6. Some Limitations
A Preface To 18th Century Poetry by James Sutherland (1963)

A society which assumes that a correct taste in poetry is one of the natural rewards for being a lady or a gentleman will almost inevitably have to be given its poetry in a diluted form. Where all, or nearly all, are to enjoy the entertainment provided, the poet must make himself intelligible, if not to the meanest capacities, then at least to all but the most stubbornly prosaic. If the men of wit and taste (for whom Swift claimed that he had written A Tale of a Tub) were to be the readers and judges of poetry, the poet must write so as to be not only intelligible, but immediatel intelligible. Men of wit and taste have so much to do, so many books to read or to turn over, so many visits to pay — to the Opera, the concert of vocal and orchestral music, the exhibition of new paintings, the ridotto, the rout at my Lady Mary's, Signior Lunardi's ascent in his balloon — that they cannot be expected to wrestle with obscurities or dig for hidden meanings that are not already sparkling on the surface for all to see.(K) Nothing less than this immediate intelligibility was demanded by Thomas Tickell in 1711. Obscurity, he insists, is

of all qualities the most incongruous with the nature of poetry, since, unless poetry is taken in at the first glance, it immediately loses its force and point.(1)

It may be doubted whether many reputable critics of the period would have demanded so much — or so little — of poetry; but if Tickell goes too far, he is only giving unusual emphasis to a belief which was widely current at the time. As early as 1679 Dryden is grumbling that Shakespeare's style is 'so pestered with figurative expressions, that it is as affected as it is obscure'.(2) Dryden's complaint has at least this justification that it is made against a writer whose speeches have to be heard and understood in a theatre, but, in fact, he would have been willing to extend his criticism to non-dramatic poetry too. The popularity of Spenser in the eighteenth century is almost certainly due in some measure to his perfect lucidity, his unfailing harmony of thought and expression: the popularity of Shakespeare was achieved in spite of the obscurity of his language, which Dryden and others were constantly diluting in their adaptations.

The ridicule of Gray's Pindaric Odes in the 1750s and of Christopher Smart's Song to David in the 1760s was based on the same assumption, that all poetry ought to be intelligible (in much the same way as prose is intelligible) to the ordinary cultivated reader. David Garrick offered some consolation to Gray for the reception of his Odes by the contemporary public:

Repine not, Gray, that our weak dazzled eyes
Thy daring heights and brightness shun;
How few can track the eagle to the skies,
Or like him gaze upon the sun.
The gentle reader loves the gentle Muse,
That little dares, and little means,
Who humbly sips her learning from Reviews,
Or flutters in the Magazines.(3)

But long before Garrick's day Dryden had settled his account with the Dick Minims of his own generation:

Are all the flights of Heroic Poetry to be concluded bombast, unnatural, and mere madness, because they are not affected with their excellencies? It is just as reasonable to conclude there is no day, because a blind man cannot distinguish of light and colours. Ought they not rather, in modesty, to doubt of their own judgments, when they think this or that expression in Homer, Virgil, Tasso, or Milton's Paradise, to be too far strained, than positively to conclude that 'tis all fustian, and mere nonsense? 'Tis true, there, are limits to be set betwixt the boldness and rashness of a poet; but he must understand those limits who pretends to judge as well as he who undertakes to write. . .(4)

Much the same retort was made by James Thomson in 1726:

The truth of the case is this: These weak-sighted gentlemen cannot bear the strong light of poetry and the finer and more amusing(5) scene of things it displays. But must those therefore whom heaven has blessed with the discerning eye shut it to keep them company?(6)

But in 1726 the men of wit and taste were still conhdent that there was nothing wrong with their poetical sight or their own competence to discriminate. Why indeed should they doubt their own judgements, when they expected the same measure of lucidity from poetry as they found in a Tatler or Spectator essay, and usually got it?

Eighteenth-century poetic theory and practice, in fact, were based on a consideration for the reader which must seem to the twentieth century (accustomed to taking many hard knocks from its poets) almost unaccountable. The poet was a member of polite society addressing himself to his equals, and though poetry was a special mode of communication it did not exempt him from all the normal usages of polite society. If you invited him to make one at a dinner-party, you expected him to talk intelligibly; if he published a volume of poems you expected him to write the sort of thing that the average well-educated man could understand because it came within the orbit of his own experience. If he had (as we all have) some purely private thoughts and feelings and relationships and experiences, you expected him to keep those to himself, and not embarrass your dinner-party with them, or even bring them into his poems.

