8. Poetry As An Art
From "A Preface To 18th Century Poetry" by James Sutherland

ALL through the eighteenth-century poetry was regarded as an art: the art of making poems. Coleridge and Shelley, you might almost say, wrote poetry: Dryden and Pope wrote poems. The eighteenth-century poet invariably thought in terms of the poem, the thing to be made; and the critics were always ready to tell him how it should be (or more often, perhaps, how it should have been) written. John Dennis drove the critical nail home with his usual confidence:

In short, poetry is either an art, or whimsy and fanaticism. If it is an art, it follows that it must propose an end to itself:, and afterwards lay down proper means for the attaining that end: For this is undeniable, that there are proper means for the attaining of every end, and those proper means in poetry we call the rules.(1)

When poetry is thought of primarily as an art, and not as an imaginative experience which may or may not find expression in words, the emphasis will fall naturally on the finished product — on the substance out of which the poem is made and the way in which that substance has been treated, on the form in which the poem has been cast and the language in which the thoughts and sentiments have been expressed.

In every art, as Dennis says, rules or instructions can be given for securing the desired results. If you want to make oatcakes you must use a girdle and you will bake with a quick flame; if you want to make girdle-scones you will have to bake them on a slower flame. Failure to obtain the proper ingredients (most oatcakes baked in England are made with too fine a meal), or failure to secure the correct conditions for baking, will result in some sort of hybrid-soggy oatcakes, or scones that are done on the outside only — and any good cook will be able to tell on tasting them just what is wrong with them. To the much more complicated art of poetry the trained eighteenth-century reader brought the same sort of experienced judgement. Much more than the twentieth-century reader he knew what to expect, for the effects aimed at by the poets he read were more definite (because subject to general agreement) and limited in number (because poet and reader recognized that there was only a limited number of 'kinds').


The twentieth century has seen the steady deterioration of the old hierarchy of literary Kinds. In the contemporary theatre Tragedy and Comedy have almost ceased to exist as recognizable genres: plays to-day are serious or frivolous, they make an audience laugh or cry (or more probably both), but the literary historian of the future will have difficulty in placing most of them in any well-defined category. The walls that used to separate one kind of literary property from another have been mostly thrown down, and few people at present seem anxious to re-erect them. In the Novel the confusion (or diffusion) is still more noticeable. Even when we find what looks like a distinct genre such as the Detective Story, the boundaries are undefined. Some detective stories concentrate on the crime and its solution as an intellectual problem; others introduce a considerable element of character-study or a love-interest; others, again, base their appeal mainly on a quick succession of exciting adventures. These last are properly 'thrillers', but the contemporary confusion in such matters is borne out by the tendency to use the word 'thriller' to describe any story dealing with a crime and its solution. If the eighteenth century had created the detective story it would quickly have become a recognized Kind, with its own canon and its own rules.

In poetry the absence of Kinds to-day is perhaps still more striking, for there they were once particularly well defined, and now they can scarcely be said to exist at all. It is sometimes thought that twentieth-century poetry is predominantly lyrical, but we can only call most of it so if by 'lyrical' we mean nothing more than 'short'. A break with the established Kinds had already begun with the Romantic poets. Wordsworth's rather unhappy decision to group his poems under such headings as 'Poems of the Fancy', 'Poems of the Imagination', 'Poems proceeding from Sentiment and Reflection', 'Poems on the Naming of Places', 'Ecclesiastical Sonnets', and the like shows how the wind was blowing. Even more significant is his advice to a minor poet, John Abraham Heraud:

You feel strongly; trust to those feelings, and your poem will take its shape and proportions as a tree does from the vital principle that actuates it. I do not think that great poems can be cast in a mould.(2)

It is the same with Coleridge, who contrasts organic form, which shapes and develops from within, with mechanical regularity not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material, 'as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened'.(3) On the principle of organic form there may be an infinite number of right forms: if a poem is shaped and developed from within it will grow like a living creature, and the shape it will take must depend upon how the germ or idea grows and expands in the poet's imagination. The poesy of the Romantics is a gum that oozes, and when the flow stops the poem very properly stops with it. Their fondness for such titles as 'Childe Alarique, a Poet's Reverie', 'Rinaldo, the Visionary, a Desultory Poem', 'Extempore, to Walter Scott, Esq.', 'Wallace, a Fragment' (all taken from the work of R. P. Gillies, 1788-1858), besides innumerable 'Lines left upon a Seat' and 'Stanzas written in Dejection', will indicate how little they were accustomed to think in terms of literary Kinds or even of complete poems. Coleridge and Shelley were both fertile in the production of 'Fragments', for neither would write on when the original impulse had died. With many of the minor Romantics, on the other hand, the Fragment became a conscious exercise in the incomplete, in much the same fashion as ruined temples and crumbling hermitages were erected in the landscape gardens of their grandfathers. The deliberate publication of a 'Fragment' would have seemed to Pope or Johnson an intolerable liberty to take with the public; they would no more have thought of publishing an uncompleted poem than of publishing the first two acts of a play.

The eighteenth-century poet set out to write not only a poem rather than poetry, but a poem which belonged to one of the recognized Kinds.

There were [it has been said] exact patterns of different kinds of poetry laid up in some heaven to which the true scholar might rise in his contemplations. . . . What influence these ideal patterns had, what reverence they evoked, is scarcely conceivable now.(4)

The poet knew beforehand the sort of achievement possible in each Kind and the type of treatment required,(5) and he was well aware what had been done in it by previous writers.

At the top of the hierarchy, the king of all the literary beasts, was the Epic, supported by an immense body of critical theory. Indeed, so important was the Epic in the scheme of things that the neo-classical critics sometimes extended to all poetry rules which were applicable only to the heroic poem. There were many other Kinds, great and small; each had an appropriate range of subjects and a style suited to it, each was capable of its own peculiar excellence.

