FOR the study of English poetry in the eighteenth century there is no virtue in taking 1701 as a starting-point: a better date is 1660. On 25 May of that year Samuel Pepys, sitting in a small boat with Mr. Mansell, and one of the King's footmen, and a dog that the King loved, watched Charles II step ashore at Dover, to be greeted by General Monk with all imaginable love and respect, and by a great gathering of noblemen and citizens of all sorts. Four days later, on his birthday, the King entered London ('all things there very gallant and joyful'), and a new page in English history had been turned. The seventeenth century had still forty years to run; but we know now that the church bells that were ringing Charles II into London were ringing in a new age. In the country districts the change was gradual; in London it was rapid and decisive. The need to rebuild the greater part of the City after the Great Fire must have played a considerable part in that modernizing of life which was now taking place, and equally important were the new fashions and the new modes of thought which Charles and his courtiers brought to England from abroad. Many of the ideas which were to dominate the thought of the eighteenth century were not yet in general circulation. Hobbes's Leviathanhad appeared in 1651; but Newton's Principia was not published till 1687, nor Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding till 1690. But the wind had shifted, or was shifting; and poetry, always sensitive to such changes, had begun to feel it almost at once.
This transformation of what it is now fashionable to call the intellectual climate of the age was not simply a shift to a more rationalistic outlook, but it was mainly that. It is pretty generally assumed that this was a change inimical to poetry. Yet the new atmosphere did not make it impossible or even difficult for poets to write; it only made the writing of some kinds of poetry less easy. Hobbes and Locke and many of their contemporaries were subjecting the intellectual atmosphere to a sort of air-conditioning process; the air now being breathed was purer, but it was thinner, and less charged with wandering scents and sounds.
One result of the growing rationalism of the last decades of the Seventeenth century was the disappearance from poetry of all that may be comprehensively labelled the supernatural. Looking back across the hundred years that separated him from the Restoration period, Richard Hurd saw clearly what had been happening to poetry. The imagination that had once roved at will 'was now constrained . . . to ally herself with strict truth, if she would gain admittance into reasonable company'. Weighing the gains against the losses, he concluded:
'What we have gotten by this revolution, you will say, is a great deal of good sense. What we have lost, is a world of fine fabling.' (1)
In England, the writer who did more than any other to establish the ascendancy of reason was Thomas Hobbes. Not only did he give reason a new prestige in the scheme of things, but he never missed an opportunity to cast doubt or contempt on any form of mental activity that was not strictly rational. His emphasis on rational thinking was all the more effective because he tended to assume that it was characteristic of the modern mind, and that superstition and credulity belonged to past ages. Hobbes in fact was busy — no one was ever busier — emptying 'the haunted air and gnomed mine', giving rational explanations of phenomena that had once been attributed to gods or daemons It was for this that he was praised by one of his contemporaries:
While in dark ignorance we lay, afraid
Of fancies, ghosts, and every empty shade;
Great Hobbes appeared, and by plain Reason's light
Put such fantastick forms to shameful flight. (2)
In former times, as Hobbes himself pointed out, 'a God, or Divel' had been used to explain 'the nature of powers invisible'. Fawns and nymphs, Lares and genii, ghosts and Furies, fairies and bugbears had all been invented to account for natural phenomena and mental aberrations. Men had 'invoked also their own wit, by the name of Muses; their own ignorance, by the name of Fortune; their own lust, by the name of Cupid; their own rage, by the name of Furies . . .' insomuch as there was nothing, which a poet could introduce as a person in his poem, which they did not make either a God, or a Divel. (3)But all that superstitious lumber had gone down the stream of time; men were no longer living in an intellectual twilight, but in the broad light of day. To go against Mr. Hobbes, therefore, was to defend the irrational and to perpetuate the old poetic paraphernalia; you stamped yourself as superstitious and old-fashioned.
As if this were not enough, Hobbes at times came near to equating the imagination with madness. The only kind of mental activity that he really respected was that in which he could observe 'steddy direction to some approved end'. Without this necessary purposiveness, thinking might easily degenerate into mere mind-wandering or worse.
'But without steddinesse, and direction to some end, a great fancy is one kind of madnesse; such as they have, that entring into any discourse, are snatched from their purpose, by every thing that comes in their thought...' (4)
If madness might seem to some people too strong to apply to loose and unguided thinking, Hobbes was willing to compare it to day-dreaming. Dreaming itself was another form of mind-wandering ('Waking I often observe the absurdity of dreames'); and from dreams, too,
'did arise the greatest part of the religion of the Gentiles in time past, that worshipped satyres, fawnes, nymphs, and the like; and now adayes the opinion that rude people have of fayries, ghosts, and goblins; and of the power of witches'. (5)
It was only 'rude people', it will be noticed, who still believed in witches and fairies. Such notions belonged to the childhood of a race; but when a nation had intellectually come of age it put away childish things. In his attitude to the child and to childish ideas Hobbes was in no sense peculiar, even though he was a bachelor and getting on to sixty when he was writing his Leviathan. The glorification of the child is a romantic habit. The eighteenth century generally thought of the child as an undeveloped adult, a half-articulate being which might come to full intellectual stature when it grew up, but which was not yet fully developed mentally and was therefore of only limited interest. Poets such as Ambrose Philips, who constituted himself a sort of unofficial laureate of children, only incurred ridicule. In 'The Art of Sinking in Poetry' Pope laughed at his 'infantile' style, and it was of course for this vein of poetry that Philips acquired the nickname of 'Namby-Pamby'. If you wanted to write about children Matthew Prior had already shown in his 'Letter to the Honourable Lady Miss Margaret-Cavendish-Holles-Harley' how it could be done without losing your self-respect:
My noble, lovely, little Peggy,
Let this, my first-epistle, beg ye,
At dawn of morn, and close of even,
To lift your heart and hands to heaven:
In double beauty say your pray'r,
Our father first, then notre père. . (6)
But then Prior had the perfect poise of the assured artist; he knew just how far to go, and just how serious he ought to be if he was to please the noble parents of little Peggy and yet not incur the ridicule of that much larger public who were not her parents.
To Hobbes, then, the right man was the adult, the man who was living in the clear light of reason, who had stepped free from all superstition, and who could think steadily, controlling alike his imagination and his prejudice. Had he gone so far as to sneer openly at the imagination, he might have found an opponent with the courage and the ability to answer him; but he did something subtler and far more damaging, he simply assumed that it was most commonly to be found in children, lunatics, and the uneducated). (A)
The work of making men aware of their own mental processes was carried farther by John Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding. Locke steadily cleared away the jungle in which had lurked the unknown and mysterious and terrifying creatures of the imagination; he let in the light of reason, and others were soon ploughing and sowing in what had once been unexplored and dangerous country. Among those others was Addison. Anything that Addison wrote in a Tatler or a Spectator was probably repeated, with individual modifications, by hundreds of sensible Londoners in the course of the following week, and from them it spread outwards and downwards to many thousands more. It is therefore of some significance in the history of ideas that Addison, a confessed admirer of Locke, should have given a good deal of his space to ridiculing or otherwise discountenancing witchcraft, ghosts, premonitions, omens, and superstitions of all kinds, and that he should have done much to popularize Locke's rational explanation of the working of the human mind. On 6 July 1711 he told the readers of the Spectator what Locke in his chapter on the association of ideas had to say about goblins and sprites, the topic being introduced by way of one of Sir Roger's footmen who, coming past the ruins of an old abbey at night, 'had been almost frighted out of his wits by a spirit that appeared to him in the shape of a black horse without an head'. Mr. Spectator, ignoring the butler's warning, walked that way at dusk himself:
'I observed a cow grazing not far from me, which an imagination that was apt to startle might easily have construed into a black horse without an head: and I dare say the poor footman lost his wits upon some such trivial occasion.'
