In Praise of Forgotten Poets
The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse Edited by Roger Lonedale Oxford University Press 870pp $25
STUDENTS OF history often gloss over 18th century England. T.S. Eliot dismissed it as an age of retired country clergymen and schoolmasters, while that consummate Victorian Matthew Arnold condescendingly termed it. The elegant and indispensable 18th century. Sure, there were plenty of quaint leisurely settings in 18th century England but to generalize in such a way about any lengthy period of history is dangerous, and in this case quite misleading. The age between the turor of the Civil Wars and the clamor of the Industrial Revolution does not boast such climate historical events. Yet studies of 18th century English literature and society reveal this as a fascinating time of no little complexity.
Recently a school of social historians have focused scholarly attentions more closely on the period. In doing so, they have begun to reveal a time of harsh penal codes that permitted judges to flaunt the death penalty, a dearth of law enforcement, incipient industrial revolution, violent town-wide football matches, bear baiting, turnpike rioting, abject urban poverty, burgeoning trade, and busting shops.
Like eighteenth century English history, the literature of the century has also been the victim of inattention. Pope and Johnson are undeniable presences, but others are sometimes lost in between the glitter of the Elizabethans and Milton and the later Romantics and Victorians. Yet there were many intelligent literary minds at this time, and they produced writing that is well worth our attention.
In the original 1926 edition of The Oxford Book Of Eighteenth Century Verse, editor David Nichol Smith remarked that "our attitude to the century is still in the process of readjustment ... we must have our personal likes or dislikes of the Elizabethans and Carolines, but from the judgement which has been passed on them as a whole there is no demand for an appeal. No such judgement has yet been given on the poetry of the eighteenth century." As much as Smith anticipated recent historical inquiry, he also anticipated Roger Lorsdale's New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse.
Anthologies serve as our means of determining the representative poets of an age. Of course Lonsdale's edition still includes the poetry of the most renowned eighteenth century poets such as Pope, Swift, Johnson, and Blake. Yet the new edition also includes a wealth of posey from more obscure pens. Included in Lonsdale's volume are poems from people of all walks of life including women peasants, and the always elusive Anonymous. The anthology offers a more representative sampling of poems--Lonsdale includes 230 to Smith's 137--and a better feeling for the people of the time.
In this sense, the book serves as a supplement to recent historical research. Poet's present some of the most sensitive perceptions of their world, and Lonsdale shows us that eighteenth century life was not simply about sprawling manors, doddering curates, fox hunting and professional male poets, but also about the horrors, and joys, of opium, chimney sweeping, marriage, bread riots, the difficulty of being a woman in a man's world, soldiering, and even the laundry. The book helps us to a broader understanding of the time.
Lonsdale's anthology is quite thorough. Although he clearly understands that the book's function is to serve, in Fielding's terms, as a bill of fare before whatever feast the reader might desire, he spent years scouring all available sources to uncover a selection of admirable breadth. There are extracts from Pope's Dunciad, Rape of the Lock, Essay on Man, and assorted Epistles and Elegles. Johnson's Vanity of Human Wishes is printed in full, as are Swift's Description of the Morning and his Verses On The Death Of Doctor Swift. There are generous selections from Mathew Prior, Isaac Watts, John Gay, Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, Christopher Smart, Robert Burns, and William Blake, and an appropriately limited one from that misplaced Poet Laureate Colley Cibber. Lonsdale has often embellished Smith's selections from deserving poets like William Cowper and the dazzling and vitriolic Charles Churchill.
ALL OF THESE men, as Lonsdale says of Pope, will survive with or without his attentions. The editor's real concern lies with "some of the totally forgotten men and women whose literary bones I disturbed after they had slumbered peacefully for some two hundred years..." In a sense, Lonsdale has no business indulging in such heroic exhuming. Although the minor poems he has uncovered are valuable for historical documentation, they cannot hope to impress in the manner of Pope's heroic couplets or Johnson's manly verse. Yet literature never adapts itself to such hierarchical thinking, and one of the virtues of Lonsdale's book is that it is broad enough to grant the reader his or her whims. Taste can be a most esoteric beast, and just what exists as good poetry suits itself to eclectic standards.
And much besides the Pope and Johnson is entertaining, provocative reading. William King's amusing story of a licentious nobleman and a guileful beggar woman, "The Beggar Woman" and the anonymous "Art of Wenching" are both good fun. John Ellis' "Sarah Hazard's Love Letter," is a poignant verse based upon an actual tragic letter. In "The Rural Lass", Catherine Jemmat's story of a woman determined to marry despite her parents' disapproval, sheds some light on the pitifully subordinate plight of the eighteenth century women Edward Chicken's portrait of "The Collier's Wedding" is a somber depiction of a rural feast that conjures up interesting comparisons with the paintings of Breugal and the works of Hardy.
Christopher Pitt's, "On The Masquerades, is incisive social satire:
Whoring till now a common trade has been.
But masquerades refine upon the sin;
And higher taste to wickedness impart
And second nature with the helps of art
New ways and means to pleasure we devise
Since pleasure looks the lovelier in disguise
The stealth and frolic give a smarter gust.
And wit to vice and elegance to lust.
James Dance's "Cricket, An Heroic Poem" is more light hearted verse. This English fascination with the sport foreshadows America's own fixation with baseball: "They pleasures, cricket! All his heart control; They eager transports dwell upon his soul." After denouncing billiards, and cricket's sister sport tennis, Dance elevates cricket to a heroic level, emblemtic of London's proud, patriotic demeanor.
Of course London is not always so vaunted. Swift's "A Description of a City Shower" is a famous portrait of the rancid gutters, but James Eyre Week's vision of the grey fog of people, "Lost and bewildered in the thickening mist" presents the wen at its gloomist. Also intriguing are Hannah More and William Parsons' words on the tumuluous bred riots that swept the nation towards the end of the century. And Mary Alcock's "The Chimney Sweeper's Complaint" whisks in the industrial fervor.
My legs you see are burnt and bruised, My feet are galled by stones, My flesh for lack of food is gone, I'm little else but bones.
Much of the value of Lonsdale's book lies in the interesting people he introduces to us. A great concern among literary men of this time was the burden of the past the notion that earlier poets had expressed everything original that was to expressed about man and his existence, and had done it so well. While we do not associate the eighteenth century with the most prolitic periods of creative endeavour, it should be recalled that Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge were all children of the age. And although their craft may not be quite's scintillating as the more famous poets before and after their time, the minor poets Lonsdale has uncovered do add credence to the notion that as long as there is life there are always experiences for the fertile creative mind to commit to paper. Experiences that make fine reading. Edward King and Christopher Pitt will never be so celebrated as the Metaphysicals or the Romantics but they are significant because their ideas do project the country that impressed their minds. Lonsdale's will be a controversial book because he gives so much credence (and space) to rough hewn versifyers. Yet those willing to excuse slightly less than heroic couplets, and some jarring syntax will enjoy many agreeable hours of reading about people living in an age of transition