Today is National Poetry Day, a chance to celebrate poetry across the country (for more, visit www.forwardartsfoundation.org/national-poetry-day/). You may not know that over the centuries many poets also sat in the House of Commons. Some were the greats, such as Geoffrey Chaucer (MP for Kent in the ‘Wonderful Parliament’ of 1386) or the metaphysical poet John Donne (elected in 1601 and 1614). Others history has been less kind to: Henry James Pye, MP for Berkshire and afterwards Poet Laureate, was considered ‘respectable in everything but his poetry’ by Sir Walter Scott and was ridiculed by Lord Byron.
Some of the poetical MPs were in fact more interested in their non-literary careers and used their writings to get ahead in this way. George Gascoigne, considered to be the foremost poet of his generation and a predecessor of the ‘Elizabethan greats’, turned to his pen in search of a patron. Gascoigne was twice MP for Bedford thanks to the influence of his father, Sir John Gascoigne. However, soon afterwards he was in severe financial difficulties, thanks to extravagant spending, being disinherited by his father and lengthy court battles over his wife’s fortune (his wife Elizabeth was already married when she and Gascoigne wed, and her two husbands fought over the fortune of her first husband, William Brereton). Gascoigne’s first works were published in the hope of receiving government employment, in July 1575 he even dressed up as a ‘savage’ and directly pleaded with Elizabeth I for royal patronage! By 1576 his quest was successful, but it is his writings, not his deeds as government agent in the Netherlands that he is remembered for today.
Other literary MPs instead found themselves elected by accident. Robert Southey, one of the ‘Lakeland poets’ – brother-in-law to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and close friend of the Wordsworths – became poet laureate in 1813 but never quite matched the other Romantics in reputation. His early political views, like many of his fellow-Romantics, were decidedly radical. In 1799 he wrote this inscription for a proposed monument in the notorious rotten borough of Old Sarum:
Reader, if thou canst boast the noble name
Of Englishman, it is enough to know
Thou standest in Old Sarum. But, if chance,
‘Twas thy misfortune in some other land,
Inheritor of slavery, to be born,
Read and be envious! Dost thou see yon hut,
Its old mud mossy walls with many a patch
Spotted? Know, foreigner! so wisely well
In England it is order’d, that the laws
Which bind the people, from themselves should spring;
Know that the dweller in that little hut,
That wretched hovel, to the senate sends
Two delegates. Think, foreigner, where such
An individual’s rights, how happy all!
As Southey grew older his political views became much more conservative, however, and he was an outspoken defendant of the Church of England and campaigner against Catholic Emancipation. It was his work in this area that led to his election, without his knowledge, to a seat in Downton, Wiltshire thanks to the patronage of the Earl of Radnor who controlled the seat. Southey had no interest in becoming an MP, however, and quickly stated that he was unqualified to take his seat. There ended the poet’s ‘parliamentary adventure’!
Have a look at our website to see if your favourite poet also had a career in Parliament (and do share your favourites with us!): www.historyofparliamentonline.org/research/members.