A week later (14th July) Mr. Spectator was discussing the question: Are there such creatures as witches? With characteristic tact Addison pronounces his opinion:
'I believe in general that there is, and has been such a thing as witchcraft; but at the same time can give no credit to any particular instance of it.'
That was about as far as Addison could safely carry his public in 1711. Yet in his account of Moll White, a reputed witch, he tried to ridicule the whole idea of witchcraft. Sir Roger (he tells us) was in two minds about her: when he visited the old woman in her wretched cottage he winked to Mr. Spectator and pointed to an old broom-staff behind the door, but he advised Moll, as a justice of peace,
'to avoid all communication with the devil, and never to hurt any of her neighbour's cattle'.
Left to himself, indeed, Sir Roger would on several occasions have bound the old woman over to the county sessions for 'making children spit pins, and giving maids the nightmare', but he had been dissuaded by his chaplain. The essay closes on a more serious note:
I have been the more particular in this account, because I hear there is scarce a village in England that has not a Moll White in it. When an old woman begins to doat, and grow chargeable to a parish, she is generally turned into a witch, and fills the whole country with extravagant fancies, imaginary distempers, and terrifying dreams. In the mean time, the poor wretch that is the innocent occasion of so many evils, begins to be frighted at herself, and sometimes confesses secret commerces and familiarities that her imagination forms in a delirious old age. This frequently cuts off charity from the greatest objects of compassion, and inspires people with a malevolence towards those poor decrepit parts of our species, in whom human nature is defaced by infirmity and dotage.
Perhaps we are too ready to sneer at Addison; the work he did was often more necessary than we always realize today. On 18 January 1 700, for instance, the readers of the Post-Boy were given a ghastly account of how an old woman, supposed to be a witch, was done to death by a rabble at St. Albans.
London, Jan. 18.
We are informed from St. Albans, that one Amey Townsend, who lay under the misfortune of being a reputed witch, about ten days since going by a watchmaker's shop in that corporation, asked the price of a watch; the apprentice snapt her up short, saying, What's that to you, forty shillings is more than you are worth; upon which 'twas observed, that she only pointed at the boy with her finger, and trudged about her business. Her character struck the lad with such frightful apprehensions of danger from the reputed hagg, that next day he fell sick in good earnest; keeps his bed, cries out, Amey Townsend had bewitched him, and he should die, if he did not immediately fetch blood from her. The poor old creature was brought in the lad's chamber, he, in a great fury, leaps out of bed, sets his nails in her face, made her bleed, and the boy recovered, while the poor wretch was turned out of doors to seek her remedy for being severely scratched. The mob learnedly debating this affair, concluded that the boy was bewitched by Townsend, and they in justice ought to inflict the punishment by making an experiment. Immediately they seize the poor soul, force her into a river near the town, and drag her so often through it, till she was like to expire by their barbarous usage: which some of the brutes perceiving, had the humanity to put her into a warm bed, where she lay in a hopeful way of recovery. Some of the more judicious inhabitants discanting upon her being ducked, averred they saw her swim, ergo, she was a witch, and scandalous to that corporation. This further enrages the mob (who always are bewitched and tumultuous), they assemble again in a body, haul the miserable creature out of her bed, and setting her in a chair, hoist her upon their shoulders, and carried her about the town in triumph, shouting and bawling out 'a Townsend, a Townsend' after which they had her before a justice of the peace, who to appease them, sent her to the town-house, where she died in two hours. And we hear that several are taken up to answer it at the next assizes for Hertfordshire, where no question but some of them will decently swing for it.
The Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, separated by a comfortable gap of time from such hideous outbreaks of superstition, could afford to toy happily with demonology and witchcraft, and were not above reproaching the eighteenth century for its rationalism. But the eighteenth century had been too recently delivered from a genuine belief in witchcraft and similar occult phenomena to encourage any 'willing suspension of disbelief' of this kind among its poets. It held, precariously enough, to its newly won sanity.
Hobbes and Locke come closer to the poet's business in their distinction between fancy (or imagination) and judgement. Though he went so far as to admit that in good poems Fancy was more prominent than Judgement because 'they please for the extravagancy',(7). Hobbes yet insisted that the Fancy should be always under control. So long as the poet's thoughts were applied to some end clearly foreseen and consistently pursued, Hobbes was ready enough to welcome imagination in a poet; but its main function, in his opinion, was to provide the poet with similes and metaphors and so enable him to illustrate his thoughts delightfully. He would have approved Dryden's well-known simile for the imaginative faculty in the writer,
'which, like a nimble spaniel, beats over and ranges through the field of memory, till it springs the quarry it hunted after'. (8)
He would have approved because the simile seems to have originated in a remark of his own. (9) This Hobbes-Dryden spaniel is not ranging aimlessly, but pursuing a scent which will lead him at last to the game he is seeking. What Hobbes did not approve was the untrained mongrel who raced backwards and forwards across the field, aimless and yelping. Mere mind-wandering in an author, or the complete abandonment of the mind to the emotions, would never lead to a great poem. As Johnson once said to Sir Joshua Reynolds about Macpherson's Ossian:
'Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it.' (10)
To Hobbes, again, 'wit' and 'judgement' appeared as two opposed forces: wit was only too apt to gallop away with good sense, and it was the business of the judgement to curb its extravagance. The necessary antagonism of wit and judgement became a critical commonplace of the period. Writing of the poetry of the Arabians, Thomas Rymer asserted (1674):
Fancy with them is predominant, is wild, vast, and unbridled, o're which their judgement has little command or authority: hence their conceptions are monstrous, and have nothing of exactness, nothing of resemblance or proportion. (11)
And Pope's well-known lines in the Essay on Criticism repeat the customary antithesis:
Some, to whom Heav'n in wit has been profuse,
Want as much more, to turn it to its use;
For wit and judgment often are at strife,
Tho' meant each other's aid, like man and wife. (12)
This new distrust of 'wit' — 'a distrust of the free, spontaneous association of ideas as contrasted with the more sober progress of the thoughts under steady direction to some approved end' — is no doubt responsible for the disappointment felt by some readers of eighteenth-century poetry. In poetry there must always be a compromise between the foreseen and the fortuitous, between the deliberate and the spontaneous. The poet (unless he is writing a 'Kubla Khan') knows where he is going, but he does not necessarily know every point that he will pass on his way. Where nothing at all is foreseen and everything is left to the inspiration of the moment, the result is more likely to be a poetic phantasmagoria (13) than a poem; the reader will probably feel a lack of movement and direction. Where, however, everything, or too much, is foreseen, his mind may be improved but it is less likely to be excited; he may admire the flawless intellectual structure, but he is likely to be oppressed by a sense of too complete deliberation. Much eighteenth-century poetry is the poetry of calm and measured statement.
