Adam Rounce reads
English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, 1700-1789
by David Fairer, (Longman, 2003.)
(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp 84-90)
One of the least appealing and paradoxical effects of the broad church of modern literary criticism is an over-specialisation that produces an unconscious exclusivity: an interest in many things is perceived as being less professionally edifying than expertise in one or two things. The result can be criticism of some depth on its own terms, but with little sympathetic range to offer to others. In the world of eighteenth-century poetry, such a situation is further complicated by the comparative disregard with which most of its materials have been treated until relatively recently. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a great deal of poetry of the eighteenth century was regarded as either a magnificent monument to that terribly reductive category, the ‘Augustan Age’ of ‘Neo-Classicism’, or as belonging to a more nebulous and unfulfilled type of writing, the ‘Age of Sensibility’ or ‘Preromanticism’.
Categories, especially those of historical periods, are invariably stifling and exception-begging: at best they are a type of shorthand, fitting increasingly disparate and expanding materials into over-convenient boxes; at worst, they attract a sort of detritus, becoming dead metaphors or clichés that simplify the vicissitudes of literature into compressed value judgements. Thus, the ‘Augustan’ age of ‘Reason’, that tired shibboleth, was in part produced by overtly ‘romantic’ notions of literary history in the nineteenth century. It has become increasingly clear that such an idea of literary history erected itself upon metaphors of revolt and change; narratives presented Wordsworth and others as triumphing over cold ‘neo-classicism’, or building upon half-baked attempts by ‘pre-romantics’ to achieve the imaginative freedoms they had subsequently discovered. Such fallacies had two far reaching effects for eighteenth century poetry: its works were caricatured and made to resemble a dull sterility or feeble enthusiasm, and its constituent writers were seen as antithetical to their more successful successors and often to each other, with poets either attacking their peers in Popean spite, or hiding in their grottoes, half-fearful of the inspiration they could not quite achieve.
Such absurdities are the result of looking down the wrong end of the historical telescope: it is no more plausible that all readers suddenly became ‘romantic’ in 1789 or 1798, than that such readers had previously been icebergs of neo-classical ‘reason’. As Empson once wrote (with typical bluffness), the idea of a universal ‘opinion of the time’ is contradicted as soon as you open a history book and find a lot of people killing each other. But the nineteenth-century denigration of eighteenth century poetry had lasting effects, and it
remains easy to find textbook generalisations about mirrors changing to lamps, or reason turning into imagination, or a commonplace-book culture being replaced by poets with a penchant for the great outdoors. What is far harder to find is criticism that unapologetically and enthusiastically reads eighteenth century poetry in ways that are neither confining or prescriptive, encouraging readers to see connections from Dryden and Pope through to Wordsworth, Coleridge and beyond; seeing that is, all significant poetry as of a piece, and this is the value of David Fairer’s writings on the eighteenth century over the last thirty years.
English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, 1700-1789 is an introduction to its subject and a summation of many of Fairer’s abiding concerns throughout his critical career. Some of these concerns are made clear by his deliberate rejection of the theories of influence made fashionable in the 1960s and 70s by Harold Bloom and Walter Jackson Bate, whereby ‘the burden of the past’ and ‘the anxiety of influence’ produced a state either of belatedness or of psychological inferiority, where the poet could not produce anything to match their illustrious predecessors. As descriptions of the works of such mid-eighteenth century poets as Gray, Collins and Joseph and Thomas Warton, these ideas became inherent judgements of aesthetic value by other means. In Fairer’s words, such concepts had the unfortunate result of ‘turning what had been confident and clear into something gloomy, indolent, and self-indulgent’ (148). Instead of viewing such writers as failed vestiges of latent romanticism, why not as see them instead as making explorations where their engagement with tradition is ‘a token of their curiosity and confidence rather than their weakness’ (148)? If this is done, eighteenth-century poetry becomes not a history of failures and constraints, but a more liberal and enabling series of sympathetic ideas.
