It would have been surprising if the type of poetry that came in with Cooper's Hill (1642) and was firmly established by 1680 had satisfied all the poets and their readers for the next hundred and fifty years. There were some whom it failed to satisfy completely, and towards the end of the eighteenth century some whom it did not please at all. But over the greater part of the period there was a quite remarkable unanimity about what poetry was and how it should be written; and even those who were willing to escape from some of the restrictions imposed on the poets by current literary theory often made their escape in a disciplined manner, and even used their liberty to set up new rules and regulations.
There were, in fact, a number of well-recognized ways of taking a holiday from the Rules, and of escaping from the prevailing atmosphere of good sense into a rarer and more volatile air. So long as you made it clear that you were going deliberately beyond the normal range of eighteenth-century thought and feeling, or alternatively made no pretence to be writing quite seriously, you might ignore most of the foundations on which contemporary poetry was so solidly based-Nature, Good Sense, Correctness, Elegance, and much else.
A favourite excursion into wilder regions than were normally visited at this period was by way of the Pindaric ode. Cowley had established the English attitude to Pindar: 'If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one madman had translated another. . .'(1) Congreve, it is true, objected to the notion that the Pindaric ode was merely wild and irregular,(2) and some later critics emphasized the method in Pindar's madness. Yet most English imitators of Pindar felt free, if not to be mad, at least to write in a much wilder fashion than would normally have been acceptable. Giles Jacob, whose evidence is valuable here because he is so completely devoid of any ideas of his own, informed the readers of one of the most popular contemporary guide-books to poetry that the Pindaric ode 'allows (in the English language) more latitude than any other poem.(3)
So apparently thought Pomfret. His best-known poem, 'The Choice', is a perfect embodiment of the reasonable attitude to life; the poet moves contentedly among the things of every day, making no extravagant demands of fortune but indulging his fancy in temperate Horatian delights. Pomfret, however, also wrote several Pindaric odes. In two of those especially, 'On the General Conflagration and Ensuing Judgment' and 'Dies Novissima', he lets his imagination bolt with his reason, and even (one sometimes feels) sits watching it from the grand stand and cheers it on. How else are we to account for this vision of the Last Day?
Reverse all Nature's web shall run,
And spotless Misrule all around,
Order, its flying foe, confound;
Whilst backward all the threads shall haste to be unspun.
Triumphant Chaos, with his oblique wand,
(The wand with which, ere time begun,
His wandering slaves he did command,
And made them scamper right, and in rude ranges run)
The hostile Harmony shall chase;
And as the Nymph resigns her place,
And, panting, to the neighbouring refuge flies,
The formless ruffian slaughters with his eyes,
And, following, storms the perching dame's retreat,
Adding the terrors of his threat;
The globe shall faintly tremble round,
And backward jolt, distorted with the wound.
Swath'd in substantial shrowds of night,
The sickening Sun shall from the world retire,
Stripp'd of his dazzling robes of fire;
Which, dangling, once shed round a lavish flood of light!
No frail eclipse, but all essential shade,
Not yielding to primeval gloom,
Whilst day was yet an embryo in the womb;
Nor glimmering in its source, with silver streamers play'd,
A jetty mixture of the darkness spread
O'er murmuring Egypt's head;
And that which angels drew
O'er Nature's face, when Jesus died;
Which sleeping ghosts for this mistook,
And, rising, off their hanging funerals shook,
And fleeting pass'd, expos'd their bloodless breast to view,
Yet find it not so dark, and to their dormitories glide.(4)
Pomfret can write like this because he is a poet (though here he is going rather beyond his powers), and because he is a priest of the Church of England whose imagination has been nurtured by the Book of Revelation; he knows that he may write like this because he is writing a Pindaric ode. So, too, Isaac Watts, similarly inspired and writing in the Pindaric form, has often a freedom of movement and an imaginative energy that mark him out as a Dissenter in poetry as well as in religion. How he thought of the Pindaric ode emerges clearly from the opening stanza of one of his own pindarics:
Wild as the lightning, various as the Moon,
Roves my Pindaric song:
Here she glows like burning noon
In fiercest flames, and here she plays
Gentle as star-beams on the midnight seas;
Now in a smiling angel's form,
Anon she rides upon the storm,
Loud as the noisy thunder, as a deluge strong.
Are my thoughts and wishes free,
And know no number nor degree?
Such is the Muse: Lo she disdains
The links and chains,
Measures and rules of vulgar strains,
And o'er the laws of harmony a sovereign queen she reigns.(5)
It is not merely a mingled measure that Watts is allowing himself: even more significant (if we are thinking of his departure from the normal practice of his day) are the mingling of moods, the transition within one poem from the fierce to the gentle, the variegated emotional tone.