There is little in the poetry of Pope that does not belong to one or other of the recognized Kinds. He began, as poets had traditionally begun, with Pastorals, and lest there should be any doubt about his own conscious attempt to write them correctly he prefixed to them a Discourse on Pastoral Poetry. In his Essay on Criticis he passed on to another Kind, the familiar discourse on poetry in the manner of Horace's Ars Poetica. The Rape of the Lock, like The Dunciad sixteen years later, was an exercise in the Mock-heroic, which again had a respectable literary lineage going back to the Batrachomyomachia, and which was carefully distinguished from its poor relation, the Burlesque. Windsor Forest was Pope's venture in a comparatively recent Kind, the 'local' poem, which can trace its ancestry no farther back than SirJohn Denham's Cooper's Hill (1642). He had his Elegy ('To the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady'), his Heroic Epistle (Eloisa to Abelard), and his various imitations of the familiar Epistles of Horace. He wrote Prologues, Epitaphs, Epigrams, and Odes. He did not write an epic poem, but he translated two; and he told Spence, 'I should certainly have written an Epic Poem, if I had not engaged in the translation of Homer.'(6) He had thought, too, of trying his hand at

'a Persian fable; in which I should have given a full loose to description and imagination. It would have been a very wild thing, if I had executed it.'(7)

It is characteristic of Pope that even when he is contemplating a departure from the normal poetry of his age he is already planning a new Kind, a cross between the Persian Tales and Dryden's Fables.

The extent to which categories or Kinds dominated the outlook of the century may be seen again in painting. To Reynolds the highest reach to which his art can attain is 'history-painting', which corresponds in his view with the epic in poetry; it paints man in general, avoiding the minute and particular and aiming always at the ideal. There are, however, other Kinds: portrait-painting, landscape-painting, 'the French gallantries of Watteau', the representation of low and vulgar life (Hogarth, Teniers, etc.), animal-painting, and so on. The artists in those other, but inferior, Kinds

'have, in general, the same right, in different degrees, to the name of a painter, which a satirist, an epigrammatist, a sonnetteer, a writer of pastorals or descriptive poetry, has to that of a poet'. '(8)

Each Kind has its own rules, and the painter will do well or badly in his own genre according as he observes or neglects those rules.

This constant tendency to think in Kinds was due in part to the formalism of an age which never felt more comfortable than when it was formally dressed, and in part to a widespread conservatism which amounted at times to a spiritual timidity. You knew where you were with Pastoral, Elegy, Epic, and the rest; you were not called upon to adjust yourself to the untried or the unexpected.

Even in the eighteenth century, however, men were not willing to bask for ever in the traditional perfections. Repetition cloyed the effect, and some sort of innovation became inevitable. The characteristic compromise was to seek variety within the established form: not to abandon the known Kinds, but to introduce a slight change of subject or treatment. The Pastoral, for example, could hardly have survived as a living form if the poets had done nothing more than echo Pope. In fact they kept it alive by frequent blood-transfusion. Apart from Gay's burlesque in The Shepherd's Week, there were mild and pleasing innovations (mild enough to avoid all risk of confusing anybody) such as Diaper's Nereides; or Sea Eclogues(1712), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Town Eclogues, and Collins's Persian Eclogues(1742). Pope, too, had considered a possible development of the Pastoral poem —

'American pastorals, or rather pastorals adapted to the manners of several of the ruder nations, as well as the Americans'.(9)

A minor poetical fashion was started by Nicholas Rowe about 1712 with his Pastoral Ballad of 'Colin's Complaint':

Despairing beside a clear stream,
A shepherd forsaken was laid;
And while a false nymph was his theme,
A willow supported his head.
The wind that blew over the plain,
To his sighs with a sigh did reply;
And the brook, in return to his pain,
Ran mournfully murmuring by.

Rowe's pleasant lines were imitated by various writers, most notably by Shenstone in his 'Pastoral Ballad', and parodied by (among others) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. It was not merely the lilting measure of 'Cohn's Complaint' that was imitated (though that, no doubt, was its strongest appeal), but the pretty mixed sentiment, at once natural and delicately sophisticated, which led one of the poet's contemporaries to refer to him as 'soft, complaining Rowe'. No better illustration could be found of the eighteenth-century habit of holding on to what had once pleased. Rowe had produced, by a sort of cross-fertilization, a new poetical flower, and later writers continued to cultivate it. Not all such hybrids were equally successful. Shenstone, for instance, wrote what he called a 'Pastoral Ode', but this particular sport never established itself in the poetical catalogue. Many other minor Kinds were silently admitted without ever being clearly defined. The Prospect Poem was one of those, and the Night Piece another. For the eighteenth century the Night Piece probably began with Lady Winchilsea's 'Nocturnal Reverie' (1713); it was developed by Parnell ('A Night Piece on Death') and by a number of later writers. Young's Night Thoughts may perhaps be regarded as the little Night Piece writ large, though Young's poem belongs rather to the sphere of rhapsody and ejaculation. The Night Piece was a loose and accommodating form (the word 'piece' almost disarms criticism), but it may be described as a nocturna reverie, solemn or at least written in sober sadness, often (but not necessarily) connected with death, and sometimes located in a graveyard. It is the poetry of solitude and low spirits, tinged with melancholy and sustained by a contemplative resignation; the stillness of the night tends to sharpen the poet's senses, and the mystery of the darkness to quicken his imagination.

Sometimes the Kind was of old and respectable ancestry, but no critic had troubled to define it. In Spectator, No. 618, an unidentified contributor offers some critical remarks on the verse Epistle.