'The hardest thing in the world', it was observed by one of the most judicious of Dryden's contemporaries, 'is to give the thoughts due liberty and yet retain them in due discipline.' (14)
What is accepted as due liberty differs from one age to another. If the Romantic poets were ready to risk much, and those of the twentieth century to chance almost everything, for the mind's liberty to roam, most modern readers will probably feel that the poets of the eighteenth century were too much inclined to emphasize the 'due discipline'. They have had to pay for it in an age in which poetry is often equated with the irrational, or in which at least the reason is looked upon as nothing better than a necessary alloy in poetry. It is never easy to realize that the poetry of one's own contemporaries is only the latest fashion; it is fatally easy to assume (as the eighteenth century certainly did) that we have advanced beyond earlier generations, if not in actual performance, then at least in our understanding of what poetry is. In reality we have only fused the elements together in different proportions. In eighteenth-century poetry the proportion of Reason to the Irrational was perhaps 3:2, or more; in the poetry of Yeats, Eliot, or Dylan Thomas the proportions are often reversed. We must accept the difference, and resist the temptation to grade the poetical production of the two centuries by reference to our own private formula for poetry.
An age which was becoming increasingly interested in science was naturally attracted to that kind of truth which is unlversal and demonstrable. Conversely, it tended to view with increasing suspicion that sort of thought which was merely personal, or, worse still, peculiar. More and more the age interested itself in the usual, the 'natural', the event that could be counted upon to recur, the thoughts and feelings that were shared by all normal people and that had therefore a general validity. That was the theory, at any rate, though in practice the age of Hobbes and Locke, and later of Addison and of Johnson, was only too ready to dismiss as unnatural any thought or feeling which lay outside the range of its experience, or which was markedly different from what had become customary. But the dislike of the peculiar or the abnormal was real enough; and in its widest manifestations it must be related to a new desire for that general truth in which the man of science deals. Among readers of poetry it took the form of a sharp reaction against the work of the Metaphysical poets, which a new generation had begun to find hopelessly odd and unnatural, and which was quite out of fashion by 1700.
What the eighteenth century thought of the metaphysical poets is fully set forth in Johnson's 'Life of Gowley'. He objects to them on several counts, but the weight of his indictment rests on the charge that they continually sought for the unexpected and the surprising, and paid far too little attention to that 'uniformity of sentiment' which enables a writer to understand and express the thoughts and feelings of all normal men. So eccentric was their mode of thinking that they could hardly be said to partake of human nature at all: a visitor from Mars might think like them, but hardly an inhabitant of this earth. In their poetry, Johnson felt, they did not copy either nature or life; they did not represent 'the operations of intellect' (i.e. the way that normal human beings think). They were therefore, in the most damaging sense, unrepresentative of the human race; and in consequence what they had to say could have little importance.
Johnson has been quoted here because be gives the fullest and most reasoned statement of the eighteenth-century case against the Metaphysicals; but the reaction against them had set in long before the close of the seventeenth century. The modern reader who is ready to be impatient with some of the points that Johnson makes would do well to consider them, not in relation to Donne, but to Cowley, or, better still, Cleveland. Johnson contents hiimself with one quotation from Cleveland, but it illustrates well the sort of odd, unnatural, and barely human utterance of which he complains:
Since 'tis my doom, love's undershrieve,
Why this reprieve?
Why doth my she-advowson fly
To sell thyself dost thou intend
By candle end?
And hold the contract thus in doubt,
Life's taper out?
Think but how soon the market fails;
Your sex lives faster than the males;
As if, to measure age's span,
The sober Julian were th' account of man,
Whilst you live by the fleet Gregorian.
'Who', Johnson asks, 'would imagine it possible that in a very few lines so many remote ideas could be brought together?'(15)
Cleveland's poem ('To Julia To Expedite Her Promise') and Herrick's 'Gather Ye Rosebuds' are variations on a similar theme; but in Herrick's poem the eighteenth-century reader would have recognized a normal poetic argument (Time is never at a standstill; the flowers fade all too soon; the higher the sun climbs, the sooner his journey will be over and night must fall. So, too, youth must yield to age; therefore, maidens, 'use your time, and while ye may, goe marry'.) In Cleveland's poem he would have felt that nothing was natural, that no man but Cleveland had ever thought like that (cf. Johnson's 'Who but Donne would have thought that a good man is a telescope?'), (16) and that therefore the poem lacked the sanction which is given to poetry that expresses the common sense of mankind.
The very marked reaction from the Metaphysical poets is part of a wider movement of the human mind. But that aspect of the reaction which had its origin in a dislike of the eccentric and the peculiar, and of what may be called private thoughts and private feelings, may become more intelligible if it is related to the religious history of the period. The seventeenth century in England had proved a fertile ground for the growth of religious sects, most of which came into being because some individual had seen an inner light. Of this kind were the Muggletonians, who take their name from their founder, Lodowicke Muggleton (1609-1698). Muggleton had inward revelations, and suffered the usual punishments of being fined, pilloried, and imprisoned; but he was only one (and one of the most sensible) of many such fanatics or 'enthusiasts' who claimed to be inspired. On 24 October 1656, on a day of torrential rain, James Nayler, who claimed that 'Christ was in him', rode into Bristol, surrounded by his disciples and followers crying, 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel.' For this he was pilloried, whipped, and branded on the forehead. Such individuals may, of course, appear at any time, and were, in fact, to appear again in the eighteenth century; but the spiritual climate of the seventeenth century seems to have been particularly favourable to their growth. In spite of harsh persecution they flourished, and each new Messiah gathered round him a body of fanatical followers, who, as often as not, proceeded to split up into secondary schisms as new 'voices' were heard or new visions vouchsafed.
At the very beginning of the eighteenth century, only a few years before the Tatler and the Spectator were to reflect in their pages an England that now appears to us wonderfully stable, a fresh outbreak of fanaticism was alarming the more reasonable subjects of Queen Anne. A group of Camisars, known as the French Prophets, had come to London, and their predictions of strange and terrible events were frightening the simpleminded and amusing the more sophisticated. Moved by odd physical agitations, they would break out suddenly into prophetical utterance: fire and brimstone were to pour down upon London, a boat was to sail along the streets in the blood of the slain, and Lord Chief Justice Hoht (who had sentenced some of the prophets to the pillory) was to die horribly even as he sat on the bench, the blood bursting out of his veins from head to feet. Soon the French Prophets had attracted several hundreds of English followers, and an Englishman, John Lacy, became the acknowledged leader of the movement. One of his brother prophets rashly foretold how he would raise one of their brethren from the dead; and on the day appointed for this miracle two regiments of train-bands had to be called out to keep order around Bunhill Fields burying-ground, where the dead man lay buried. Lacy prudently calhed off the miracle. Later a revelation came to him that he must put away his wife and take to his bed a prophetess, Elizabeth Gray, on whom he would beget a second Messiah. Lacy obeyed the voice of the Spirit, and Elizabeth Gray was brought to bed of a daughter. A year or two more, and it was all over; the Prophets had scattered, leaving only some startling memories and a mass of prophetical writings in print. (17)
It is against such a background that we must view the eighteenth-century's distrust of inspiration. The word itself was in how repute for the greater part of the century, and was used on most occasions to describe that kind of private illumination (the 'inner light') which came to religious impostors and fanatics. So, too, the word 'enthusiasm' had generally the meaning given to it in Johnson's Dictionary: 'a vain confidence of divine favour or communication'. Rising majestically above this undignified hubbub of fanaticism was the solid edifice of the Church of England, the right place of worship for sensible Englishmen.