Perhaps the clearest statement of the sort of licence that could safely be claimed by the writer of odes is that offered to the readers of Young's 'Ocean: an Ode' (1728). The Ode, Young insists, should be
rapturous, somewhat abrupt, and immethodical to a vulgar eye. That apparent order, and connexion, which gives form and life to some compositions, takes away the very soul of this. . . . It is the genuine character, and true merit of the ode, a little to startle some apprehensions. Men of cold complexions are very apt to mistake a want of vigour in their imaginations, for a delicacy of taste in their judgements; and, like persons of a tender sight, they look on bright objects, in their natural lustre, as too glaring; what is most delightful to a stronger eye, is painful to them. Thus Pindar, who has as much logic at the bottom as Aristotle or Euclid, to some critics has appeared as mad; and must appear so to all who enjoy no portion of his own divine spirit. Dwarf-understandings, measuring others by their own standard, are apt to think they see a monster, when they see a man.(6)
Judgement, he continues, 'that masculine power of the mind, in ode, as in all compositions, should bear the supreme sway'; it should still, even in the ode, control the imagination.
But then in ode, there is this difference from other kinds of poetry; that, there, the imagination, like a very beautiful mistress, is indulged in the appearance of domineering; though the judgment, like an artful lover, in reality carries its point; and the less it is suspected of it, it shows the more masterly conduct, and deserves the greater commendation.
It holds true in this province of writing, as in war, 'The more danger, the more honour'. It must be very enterprising; it must, in Shakespeare's style, have hair-breadth 'scapes; and often tread the very brink of errour: nor can it ever deserve the applause of the real judge, unless it renders itself obnoxious to the misapprehensions of the contrary.(7)
Young's critical insight here was stronger than his creative power: the ode to which those remarks were prefaced is more in Ercles' than in Pindar's vein. In his Night Thoughts, too, Young's willingness to have 'hair-breadth 'scapes' often led to a vague and grandiose utterance which suggests sublimity rather than achieves it. Yet he saw more clearly than most that there was another mode of thought than that 'order and connexion' which gave life and form to so much eighteenth-century poetry; there was, in fact, an order that was apparently fortuitous and unmethodical, but that had a rapturous and abrupt method of its own. So far, so good; but even as Young is pleading so eloquently for freedom we can perhaps see the Pindaric ode freezing into the rigidity of another 'kind', with a calculated and required abruptness and a methodical want of method. So Ambrose Philips, in some verses addressed to William Pulteney (1723), manages to suggest that the Ode is at once perfectly free and perfectly restrained:
What laws shall o'er the Ode preside?
In vain would Art presume to guide
The chariot-wheels of praise,
When Fancy, driving, ranges free,
Fresh flowers selecting, like the bee,
And regularly strays.(8)
The Ode, at any rate, continued throughout the century to supply a means of escape from neo-classical orthodoxy. Whether it proved to be popular reading or not, it was certainly popular with the poets themselves; and if odes were often undertaken by some of the feeblest writers of the period in the mistaken belief that they were easy to write, the Ode also provided such poets as Collins and Gray with a mode of lyrical utterance that the eighteenth century was prepared to accept. But the acceptance was governed by the understanding that the ode-and, above all, the Pindaric ode-was a special case, and that the main stream of poetry was altogether less turbulent. Though Pindar must be accounted sane, that sort of abruptness and apparent inconsequence which characterized the Pindaric ode was normally associated in the eighteenth-century mind with madness. When a character goes mad in an eighteenth-century play the usual signs of the disorder are a complete absence of logical connexion in the sequence of ideas. It is in this fashion that Sheridan's Tilburina runs mad in The Critic :(9)
The wind whistles-the moon rises-see,
They have kill'd my squirrel in his cage:
An oyster may be cross'd in love! Who says
A whale 's a bird?
Right to the end of the century the prestige of reason remained high; and reason demanded that even the poet should not proceed in too irrational fashion. As his eye travelled with pleasure over the regular and expected elevations of an eighteenth-century building, so the mind of the contemporary reader counted on finding a controlled and continuous argument in a poem. He did not object to feeling or fancy in due measure, but he looked first for good sense; the blinding visions of a Smart or a Blake were little more to him than 'exhalations whizzing in the air'.