'This is a species of poetry by itself,' he observes, 'and has not so much as been hinted at in any of the arts of poetry that have ever fallen into my hands.'

He proceeds to repair the omission, subdividing his Kind into two classes: the Ovidian (love-letters, letters of friendship, etc.) and the Horatian (familiar, critical, and moral epistles), and stating what qualifications are needed by the writer of each class, and what sort of effect he must aim at. Thus for the Horatian epistle the writer must have plenty of strong masculine sense, a thorough knowledge of mankind and of the prevailing humours of the age, and a sound morality. As for style, he must not have the air of a recluse, but of a man of the world; he should be a master of refined raillery, well versed in the delicacies and absurdities of conversation, free and disengaged in manner, and well able to draw on common life for his illustrations and comparisons. Similarly, in Guardian, No. 16, Steele undertakes to define the Song ('I do not remember ever to have met with any piece of criticism upon this subject'). For songs (he says) no great knowledge or elevation of thought is required of the writer; but they do demand the utmost nicety and regularity. They should be easy and flowing, elegant but unaffected, with one uniform and simple design. Above all, they must be quite perfect; the slightest blemish, like a flaw in a jewel, destroys the effect. The best models are to be found in Sappho, Anacreon, and Horace, and, among modern nations, the French poets. Thus instructed, Steele's readers could go ahead more confidently with the writing of songs.

Sometimes the new Kind arrived more suddenly, and we can watch the almost biological progress of its growth and formulation. Something of this sort happened with Opera. In 1685 Dryden wrote a Preface for his opera, Albion and Albanius, in which he undertook to settle the chief features of this comparatively new Kind from such examples as were then available.

The first inventors of any art or science [he wrote], provided they have brought it to perfection, are, in reason, to give laws to it; and, according to their model, all after-undertakers are to build.

We do not dispute the authority of Homer in Epic, or of Pindar in the Ode, and anyone essaying to write Opera

'is obliged to imitate the design of the Italians, who have . . . brought to perfection this sort of dramatic musical entertainment'.

And so Dryden proceeds, very much after Aristotle's inductive method, to pronounce upon the type of subject proper to Opera (it goes beyond the limits of human nature, and

'admits of that sort of marvellous and surprising conduct which is rejected in other plays'>); the persons who ought to be represented (gods, goddesses, and heroes descended from them, but also — in view of Guarini's Pastor Fido 'meaner persons', who 'may sometimes gracefully be introduced, especially if they have relation to those first times which poets call the Golden Age)'; the language (which ought to be soft, sweet, and harmonious like the Italian); the metre and the rhyme; the scenes, machines, and dancing.(10)

It is clear that Dryden feels no special pride in being an innovator; he would just as soon that the rules for Opera had been. laid down once and for all. To Dryden, as to Pope after him, the pleasure of writing came not from a sense of complete freedom, but rather from a consciousness of common form which could be varied and modified to suit his purpose. Writer and reader had become accustomed to the Kind, and they felt a sense of loss or confusion if they were unable to place a poem. Something of this feeling probably accounts for Swift's dissatisfaction with Thomson's Seasons. Writing in 1732 to a friend about the use of blank verse in poetry, he remarks:

One Thomson, a Scotchman, has succeeded the best in that way, in four poems he has writ on the four seasons, yet I am not over fond of them, because they are all description, and nothing is doing, whereas Milton engages me in actions of the highest importance, modo me Romae, modo ponit Athenis, ....(11)

Thomson's Seasons, mainly descriptive, was not yet one of the recognized Kinds: to the conservative Swift a long poem should have a fable, an action of some sort. He would probably have felt more at home with the Seasons if Thomson had cast his poem in the form of Virgil's Georgics.


Since the division of poetry into its various Kinds was not just a pedantic classification made by critics after the poem was written, but one which the poet was fully conscious of while he wrote, we should be prepared to see the Kind exercising some degree of pressure on the expression. Whether we do see it or not, that is almost always happening with the best poets of the period; and it is, in fact, one aspect of Correctness. If we are not nearly so conscious of those nuances as the contemporary reader was, the explanation must be that the whole poetic idiom of the eighteenth century is strange to us and we are therefore less likely to be alive to subtle modifications from one poem to another. Yet any attentive reader must perceive a wide difference between the diction of, say, the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot and Pope's Homer, and any sensitive reader should feel a more subtle difference between the diction (and the rhythm) of his Pastorals

For her the flocks refuse their verdant food,
Nor thirsty heifers seek the gliding flood.
The silver swans her hapless fate bemoan,
In notes more sad than when they sing their own;
In hollow caves sweet Echo silent lies,
Silent, or only to her name replies;
Her name with pleasure once she taught the shore,
Now Daphne 's dead, and pleasure is no more(12)' —

and of the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady

What can atone (oh ever-injur'd shade!)
Thy fate unpity'd, and thy rites unpaid?
No friend's complaint, no kind domestic tear
Pleas'd thy pale ghost, or grac'd thy mournful bier;
By foreign hands thy dying eyes were clos'd,
By foreign hands thy decent limbs compos'd,
By foreign hands thy humble grave adorn'd,
By strangers honour'd, and by strangers mourn'd !(13)

or of Eloisa to Abelard

Far other dreams my erring soul employ,
Far other raptures, of unholy joy:
When at the close of each sad, sorrowing day,
Fancy restores what vengeance snatch'd away,
Then conscience sleeps, and leaving nature free,
All my loose soul unbounded springs to thee.
0 curst, dear horrors of all-conscious night!
How glowing guilt exalts the keen delight!
Provoking Daemons all restraint remove,
And stir within me ev'ry source of love.
I hear thee, view thee, gaze o'er all thy charms,
And round thy phantom glue my clasping arms.(14)