'For my part,' said one of them, (18) 'I admire it chiefly for this reason, that it is fit for the people, subject to the laws, and most suitable to the clergy. For here, without care, without thought, and without trouble, honour and ease are enjoyed at once, which is a state that most men wish for.'
That is not quite how Swift would have put it; but in A Tale of a Tub and in The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit he satirizes fanaticism and false claims to inspiration. In a Letter concerning Enthusiasm (1707) Shaftesbury, with Lacy and his brother prophets in mind, recommends raillery and good humour as the best answer to those who claim a private religious inspiration or revelation. The verdict of one of Lacy's contemporaries sums up the attitude of the average eighteenth-century bystander to such manifestations of religious enthusiasm.
That which I think comes nearest to Mr. Lacy's case, is a more than ordinary vanity and ambition of being thought wiser and better than the rest of the world, which, joined with an affectation of singularity, and having the glory of starting something that's odd and out of the way, and being the originals of his own opinion, which he thinks is an infallible proof that the reach of his own understanding is above the common standard, is turned at length to subtlety and artifice, to doubling and insincerity, to deceive and being deceived. (19)
The hostility which Wesley and Whitfield aroused in the 1740S when the Methodist movement was spreading through the poorer classes of society is to be attributed in part, no doubt, to the natural dislike of the easy-going for anyone who sets himself up to be better than other people, but partly to a fear that the old fanaticism was coming back, and that the established order was once more being called to question. Englishmen had had enough of intellectual adventure. Wesley and his followers might feel themselves driven by some inner compulsion to travel towards the celestial city,
And nightly pitch their moving tents
A day's march nearer home.
But in the 1740s most Englishmen asked nothing better than to be allowed to sleep quietly in their beds.
That the more critical minds of the period perceived some connexion between the claims of an individual to be religiously inspired and the claims of a poet to poetical inspiration may be deduced from Shaftesbury's Letter concerning Enthusiasm, or, better still, from Dryden's dry humour at the expense of Elkanah Settle:
Mr. Settle having never studied any sort of learning but poetry, and that but slenderly, as you may find by his writings, and having besides no other advantages, must make very lame work on 't; he himself declares, he neither reads nor cares for conversation; so that he would persuade us he is a kind of fanatic in poetry, and has a light within him, and writes by an inspiration; which (like that of the heathen prophets) a man must have no sense of his own when he receives; and no doubt he would be thought inspired, and would be reverenced extremely in the country where Santons are worshipped. (20)
One of Dryden's contemporaries similarly warns the poet against false inspiration: (B)
Beware what spirit rages in your breast;
For ten inspired ten thousand are possest. (21)
Here again the issue involved the rival claims of Reason and Fancy to dominate men's minds. And the significance of this conflict lay in the fact that you could hope for general agreement among thinking people, because truth — the one inevitable and unchanging truth — was waiting to be apprehended by those who used their reason; whereas if men were foolish enough to trust to their fancy, you might have a hundred different notions, each one as good as the next. As Rymer put it:
A poet is not to leave his reason, and blindly abandon himself to follow fancy, for then his fancy might he monstrous, might be singular, and please no body's maggot but his own; but reason is to be his guide, reason is common to all people, and can never carry him from what is natural. (22)
By 'reason is common to all people' Rymer does not mean, of course, that all men are reasonable; indeed, no one was more ready than he to emphasize the unreasonableness of the mob, and to contrast the unthinking 'people' with 'the wise'. He does mean that if only men can be persuaded to use their reason they will all arrive at the same point — the point, in fact, where truth is to be found. And this truth is identical with Nature; and since it is attainable by the rational faculties of man it is necessarily 'what oft was thought'.
If the Metaphysicals were out of fashion because they were too odd and 'unnatural', Shakespeare and many other Elizabethan poets also disappointed the new desire for what oft was thought by being too rich and metaphorical. The changed outlook becomes apparent if we examine the kind of alterations made by Dryden when re-tailoring Shakespeare for the Restoration stage. One of his first tasks was to chip off most of the metaphorical incrustation so as to allow the thought to appear to an English audience in the 1670s and 1 680s. In his version of Troilus and Cressida he gets to work early with a speech of Troilus (i. i. 44):
Oh Pandarus! I tell thee Pandarus—
When I doe tell thee, there my hopes lie drowned:
Reply not in how many fathomes deepe
They lie indrenched. I tell thee, I am mad
In Cressid's love. Thou answer'st she is faire,
Powr'st in the open ulcer of my heart,
Her eyes, her haire, her cheeke, her gate, her voice;
Handlest in thy discourse, 0, that her hand,
In whose comparison, all whites are inke,
Writing their owne reproach; to whose soft seizure,
The cignet's downe is harsh, and spirit of sense
Hard as the palme of ploughman. This thou tel'st me;
As true thou tel'st me when I say I love her:
But saying thus, instead of oyle and balme,
Thou lai'st in every gash that love hath given me,
The knife that made it.
For this Dryden substitutes something at once simpler and briefer:
Oh Pandarus, when I tell thee I am mad
In Cressid's love, thou answer'st she is fair;
Praisest her eyes, her stature, and her wit;
But praising thus, instead of oil and balm,
Thou lay'st, in every wound her love has given me,
The sword that made it.
Of Shakespeare's rich cargo of metaphor Dryden jettisons everything but oil and balm, wound and sword. ('Sword' for 'knife', because knife was a 'mean' expression.) He retains, in fact, only the easiest (because the most obvious) metaphor, and so brings the passage closer to the language of discourse. Wounds given to the lover by his mistress belonged to the common stock of poetical metaphor; and oil and balm poured in the wound were hardly less familiar. The 'turn' given to the thought by laying the sword in the very wound it has made was the sort of wit the Restoration audience was well fitted to understand and enjoy. So Dryden keeps that. But taken undiluted, Shakespeare was altogether too strong for the Restoration palate. If in this new age poetry was not going to be written in basic English, the contemporary distaste for excess, extravagance, caprice, obscurity, was to bring it at times dangerously near to using a sort of basic metaphor. The nineteenth century was to get again (and enjoy) this easy metaphor in the poetry of Byron, by far the most popular of the Romantic poets.