Pindar was a venerable name, an Ancient, and his authority could be used to justify a good deal in his modern imitators. To a somewhat slighter extent the English Ancients-Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton-could obtain a hearing for a modern poet who wished to go outside the normal range of poetic subject and poetic diction. Nicholas Rowe and one or two others wrote plays in imitation of Shakespeare's style; but the eighteenth century was so firmly convinced that Shakespeare's style was the worst thing about him that the attempts were not numerous and were never carried very far. Imitations of Spenser and Milton, however, were frequent. A late eighteenth-century collection of English poetry gives two of its eighteen volumes to imitations of Spenser and Milton, and this roughly indicates the importance of such poems in the period. The words 'Written in Imitation of Spenser's Style' at the head of a poem served to disarm criticism, except that grumbling kind of criticism that said it was foolish to imitate Spenser at all. They were an indication to the reader that the poem should not be- or, at any rate, need not be-taken very seriously; but if you chose to take it seriously, so much the better. It was in this spirit that Shenstone wrote 'The Schoolmistress'. To Lady Luxborough in 1748 he confided his intentions:
'I meant to skreen the ridicule which might fall on so low a subject (tho' perhaps a picturesque one) by pretending to simper all the time I was writing.'(10)
The poet's reputation was not at stake, as it would have been if he had written in one of the recognized Kinds and in the contemporary poetic idiom. Such, no doubt, was the theory. In practice, the Spenserian stanza was a sort of fancy dress in which the modern poet could behave with a poetical freedom that he would not have ventured upon in his own conventional clothes. Though some of the imitations are merely ludicrous in purpose and performance, most of the poets who attempted to imitate Spenser fell under the influence of his leisurely rhythm and wrote more seriously than they may have intended; and one or two of them, like the author of The Castle of Indolence, caught something of Spenser's sleepy music, so remote from the characteristic rhythms of the wide-awake and dialectical eighteenth century. Equally important was the influence on the eighteenth-century poet of Spenser's richness and colour and his shimmering world of knights and fair ladies, ogres and dragons, green valleys and flowery meadows. On 'the mind of the eighteenth-century reader, accustomed to the cold unbroken light of reason, Spenser's poetry must have had something of the effect of a stained-glass window. You might prefer clear Georgian windows for your living-rooms, but you might enjoy (as Pope enjoyed at Stanton Harcourt) the colour and quaintness of an earlier age. The conscious imitation of Spenser, therefore, gave the eighteenth-century poet a change of air, a change of mood; it provided him with a pleasant way of slipping off his responsibilities, and allowed him to return undisgraced and unspoilt to his proper business of writing contemporary poetry for contemporary readers.
Milton, or, at any rate, Miltonic blank verse proved useful to the writers of georgic and descriptive verse, where they would have found the heroic couplet less well suited to their purpose. The numerous imitations of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso in the middle years of the eighteenth century point rather to the need of finding expression for a new kind of mood than to the mere following of a literary fashion. But it is in the high contemporary reputation of such poems as The Splendid Shilling (1705) and Cyder (1708) that we can find the main influence of Milton on the new century. To John Philips Milton was clearly a great lord of language: the admiration that was grudgingly withheld from Shakespeare (who wrote 'in the style of a bad age') was generously lavished in the eighteenth century on the sounding utterance of Milton. In Philips's burlesque of Milton's verse we have a startling example of how 'each man kills the thing he loves'. To imitate Milton as well as Philips sometimes does, a parodist must both understand and admire his author; to burlesque Milton at such length as Philips does he must have a curious want of confidence in himself or in his readers. Almost any poet in his lighter moments might parody the work of his predecessors; the significant thing about Philips is that he never does anything else. The mood remains half-serious; Philips makes sure that you won't laugh at him because he has laughed first. The 'annual jollities' of the rustics at Christmas time are so described:
Now sportive youth
Carol incondite rhythms, with suiting notes,
And quaver unharmonious; sturdy swains
In clean array, for rustic dance prepare,
Mixt with the buxom damsels; hand in hand
They frisk, and bound, and various mazes weave,
Shaking their brawny limbs, with uncouth mein,
Transported, and sometimes, an oblique leer
Dart on their loves, sometimes, an hasty kiss
Steal from unwary lasses; they with scorn,
And neck reclin'd, resent the ravish'd bliss.
