ways, in the fourteenth century one many did just that. Francesco Petrarch was the greatest poet laureate since the fall of Rome. Perhaps the poets of today can look back at Petrarch’s legacy and honor it by restoring the glory to the post of poet laureate.