A key figure in Fairer’s reading of the century is Thomas Warton, an important scholar, poet, and antiquarian who expanded the boundaries of British literature immeasurably. So wide was Warton’s cumulative achievement that an analogy with Coleridge would not be out of place. Warton’s poetry and criticism (like that of his brother Joseph) embody many of the most important ideas of the time, and allow for a dialogue between the era of Pope and the end of the century. Thomas’s critical ethos, as shown in his Observations on the Fairy Queene (1754) and his monumental, unfinished History of English Poetry (1774-81) is concerned with rediscovering and reinvigorating the ancient pre-Elizabethan ‘gothic’ line, and providing a missing literary culture before Spenser, previously represented by Chaucer alone. In Fairer’s recent edition of Warton’s History (1998), he remarked that ‘Warton’s achievement was to link the literary world of the present with its poetic past, and to encourage an imaginative engagement that stretched back well beyond Chaucer.’ And it is this sense of engagement that is significant, making it more than the dust of scholarship: just as some of Warton’s most important poems are energised by the rediscovery of a part of the past, so ‘Out of the documents from this hitherto largely
hidden past… Warton seemed to be giving poetry back to its roots’ (vol.1, 12). The metaphor is appropriate, in that a linking idea in English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century is the rediscovery of the too often obscured roots and branches that connect the most apparently disparate poets.
Fairer’s avoidance of both the taxonomic approach of the ‘Augustan’ sort, or to anxiety-ridden models of influence moves him away from overtly-judgmental definitions of periodicity (whereby a work would be assessed by how tangibly ‘romantic’ it could be said to be, for instance), and into a more congenial framework, where influence opens up the poetic past rather than gloomily denying it. What is liberating is that different kinds of writing are described in terms of their poetic and intellectual purposes and effects, rather than their success or failure to fit any particular mould. Generic distinctions are malleable and protean possibilities rather than strictly demarcated exercises: ‘To the Wartons, the romantic represented something wider and deeper than a “mode”, or particular cast of writing’ (156). What such ways of writing represented was a connection to a large tradition that did not have to be at odds with other, equally important influences; the best way to read poetry, in Fairer’s terms, is to see it as containing multitudes, rather than being reducible to one or two simplistic effects of the zeitgeist.
The conjunction is worked through the binding metaphor of the organic. In his preface, Fairer remarks on the excitements of studying eighteenth-century poetry in the last twenty years, partly because of the freeing up of much obscured and disparate material through the work of Roger Lonsdale and others, but not least because ‘Gone for ever, I trust, are the days when the eighteenth century was thought to be an age of certainty, stasis, consensus and restraint’. On the contrary, it is now possible ‘to offer a more “organic” reading of poetic developments, ‘not in terms of a unifying system, but in the eighteenth-century sense of “organisation” as living in all its diverse and varied parts’ (xi). In a book which divides its material into eleven generic and thematic chapters, the consistency of the metaphor encourages the wider creative connections that Fairer suggests between poets; it also allows for the inclusion of as wide a range of writers as could be conceivable in an introductory work. Perhaps most importantly, it gives his writing a tone which is suited to its intents, being refreshingly open and encouraging, and explaining difficult or alien intellectual, political and social ideas as a means of enriching our poetic engagement, rather than as a purpose in themselves.
So, context provides a means rather than the end, whether it is an explanation and gentle querying of the now too-ubiquitous ‘public sphere’, the shift from manuscript to print culture and the dunces, the burgeoning Addisonian world of the ‘polite’, the mutable role of ‘wit’, or the distinctive dualities of the verse epistle. The emphasis is on copiousness and variety, not least in the appearance of writers revived relatively recently: Elizabeth Tollet, Mary Jones, Mary Leapor, Stephen Duck and others are not placed in the foreground because of questions of representation, but instead correspond, in
their important agreements and dissent, with the unfolding poetic narrative. What is presented is a cumulative account that also divides into distinguishing elements where necessary, without any sense of an evaluative thesis leading the argument towards an enclosed state of judgement. The influence of Newtonian and other scientific advancements (like related aesthetic investigations into the imagination and the sublime), is ultimately exciting because of their dangerous possibilities: ‘The imagination was a dynamic and unstable power that helped you see differently, and it was recognised to have freedom of association that worked in unlicensed ways’ (51). Similarly, ‘Newton’s is a dynamic system, not a static one’ (133), and the emphasis throughout is on accommodation and growth, whether the absorption and reinvigorating of the familiar, or understanding the challenges of the new.