Mean while, blind British bards with volant touch
Traverse loquacious strings, whose solemn notes
Provoke to harmless revels; these among,
A subtle artist stands, in wondrous bag
That bears imprison'd winds, (of gentler sort
Than those which erst Laertes' son enclos'd). . .(11)
The burlesque in Philips varies from the ribald to the refined, but it is never long absent; sometimes he almost seems to forget it and to revel in the polysyllabic harmonies of Milton, but once again he 'darts an oblique leer' at his author, and the spell is broken. Before long, however, Milton was to be taken much more seriously, and his generous rhythms and large periods did much to free eighteenth-century poetry from those intellectual 'points and turns' which the heroic couplet had too exclusively induced. With the passage from Philips we may compare another description of rural jollities from Thomson:
Rustic mirth goes round- The simple joke that takes the shepherd's heart, Easily pleased; the long loud laugh sincere; The kiss, snatched hasty from the sidelong maid On purpose guardless, or pretending sleep; The leap, the slap, the haul; and shook to notes Of native music, the respondent dance. Thus jocund fleets with them the winter-night.(12)
The whole tone, of course, is different; the rustics are no longer figures of fun for a scholar; they stand at least half-way between 'the labourer ox' or 'the bleating kind' and the Right Hon. Sir Spencer Compton, to whom the poem is addressed. But the voice-though much more faintly-is still the voice of Milton, and the faintness of the imitation is in direct ratio to the greater seriousness of the poet's intention. Thomson has far too much to say to be merely an imitator; in so far as he imitates Milton he does so because Milton helps him to express, in a way that the eighteenth century will accept, what he wants to say. Philips, on the other hand, is typical of the century's interest in style for its own sake. The Splendid Shilling is primarily an exercise in poetic diction, and also, of course, in the mock-heroic.(O)
The popularity of mock-heroic in the eighteenth century is a literary phenomenon of real significance. An essential condition of this popularity was a much greater familiarity with the Heroic (or Epic) which was being mocked than is generally found among twentieth-century readers.(14) In some ways the reputation of this genre is a disquieting sign; it seems to point to a public which can respond contentedly to what has the sound of poetry without the substance, a public that likes to have its knowledge flattered by being invited to recall what (of Homer, Virgil, Milton) it already knows. But the mock-heroic must also have supplied the eighteenth-century reader with something that was too often missing from the more serious poetry of the age. It involved a comical reversal of literary standards; the poet was laughing at the pedantry and rigidity of the Rules, poking the critics in the ribs, mocking recklessly at his own too habitual solemnities. Carried along on a wave of high spirits, he could, and often did, revel in fantasy and absurdity, in grotesque exaggeration and wild caricature. And he called upon his readers for a more flexible and even imaginative response than was normally required of them. Classical art, for all its virtues, is marked by a certain rigidity, a preference for one thing at a time, an unwillingness to entertain conflicting elements of thought, feeling, and experience; it rejects the mixed effect, and aims always at unity of tone. With a Wren church or a Georgian dwelling-house everything is of a piece, everything makes in the same direction; and the mind takes in the unified effect, not necessarily at a glance, but in a series of related impressions, each new impression reinforcing all those that have preceded it. The same can be said of such characteristically classical poems as Gray's Elegy, which holds gravely and steadily on its way, maintaining throughout the same measured pace and the same solemn tone. Classical art, then, avoids what it cannot reduce to its own habitual order and proportion; it normally declines to attempt what Coleridge considered to be one of the cardinal achievements of the poet, 'the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities'. The classical and neo-classical quarrel with tragi-comedy is only one of the most familiar expressions of this dislike of the heterogeneous; it appears again in a distaste for the Gothic cathedral with its saints and its gargoyles and its bewildering complexity, for the medieval drama with its reverence and ribaldry, its tears and laughter, for Metaphysical poetry with its incalculable transitions from one mood or one thought to another. But here in the mock-heroic poetry of the eighteenth century we do find something of this mixed effect. To appreciate it fully a reader had to hover expectantly between two levels of response; he had to be aware all the time of the heroic, or else he could not enjoy the mockery. Mock-heroic poetry, in fact, set up literary vibrations that demanded from him a special sort of divided awareness.
That the eighteenth-century reader did not always manage to respond adequately may be seen from the ludicrous complaint of John Dennis that the action of the Dunciad was full of improbabilities:
But what probability is there in Pope's rhapsody? What probability in the games which take up a third part of the piece? Is it not monstrous to imagine any thing like that in the master street of a popucity; a street eternally crowded with carriages, carts, coaches, chairs, and men passing in the greatest hurry about private and publick affairs?(15)
What are we to make of this? It is true that Dennis was doing his best to think up objections to Pope's poem; but what is to be said of a reader who objects to the mock-heroic because it is improbable? Dennis's hatred of puns must have been only one aspect of a deadly seriousness that made him cling tenaciously to the actual and the probable, and repudiate not only fun and fantasy, but anything that was not literally true. To escape from such readers was indeed to find freedom.
The comic reversal of values in which the mock-heroic indulged, its magnifying of trifles, its flippant exaggerations, are, in fact, the characteristic fantasy of the aristocratic mind. In the plays of Congreve we often meet with a delicately comic fantasy which is the very poetry of artificiality and affectation. We recognize the authentic note in the dialogue between Millamant and Mincing on the subject of love-letters:
Mrs. Millamant. O ay, letters-I had letters-I am persecuted with letters-I hate letters-Nobody knows how to write letters, and yet one has 'em, one does not know why. They serve to pin up one's hair.
Witwoud. Is that the way? Pray, madam, do you pin up your hair with all your letters? I find I must keep copies.
Mrs. Mil. Only with those in verse, Mr. Witwoud; I never pin my hair up with prose.-I think I tried once, Mincing.
Mincing. O mem, I shall never forget it.
Mrs. Mil. Ay, poor Mincing tift and tift all the morning.