How far a compact and well-organized reading public, unusually confident in its own powers of judgement, compelled the poet to remain at the level of the least imaginative — how far Dryden's (or Pope's or Gray's) car was 'less presumptuous' because the public would have it so — it would be hard to tell. Yet the very demand for poetry in the eighteenth century undoubtedly had an adverse effect on the quality of what was supplied; for the poet, aware that he had a very fair chance of being widely read, took perhaps too much care to be easily readable. No doubt, too, there is a necessary connexion between what oft was thought and what can be immediately understood, and Wordsworth for one appears to have noticed it. In the Prelude he glances with contempt at those writers (and he is obviously thinking of his own immediate predecessors in English poetry) who

Effeminately level down the truth
To certain general notions, for the sake
Of being understood at once.(7)

This is perhaps the most damaging criticism of eighteenth-century poetry that Wordsworth ever uttered. The very qualities that made it available for a wide reading public limited at the same time its intrinsic value.


It has already been suggested that the emphasis which polite society places on good taste had a restrictive effect on the range of eighteenth-century poetry.(8) There is no reason why good taste should not be positive and active, the expression of a man's liking for this or his admiration of that. In practice, however, it tends to express itself in a fastidious shrinking from, or even rejection of, all such experience as passes beyond a moderate intensity. It avoids the disturbing, the unusual, and asserts itself by condemning whatever it has difficulty in assimilating. So we find Lord Chesterfield endlessly deploring, the too emphatic, or recoiling from natural pleasures in the name of good taste. More surprisingly, we find Shenstone seriously pondering the deleterious effect of Spenser on a cultivated taste:

One may entertain some doubt whether the perusal of his monstrous descriptions be not as prejudicial to true taste, as it is advantageous to the extent of imagination. Spenser to be sure expands the last, but then he expands it beyond its due limits. After all, there are many favorite passages in his Fairy Queen, which will be instances of a great and cultivated genius misapplied.(9)

Here the gap between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries is at its widest. Few readers of poetry to-day would admit that the imagination had any 'due limits' at all; and if it came to a conflict between imagination and 'true taste' it would be true taste that gave way. But the eighteenth-century poet, so conscious of his public, so sharply aware of the men of wit and taste who were to read and judge his poetry, was compelled at times to call in his wandering thoughts and suppress his wayward fancies. Writing to Mrs. Thrale about some stanzas he had written on SirJohn Lade's coming of age, Johnson remarks:

I have enclosed a short song of congratulation, which you must not shew to anybody. It is odd that it should come into any bodies head.(10)

The verses a poet showed only to his friends were sometimes a good deal more imaginative and reckless than those he made public. One of the freshest and most natural voices in eighteenth-century poetry is that of Matthew Green. He wrote The Spleen with no thought of publication, and it was not, in fact, published until after his death. It was written for his own amusement and for the pleasure of the friend to whom it was addressed; and Green, who did not regard himself as a professional poet, felt free to think and write as he pleased. He pays the Muses 'only transient visits', he says,

Scarce known to the fastidious dames,
Nor skill'd to call them by their names ...
On poems by their dictates writ,
Critics, as sworn appraisers, sit,
And mere upholst'rers in a trice
On gems and paintings set a price.
These tayl'ring artists for our lays
Invent cramp'd rules, and with straight stays
Striving free Nature's shape to hit,
Emaciate sense, before they fit.(11)

Unembarrassed by the rules, unhampered by good taste or even by any consciousness of being in public, Green takes little risks with his own mind with varying degrees of success ('news, the manna of the day'; movements 'tarantulated by a tune'; morning 'smear'd by th' embraces of the night'; 'the ear-lechery of men'; politicians 'grazing on ether in the Park'; the 'soft violence of pray'r'; 'the feather'd throng, Who pay their quit-rents with a song'; 'av'rice, sphincter of the heart' . . .). It is clear that Green had an original turn of mind: what is significant is that he did not discourage it. One of the very few anecdotes about Green concerns his conversation; it was as unorthodox as his poetry,

'which occasioned one of the commissioners of the Customs, a very dull man, to observe that he did not know how it was, but Green always expressed himself in a different manner from other people'.(12)

How many Matthew Greens dwindled into orthodoxy in the eighteenth century we can never know, but in that age it was far from easy to swim against the stream. It was an age too that laid a disproportionate emphasis on good sense. The contemporary poet's dilemma was perfectly expressed by St. Evremond:

Poetry requires a peculiar genius, that agrees not overmuch with good sense. It is sometimes the language of gods, sometimes of buffoons; rarely that of a gentleman.'(13)

It was a dilemma almost peculiar to the eighteenth century.