An important generic link (reflecting these ideas of adaptation and development) is made between pastoral and georgic, which ‘represent a crucial distinction in eighteenth-century poetry between ironic and organic form’: pastoral was a malleable stereotype and repeatedly used as such in different (and yet familiar) contexts, whereas ‘Georgic, on the other hand, was at home with notions of growth, development, variety, digression and mixture’ (80). Related to this idea of georgic as the ideal form for a fertile and disparate mixture is the relating of the inherited political problems of the seventeenth century as a latent poetic metaphor; the evolving national idea of post-1688 adopts its own necessarily organic form: ‘Neither subject to tyranny, nor defined by a single written constitution, “Great Britain” as a working system depended on a variety of elements’ (134). By 1792, the aged tree that forms the subject for William Cowper’s brilliant meditation on time and history in ‘Yardley Oak’ is a suitable national symbol, in its inevitable erosions and its survival: ‘Hollow and deformed, it is nonetheless a living system that has experienced the full rigours of the georgic – time, disease, the weather, predators, and decay – yet still managed to renew itself’ (99). Furthermore, ‘the nation itself seemed like an old oak-tree, hollow and misshapen, but with its roots intact’ (237), and equally capable of further decay or regeneration. This, in turn is related to Edmund Burke’s famous ideal of an consensual and natural British constitution in his Reflections. The task for the topographic poet was ‘to picture the country as holding steadily together, with all its diverse individual interests and associations – in Burke’s sense, organically constituted’ (206). Nor is this hidden organic constitution a sop to conservatism – as the anti-slavery campaign showed, for instance, poetic liberty was not just a metaphor: ‘Like Barbauld, Cowper is fervently committed to the principle of liberty as being vital for the organic growth of human life’ (233), and that principle manifested itself in more radical ways than mere Whiggish zeal.
It should be obvious that Fairer’s inclusive technique in the book neither lends itself to easy summary, nor is best-served by a list of themes, works and arguments: poets reappear for different purposes, as do ideas and genres, and it is the value of the whole, considered in relation to its individual parts, which is
being promoted. It is useful to set out briefly why this approach is valuable, and how it distinguishes itself from other forms of introductory criticism. Principally, and to reiterate somewhat, the stress on the congeniality of works and poets throughout the book is a welcome corrective to the more facile descriptive labelling of intellectual enterprises which has often passed for a critical position. It is far harder to do justice to the complexity of poems that are informed by ideas that are in many cases very remote from a modern readership. Fairer does this most effectively by standing aside from preconceived notions of achievement and failure, and to view works (as far as possible) on the terms of what they do provide. The aforementioned obsession with seeing mid-century poetry as an example of failed romantic subjectivity is an important case in point: remove the blinkers, view poetic investigations into the past as offering often confused but always invigorating forms of inspiration, and the result is superbly nuanced readings of Thomas Chatterton’s linguistic experiments, and of the sublimity of James Macpherson’s ‘translations’, where ‘the mind of Ossian thus becomes the focal point for things that have become fragmented’ (172). Problems of authenticity are challenged by ultimately not being as important as the effect of the end results, in writers too often regarded primarily as interesting cultural landmarks, rather than poets. Similarly, William Collins’s ‘Ode on the Poetical Character’, a poem debating the nature of inspiration through the example of Milton and Spenser, and also the target of many a lazy Freudian reading, is ‘not a record of anxiety and failure, but a complex meditation on poetic choice and aspiration’ (161); the difference lies in rejecting the assumption that poems are involuntary products of cultural and psychology forces, and viewing authorial self-consciousness as a deliberate means of debate. In the case of Thomas Gray, this means that Fairer finds a poet ‘at his most powerful and interesting when confronting disruptions and loss’ (160), which is not the same as reading him ‘in terms of neurotic frustration and personal failure’ (157). One approach opens up Gray’s poetry; the other closes it down.