Mincing. Till I had the cramp in my fingers, I'll vow, mem: and all to no purpose. But when your la'-ship pins it up with poetry, it sits so pleasant the next day as anything, and is so pure and so crips.(16)
From such exquisite affectations-the fanciful triflings of the polite, bored by their own correctness and yet correct even in their mocking protest-it is only a little step to the fantasy of Pope:
For this, ere Phoebus rose, he had implor'd
Propitious Heav'n, and ev'ry pow'r ador'd,
But chiefly love-to love an altar built,
Of twelve vast French romances, neatly gilt.
There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves;
And all the trophies of his former loves.
With tender billet-doux he lights the pyre,
And breathes three am'rous sighs to raise the fire...(17)
To fifty chosen sylphs, of special note,
We trust th' important charge, the petticoat:
Oft have we known that sev'nfold fence to fail,
Tho' stiff with hoops, and arm'd with ribs of whale.
Form a strong line about the silver bound,
And guard the wide circumference around.(18)
In such lovely absurdities as those the eighteenth-century poet at once satisfied the standards of polite taste and escaped into a freer and more exquisite world, where only the intelligent and the sensitive (and, once more, the well educated) could follow him.
The freedom conferred upon the poet by the mock-heroic enabled him to ignore or modify normal eighteenth-century practice at various other points. His descriptive passages, for example, were often more detailed and individualized than was common in the more serious poetry of the age. That the poets were willing enough, when they found an excuse, to forget all about 'general properties and large appearances' may be seen from the description of the toilet table in The Rape of the Lock, where Pope is busy numbering the streaks in Belinda's combs. Gay, too, can safely paint with almost Hogarthian detail a winter scene in the London streets:
On silent wheel the passing coaches roll; Oft' look behind, and ward the threatening pole. In harden'd orbs the school-boy moulds the snow, To mark the coachman with a dext'rous throw. Why do ye, boys, the kennel's surface spread, To tempt with faithless pass the matron's tread? How can ye laugh to see the damsel spurn, Sink in your frauds, and her green stockings mourn? At White's the harness'd chairman idly stands, And swings around his waist his tingling hands: The sempstress speeds to 'Change with red-tipt nose; The Belgian stove beneath her footstool glows; In half-whipt muslin needles useless lie, And shuttle-cocks across the counter fly.(19)
Or again, in The Shepherd's Week, he can touch delicately on the details of Blouzelinda's butter-making:
Sometimes, like wax, she rolls the butter round,
Or with the wooden lilly prints the pound.(20)
Mock-heroic, and still more burlesque, also permitted and even encouraged the grotesque. Examples abound in the Dunciad; the most memorable is perhaps the diving-match in Book II, where Smedley takes the horrible plunge into Fleet-ditch-
slow circles dimpled o'er
The quaking mud, that clos'd, and ope'd no more-
only to reappear again with dramatic suddenness after his short sojourn among the mud-nymphs:
Sudden, a burst of thunder shook the flood.
Lo Smedley rose, in majesty of mud!
Shaking the horrors of his ample brows,
And each ferocious feature grim with ooze.(21)
The passage recalls Gay's equally grotesque vision of Cloacina rising from the same obscene waters:
While thus he fervent prays, the heaving tide
In widen'd circles beats on either side;
The goddess rose amidst the inmost round,
With wither'd turnip tops her temples crown'd;
Low reach'd her dripping tresses, lank and black
As the smooth jet, or glossy raven's back;
Around her waist a circling eel was twin'd,
Which bound her robe that hung in rags behind.(22)
Gay wrote for the polite, for the man of culture, and the lady of fashion. How, it may be asked, do such grotesque images find their way into the poetry of a polite society? It has already been suggested that this polite society was precariously balanced between a highly artificial formality and a constantly encroaching vulgarity. But neither Pope nor Gay has slithered unintentionally on the garbage that lay about the Augustan streets. In such grotesqueries polite society is escaping from its own negative perfections. Correctness has become a burden, restraint has become intolerable; and the eighteenth-century poet, like a schoolboy breaking away from his desk at the end of the hour, covers himself happily with mud in the playing-field. Nature driven out with a pitchfork has found her way back in a refuse-cart.
Literary historians are entitled to define eighteenth-century poetry or 'the poetry of the Augustan age' in their own terms, but they sometimes write about it as if it was commensurate with the poetry of Pope alone. This may be an unintentional tribute to Pope's contemporary importance; yet there is surely something wrong with a definition that leaves out most of the other notable poets of the age-Thomson, Gray, Collins, Goldsmith, Cowper, Crabbe-on the grounds that they were in revolt from its poetical standards, and groping their way with varying success towards the dawn of romanticism. Thomson may have been impatient with that sort of verse which consists of little more than neatly turned thoughts (what Lord Foppington called 'the forced sprauts' of a man's brain), Dyer may have been attracted by ruins and Gray by churchyards and mountains, Collins may have shown an interest in popular superstitions and Goldsmith in a deserted village, without repudiating or even expressing much dissatisfaction with the culture of their own day. Such poets widened the range of eighteenth-century sensibility, but they accepted without much protest the contemporary poetic idiom and continued to work contentedly within the tradition.