But in the best poets of the eighteenth century — certainly in Pope — the conventional is nicely varied with the unconventional. For poets who are working mainly with conventional imagery the possibilities of the unusual and unexpected are enormous. Many of them deliberately exploited the shock.
Dorinda's sparkling wit and eyes
United cast too fierce a light,
Which blazes high, but quickly dies,
Pains not the heart, but hurts the sight.
Love is a calmer, gentler joy,
Smooth are his looks, and soft his pace,
Her Cupid is a blackguard boy,
That runs his link full in your face. (23)
The first six lines almost bait a trap for us which is sprung in the last two. Pope, particularly in his satires, where denigration gave him a freedom that he did not enjoy so fully in other and more dignified compositions, often delights in jabbing at the reader's sense of propriety with an unusual image:
Still sits at squat, and peeps not from its hole.
Or at the ear of Eve, familiar toad,
Half froth, half venom, spits himself abroad.
Nonsense precipitate, like running lead,
That sliped thro' cracks and zig-zags of the head. (24)
Such effects sparkle all the more brilliantly from being not too thickly sown. They stand out from a background of more conventional imagery, which, if not the expression of every day, was at least 'how oft it had been put' in poetry, and could therefore be assimilated without too much disturbance of the established habits of association. Outside satire, the poet had less occasion for the startling or unconventional metaphor. His happiest effects, indeed, are often obtained by a sort of apotheosis of the usual, as when Goldsmith tells us how the Parson looked after his little flock with a tender solicitude—
But all his serious thoughts had rest in Heaven.
As some tall cliff, that lifts its awful form,
Swells from the vale, and midway leaves the storm,
Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread,
Eternal sunshine settles on its head. (25)
The modern reader, with whom the Metaphysical poets are once more in fashion, may not find it easy to sympathize with the eighteenth-century's dislike of the peculiar; he is likely to find it even harder to understand its distrust of originality. The word itself is surprisingly recent. The earliest example given by the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning 'the quality of being independent of and different from anything that has appeared before', is 1787. The adjective 'original', meaning 'novel or fresh in character or style', is a little earlier, but as applied to persons ('capable of original ideas or actions, inventive, creative') does not seem to go farther back than the beginning of the nineteenth century. Even more significant is the meaning sometimes given to the noun: 'an original' might be a person who acted in an original way, but also one who was ridiculously different from other people, 'a singular, odd, or eccentric person' (O.E.D.). In Wycherley's Plain Deale (1674) there is a foolish character called Novel, who 'affects novelty as much as the fashion,...who likes nothing but what is new. On his first entrance he boasts of this weakness: 'I must confess I hate imitation, to do any thing like other people. All that know me do me the honour to say, I am an original, faith.' (26) To say of a writer in 1700 that he was 'an original' was almost certainly to sneer at him: by 1800 the words conveyed high praise — perhaps the highest of all. How did this remarkable change of attitude come about?
One of the dearest statements of the eighteenth century's attitude to originality is to be found in the Spectator, 20 December 1711, where Addison is paraphrasing some observations by Boileau:
Wit and fine writing doth not consist so much in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known an agreeable turn. It is impossible for us, who live in the latter ages of the world, to make observations in criticism, morality, or in any art or science, which have not been touched upon by others. We have little else left us, but to represent the common sense of mankind in more strong, more beautiful, or more uncommon lights.
Originality is not entirely ruled out by Addison, but it can be shown only in the treatment of the material. Has it ever been remarked how close Addison's last words come to the better-known passage in Biographia Literaria where Coleridge is discussing
'the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of the imagination?'
To illustrate the possibility of combining both, Coleridge refers his reader to
'the sudden charm which accidents of light and shade, which moonlight or sunlight, diffuse over a known and familiar landscape'. (27)
This is not very different from Addison's 'more uncommon lights'. But there is, of course, a difference: Addison is thinking mainly in terms of a new treatment of the old thoughts or human situations, and Coleridge is thinking of a new vision, an entirely new experience, of those permanent 'truths of nature'. To Addison, at any rate, it seems quite hopeless to expect many new thoughts, characters, or situations in an eighteenth-century writer; he has come upon the scene too late for that. From Dryden to Johnson this attitude to the past is almost universal. Writing of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, Dryden bemoans (28) the prodigality with which they spent their wit:
We acknowledge them our fathers in wit; but they have ruined their estates themselves, before they came to their children's hands. There is scarce an humour, a character, or any kind of plot, which they have not blown upon. All comes sullied or wasted to us. . .
Dryden was not always quite so pessimistic as this, but he was expressing an attitude that was already widespread. Some seventy years later an eighteenth-century journalist quotes feelingly the remark made by a French poet on reading a beautiful ode of Horace: 'D——n these ancients (says he) they have stolen all my fine thoughts.'(29)
The equally firm conviction that even if originality were possible it would still be undesirable must be related once again to the belief that poetry was concerned with what oft was thought. Any new thought could only, at this late date, be peculiar or out of the way. As an anonymous journalist writing in 1728 put it:
We cannot applaud a thought but so far as we find it conformable to what nature and our reason have always dictated to us; that is, to what we our selves thought and felt within our selves. Consequently they were the very same thoughts and sentiments which we our selves had before, tho' we did not actually attend to, or reflect upon them. (30)
The eighteenth-century poet was therefore not only a man speaking to men, but a man speaking what all of us had already spoken, or might have spoken if we had been fully conscious of our thoughts. Among eighteenth-century critics no one insisted more frequently than Johnson that poetry deals with the recurring thoughts and feelings of the human race. Gray's Elegy is praised because it 'abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo'. Dyer's 'Grongar Hill' is approved because 'the reflections of the writer [are] so consonant to the general sense or experience of mankind'. On the other hand, Collins made the mistake of 'indulging some peculiar habits of thought', (31) and so presumably lost touch with the common reader. To orthodox opinion in the eighteenth century the mere fact that a thing had not been said before was almost sufficient to raise a doubt if it was worth saying.
It has been suggested that the advance of Science (and particularly of the mathematical sciences) quickened men's interest in natural laws, and, more generally, in that sort of truth which was universal and above all particular instances. But we ought perhaps to distinguish a directly contrary effect encouraged by the steady advance during the same period of the biological sciences. They, too, it is true, aspire to universal truth and to the formulation of natural laws; but in practice they proceed much more by the collection and study of individual instances. At all events, there can be no question that the pioneer work of botanists and zoologists, and even the less integrated activities of the despised virtuosos, were opening men's minds to the extraordinary number of natural objects which had never before been noticed, or, if noticed, never brought to their attention. In one of his Guardian essays Steele wrote an enthusiastic review of Derham's Physico-Theology. Derham, he said, had revealed 'as with a wand . . . the wonders and spectacles in all nature'; and Steele was prompted by his reading of the book to reflect upon how much Derham had made him see for the first time:
It is a very desirable entertainment to find occasions of pleasure and satisfaction in those objects and occurrences which we have all our lives, perhaps, overlooked; or beheld, without exciting any reflections that made us wiser, or happier. (32)
Here Steele is coming near to commending what oft was not thought. It is significant that Johnson praises Thomson's Seasons for much the same reason. After remarking that Thomson's mind 'at once comprehends the vast, and attends to the minute', he continues:
The reader of The Seasons wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shews him, and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses. (33)
Is Johnson inconsistent here? Can his reason for praising Thomson be reconciled with the reasons he gives for commending Gray's Elegy? In all probability Johnson made a distinction between the poet who dealt with human life and the poet who was primarily concerned with the description of nature. Man had been the universal subject of the poets from the time of Homer onwards; that subject had been fully treated by the best minds of all ages, and we could not therefore expect to make many more discoveries there. Nature was another matter altogether: the author of The Seasons was not, of course, the first to deal with that subject, but he was working in a field that had never been intensely cultivated, and there were still opportunities for him to discover what was at once new and natural. Johnson would no doubt have liked Thomson less if he had not comprehended the vast and offered to his readers a 'wide expansion of general views', but granted that, he was ready to enjoy the poet's 'enumeration of circumstantial varieties'.