This sense of authorial sympathy also allows Fairer to reconnect what have become stolid terms of definition, and to invest them with something of their original zest and purpose. A chapter on sensibility and sociability does this very well, tracing a sensibility that has affinities with Humean scepticism, and is more aligned with the very different humours of Laurence Sterne and Charles Churchill than with the straightforwardly tear-stained figures of the sentimental novel. Sensibility is ‘a complex mixture of active and passive, empathy and self-centredness, sociability and solipsism, scepticism and faith. It was not a structure of ideas, but an openness to ideas’ (216). It is a concept that shifts according to the uses and adaptations which are made of it. It is not fixed in stone, but is malleable and open to necessary recreation. It is this organic sense of picking up, altering and adapting that forms the link between poetry of the eighteenth century and the generation of Blake, Southey, Wordsworth and Coleridge. The connective and generative metaphors of the
book allow a bridge to the sympathetic reading of eighteenth-century poetry by the young Coleridge, with his interests in Chatterton, Akenside, Collins, and, in Fairer’s example, the sonnets of William Lisle Bowles: ‘In Bowles’s hands, nature heals over the spot where spirit and matter join. The meeting of the human mind with the physical world (the location for so many sentimental moments, paradoxes, accidents) seems no longer a problematic or epiphanic encounter. It was this organic element of Bowles’s poetry that so excited the young Coleridge’ (226). Again, the terms of interest, freed from the shackles of literary history, are simple intellectual and creative pleasure.
The modern critical world is not short of introductions, companions and textbooks to various historical movements and eras, responding to a very streamlined idea of what will appeal to the enquiring minds of students and, no doubt, to economic necessities. One strange incidental result of this is that at a time when the available canon of English poetry has been vastly increased, a great deal of academic criticism seeks to introduce more familiar figures with broad brushstrokes. Such introductions often offer supposedly ‘encyclopaedic’ views, which in practise can mean different contributors contradicting each other, in pursuit of some sort of diversity but at the cost of internal coherence. Concomitantly, whilst it is heartening to see so much interesting and previously obscure literature resurrected through such works, it can be the case that neglected poets are represented as an example of what can broadly be said to be a case of sociological significance; their works are ‘texts’ that produce issues of race, gender or class, as opposed to poems written in carefully crafted verse structures. In such matters, the approach is all, and it is rare to find an introductory book so concerned with the details of poetry as the basis of its arguments as English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century. This concern is to its credit, and because of its unashamed enthusiasm for the poetry that it promotes so assiduously, produces an accessible style of criticism that seems both natural and suggestive. As a Wartonian, David Fairer has never been particularly partial to the more trenchant criticisms of Samuel Johnson, who was friendly with both Warton brothers but disagreed with them on many important intellectual matters. In summarising Johnson’s critical outlook, Fairer describes how his judgements ‘resist the blandishments of poetic fiction’ and offer ‘a judicious discrimination, a sorting of the genuine from the sham, the significant from the trivial, the lasting from the temporary’ (38). In practice, such discriminations could be read as prejudices that exclude the sort of enlarging literary modes that Thomas Warton encouraged, and Johnson’s antipathy towards much of the literature that Warton and his brother enthused over is well known. Yet English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century is a book so full of interest, from particular close readings to general discussions, that Johnson’s praise of the first volume of Joseph Warton’s Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (1756) suggests its value: ‘He must be much acquainted with literary history both of remote and late times, who does not find in this essay many things which he did not know before.’ Or, to adapt Fairer’s own definition of
the merits of John Dennis, he ‘is a fine critic’ because ‘he refuses to be either an “ancient” or a “modern”, draws material from different sources, argues out his ideas from principle, and tests them by literary judgement’ (124). A simple enough formula perhaps, but it is rare indeed to see it carried out so extraordinarily effectively.
© Contributor 2003-2006