Yet there were some who did wish to overthrow and to destroy. Unorthodox, because consciously in revolt, were such men as Joseph and Thomas Warton. When we find Joseph Warton expressing a desire to go with silent footsteps
To charnels and the house of woe,
To Gothic churches, vaults, and tombs,
Where each sad night some virgin comes,
With throbbing breast, and faded cheek,
Her promised bridegroom's urn to seek . ..(23)
we may not approve the wish, or feel called upon to admire the poetry, but we are bound to recognize a conscious flight from the sensible and sociable pleasures of the eighteenth century to something morbid and much more emotional. When we hear his brother Thomas (at the age of seventeen) asking Melancholy to lead him
to solemn glooms
Congenial with my soul; to cheerless shades,
To ruin'd seats, to twilight cells and bow'rs,
where all is silent
Save the lone screech-owl's note, who builds his bow'r
Amid the mould'ring caverns dark and damp,(24)
we may attribute the lines to the natural morbidity of the adolescent, but we are in the presence of a sensibility which, if it spreads, will change the face of English poetry.
What the Wartons were trying, not always successfully, to do in their verse, they reinforced with their more influential criticism. So, too, Young challenged the neo-classical standards in his Night Thoughts (1742-5), and, more deliberately, in his Conjectures on Original Composition (1759). The Night Thoughts, formless, egotistical, vague, unrestrained, ambitious, and grandiose, continually promising rather more than they are able to perform, are the antithesis of almost all that neo-classical poetry stands for; and yet they were enormously popular. Young, with his bleeding heart, his secret or his suggestion of a secret, his determined gloom, his conscious loneliness, is an early romantic egoist, a Byron of the middle classes, whose woes, real or imaginary, fell with an impressive sound on the ears of a listening Europe.
Forty years later, in The Task, Cowper has passed beyond Young's conscious self-display to the almost unconscious self-revelation that we meet with so often in Romantic poetry. Cowper writes easily and confidingly about himself, expecting the reader (if, indeed, he considers the matter at all) to be interested. Pope, it is true, had written about himself in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot; but it was for the most part about his public self as a man of letters who had been attacked and vilified for a quarter of a century. So, too, the 'Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift' presuppose a literary public to whom Swift has grown familiar, and there is no self-revelation. But such passages as Cowper's 'I was a stricken deer that left the herd'(25) have the character of confessions; the poet is laying bare his inmost experience. Perhaps we see the change that is coming over poetry even more startlingly in those passages where Cowper recalls some triviality in his private life which can have little significance for anyone but himself and his immediate circle of friends:
Once went I forth, and found, till then unknown, A cottage, whither oft we since repair: 'Tis perched upon the green hill top, but close Environed with a ring of branching elms That overhang the thatch, itself unseen Peeps at the vale below; so thick beset With foliage of such dark redundant growth, I called the low-roofed lodge the Peasant's Nest.(26)
What of it? we are apt to exclaim. Why should you expect that those private and particular reminiscences will interest us? Here, as in several other respects, Cowper oddly anticipates Wordsworth, whose 'Poems on the Naming of Places' impart to us, along with much that is fine, some purely domestic recollections and sentiments that we could well spare. If Pope had named an echoing crag 'Joanna's (or Patty's or Tessie's) Peak' he would have kept the fact to himself and his own immediate friends; but to the Romantic poet the whole world is his confessional. 'This happens to all men,' says the classical poet; 'it must therefore be important.' The Romantic poet, always prone to argue from his own personal experience, is more apt to say: 'This was important to me; it must therefore be so to all men.'
Even more remarkable, perhaps, as an indication of changing tastes was the success of James Macpherson's 'Ossian' poems (1760-3). Melancholy, which earlier in the century had been not much more than a fashionable disorder-the spleen, or the low-spirited 'leucocholy' mentioned by Gray in one of his early letters-here reached a sombre magnificence that seemed to be its own justification. Vague, infinitely sad, full of regret for vanished splendours, wild and exclamatory, mysterious, visionary, Macpherson's Fragments owed their success not so much to a genuine emotion as to a spurious emotionalism, to a willing suspension of good sense and a significant preference for the undefined and imprecise. The reader who abandons himself to Macpherson is willing to wander among dim shapes and bare landscapes that are periodically blotted out by mists; he is drugged, too, by a rhythm which is at once exciting and monotonous. Suggestion here has become more important than statement.