The melodious lament of the first, the controlled grief of the second, and the uncontrolled (or, more accurately, decontrolled) passion of the last piece are perhaps achieved mainly by the poet's delicate mastery of his rhythms, but the diction, too, responds to a change of mood and intention. With such a poet as Pope it would be naive to suggest that any one of those three pieces is less artificial than another; but superficially, at least, the diction of the passage from the Pastorals is more artificial than that of the others because to Pope the Pastoral is 'an image of what they call the golden age' and not of shepherds 'as shepherds at this day really are'.(15) In the Elegy, if the diction is not quite 'the language of the heart', it is the language of a grief more fully imagined and more deeply contemplated than that of Thyrsis mourning for Daphne; it is not, nor is it intended to be, the language of a private sorrow but of a celebration as public as a funeral, and as dignified. In Eloisa to Abelard, where, it has been said, 'the feelings of mankind become strange because they have become extreme' and 'the operatic flights outdo the rhetoric of Ovid',(16) Pope is attempting the language of a heart torn by conflicting passions. The eighteenth-century reader was accustomed to hearing something of the kind when he visited Drury Lane or Covent Garden, though never perhaps among Pope's contemporaries did it reach such splendour and animation.

Even in his own day (and this may be some comfort to the twentieth-century reader) the poet could not always count upon an adequate response to the subtleties of his diction. Dryden on one occasion expressed his annoyance with those of his readers who were too obtuse to realize that there was not one style suitable to poetry, but many.

Some who have seen a paper of verses which I wrote last year to her Highness the Duchess, have accused them of that only thing I could defend in them. They said, I did humi serpere, — that I wanted not only height of fancy, but dignity of words, to set it off. I might well answer with that of Horace, Nunc non erat his locus; I knew I addressed them to a lady, and accordingly I affected the softness of expression, and the smoothness of measure, rather than the height of thought; and in what I did endeavour, it is no vanity to say I have succeeded. (17)

Pope gave just as much thought — perhaps more — to those delicacies of expression. Talking of his Pastorals on one occasion, he observed:

Though Virgil, in his pastorals, has sometimes six or eight lines together that are epic, I have been so scrupulous as scarce ever to admit above two together, even in the Messiah.(18)

And on another occasion:

After writing a poem, one should correct it all over, with one single view at a time. Thus for language; if an elegy; 'these lines are very good, but are they not of too heroical a strain?' and so vice versa.(19)

In view of Pope's sensitive adjustment of sound and rhythm and vocabulary to his meaning it is not surprising to find him complaining pessimistically: 'I scarce meet with any body that understands delicacy.'(20) Still, the eighteenth-century reader, who read for the most part the poetry of his own century, was in a better position than we are to-day to respond quickly to modulations within the heroic couplet, to change of pace, variety of texture, and significant changes in diction, because (unlike us) he was so familiar with the norm. But if the twentieth-century reader starts at a disadvantage, he need not be sceptical merely because his own ear sometimes fails to record any results.


To say that in eighteenth-century poetry the diction varied from one kind of poem to another is not to deny that there was at this period a recognized poetic diction upon which the poets consciously drew. In the gradual crystallization of this special diction two stages may perhaps be distinguished:

  1. Certain words and phrases are not suited to poetry because they are too 'low', i.e. too colloquial, too much associated with particular trades or professions, too prosaic and everyday, and so on. Such words and phrases must therefore be avoided.
  2. Certain words and phrases have come to be peculiarly associated with poetry. Those words and phrases should therefore be chosen since they are 'poetical', and poetry is something written in poetic diction.

No genuine poet would have thought of expressing the second stage in the development so crudely as that, but most of them were conscious of a poetic value resting in the purely literary associations of certain words. The words themselves were so many poetic units.

The first, or negative, stage was about as far as Dryden had cared to go. Though he wished poetry to be written in the language of gentlemen, he was still thinking rather of excluding words that failed to pass the test of propriety and elegance than of restricting poets to a specialized vocabulary. But is that quite how Pope saw the problem? In his satirical and familiar poetry he is free enough, but in his translation of Homer he seems to have passed on to the second, or positive, stage. Johnson's comment on the language of Pope's Homer is significant:

...there is scarcely a happy combination of words or a phrase poetically elegant in the English language which Pope has not inserted into his version of Homer. How he obtained possession of so many beauties of speech it were desirable to know. That he gleaned from authors, obscure as well as eminent, what he thought brilliant or useful, and preserved it all in a regular collection, is not unlikely. When, in his last years, Hall's Satires were shewn him he wished that he had seen them sooner.(21)

Beside this passage we may put another from Johnson's 'Life of Dryden':

There was therefore before the time of Dryden no poetical diction: no system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestick use and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts.. . . Those happy combinations of words which distinguish poetry from prose had been rarely attempted; we had few elegances or flowers of speech: the roses had not yet been plucked from the bramble or different colours had not yet been joined to enliven one another.(22)

The implication of those two passages is sufficiently clear: certain words and phrases and turns of expression are eminently striking and poetical; it is those that a poet should employ. Indeed, he will show his knowledge of the poetic art by the extent to which he does make use of them. But where is he to find them? Chiefly in the works of earlier (but not too early) poets who have taken the risk of introducing them into poetry, where they are now safely established.(23) No one put it quite so simply as that, but most of the poets and critics thought along those lines. It is in much the same spirit that the schoolboy writes his Latin prose, well aware that a good prose is one into which he can introduce a quae cum ita sint and a haud multum abfuit quin, and (if fortune favours him) a quippe qui. There is, of course, no question of his striking any new Latin phrases for himself; if he does, the less of a latinist he. His duty is always to follow the best models. As a schoolboy, he is not likely to have contaminated his style by reading any of the late Latin writers; but if he had read, say, Tertullian he would no more think of imitating Tertullian's style than Pope would have thought of writing like Marston or Chapman. When, therefore, Johnson says of Pope that 'he has left in his Homer a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity',(24) he is thinking not merely of future generations of readers enjoying those elegances, but also of future generations of poets making further use of them.

