Now here is a curious thing: how can a man who was once appointed poet laureate of all England, succeeding no less than Alfred, Lord Tennyson by the way, be considered (in some quarters) to be “the worst and least read English poet”? That is what happened to Alfred Austin in 1896, a man who had spent his whole life writing and publishing both novels and poetry, while also being an active political journalist.
He was born into a well off family in the north Leeds suburb of Headingley in 1835. Austin’s father was a merchant and also served on the local magistrate’s bench. His mother was the sister of the famous Member of Parliament and civil engineer Joseph Locke. Alfred enjoyed a private education and acquired a BA in 1853 at the University of London. A career in law was his first option and he was a barrister on the northern circuit for a few years but it was his great ambition to become a published writer and the death of his father in 1861 gave him that opportunity.
Having been left a sufficient amount of money he decided to leave the Bar and write professionally. He had already had one poem published in 1855 – Randolph: A Poem in Two Cantos. He followed this with his first novel which was called Five Years of It. He had a growing interest in foreign politics and he served as a foreign affairs writer at the London Standard for thirty years from 1866. He was an avid Conservative with a hatred of Russia, and so it followed that he was a staunch supporter of Disraeli.
He travelled widely in Europe as the Standard’s special correspondent in such vaunted surroundings as the King of Prussia’s headquarters during the Franco-German war of 1870 and in the Vatican during the sittings of the Ecumenical Council. He was German correspondent at the Congress of Berlin in 1884. He published a number of political books such as Russia Before Europe (1861), Tory Horrors (1876) and England’s Policy and Peril (1877). It naturally followed that he should attempt to embark on a political career as well but he failed to get elected as an MP on two occasions – Taunton and Dewsbury.
Returning from one of his many overseas trips he penned the following poem while still in mid-channel. It is a whimsical piece, portraying his obvious pleasure at returning home despite the cold March winds that he would soon have to endure. It is called To England:
Despite his vast output as a political writer he unfortunately failed to capture the imagination of the reading public as a poet. Despite modelling his style on the likes of Byron, Scott, Shakespeare and Milton his work was of a mediocre standard and subject to a fair amount of derision. You might think it odd then that he chose to publish a book called The Poetry of the Period in 1869 where he openly and audaciously attacked such luminaries in poetry as Browning, Tennyson and Whitman. He used words like “feminine” and “essentially childish” in his criticism of their work.
Despite being seen as an essentially mediocre poet he was appointed poet laureate in 1896 in what was quite clearly a political move. He was being rewarded for his great services as a political writer to the governing Conservative party and other candidates such as Kipling and Swinburne were overlooked largely because Queen Victoria did not think them suitable. Unfortunately he was lampooned in many quarters as a Tory sap and a figure of fun. Punch, in particular, attacked him savagely in print. In many ways Austin was seen as a man who took himself far too seriously, almost completely lacking in humour and thus was seen as a humorous target for others to exploit.
Alfred Austin died in 1913 at the age of 78.