In some of the poetry of Christopher Smart, and in almost all that Blake wrote, the eighteenth-century tradition received another sort of shock, perhaps the most serious of all. The poetry written in England from the time of Dryden had been in the main a poetry of measured statement and discourse. (R) The poetry of Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Johnson, Gray, Goldsmith is not merely a poetry of good sense, but good sense it is. The poetical structure is not held together by emotional stresses and strains, but by a sort of steel framework of intellectual argument. Embedded in every normal eighteenth-century poem there is a train of thought, which gives it a rigid quality that we do not find or look for in Blake or Shelley. (P) Dryden expressed the critical attitude of the next hundred years when he sneered at Settle, who
faggoted his notions as they fell,
And, if they rhim'd and rattl'd, all was well.(27)
What, then, ought Settle to have done? He should have ordered his ideas; he should have thought harder and more consecutively. Of Dryden himself Johnson remarked in his formidable fashion: 'The favourite exercise of his mind was ratiocination'; and, more informally, 'It may be maintained that he was the first who joined argument with poetry.'(28) What Dryden had joined so successfully few eighteenth-century poets cared to put asunder. The favourite device of antithesis is perhaps the most obvious expression of that logical habit of mind which informs eighteenth-century poetry. But, in fact, the ratiocinative manner is universal; it permeates Satire, Epistle, Moral Essay (in all of which we might expect to find it) and even takes control of and shapes the contemporary lyric:
True as the needle to the Pole,
Or as the dial to the Sun;
Constant as gliding waters roll,
Whose swelling tides obey the Moon:
From ev'ry other charmer free,
My life and love shall follow thee.
The lamb the flow'ry thyme devours;
The dam the tender kid pursues;
Sweet Philomel, in shady bowers
Of verdant spring, his note renews:
All follow what they most admire,
As I pursue my soul's desire.
Nature must change her beauteous face,
And vary as the seasons rise;
As Winter to the Spring gives place,
Summer th' approach of Autumn flies:
No change in love the seasons bring,
Love only knows perpetual Spring.
Devouring time, with stealing pace,
Makes lofty oaks and cedars bow;
And marble tow'rs, and walls of brass,
In his rude march he levels low:
But Time, destroying far and wide,
Love from the soul can ne'er divide.(29)
The writer of those verses is building up a shapely argument, stanza by stanza; and the argument itself is so normal and expected that it is easily controlled, and never in any danger of distorting the shapeliness. There is no urgency in his feelings, and he has leisure to labour his art; but he feels enough for his purpose, and metre and metaphor invest his statement with a finality and largeness that it would not otherwise possess.
Given the intellectual framework, however, the poet was then free (within reasonable limits) to indulge his wit or fancy. Johnson, indeed, goes on to say of Dryden that next to ratiocination he delighted in 'wild and daring sallies of sentiment' and in 'the irregular and excentrick violence of wit'.(30) But 'wit' was in order only if it was, in Coleridge's rather old-fashioned phrase, no more than the drapery of the poem.(31) The eighteenth-century critic thought of Fancy or Imagination as a sort of poetical emanation that flickered upon the surface of the poem, just as Elizabethan mariners used to see in stormy weather what they called St. Elmo's fire, 'streaming along with a sparkeling blaze, halfe the height upon the Maine Mast, and shooting sometimes from Shroud to Shroud, .. . running sometimes along the Maine-yard to the very end. . .(32)
In his 'Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties' (1859) John Stuart Mill distinguishes between two kinds of poet:
Whom, then, shall we call poets? Those who are so constituted, that emotions are the links of association by which their ideas, both sensuous and spiritual, are connected together.(33)
Mill proceeds to contrast the 'natural poetry' written by such poets (e.g. Shelley) with the poetry of 'a cultivated but not naturally poetic mind' (e.g. Wordsworth). With the Wordsworths feeling waits upon thought; with the Shelleys thought upon feeling. Readers of Mill may very reasonably refuse to agree that Wordsworth's poetry is a good example of the work of 'a cultivated but not naturally poetic mind'; they may, however, be willing to apply the words to the greater part of eighteenth-century poetry. In the poetry of Pope and his contemporaries thought does, normally, come first, and thought remains all-important; it is usually, too, accompanied by feeling -a warm glow engendered by the thought, and often fanned into flame by the excitement of composition. For the more imaginative of the eighteenth-century poets (and Pope must certainly be included here) we can go on to claim what Johnson claimed for Dryden:
He delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness begin to mingle; to approach the precipice of absurdity, and hover over the abyss of unideal vacancy.(34)
But at its most characteristic eighteenth-century poetry is rather the poetry of clear, strong statement, packed with meaning: all the meaning will not necessarily lie exposed on the surface, but most of it will, and any further values it has (of rhythm, texture, allusion) will normally reinforce the surface meaning.
