‘Rebels and eccentrics, down-and-outers and hard drinkers’

Former secret government papers have laid bare astonishing behind-the-scenes sniping about the country’s greatest poets.

Queen Elizabeth’s advisers canvassed opinion from the top minds in British verse before the late monarch appointed Sir John Betjeman Poet Laureate in 1972.

But then-Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath was told the 40 candidates included a mix of “rebels and eccentrics, down-and-outers and hard drinkers”.

WH Auden was dismissed as a “turncoat” who wrote “filthy” erotic verse which would “bring disgrace” on the Queen.

Ted Hughes was said to write in a “violent strain” and RS Thomas was thought to have the wrong temperament for a national poetry figurehead.

William Plomer was considered “rather dull”, Vernon Scannell a “charming drunk” and Laurence Whistler “an awful snob”.

Even Sir John, one of our best-loved poets, faced personal scrutiny as he was “virtually living apart” from his wife, Penelope Chetwode.

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The backbiting is revealed in declassified documents published online by the National Archives in Kew, London. Sir John was first considered for Poet Laureate in 1968 when John Masefield died, but PM Harold Wilson, who would advise the monarch on the choice was warned off.

Labour leader Mr Wilson’s legal adviser and Arts Council chairman, Lord Goodman, thought Sir John too old-fashioned.

He said: “The songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters does not make a very suitable incumbent for the poet laureateship of a new and vital world.” Cecil Day-Lewis, father of actor Daniel, was appointed, but died of cancer four years later.

WH Auden was favourite to replace him, but influential Oxford critic Jon Stallworthy ruled him out because he had taken US citizenship years before.

In a letter to Downing Street, Stallworthy said: “For him to turn his coat again would make a mockery of the laureateship.”

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Ross McWhirter, who founded the Guinness Book of Records with his brother Norris, also warned No10 and Buckingham Palace off Auden. He said the poet, who was gay, had written a homoerotic work which was an “extreme example of pornography” that could have been prosecuted.

McWhirter added: “This would bring disgrace upon the appointment itself and would reflect upon Her Majesty the Queen.”

Another possible candidate, Leonard Clark, told No10 aide John Hewitt that rival George Barker had also “written too much pornography”.

He added Hughes wrote “in a violent strain” and was “not a well-organised man”, Hugh MacDiarmid was “probably too old” and Philip Larkin had “very contemporary attitudes”. Clark dismissed Plomer as “a delightful man…but a rather dull poet” and Scannell as “a charming drunk” who “could not possibly hold the job down”.

Hewitt wrote to Mr Heath that August to warn him a pressure group called the Poets Conference had held a poll suggesting left-winger Adrian Mitchell as laureate.

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He called it “slightly unpleasant” because CND supporter Mitchell had “put on a vulgar display at Southwark Cathedral”.

His memo says Scotsman MacDiarmid was among the “rebels and eccentrics”, Barker was one of the “down and outers” and Scannell among “hard drinkers”.

Sir John got Hewitt’s vote because he “would be accepted by all the respectable professional organisations connected with poetry.”

Hewitt added:“I have taken such advice as I can about Sir John Betjeman’s matrimonial affairs.

“Although it is a fact that they are virtually living apart and that she spends a great deal of time in India, there is no suggestion or evidence of any scandal whatever.”

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