The Background (2)
A Preface To 18th Century Poetry by James Sutherland

IF the seventeenth century had been an age of religious fervour it had also been a time of political upheaval and experiment. Here again the eighteenth century was all for settling down and strengthening the things that remained after the Revolution settlement of 1689. It is easy to be impatient with such conservatism if we forget the troubled age from which it emerged. Charles II's determination not to go on his travels again was shared, consciously or unconsciously, by most of his subjects, and by their children and grandchildren. In 1715, and again in 1745, the rebels were put down without much difficulty, not because most Englishmen loved the Hanoverians or thought they had the best of all possible governments — no true-born Englishman ever thinks that — but because very few of them were willing to reopen a question that had been settled, and fewer still believed that any change could be worth the cost of another civil war. The bias of the times was therefore towards the established order, and against innovation, experiment, and any questioning of fundamental principles.

The new century's dislike of innovation sometimes comes out in the oddest of ways. When, in 1783, public executions were at last abolished and the old saturnalia at Tyburn came to an end, Dr. Johnson resisted the suggestion that this was an improvement.

"No, Sir, (said he, eagerly) it is not an improvement"

and then, after giving several reasons in favour of the old system, he ended, almost plaintively:'Why is all this to be swept away?(1) Seven years later, the same English fear of innovation, the dread of letting loose forces which sought to overturn the established order, found powerful expression in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France:

We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater. .. . It has been the misfortune (not as these gentlemen think it, the glory) of this age, that everything is to be discussed, as if the constitution of our country were to be always a subject rather of altercation than enjoyment.(2)

Why should these things be swept away? Why should they even be discussed? The attitude is the same in both men: let well alone, and even if it is not so well, let it alone just the same, lest worse should follow. We should learn to reverence, and seek to preserve, the wisdom of our ancestors. Unlike those revolutionary Frenchmen,

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.(3)

The status quo which Burke defends so eloquently had come in, of course, with the Revolution of 1688; but that was all a long, long time ago. What mattered to Burke, and to the great majority of his contemporaries, was that never again should the country have to face fundamental issues about Church and State and the whole structure of society.

It is not surprising that this strong conservative tendency should have spread to literature and the arts. When Sir Joshua Reynolds told his students that

'the old has that great advantage of having custom and prejudice on its side', and warned them against 'the evil and confusion which innovation always brings with it',(4)

he was voicing what must have seemed to most of his hearers an obvious truth. To-day such sentiments might still be accepted from a President of the Royal Academy with a sort of amused tolerance, but coming from anyone under fifty they would probably be regarded as a sign of intellectual incompetence. In the age of Johnson and Reynolds and Burke they were the sentiments of most intelligent people. Why not? It is just as intelligent to be prejudiced in favour of the old because it is old, as to be biased in favour of the new because it is new.

What men have grown accustomed to comes, in a stable period, to seem right and inevitable. Not only has it 'the right of possession', but it enjoys the further advantage of having behind it the consensus of opinion. We shall never understand the eighteenth century if we do not recognize its widespread desire for agreement, not only on fundamentals but also on as many of the secondary matters as possible. This desire for agreement was sharpened by memories of violent disagreement and disorder in the not remote past, and reinforced in a rational age by the comfortable belief that agreement was attainable among reasonable men. In literature and in art, no less than in politics and religion, it was felt that agreement should and could be reached, and by the middle of the century it was generally thought that it had been reached. With this belief went the further conviction that after a long process of trial and error poetry had at last reached a satisfactory form of expression, and had now little need for further innovations.

We can watch this idea gradually hardening as the decades go by. Already in Dryden we come upon the notion that English poetry did not come to full maturity until Waller and Denham. Waller 'first made writing easily an art', and Denham's Cooper's Hill 'ever will be the exact standard of good writing'. (5) The emphasis with Dryden is generally on the vast improvement in the art of poetry since these two poets first showed the way. But even in Dryden we meet with the further idea that English poetry is getting nearer perfection, or, at any rate, that perfection is attainable and will be reached only by proceeding farther along the lines now laid down for the poet.

'If natural causes be more known now than in the time of Aristotle, because more studied, it follows that poesy and other arts may, with the same pains, arrive still nearer to perfection.'(6)

The analogy, it will be noticed, is with science; the arts are to advance in the same way as the natural sciences. When we come to Johnson, nearly a hundred years later, we get the impression that Dryden's vision has been fulfilled. After a long period of uncertainty and experiment, poetry had arrived at a satisfactory, and apparently final, mode of expression. The English Muse had grown up; the old inarticulate and undisciplined days of her childhood were past.