With Smart's Song to David we have obviously passed on to something much closer to Mill's 'natural' poetry, and in the songs of Blake we have it at its purest. The attitude of Smart's contemporaries to the Song to David is probably represented accurately by Mason's comment in a letter to Gray: 'I have seen his Song to David, and from thence conclude him as mad as ever.'(35) (What Gray thought of the poem is not recorded, but his opinion was probably more charitable.) The best answer to the complacent and mediocre Mason is the reply of George II when someone told him that General Wolfe was mad: 'Oh, he is mad, is he? Then I wish he would bite some of my other generals.' The difficulty of the Song to David (where it is difficult) is largely the sort of difficulty we encounter when we listen to an excited man speaking too fast: Smart gobbles his ideas, and his words have a hit-or-miss urgency to which the eighteenth century was unaccustomed in polite literature. It is true that the Song is far from being formless, but it is certainly much freer in its associations and much more abrupt in its transitions from one thought to another than was usual in this period. The contemporary reader looked in vain for a sustained argument, proceeding easily and logically from one point to another. Smart appears to be skimming his ideas as they come to the surface-in fact, faggoting his notions as they fall.
Open, and naked of offence,
Man's made of mercy, soul, and sense;
God arm'd the snail and wilk;
Be good to him that pulls thy plough;
Due food and care, due rest, allow
For her that yields thee milk.
What Was the eighteenth-century reader to make of this? Where, he must have asked, is the train of thought? It would have been no answer to him to anticipate John Stuart Mill and tell him that in this poem thought waited upon feeling. That, he would have replied, is precisely what is the matter with it. His objections to Smart would have been even more pronounced if he had been able to read his long Jubilate Agno, not published in Smart's lifetime, and only recently offered to the more sympathetic readers of the twentieth century. In this strange effusion there is ample evidence of the imagination, and of a remarkable sensitiveness to sound and rhythm and the chance associations which they call up; but what Coleridge called 'the discriminative and reproductive power' is at times completely dormant.
Yet if the twentieth-century reader of Jubilate Agno is often defeated by Smart's inconsequential sequences, he is much less likely to be shocked and repelled by them than Smart's own contemporaries would have been. In the matter of poetry we are not, perhaps, all Smarts now, but we have grown accustomed to approach the individual poem with a willing suspension, or diminution, of the rational faculties. The modern poet has seen to that. Coleridge, who can hardly be accused of reading poetry inattentively (and sometimes even anticipated the modern highbrow vice of reading it too creatively), had reached this stage early in the nineteenth century. 'Poetry', he once remarked, 'gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood.'(36) A dangerous statement, no doubt, which could be used by the intellectually lazy to justify mere day-dreaming over the printed page; but Coleridge is surely drawing attention to the irrational element in poetry which cannot be apprehended by the intellect, and only filters through to the reader's consciousness. In the poetry of the twentieth century the irrational has gained steadily at the expense of the rational. If we expect in, say, 'The Waste Land' or Dylan Thomas's 'A Winter's Tale' to find the sort of logical structure that supports Gray's Elegy we shall be disappointed. Twentiethcentury poetry makes two apparently contradictory demands on the reader: that he should concentrate his attention closely on the poet's words, and that he should be able at the next moment to look away, and allow symbol, sound, and rhythm to float the poet's meaning across his consciousness. Across rather than into; for the kind of meaning that the modern poet is often trying to communicate cannot be stated, but must be reflected upon the reader's consciousness by words and symbols that do not so much convey as evoke or suggest the meaning. What is required for the reading of much modern poetry is what often goes into its making: a sort of controlled mind-wandering. Poet and reader must have a mind exceptionally alive to suggestions, and yet be able to resist or discipline those suggestions for the sake (if he is the poet) of passing on as completely and precisely as possible the total poetic experience, or (if he is the reader) of re-creating it from the materials provided by the poet. Above all, the reader of modern poetry must be able to attain to what Keats called 'Negative Capability'-'that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason, when he is capable, indeed, of 'remaining content with half-knowledge'. (37)
The eighteenth century was not so content, and its poets were not encouraged to wander in the unpathed regions of the mind. They dealt rather with the demonstrable and the palpable, with the known and the expected, with the recurring human situations and feelings and the immemorial habits and activities of mankind. They moved in a world of certainties, or of uncertainties which had grown so familiar as to have become in their turn almost certain. In their poetry, as in much else, they preferred to deal with the attainable, and if in so choosing they limited their achievement, it was at least an achievement, and one capable-and surely this is more important than the twentieth century is usually prepared to admit-of being widely understood and enjoyed.
Writing of Pomfret's Choice, Johnson observed that it exhibited 'a system of life adapted to common notions and equal to common expectations; such a state as affords plenty and tranquillity, without exclusion of intellectual pleasures'.(38) The words might almost be applied to the world of the eighteenth-century poets, a world of temperate delights and rational pleasures:
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixt; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please
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