By the middle of the eighteenth century English poetry had acquired a vocabulary which had almost become a second language.

The language of the age [Gray told his friend West] is never the language of poetry; except among the French, whose verse, where the thought or image does not support it, differs in nothing from prose. Our poetry, on the contrary, has a language peculiar to itself; to which almost every one that has written has added something, by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivatives: Nay, sometimes words of their own composition or invention.(25)

Gray goes on to note that Shakespeare and Milton have been 'great creators this way', and that Dryden and Pope have borrowed from them in turn. Gray himself borrowed from all four, and his poetry illustrates perfectly the way in which an eighteenth-century poet willingly availed himself of 'happy combinations of words' and 'phrases poetically elegant in the English language'. When he wrote the lines,

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air

the thought was of a kind that might have occurred independently to any poet in any age. But Gray must have known Pope's

Like roses that in deserts bloom and die(26)

and (blushing almost unseen in Ambrose Philips's Thule) he might have found:

Like woodland flowers, which paint the desert glades,
And waste their sweets in unfrequented shades.

If Gray was indebted to Pope, Pope in his turn was pretty certainly recalling Waller's lines in 'Go, lovely rose':

Tell her that's young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
That hadst thou sprung
In deserts, where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died —

and it is just possible that he may have remembered two lines in William Chamberlayne's Pharonnida:

Like beauteous flowers which vainly waste the scent
Of odours in unhaunted deserts...(27)

Some ten years after the appearance of Philips's Thule (1718) Young wrote in his Universal Passion:

In distant wilds, by human eyes unseen,
She rears her flow'rs, and spreads her velvet green;
Pure gurgling rills the lonely desart trace,
And waste their music on the savage race.(28)

Gray had almost certainly read those lines, and they may have been stirring in the back of his mind with the other echoes.

His own lines in the Elegy are perhaps finer than any of the earlier passages which may have suggested them: if not finer, they are at least different in effect. The question of literary borrowing was one to which eighteenth-century poets and critics gave a good deal of thought. The young Pope aired his views on the subject to his elderly friend Walsh:

I would beg your opinion, too, as to another point: it is how far the liberty of borrowing may extend? I have defended it sometimes by saying, that it seems not so much the perfection of sense to say things that had never been said before, as to express those best that have been said oftenest; and that writers, in the case of borrowing from others, are like trees, which of themselves would produce only one sort of fruit, but by being grafted upon others may yield variety. A mutual commerce makes poetry flourish; but then poets, like merchants, should repay with something of their own what they take from others; not, like pirates, make prize of all they meet. I desire you to tell me sincerely, if I have not stretched this license too far in these Pastorals.(29)

Walsh was reassuring:

Indeed, in all the common subjects of poetry, the thoughts are so obvious, at least if they are natural, that whoever writes last must write things like what have been said before.(30)

The eighteenth-century reader was well aware that some second-rate writers were mere plagiaries; but there was no widespread feeling against imitation, no tendency to point scornfully at some passage and say, 'This is simply lifted from Dryden', or 'He got that from The Rape of the Lock'. On the contrary, so long as the poet passed Pope's test and repaid with something of his own, his imitations were counted as poetical assets. The poet himself rarely showed any anxiety to conceal his poetical borrowings, and indeed was often at some pains to point them out to the reader. In the Preface to his Annus Mirabilis Dryden not only acknowledges but even boasts of his debt to Virgil:

I have followed him everywhere, I know not with what success, but I am sure with diligence enough; my images are many of them copied from him, and the rest are imitations of him. My expressions also are as near as the idioms of the two languages would admit of in translation.(31)

This is as much as to say:

'I don't know what you will think of my poem, but I can guarantee that it is made out of good sound materials. It is the very best Virgil.'

Pope, too, pointed out many, though by no means all, of his imitations of earlier writers.(32) Even when a poet repaid with little or nothing of his own he was ready to justify his borrowings on the grounds that allusion was itself pleasurable. So in 1713 we find one John Smith, the author of a volume of Poems upon Several Occasions, informing his readers:

To avoid the imputation of a plagiary, I have printed whatsoever I have taken from any English writer as far as my memory could go back, in a distinct character. . . . Such fragments as these, serve for a kind of inlay to the work, and afford a graceful variety.

Nothing could be more chilling to the modern reader than to come upon a passage in 'a distinct character' or in inverted commas because the poet had lifted a few words from Keats or Tennyson.

The argument of Walsh that 'whoever writes last must write things like what have been said before' will not serve to explain every kind of borrowing in the eighteenth century. The borrowing frequently occurs when the material borrowed is by no means common; but to the eighteenth-century poet what had once appeared in poetry was common property, and could be used again. The poetical fortune of the word 'calenture' will throw some light on the neo-classical tendency to employ material already used, and to vary upon the existing pattern rather than startle the reader with something entirely unfamiliar. The word itself seems to have come into the language towards the end of the sixteenth century, and no doubt gained currency then because of the experiences of Elizabethan sailors in tropical seas. The calenture is

'a disease incident to sailors within the tropics, characterized by delirium in which the patient, it is said, fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it' (O.E.D.).

It seems to have been associated, too, with calms, when the sun's rays beat upon the ocean and the ship lay motionless in the water. It is in these circumstances that we meet with it in 'The Calme' of Donne:

Onely the calenture together drawes
Deare friends, which meet dead in great fishes jawes... .