New sentiments and new images others may produce, but to attempt any further improvement of versification will be dangerous. Art and diligence have now done their best, and what shall be added will be the effort of tedious toil and needless curiosity.(7)

This sounds strange to modern ears. It is rather like saying:

'We have now evolved a satisfactory teapot, one that is pleasant to look at, and that has a practical and sensible spout. New decorative effects others may produce, but to attempt any reformation in the design will be dangerous. We are not likely after all those years to improve on what we have got, and we might easily get something much less satisfactory. So why go on fiddling with teapot design? We have surely reached agreement on what is best.'

The modern mind, less hostile to innovation, may be puzzled by Johnson's insistence on stabilizing the form of poetry; but Johnson, standing at the end of a long and orderly evolution, did not consider that any good purpose could be served by tampering now with the form of poetry. Even today, when most people think differently about those matters, few would care to see any sweeping alterations in, say, the University Boat Race. The race might be rowed with six men, or in a wider boat, or on a shorter or a longer course; but most rowing men would resent such innovations as 'the effort of tedious toil and needless curiosity'.

Where there was still room in eighteenth-century poetry for individual choice or caprice in points of poetic technique, Johnson was characteristically eager for some general agreement, so that future poets might be under no misapprehension as to what was allowable and what was not.

Considering the metrical art simply as a science [he wrote] and consequently excluding all casualty, we must allow that triplets and alexandrines inserted by caprice are interruptions of that constancy to which science aspires. And though the variety which they produce may very justly be desired, yet to make our poetry exact there ought to be some stated mode of admitting them.(8)
'It is all right so long as we know what you are doing', Johnson is saying to the poet. 'But we must have a ruling on this point; we can't go on leaving the decision to the individual, for then we shall never know where we are. As rational people we ought to be able to reach some agreement about the use of alexandrines and triplets, and when we have come to a decision we ought to stick to it.'


Fear of innovation, hostility to the new and the untried, were the negative aspects of eighteenth-century conservatism; on the positive side we may count the efforts to establish, and afterwards to maintain, a reasonable way of life and a strong and stable culture; A compact and well-ordered society becomes gradually conscious of certain standards which are shared by all men of good sense and good taste, and it is then the business of that society to reinforce and extend them; In a democratic community those standards will be enforced with a minimum of actual compulsion; they will be maintained by the steady pressure of public opinion acting through its statesmen, preachers, professional and business men, writers and artists; In the age of Dryden or Defoe the author found guilty of seditious writing or the printer of seditious publishing might be imprisoned or pilloried; but as society became surer of itself such drastic punishment became less necessary, and the merely odd and eccentric individual was ridiculed into harmlessness or conformity, or dismissed as a madman.

In an unstable and revolutionary age such as the twentieth century, there will be no such community of belief (unless it is enforced with all the prestige and coercive power of State control), but rather a constant clash between the old and the new; There will be much argument but little agreement, much experiment but few standards; So far as the writer is concerned, there will be plenty to write about in a revolutionary period, but unusual difficulty in establishing contact with the reader; the really new writer will have to be content with the encouragement of the discriminating few and their intellectual toadies (the Witwouds, in fact, as well as the Mirabells) until such time as the common reader (Matthew Arnold's 'elephantine main body') catches up with him; In a period of stability, on the other hand, the new writer will be new only as to-morrow morning is new; his experience and his mode of expressing it will be fresh, but they will also be familiar; He will proceed upon the existing assumptions, and so he will have little difficulty in carrying his reader with him.

In the eighteenth century, as we shall see, the standards were formed at the top and flowed downwards to the rank and file; but this is the usual state of affairs in non-revolutionary periods, or what Arnold called 'epochs of concentration'; We can see the process beautifully at work in eighteenth-century architecture; There was, indeed, a certain amount of actual restraint in the form of building laws to maintain a consistent elevation in a row of urban houses or to prevent outrageous eccentricities and unsocial outbursts of architectural self-expression; But the dignity and restraint of Georgian houses and public buildings were much more the outcome of a fine tradition, of the silent pressure of good taste, and of standards willingly accepted and consciously approved. The Burlingtons did not impose their taste on the eighteenth century; they gained their ends by example and persuasion. When once good taste has established itself it becomes as hard to displace as the bad taste of less fortunate periods.

