The title and photo above are lifted directly from the overwrought pages of that esteemed journal of all things bizarre and deliciously ill-fated, 'Parade' magazine.
The career of Alfred Austin, Poet Laureate from 1896 to 1913 'was a hilarious interlude of parody, mockery and laughter unrivalled in literary annals.' According to 'Parade', 'Malign Fate' and 'A cynical Prime Minister who could think of no one else' conspired to get him the job. Every morning when I awake I give thanks to the Lord that I am not a Poet Laureate. It does not sound like much of a job and from all accounts is still poorly paid. Who would be a Poet Laureate, then? Alfred Austin would! So much so that he threw in a legal career to pursue his dream.
Many of us would be deterred from such a dream if our first volume of poetry only sold 17 copies. But not Alfred. When his second volume, a satire of the Mayfair marriage market, was slated by the critics, he responded with a 'pompous bad tempered pamphlet called 'My satire and its critics'. He always came out swinging, did our Alfred. He decided Browning was 'muddy', Swinburne produced 'mere babble,' Tennyson would be 'handed over to the dust as soon as the generation came to its senses'. Dickens was 'surrounded by a flimsy brood of servile admirers.' Although Alfred clearly recognised that bunch of ne'erdowell flybynights for what they were, they were not impressed. Swinburne referred to Alfred as 'that creature' while Tennyson went one better by ignoring him completely.
That said, once Tennyson, despite his obvious literary shortcomings, somehow managed to become a peer, Alfred decided his friendship was worth cultivating. So he 'tried' to give Tennyson a leaf. Always works for me, I have found. Ok, it was not just any leaf. It was allegedly a 'laurel leaf from the ancient Greek shrine of Delphi.' You will note that 'Parade' is enigmatically silent on whether or not Alfred actually ever succeeded in his leaf-giving attempts.
Alfred's next project was a long narrative poem (is that the tinkling of alarm bells I hear?) entitled 'The Human Tragedy'. It took him a good twenty years to complete and is by all accounts, unreadable. Its apt title should not remain unremarked upon.
He also embarked on a career as a failed Tory politician before deciding that the 'hurly burly of the hustings' was too much for his 'rare spirit'. Thankfully for us, he chose instead to concentrate instead on his deathless poetry and pamphleteering, proceeding to churn out '20 volumes of atrocious verse in the next 30 years.' Somehow, he managed to win friends in high places, with Queen Victoria declaring his work 'delightful'. He dedicated a poem to her, mystifyingly called 'Prince Lucifer'. Perhaps it reminded her of Albert.
Then, after Tennyson dropped off the perch, there was a vacuum of three years where no suitable Poet Laureate could be found. Eventually, given his presence in the good books of the Queen and his unimpeachable reactionary politics, he was appointed Poet Laureate by Lord Salisbury. Lord Salisbury remarked that the only reason why he suggested Alfred for the job was that 'he wanted it'. It may have also had something to do with the sonnet Alfred penned for the Lord:
'Great, wise and good, too near for men to know, til years shall pass, how good, how wise, how great.'
Dear Alfred, with customary insight and modesty, was not at all surprised by his appointment: 'It is simply recognition of my place at the head of English Literature', he responded.
As for the rest of English society, it greeted Alfred's appointment with 'a chorus of mingled contempt, derision and ribald laughter.' The laughter grew louder when Alfred published a patriotic verse drama all about - who else- King Alfred the Great. It was called 'England's Darling'. To say, as 'Parade' does, that the critics seized on it with delight is, no doubt, an understatement.
Alfred then banged on for many more years, inciting all manner of racial hatred with his jingoistic doggerel and 'flatulent odes'. He never achieved the peerage he so brazenly craved, and his ultimate and inevitable decline in popularity almost led to the abolition of the post of Poet Laureate altogether.
In closing then, a fitting tribute would be a few words from the man himself. And if you can make head or tail of it, you are a better person than I am:
Will you, I round it willingly can guide you;
Unless-and told, shall fully understand-
Wander you rather would with none beside you.