Perhaps the fullest justification of the eighteenth-century attitude to novelty and singularity is to be found in the Seventh Discourse of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Our bodies, he says, are roughly alike: so are our minds. There is 'a general uniformity and agreement in the minds of men'. If there were not, we should never have been able to establish the rules of art: unless we had been able to count on other people thinking and feeling like ourselves we should never have known how to appeal to them. But there is a general agreement.
We may suppose a uniformity, and conclude that the same effect will be produced by the same cause in the minds of others. . . . We can never be sure that our own sensations are true and right, till they are confirmed by more extensive observation. One man opposing another determines nothing; but a general union of minds, like a general combination of the forces of all mankind, makes a strength that is irresistible. . . . A man who thinks he is guarding himself against prejudices by resisting the authority of others, leaves open every avenue to singularity, vanity, self-conceit, obstinacy, and many other vices, all tending to warp the judgment, and prevent the natural operation of his faculties. This submission to others is a deference which we owe, and indeed are forced involuntarily to pay. In fact, we are never satisfied with our opinions, whatever we may pretend, till they are ratified and confirmed by the suifrages of the rest of mankind. . . . (34)
The firm hold which such ideas had on the minds of most readers of poetry may be seen from the way in which Francis Jeffrey reacted to the poetry of Wordsworth. Reviewing Crabbe's Poems (1807), Jeffrey showed how much he was still dominated by the ideas of poetry he had formed when he was still a boy. He contrasted Grabbe favourably with Wordsworth and the other
'gentlemen of the new school, who scarcely ever condescend to take their subjects from any description of persons at all known to the common inhabitants of the world; but invent for themselves certain whimsical and unheard-of beings, to whom they impute some fantastical combination of feelings, and then labour to excite our sympathy for them, either by placing them in incredible situations, or by some strained and exaggerated moralization of a vague and tragical description.
How much better Mr. Crabbe did these things!
Mr. Crabbe, in short, shows us something which we have all seen, or may see, in real life; and draws from it such feelings and such reflections as every human being must acknowledge that it is calculated to excite. . . . Mr. Wordsworth and his associates, on the other hand, introduce us to beings whose existence was not previously suspected by the acutest observers of nature; and excite an interest for them — where they do excite any interest — more by an eloquent and refined analysis of their own capricious feelings, than by any obvious or intelligible ground of sympathy in their situation. (35)
If the modern reader is inclined to discount Jeffrey as the last stronghold of outworn critical ideas in a new and more imaginative age, perhaps he will listen more sympathetically to Keats. In a letter to his publisher, dated 27 February 1818, Keats set forth one or two axioms for poetry, and the first of these was that poetry should never surprise by its singularity:
It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance. (36)
In view of what Keats had to say about neo-classical poets in his 'Sleep and Poetry, it may seem rash to suggest that he had any sympathies whatever with those who lined up behind that 'poor, decrepid standard, on which was inscribed the name of one Boileau'. Yet here, at least, he is nearer to the eighteenth century than to some of his contemporaries: and in his poetry he is sometimes doing completely and with far greater genius what many of the eighteenth-century poets were trying to do.
There is another good reason why originality was lightly stressed in the age of Pope and Johnson. The critics were never tired of repeating that it was the poet's duty to avoid the minute and particular and concentrate on the general. If the poet did so — and most of them did — he was more than ever likely to tread where others had trod before him. So long as the poet wrote or the painter painted 'not for the virtuoso or the naturalist, but for the common observer of life and nature', (37) there were bound to be resemblances between one work and another. Different poets, as Johnson put it, could hardly avoid hitting on the same ideas when they wrote of Spring or the Sea.
Reflecting on human life, they would, without any communication of opinions, lament the deceitfulness of hope, the fugacity of pleasure, the fragility of beauty, and the frequency of calamity. (38)
Johnson's fullest pronouncement on the necessary predominance of the general over the particular occurs in the tenth chapter of Rasselas. The poet, we are told, is to concern himself riot with the individual but the species; he is to ignore
'the minuter discriminations, which one may have remarked, and another neglected',
and concentrate on those aspects which are so large and general that no one can possibly have missed them. He will do this in his observations on men and women and in his descriptions of nature. It is easy enough to attract readers by appealing to their interest in the local event or the contemporary topic or the modern fashion, but the poet ought to deal with the eternal and unchanging.
'He must divest himself of he prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same.'
To most modern readers this is, to say the least of it, an austere programme. (C) Yet it represents Johnson's settled opinion about the business of the poet.
'Great thoughts are always general,' he remarked on another occasion, with a disapproving glance at he Metaphysical poets, 'and consist in positions not limited by exceptions, and in descriptions not descending to minuteness.'(39)
This view, descending from Aristotle to the neo-classical critics, that the business of the artist is to address himself to the general, not to copy what lies before him but to present an idealized picture of life, is expressed with varying emphasis all through our period. Such is the astonishing variety of nature, Shaftesbury argues, that everything in nature has its own peculiar and original character. If the artist were to try to reproduce just that, then everything he expressed would be unlike anything else in the world. Good poets and good painters are well aware of this, and therefore do their best to avoid minuteness and singularity, which would make 'their images or characters appear capricious and fantastical'. It is not that they do not study the individual and the particular; they do, and they must. But from their knowledge of many particulars they form their conception of the ideal. (40)
Among English critics Sir Joshua Reynolds is perhaps the most uncompromising in his demand for idealization in art. Nature, he insists, is not to be too closely copied. The artist who thinks to gain a reputation by minute and faithful copying of what he sees may astonish the gaping ignorant, but he will not impress the judicious. He is to the true painter what the florist or the collector of shells is to the true scientist, a mere accumulator of heterogeneous detail. How different was the practice of Claude Lorraine, who realized that to paint nature as he found it would rarely produce beauty.