The distracted sailor plunging into the ocean supplied the poets with a picturesque image for all sorts of mental delusions. So Almahide replies to the passionate wooing of Almanzor in The Conquest of Granada (1670):

These are the day-dreams which wild fancy yields,
Empty as shadows are, that fly o'er fields.
Oh, whither would this boundless fancy move!
'Tis but the raging calenture of love.
Like a distracted passenger you stand,
And see, in seas, imaginary land,
Cool groves, and flowery meads; and while you think
To walk, plunge in, and wonder that you sink.(33)

Twenty years later, in Don Sebastian, the same image came to Dryden's mind when his Alvarez addresses another too passionate lover:

Know, sir, I would be silent if I durst:
But if, on shipboard, I should see my friend
Grown frantic in a raging calenture,
And he, imagining vain flowery fields,
Would headlong plunge himself into the deep, —
Should I not hold him from the mad attempt,
Till his sick fancy were by reason cured ?(34)

In Nicholas Rowe's first play, The Ambitious Stepmother, which has many echoes of Dryden, we come upon the calenture again in a speech of Cleone:

But whither does my roving fancy wander?
These are the sick dreams of fantastick love.
So in the calenture the seaman fancies
Green fields and flow'ry meadows on the ocean,
Till leaping in, the wretch is lost for ever.(35)

Twenty years later, writing of the South Sea Bubble, Swift naturally associates the madness of the speculation with the delirium of sailors in tropical (i.e. South) seas:

So, by a calenture misled,
The mariner with rapture sees
On the smooth ocean's azure bed
Enamell'd fields, and verdant trees.

With eager hast he longs to rove
In that fantastick scene, and thinks
It must be some enchanted grove,
And in he leaps, and down he sinks.(36)

In a case like this it becomes idle to inquire who borrowed from whom: the calenture had clearly become a part of the common stock of poetical material. It had passed its tests, and was now ready for anyone who wished to use it.(37)


An age which holds that there is a wide gap separating poetry from prose will have to justify this belief either by producing poetry of a highly imaginative order or else by finding some other way of emphasizing the difference. But the average eighteenth-century poet was a very reasonable sort of person; he was moved by natural human feelings and he had those other feelings proper to the artist working in his own chosen medium, but he rarely showed any outstanding qualities of imagination. How, then, was he to differentiate his poetic utterance from his prose? He did so mainly by the use of poetic diction.

There were several good reasons why the poets of the period found themselves being continually propelled towards the use of this diction. In the first place much of their poetry was written in the heroic couplet, a measure which tends to generate an unusual amount of energy. The tendency of twentieth-century poets has been to move away from the emphatic beat of a regular metre and to turn rather to much quieter and more colloquial rhythms, which in their turn encourage quieter and more colloquial expression. The effect of metre (as Coleridge observed) is to arouse expectation in the reader, and to 'increase the vivacity and susceptibility.. . of the general feelings':(38) when, therefore, the metre is irregular and unemphatic, little expectation is aroused and the feelings are less fully engaged. The last English poets of any importance who habitually used the traditional and regular metres are perhaps Kipling and Housman, and it is significant that in both the feeling is frequently rhetorical and the diction is of the kind that is most apt to generate such feeling. At all events, the heroic couplet of the eighteenth-century poets, by making an unusually strong demand upon the reader's attention, forced the poet to respond with a language that would not disappoint the expectations aroused.

Ideally, no doubt, this would have been the language of feeling. But if the poet's subject was not itself charged with emotion. he had either to provide the emotion himself or else induce it in his readers by means of an artificial diction.(M) Contemporary critics frequently praised the poet who could make a prosaic theme glow and glitter by the use of poetical ornament. To Dryden, Virgil's Georgics were 'the divinest part of all his writings' because Virgil had turned into poetry the most unpromising materials, which

are neither great in themselves, nor have any natural ornament to bear them up; but the words wherewith he describes them are so excellent, that it might well be applied to him, which was said by Ovid, Maleriam superabal opus.(40)

Addison praised the Georgics for the same reason; they were a triumph of successful heightening:

He delivers the meanest of his precepts with a kind of grandeur, he breaks the clods and tosses the dung about with an air of gracefulness.(41)

When William Mason undertook in his English Garden to inform readers how to erect a fence that should remain invisible, he admitted the difficulty of conveying such instruction in poetry, but he explained how — for the eighteenth-century reader at least — it could be done:

Ingrateful sure,
When such the theme, becomes the poet's task:
Yet must he try, by modulation meet
Of varied cadence, and selected phrase,
Exact yet free, without inflation bold,
To dignify that theme, must try to form
Such magic sympathy of sense with sound
As pictures all it sings; while grace awakes
At each blest touch, and, on the lowliest things,
Scatters her rainbow hues.(42)

'Ingrateful' perhaps; but the eighteenth-century poet seems often to have got a lot of quiet enjoyment from dignifying the theme. So Cowper, explaining how to prepare a bed for the cucumber frame, refers to the manure as 'a stercoraceous heap' and 'the agglomerated pile'; the frame itself must 'front the sun's meridian disk'; and when all is completed,

Thrice must the voluble and restless earth
Spin round upon her axle, ere the warmth,
Slow gathering in the midst, through the square mass
Diffused, attain the surface; when, behold!
A pestilent and most corrosive steam,
Like a gross fog Boeotian, rising fast,
And fast condensed upon the dewy sash,
Asks egress...(43)

If Cowper does this sort of thing with a smile on his face, some eighteenth-century poets were more serious. Boswell recounts the story of how the poet Grainger caused a loud laugh at Sir Joshua Reynolds's house when, reading from the manuscript of his Sugar Cane, he suddenly startled the company by saying,

Now, Muse, let's sing of rats. . .(44)