None the less the price of order and beauty and dignity is eternal vigilance; and it was one of the most important functions of the eighteenth-century writers to maintain and cherish the standards of polite society, not only in matters of taste and manners, but also in morality and religion. This they did, partly by a direct expression of approval, as when Pope celebrated the virtues of Ralph Allen or The Man of Ross, but more characteristically, perhaps, by means of satire; The importance of satire in eighteenth-century poetry can only be grasped if we remember that as often as not the satirist was deliberately reinforcing the agreed standards of the age by pointing at the eccentric, the anti-social, the freethinker, the profligate, the antinomian. The greater part of the century's rich and varied satire (though this generalization will not always hold true for Swift) was written by men who were fully at one with the standards of the day and who could count upon the immediate acquiescence of all but a few of their readers. Without this common ground between writer and reader, Addison and Steele, Pope and Fielding, could not have written as they did. When Byron writes satire at the beginning, or Shaw at the end, of the nineteenth century, it is of a very different order — consciously impudent and provocative, because, however sure either Byron or Shaw may be of himself, he knows that he is flying in the face of public opinion. Most eighteenth-century satire is therefore addressed to those who are already converted (as most sermons are preached to those who are already saved); but by continually keeping the edge of distinction sharp, the satirists helped to make their readers more continually and more completely aware of their own half-conscious and unspoken beliefs.

That the satire of Pope and his followers also tended to discourage originality and to maintain the established order of beliefs beyond their usefulness is unfortunately true; the good and the bad fell in swathes before the satirist's onslaught. Anyone who challenged the existing order in religion (Collins, Clarke, Toland, Tindall, Whitefield, Wesley), in morality (Mandeville), in literature (Defoe, Mrs. Centlivre, Colley Cibber), in scholarship (Bentley, Theobald), in architecture (Vanbrugh), was liable to ridicule and the calculated distortion of the satirist. If some satirists are like vagrant message-boys who chalk rude remarks on the front door and run away, Pope and his friends were much more in the position of the householder who finds his own or his neighbour's doors scribbled upon and proceeds to rub out the marks, and, if possible, expose the culprit. The eighteenth-century satirist was the child of a stable society, and he repaid the advantages of being born into a settled age by constantly reinforcing its sturdy foundations. That, at any rate, holds true for the first half of the century. But since satire is a weapon that can be drawn in any cause, we find it sometimes towards the end of our period being turned against the established order, or, as in Crabbe's Village, against some worn-out literary convention. By that time, however, the old order was itself crumbling, and Crabbe could count on plenty of readers who would agree with him.

If Pope occasionally ridicules the diversions of the polite society that formed the main body of his readers, that only tells us that polite society in the eighteenth century, as in other periods, ran occasionally into excesses. The standards which Pope strove to maintain were not just the trivial conventions or prejudices of the fashionable and the well-to-do. So far as they can be defined at all they were the standards of the man of sense, alive to every manifestation of folly and extravagance, every departure from right reason and moderation and good taste. The vanities of polite society are ridiculed in The Rape of the Lock; tasteless extravagance and luxury in Moral Essays, III and IV; hack-writers, the contemporary theatre, schools and universities, the follies of empty-headed peers, and much else in The Dunciad and the Imitations of Horace.

Among all the standards that had to be kept up were those of good literature. Here again we must remember the situation confronting English writers after the Restoration if we are to understand the bias of their literary criticism and their outlook on the writers of the previous age. Rightly or wrongly, Dryden believed that poetry in his own day was sharing in a general rise in the level of civilization. The improvements which he believed he saw in contemporary poetry were comparable to such improvements as piped water and modern windows and fire-places in houses; Englishmen were learning — in London at any rate — to live in a more civilized way, and now they were learning to write with the same up-to-date finish and distinction as the French. The dramatic writers of what Dryden always calls 'the last age' — Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher — were men of great natural genius, but he felt that they had lived and written in rude and unpolished times, and that their work was everywhere deficient in that sort of culture which a polite society alone can give to a writer. They were altogether too violent, too metaphorical, too eager, too emphatic; their wit was coarse or childish or pedantic, and they wrote in general by the mere light of nature. Only a narrow isthmus of years separated the age of Etherege and Dryden from that of the Puritan bigots with their unmannerly excess of zeal and their uncouth language; indeed, these same Puritans were still at large in the City, and it was only at Court that the new, urbane, well-ordered way of living and writing was consistently possible. The new standards were therefore far from secure yet, and it was the self-imposed task of men like Etherege in his comedies, or young noblemen of taste like Lord Mulgrave or Lord Roscommon in their poems, to reinforce them by example and precept.