His pictures are a composition of the various drafts which he had previously made from various beautiful scenes and prospects. (41)
Similarly the history painter (who corresponds to the epic poet) does not introduce individual portraits into his composition, but paints mankind in general; the portrait painter is necessarily at a disadvantage here, since his sitter is a particular man or woman 'and consequently a defective model'. (42) He can, perhaps, idealize to some extent, but he is handicapped by the necessity of producing an individual and recognizable likeness. But Reynolds goes even farther, and introduces the word 'deformity' to characterize any individual object in nature or any mere representation of that object. When people of vulgar taste see a Dutch painting of a man with a wart on his nose, they exclaim, 'How natural!'; in fact, if they only knew it, nothing could be more unnatural.
Deformity is not nature, but an accidental deviation from her accustomed practice. This general idea therefore ought to be called nature; and nothing else, correctly speaking, has a right to that name. (43)
The wart on a man's nose may seem too extreme an example to allow Reynolds to build an argument upon it. In fact his case does not rest upon such oddities and imperfections:
All the objects which are exhibited to our view by nature, upon close examination will be found to have their blemishes and defects. The most beautiful forms have something about them like weakness, minuteness, or imperfection. (44)
The true artist is therefore the man who has learnt, after prolonged contemplation and intimate experience of nature in all her varied forms, to distinguish — and, if necessary, to create — the one perfect from the innumerable expressions of the imperfect. 'He corrects nature by herself her imperfect state by her more perfect.' Reynolds does not shrink from the full implications of his paradox: in arriving at perfection the artist may be creating something that he has never actually seen.
'He learns to design naturally by drawing his figures unlike to any one object.' (44)
In such perfection there must necessarily be a certain remoteness, a quality of abstraction; but Reynolds does not shrink from that either. Indeed, it is the sort of effect he wants.
The whole beauty and grandeur of the art [he maintains] consists, in my opinion, in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particularities, and details of every kind. (44)
Enlarging upon this statement in his Fourth Discourse Reynolds explains that it is only the painter in an inferior style who attempts minute discriminations of the drapery; the clothing worn by an artist's figures should not be recognizably woollen, or linen, or silk, or satin, or velvet, but simply drapery. In the same way the dress in a modern portrait should not belong to the period; it should be timeless,
'with a general air of the antique for the sake of dignity, and . . . something of the modern for the sake of likeness'. (45)
Does Reynolds overstate the case? Those folds of generalized drapery and those bleakly anonymous dresses with 'a general air of the antique' are familiar features of the portraits of Lely, Kneller, and Reynolds himself. They do, in fact, impart an air of grandeur and dignity to those portraits at the expense of that liveliness and individualization which we find in the portraits of say, George Stubbs. There comes a point where the generalizing process may be carried so far that the individual likeness vanishes altogether. Those who advocate the expression of the general in preference to the particular sometimes write as if the ideal to be aimed at was the complete elimination of all particulars whatsoever. It is an ideal achieved in the diagrams of Euclid, where the squares and the triangles have a universal application, and no particular significance at all. But do we welcome such complete generalization in art? And do we really approve of the artist who consciously endeavours to be not of his age but of all time, which is in fact no time?
The eighteenth-century poet does not usually avoid all particularization, but in his serious poetry he undoubtedly leans towards the general:
How deep yon azure dies the sky!
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lye,
While thro' their ranks in silver pride
The nether crescent seems to glide.
The slumb'ring breeze forgets to breathe,
The lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled show
Descends to meet our eyes below.
The grounds which on the right aspire,
In dimness from the view retire:
The left presents a place of graves,
Whose wall the silent water haves.
That steeple guides thy doubtful sight
Among the livid gleams of night.
There pass with melancholy state,
By all the solemn heaps of fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable dead,
Time was, like thee they life possest,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest. (46)
Those lines from Parnell's 'Night-Piece on Death' are neither vague nor blurred, but they do leave a general impression on the mind. No doubt he had a particular churchyard in mind: not all churchyards are situated by the side of a lake, and not all churches have a steeple. But he avoids detail, and concentrates on 'general properties and large appearances'. It is much the same with Tickell's lines on Addison's funeral:
Can I forget the dismal night, that gave
My soul's best part forever to the grave!
How silent did his old companions tread's
By midnight lamps's the mansions of the dead,
Through breathing statues, then unheeded things,
Through rowes of warriors, and through walks of kings!
What awe did the slow solemn knell inspire;
The pealing organ, and the pausing choir;
The duties by the lawn-robed prelate payed,
And the last words, that dust to dust conveyed. (47)
There is indeed some particularization here, for Tickell is reminding us that Addison was interred in Westminster Abbey; but apart from that he has contented himself with touching upon 'such permanent and striking features as recall the original to every mind'.
Some of the finest writing in eighteenth-century poetry went into the description of character. Here again the poet usually aims at the typical and the general, as in Gay's 'The Birth of the Squire' or in Goldsmith's or Crabbe's sketches of village characters. Goldsmith's schoolmaster in The Deserted Village is typical of his kind, and yet he has enough individuality to mark him out from other country pedagogues. Satire invited the eighteenth-century poet to a more individual treatment. In his Moral Essays Pope often begins with the individual, though he may end with the type, and in such portraits as that of Orator Henley in the Dunciad (iii. 195 ff.) the ridicule falls almost entirely on a particular mountebank. Henley is where he is because he is unlike anyone else. 'None but himself can be his parallel.' Indeed, the twentieth-century reader is apt to find the Dunciad, and, to a smaller extent, such poems as Absalom and Achitophel, only partially intelligible owing to the fact that the materials out of which they were made are too firmly embedded in the literary or political life of their own day. Poems like Pope's Imitations of Horace or the Dunciad perhaps need to be written anew for each generation: the universal element remains, but the particular applications can best be supplied by each generation (and by each nation) out of its own experience. Here, at least, the desire for originality can be reconciled with the equally strong desire for what oft was thought.
Unfriendly critics of the eighteenth century have sometimes suggested that its poets confined themselves to the general (at all events in their descriptions of nature) because they were insensitive to the particular. That seems to be implied in a remark of Joseph Warton:
If our poets would accustom themselves to contemplate fully every object, before they attempted to describe it, they would not fail of giving their readers more new and more complete images than they generally do. (48)
To Wordsworth it seemed that between the publication of Paradise Lost and The Seasons there was scarcely 'a single new image of external nature', nor an image already familiar which would indicate that 'the eye of the Poet had been steadily fixed upon his object'.(49) It would not be difficult to disprove this rash statement from the works of Pope alone; but surely Wordsworth is refusing to allow for what is primarily a question, not of observation but of method, of what the poet does with the materials which his observation supplies. The idea that the eighteenth-century poet was less observant than the average Boy Scout of the twentieth century is one that will not bear examination: if he did not fill his poems with sharply individualized descriptions of nature it must have been — it was — because he considered that as a poet something more difficult and more profitable was expected of him. From his own varied experience he distilled those elements which appeared to him to be common to all individual instances. His general, in fact, was the essence of many particulars; he would have considered that mere observation of particular instances was the lowest form of mental life, and he would not have been far wrong. No doubt some second-rate poets and some inferior painters wrote or painted without having familiarized themselves with their object, but that may happen in any age. At all events, such slovenliness received no support from Johnson or Reynolds. After urging his students to aim always at general nature, and to avoid whatever is particular or accidental or local or temporary, Reynolds continues:
I should be sorry, if what is here recommended, should be at all understood to countenance a careless or indetermined manner of painting. For though the painter is to overlook the accidental discriminations of nature, he is to exhibit distinctly, and with precision, the general forms of things. (50)
And those general forms of things could only be learnt by the student who had closely observed and carefully reflected upon many particular examples.