The objection here, as in many other such examples, is to the mixture of styles; the rats would have been harmless enough if they had not appeared in the company of the Muse. But to the eighteenth-century reader they would still have been, merely as rats, ludicrous in poetry; and Grainger was only complying with the taste of his age when, in revision, he tried to disguise them in a periphrasis:

Nor with less waste the whisker'd vermin race,
A countless clan, despoil the low-land cane.(45)

Such periphrases cushioned the eighteenth-century reader on many occasions from too sharp a contact with actuality. But the periphrasis had several other uses; it might introduce an elegant variation, or it might indicate unemphatically to the reader which of all the varied aspects of a subject he was to concentrate upon (cf. Thomson's 'soft fearful people' for the sheep about to be dipped).(46) Or again, in Dyer's

....prickly bramble white with woolly theft(47)

— if 'woolly theft' can still be looked upon as a periphrasis — it could concentrate much meaning in a single phrase. It remains true, however, that the most frequent reason for the periphrasis in eighteenth-century poetry is the poet's feeling that he must keep up the level of utterance. If hens in poetry were going to make people smile (as in Thomson's day they almost inevitably were) the poet did well to avoid the word. If 'feather'd tribes domestic' makes the twentieth-century reader feel that Thomson's cure was worse than the disease, we must accept once more a 'shift of sensibility' and, if we must smile, smile benignly.

In defending Pope's version of Homer Johnson undertook to answer those who objected that Pope had failed to reproduce the spirit of the Greek poet. Homer is simple, artless, unaffected; Pope's translation (they say) is artificial. Perhaps it is, Johnson admits; but we must make allowance for a large change in taste in the course of two thousand years. Even Virgil, who lived not very long after Homer, wrote quite differently; he found even then

'the state of the world so much altered, and the demand for elegance so much increased, that mere nature would be endured no longer'.

In a community just emerging from barbarism literature is so new, and the minds of men are so little instructed, that 'plain sense' is enough to give delight; but

repletion generates fastidiousness, a saturated intellect soon becomes luxurious, and knowledge finds no willing reception till it be recommended by artificial diction.(48)

This argument of Johnson's is perhaps more dependent on time and place than he realized; he did not foresee that taste might shift again towards a much less sophisticated and artificial kind of literature, though Percy's Reliques (1765) and other literary straws wore already showing how the wind was beginning to blow.

It is true that many of the ornamental effects in eighteenth-century poetry were there simply because they had become customary; the reader liked them, and he would have felt that the poem was too bare without them.

There see the clover, pea, and bean,
Vie in variety of green,
Fresh pastures speckled o'er with sheep,
Brown fields their fallow sabbaths keep,
Plump Ceres golden tresses wear,
And poppy-topknots deck her hair,
And silver streams thro' meadows stray,
And Naiads on the margin play,
And lesser nymphs on side of hills
From play-thing urns pour down the rills.(49)

If Wordsworth had happened to select this passage for critical comment, he would almost certainly, after his fashion, have given some sort of approval to the first four lines and condemned the rest outright as another example of 'vicious poetic diction'. But the contemporary reader no doubt welcomed Ceres and the Naiads as a necessary relief from 'the clover, pea, and bean' — good things in their way, but, poetically, little better than kitchen-stuff. Fifty years later the Naiads are still performing their modest service to eighteenth-century poetry. When Cowper writes of a little stream in the neighbourhood of Olney, a little Naiad dutifully pours her urn for him:

Hence the declivity is sharp and short,
And such the reascent; between them weeps
A little Naiad her impoverished urn
All summer long, which winter fills again.(50)

Cowper's Naiad does not bring us any closer to the actuality of the stream; indeed, his mode of expression here has the opposite effect. If we want to get what Keats would have called the 'feel' of a stream we could not do better than go to his own lines in Endymion:

cold springs had run
To warm their chilliest bubbles in the grass,(51)

or to his description of the 'hurrying freshnesses' in 'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill', with the swarms of minnows.

Staying their wavy bodies 'gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper'd with coolness.(52)

Sometimes Cowper, too, will enter in this way into the very nature of the being or object contemplated, but at other times he is content to stand outside or apart from it, and to describe it (or, more accurately, allude to it) in the conventional terms of his poetic diction.

The pagan deities constituted a notable part of this diction.(N) In fairness to the poets we must recognize that they were a genuine part of the eighteenth-century scene, and that they were very far from being confined to poetry. They appeared frequently in the paintings of Reynolds and his contemporaries, they stood or reclined upon the outside of public buildings and filled niches in the interior, they wriggled their way into chairs and tables and beds, they warmed themselves on fire-places, they hunted or caroused on tapestries and urns and screens, and to the dismay of some Christians they even penetrated into the parish church in the more elaborate monuments erected to ladies and gentlemen deceased. A writer in the Connoisseur (25 March 1756) speculates facetiously on the revenue which might be raised by a tax on heathen gods in the gardens of the great: the nobleman at his seat, the esquire at the hall-house, the citizen in his country-box, and even the divine at his parsonage, all have their walks and gardens peopled with satyrs, fauns, and dryads.

While infidelity has expunged the Christian theology from our creed, taste has introduced the heathen mythology into our gardens. If a pond is dug, Neptune, at the command of taste, emerges from the bason, and presides in the middle; or if a vista is cut through a grove, it must be terminated by a Flora, or an Apollo.

If the pagan gods had not become fully naturalized in eighteenth-century England, they entered much more fully into the consciousness of the educated Englishman than they do to-day. He first met them as a schoolboy in Ovid and Virgil and in the copperplates of Tooke's Pantheon,(54) and he was continually reminded of them in later life as a part of his cultural heritage.