swarms of new writers
Quite apart from the danger that literature might relapse into the old formlessness and boisterousness (Shadwell, for instance, has much of the crude, hearty, open-air vigour of the Elizabethans), there was a new danger arising from the very advances that were being made. The more settled times of Charles II had hatched out swarms of new writers, imperfectly educated and not noticeably endowed with wit — 'the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease', the aristocratic and middle-class amateurs who could turn out 'a copy of verses'.

'Never was there known so many versifyers', says one observer in the year 1685, 'and so few poets; every ass that's romantick believes he's inspir'd, and none have been so forward to teach others as those who cannot write themselves.... Every fop that falls in love thinks he has a right to make songs, and all kind of people that are gifted with the least knowledge of Latin and Greek pretend to translate.'(10)

This rabble of new writers had to be educated in the new literary standards (of which they were largely ignorant) if the good work was not to be all undone. Addressing Thomas Creech, the translator of Lucretius, in 1683, Otway complains of the 'lousy madrigalls' and the 'nasty farce' which pass for lyric poetry and comedy.

No, since we live in such a fulsome age,
When nonsence loads the press, and choaks the stage,
When block-heads will claym wit in nature's spight,
And every dunce that starves presumes to write,
Exert your self, defend the Muse's cause. .. .
For of all nature's works we most should scorn
The thing who thinks himself a poet born.
Unbred, untaught he rhymes, yet hardly spells,
And senslessly, as squirrels jangle bells.
Such things, sir, here abound. . ..(11)

Some fifty years later the Dunciad was directed against a new generation of those literary upstarts (now vastly increased in numbers owing to the rapid development of literary journalism and the growth of the reading public), and whatever private scores he may be settling, Pope is genuinely concerned to maintain the threatened standards of polite literature. The constant insistence on the Rules must therefore be related in the early part of our period to a determination to consolidate gains recently made, to keep under cultivation territory reclaimed from the swamp, and later, in the age of Johnson, to a more purely conservative tendency to keep inviolate what had proved so successful in the experience of several literary generations.

In a period when fundamental questions of principle have been largely settled — or when, at any rate, they are not raised in an acute form — secondary matters, such as how to write poetry, become topics of major importance. During the Civil War Englishmen had been too violently engaged in political and religious strife to have either the time or the inclination to dispute about such trifles as the Unities or the introduction of Christian machinery into epic poetry. But men must have some outlet for their enthusiasm and their natural irritability, and in the cooler temperature of Charles II's reign (and still more in the age of Anne and the first Georges) literary questions seemed well worth arguing about. Whatever we may think of the writers themselves, the prestige of literature never stood higher than it did in the days of Pope and Johnson. As early as 1682 the Earl of Mulgrave could write:

Of things in which mankind does most excell,
Nature's chief master-piece is writing well,(12)

and the young Pope liked the second line well enough to incorporate it in his Essay on Criticism. But in what other age would such a statement, have proved so acceptable? Not, certainly, in the age of Milton, and not by many men in the age of Wordsworth and Shelley. No doubt poetry was often, in a century of polite conversation, just another thing to talk about; there were too many Dick Minims in society, too many of those self-satisfied talkers who, as Steele puts it,

'imagine that their making shrewd observations upon the polite arts gives them a pretty figure'.(13)

But the evidence is overwhelming that a very large number of people in the eighteenth century really cared about poetry, though it was mainly classical or their own neoclassical poetry that they were able to enjoy. To Pope and Johnson, and to lesser men like John Dennis, good literature, the separating of the good from the bad, and the maintaining of a sound literary tradition, were matters of the first importance. Though Johnson was aware that Pope's immediate motive for writing the Dunciad was the desire for revenge, he was also alive to its broader implications:

If bad writers were to pass without reprehension what should restrain them? . . . All truth is valuable, and satirical criticism may be considered as useful when it rectifies error and improves judgement: he that refines the publick taste is a publick benefactor.(14)