Those who are disposed to disagree with the theory of art so confidently upheld by Johnson and Reynolds should at least recognize that this endless search for the universal and unchanging element in human experience involves a noble exercise of the mental faculties. It calls forth the powers of reflection in both writer and reader. 'To write on their plan', Johnson admitted rather grudgingly of the Metaphysical poets, 'it was at least necessary to read and think.'(51) The same, mutatis mutandis, may be said of Pope and his contemporaries. Nothing is easier than to record minute and unrelated particulars — what I saw, what I heard, what happened to me — a schoolboy will fill his letter home with such observations. But the Johnsonian observation, which after surveying mankind from China to Peru arrives at a general view of man's nature, is something far more difficult of attainment.
It is just here that one of those wide shifts of taste has occurred. The twentieth-century reader tends to be relatively uninterested in the general, and sharply aware of and satisfied with the particular. Blake's marginal retort to Reynolds, 'To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit', (52) is much too violent to be characteristic of the nineteenth century as a whole, and may in any case rest upon a misinterpretation of Reynolds's meaning. Yet it is symptomatic of a change in critical attitude. In the Biographia Literaria (53) Coleridge asserted that he still believed that poetry was essentially ideal and should avoid and exclude all accident, but on an earlier occasion he had remarked that though we may at first be delighted with 'generalities of nature which can all be expressed in dignified words', (D) later on, as our knowledge of nature becomes more detailed, 'we are delighted with distinct, vivid ideas'. (54) From Hazlitt, too, comes a protest that Reynolds's 'vague, vapid, nondescript idea conception, which pretends to unite . . . in reality destroys'. Hazlitt is impressed by the infinite variety in nature: each species and sub-species is capable of its own perfection, and it is the business of the poet or the artist to give to each of them a clear and precise expression.
Sir Joshua's theory limits nature and paralyses art. According to him, the middle form or the average of our various impressions is the source from which all beauty, pleasure, interest, imagination springs. I contend on the contrary that this very variety is good in itself nor do I agree with him that the whole of nature as it exists in fact is stark naught, and that there is nothing worthy of the contemplation of a wise man but that ideal perfection which never existed in the world nor on canvas. (55)
Since Hazlitt's day this awareness of the integrity and significance of the individual has developed to a remarkable extent:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came. . . . (56)
Much contemporary art and poetry seems to have severed all connexion with that general truth which was the aim of Johnson and Reynolds, and to base its appeal on its expression not merely of the particular but even of the unique. The painter or sculptor who creates an abstract composition is in the most literal sense creating something that is not in nature — something that God omitted to make. He has moved as far as it is possible to go from what oft was thought; he seeks to avoid recalling any original to the mind, for his composition is the original. So, too, some contemporary poets have given us an imaginative experience that cannot be found elsewhere because it is unique, and is not, and was never meant to be, anything other than a train of individual thought and feeling: 'What I do is me: for that I came.'
The eighteenth-century critic, thinking all the time that the source of pleasure in poetry must be found in some kind of recognition, (57) did not sufficiently allow for another sort of pleasure — the enlargement of our experience. To confine the poet to recording what the average reader was likely to have met with in the course of his own experience was, however well meant, an unnecessary restriction. The truth seems to be that there is an experience which we can call imaginative recognition: we can recognize with pleasure what we have never actually met with before. It is in this way that we can take delight in Shelley's two halcyons on the drooping bough —
two azure halcyons clinging downward
And thinning one bright bunch of amber berries,
With quick long beaks . . . (58)
or Wordsworth's description of the daisy (recorded in his seventy-sixth year) —
The beauty of its star-shaped shadow, thrown
On the smooth surface of this naked stone (59)
or Thomas Hardy's entry in his note-book, on 19 January 1920, at the age of seventy-nine:
Coming back from Talbothays by West Stafford Cross I saw Orion upside down in a pool of water under an oak. (60)
How much eighteenth-century poetry lost from a well-meant endeavour to deal only with 'those characteristicks which are alike obvious to vigilance and carelessness' it would be hard to say. The habit of seeing things — 'the minuter discriminations, which one may have remarked and another neglected' (61) — may possibly have lapsed to some extent: we do not go on observing what we know we cannot use. But the trouble was due rather to the poet's hesitation (the result of current literary theory) to use what he had seen. Towards the end of the century those inhibitions begin to disappear. In the poetry of Cowper, for example, we often meet with entirely fresh and original observation, a seizing upon the thing seen however unusual or infrequent it may be. 'The Winter Morning Walk' opens with a description of how in the slanting rays of the winter sun long shadows are cast upon the snow:
Mine, spindling into longitude immense,
In spite of gravity, and sage remark
That I myself am but a fleeting shade,
Provokes me to a smile. With eye askance
I view the muscular proportioned limb
Transformed to a lean shank. The shapeless pair,
As they designed to mock me, at my side
Take step for step; and as I near approach
The cottage, walk along the plastered wall,
Preposterous sight! the legs without the man. (62)
This is odd and fantastic, and certainly one of the 'minuter discriminations': if we had met with it much earlier in the century it would almost certainly have been in burlesque or mock-heroic — not in a serious poem, and only there at all for the sake of illustrating some thought. From Cowper's perhaps unconscious practice it is only a step to Wordsworth's conscious endeavour to record what had hitherto escaped observation, or at least had never been expressed in verse. In a note which he dictated to Miss Fenwick about his early poem, An Evening Walk, Wordsworth claimed that there was not a single image that he had not observed for himself and that though he was now in his seventy-third year he could still remember when and where most of them were first noticed by him. He quotes two lines:
And, fronting the bright west, yon oak entwines
Its darkening boughs and leaves, in stronger lines
and then comments:
This is feebly and imperfectly expressed, but I recollect distinctly the very spot where this first struck me. It was in the way between Hawkshead and Ambleside, and gave me extreme pleasure. The moment was important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with them; and I made a resolution to supply, in some degree, the deficiency. I could not have been at that time above 14 years of age. (63)
Wordsworth's resolution has all the marks of the schoolboy's passion for collecting — not stamps, or coins, or beetles in this case, but observations of natural phenomena. So stated, his aim may appear to be worthy enough, but it hardly indicates that at this early stage he had the mind of a poet. Such descriptions as the boy Wordsworth was contemplating have in them a good deal of that matter-of-factness of which many of his critics have complained; they do not become poetry merely because they are descriptions of nature. An eighteenth-century reader might have found a good deal to admire in An Evening Walk, but he would almost certainly have asked the poet,
'What use are you making of all this minute description? What general idea, what universal human experience does it serve to illustrate? At present we cannot see the wood for the trees. Is there a wood at all?'
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