But repetition (as Keats feared unnecessarily for his own Endymion) had 'dulled their brightness'. Even in the reign of Queen Anne there were voices protesting against the too frequent introduction of Greek deities into English poetry. As the years passed, and Apollo and Diana, Boreas and Aeolus, the Nymphs and the Dryads were still brought in to brighten the page, the old heathen mythology became more and more moribund. Johnson let slip no opportunity of condemning what he had come to regard as a boring and lifeless convention. 'The attention', he once observed, 'naturally retires from a new tale of Venus, Diana, and Minerva' ;(55) and of the second stanza in 'The Progress of Poesy' he remarked crossly: 'Criticism disdains to chase a schoolboy to his common-places.'(56) Only a few years after Johnson's death, another sturdy and intelligent Englishman was showing no mercy to the schoolboys at Christ's Hospital (young Coleridge among them) when they thought to embellish their English compositions with classical clichés and pagan deities:

Lute, harp, and lyre, Muse, Muses, and inspirations, Pegasus, Parnassus, and Hippocrene were all abominations to him. In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming 'Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? Your nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose!'(57)

A more reasoned objection to the continual use of classical mythology in modern English poetry was made by Henry Mackenzie in 1785. What was natural (he argues) to the Greeks, and indeed an essential part of their religious system, is no longer natural to us. Thus far, Mackenzie is only repeating the argument of Johnson and of the many others who had by this time come round to Johnson's point of view. But he has a further objection to offer.

Another bad consequence of this servile imitation of the ancients has been to prevent modern authors from studying nature as it is, from attempting to draw it as it really appears; and, instead of giving genuine descriptions, it leads them to give those only which are false and artificial.(58)

In fact, Flora, Zephyrus, Pan, Pomona, Aurora, and the rest had become poetical contractions for something that ought to have been described at full length; and not being under the necessity of so describing it, the poet (Mackenzie suggests) had ended by not really seeing it at all. Which is the effect here and which the cause it would be hard to say. Did poets write

Here blushing Flora paints the enamelled ground

because they had failed to see what lay before their eyes, or did blushing Flora prevent them from seeing by removing the occasion for observation? Certainly, if every stream is to be a Naiad it will be difficult to differentiate one stream from another. But here we are thrown back again on eighteenth-century theory, which held that the poet is to paint not the particular but the general. When, in course of time, the desire to particularize grew more and more insistent, and we find Wordsworth spending several stanzas in describing an aged thorn which he had observed on the ridge of Quantock Hill on a stormy day, and putting his description into the mouth of

'a captain of a small trading vessel... , who being past the middle age of life, had retired upon an annuity or small independent income to some village or country town of which he was not a native, or in which he had not been accustomed to live',(59)

then, not unnaturally, the old gods must go with the kind of poetry that made their continuing existence possible.


It will be recalled that Johnson defended Pope's poetic diction in the Homer not only on the ground that the demand for elegance had increased in those more sophisticated modern days, but also on the ground that 'knowledge finds no willing reception [nowadays] till it be recommended by artificial diction'.(60) It was an idea to which he often recurred. The value of poetic diction lay partly in its power to make the reader pay attention to what he might otherwise neglect. In discussing Swift's prose he had noted how clearly and easily Swift always conveyed his meaning.

For purposes merely didactick [he continues] when something is to be told that was not known before, it is the best mode, but against that inattention by which known truths are suffered to lie neglected it makes no provision; it instructs, but does not persuade.(61)

Eighteenth-century poetry was only too full of those known truths; indeed, as we have seen, no other sort of truth was willingly admitted. If, therefore, the known truths were to attract attention, it must be as ladies and gentlemen would attract attention at a ball or an assembly — by the richness and elegance of their dress. Vicesimus Knox, who often followed in the path of Johnson like a literary jackal, reached the, same conclusion in an essay 'On the Expediency of embellishing Composition with Harmonious Periods, and with other judicious Ornaments. Modern writers, he tells us,

'find it difficult to add novelty to the matter, because, in the course of a few ages, every subject is frequently treated, and consequently soon exhausted'.

But a modern writer who cannot hope to add anything new to the philosophy of a Bacon or a Newton

'may yet deliver their thoughts in such a manner, and refine their beauties with such ornaments of diction'

that his work may be more widely read than that of the original author. In a later passage he compares writing with building, and draws a distinction between that sort of building which merely answers the purpose of providing shelter, and that which also delights and surprises because

'the chisel in the master's hand' has 'called forth each latent beauty, added the festoon and the Corinthian foliage'.(62)

Here the conception of poetic diction as a sort of decorative effect on the plain surface of the idea is fully established. Some such notion must have been in the mind of John Gwynn the architect when he engaged in argument with Johnson as they shared a coach on the way to Oxford. Johnson had been talking against ornament in architecture; Gwynn offered to defend it.

'What, Sir, will you allow no value to beauty in architecture or in statuary? Why should we allow it then in writing? Why do you take the trouble to give us so many fine allusions, and bright images, and elegant phrases? You might convey all your instructions without these ornaments.'

Johnson smiled with complacency; but said,

'Why, Sir, all these ornaments are useful, because they obtain an easier reception for truth; but a building is not at all more convenient for being decorated with superfluous carved work.'(63)

In Johnson's reply we can see again his concern for the memorable conveyance of known truths. The poet, no less than the prose-writer, had to struggle constantly to defeat the inattention of his readers. He, too, could use fine allusions and bright images, but poetic diction was his most reliable weapon. In the end it was to defeat the poet's intentions. The weapon, once so sharp and new, had become blunted by constant use, and the inattention of readers was no longer to be startled by a poetic diction that had acquired almost the sanctity of the Church service. When that day came, something very different was required if readers were still to be startled — nothing less, indeed, than 'the language really spoken by men'. The shock administered by Wordsworth is itself an indication of how much it was needed.