Henry James Pye

Henry James Pye (/p/; 20 February 1745 – 11 August 1813) was an English poet, and Poet Laureate from 1790 until his death. His appointment owed nothing to poetic achievement, and was probably a reward for political favours. Pye was merely a competent prose writer, who fancied himself as a poet, earning the derisive label of poetaster.

Henry James Pye
Henry James Pye by Samuel James Arnold.jpg
Henry James Pye, circa 1800-1808.
Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom
In office
28 July 1790 – 11 August 1813
MonarchGeorge III
Preceded byThomas Warton
Succeeded byRobert Southey
Personal details
Born20 February 1745
Faringdon House, Berkshire, England
Died11 August 1813(1813-08-11) (aged 68)
Pinner, Middlesex, England
Resting placePinner's parish church of St John the Baptist
SpouseMartha Corbett (1801–1813) his death
ChildrenHarry James Pye
Alma materMagdalen College, Oxford
OccupationPoet Laureate


Pye was born in London, the son of Henry Pye of Faringdon House in Berkshire, and his wife, Mary James. He was the nephew of Admiral Thomas Pye. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford. His father died in 1766, leaving him a legacy of debt amounting to £50,000, and the burning of the family home further increased his difficulties.[1]

In 1784 he was elected Member of Parliament for Berkshire. He was obliged to sell the paternal estate, and, retiring from Parliament in 1790, became a police magistrate for Westminster. Although he had no command of language and was destitute of poetic feeling, his ambition was to obtain recognition as a poet, and he published many volumes of verse.[1]

Of all he wrote his prose Summary of the Duties of a Justice of the Peace out of Sessions (1808) is most worthy of record. He was made poet laureate in 1790, perhaps as a reward for his faithful support of William Pitt the Younger in the House of Commons. The appointment was looked on as ridiculous, and his birthday odes were a continual source of contempt. The 20th-century British historian Lord Blake called Pye "the worst Poet Laureate in English history with the possible exception of Alfred Austin."[1] Indeed, Pye's successor, Robert Southey, wrote in 1814: "I have been rhyming as doggedly and dully as if my name had been Henry James Pye." He was the first poet laureate to receive a fixed salary of £270 instead of the historic tierce of Canary wine. After his death, Pye remained one of the unfortunate few who have been classified as a "poetaster."[2]

As a prose writer, Pye was far from contemptible. He had a fancy for commentaries and summaries. His "Commentary on Shakespeare's commentators", and that appended to his translation of the Poetics, contain some noteworthy matter. A man, who, born in 1745, could write "Sir Charles Grandison is a much more unnatural character than Caliban," may have been a poetaster but was certainly not a fool.[3]

He died in Pinner, Middlesex on 11 August 1813.[1] He is buried in Pinner's parish church of St John the Baptist.[4]

Pye married twice. He had two daughters by his first wife. He married secondly in 1801 Martha Corbett, by whom he had a son Henry John Pye, who in 1833 inherited the Clifton Hall, Staffordshire estate of a distant cousin and who was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1840.


  • Prose
- Summary of the Duties of a Justice of the Peace out of Sessions (1808)
- The Democrat (1795)
- The Aristocrat (1799)
  • Poetry
- Poems on Various Subjects (1787), first substantial collection of Pye's verse
- Adelaide: a Tragedy in Five Acts (1800)
- Alfred (1801)
  • Translations
- Aristotle's Poetics (1792)


  1. ^ a b c d H. Pye
  2. ^ Beer, John (2009). Romanticism, Revolution and Language: The Fate of the Word from Samuel Johnson to George Eliot. Cambridge University Press. p. 109. ISBN 0521897556
  3. ^ Lesser Poets, 1790–1837
  4. ^ Weinreb, Ben and Hibbert, Christopher (1992). The London Encyclopaedia (reprint ed.). Macmillan. p. 745.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)


External linksEdit

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
John Elwes (politician)
Winchcombe Henry Hartley
Member for Berkshire
with George Vansittart
Succeeded by
George Vansittart
Winchcombe Henry Hartley
Court offices
Preceded by British Poet Laureate
Succeeded by