Quite apart from the effect that the reading public, by their expressed dissatisfaction or by the silent pressure of their mediocrity or their good taste, may have had on the mind of the poets, there was another contemporary tendency that helped to limit the range and complexity of eighteenth-century poetry. The mind of the age had set strongly in the direction of Simplicity — that Simplicity (as Swift put it) 'without which no human performance can arrive to any great perfection'.(14) The cult of simplicity is, of course, one expression of the neoclassical admiration for order and unity of design. The current objection to Gothic architecture was based, theoretically at least, on the assumption that the total effect was destroyed by a surfeit of detail. In surveying a Gothic building, Hume explained, the eye

'is disturbed by the multiplicity of ornaments, and loses the whole by its minute attention to the parts'.(15)

Addison, in Spectator, No. 417, had expressed the normal taste of the Queen Anne men when he contrasted the

'mean' effect made by the interior of a Gothic cathedral with the 'great and amazing' impression made by the Pantheon at Rome.

'Lo, what huge heaps of littleness around!' Pope had written of Timon's elaborate villa; and Gray, gazing on the architectural complexities of Versailles, echoed him with 'What a huge heap of littleness!'(16) The eye of the beholder had grown accustomed to receiving a simple unified impression. Even the full-bottomed wig worn by Addison and his contemporaries has this simplifying and uniform effect; it reduces and formalizes the infinite variety of human faces to a familiar and almost architectural regularity.

In the poetry of the period we find this same simplifying process constantly at work. The poet aims at achieving the sort of. unified impression that he was himself accustomed to receiving from contemporary architecture. Pope, indeed, makes this obvious comparison when he is emphasizing the need to subordinate all the parts in a literary composition to the total effect:

Thus when we view some well-proportion'd dome,
(The world's just wonder, and ev'n thine, 0 Rome!)
No single parts unequally surprize;
All comes united to th' admiring eyes;
No monstrous height, or breadth, or length appear;
The whole at once is bold, and regular.(17)

One of the main quarrels of the eighteenth-century poet with the Metaphysicals was just that they failed to attain to this grand simplicity, and constantly clouded their meaning by leaving their thoughts only half-developed, or by starting more thoughts than the reader could comfortably absorb.

In them [Steele complains] one point of wit flashes so fast upon another, that the reader's attention is dazzled by the continual sparkling of their imagination; you find a new design started almost in every line, and you come to the end without the satisfaction of seeing any one of them executed.(18)

Here, once again, we have one of those differences of taste which make one age impatient with the art of another. The pendulum has at present swung back to the Metaphysicals. Complexity is to-day your only wear; and many (perhaps most) contemporary critics would be quite happy to adapt Swift's dictum to read:

'That complexity without which no poetical performance can arrive to any great perfection.'

So far the twentieth century has shown less consistency in its taste than the eighteenth: if complexity has to-day become almost the supreme test for great poetry, the tendency has been rather in the opposite direction in some of the other arts, such as architecture, furniture, household fabrics. None the less, literature (and one must add literary criticism) are moving steadily farther away from that simplicity which Swift and Pope and their friends all admired; and we are now in danger of finding only insipidity and flatness where they found grandeur and strength, or else (refusing to believe the worst of them) discovering complexity where none exists.

An age which demands simplicity, unity of design, proportion, and symmetry from its artists, and which is uneasy unless it can comprehend quickly and without undue effort the effect of the whole, may be asking a good deal of those artists. It is also restricting them in the choice and treatment of their material. For an uncompromising statement of the issues involved we may turn to Shaftesbury:

It is an infallible proof of the want ofjust integrity in every writing, from the epopee or heroic poem down to the familiar epistle, or slightest essay either in verse or prose, if every several part or portion fits not its proper place so exactly, that the least transposition would be impracticable. . . . If there be any passage in the middle or end which might have stood in the beginning, or any in the beginning which might have stood as well in the middle or end; there is properly in such a piece neither beginning, middle, or end. It is a mere rhapsody, not a work.(19)

This is the sort of statement that very few Englishmen can be brought to take seriously. If it were to be applied to the national drama or the novel the results would be disastrous and those plays and novels that passed the test, or came nearest to passing it, would not necessarily be among the greatest. The modern reader would be more likely to agree with Shaftesbury if he had merely claimed that nothing could be removed from a true work of art without loss. But Shaftesbury is obviously thinking of a literary structure much more compact and shapely than, say, Donne's Second Anniversarie, which to him would have seemed more a mental journey than a poem. He writes of poetry almost as he would write of architecture: a thought out of place or a thought too many is like a badly placed window, or a superfluous column in the Parthenon.

It should be said at once that such aesthetic severity was the ideal of poetry planners rather than the practice of the poets. The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot would not pass such rigorous tests, nor would much else written in the eighteenth century. But the unified effect, the shapely structure, the artistic whole arranged on bold and simple lines, did remain an ideal all through the period, and must inevitably have prompted the poets to deal only with such material as could be easily treated in that way. What was too subtle, or too complex, or what involved too difficult a reconciliation of opposites,(20) they left alone. They played for safety, they launched not beyond their depth; and only perhaps in the eighteenth century was discretion looked upon as one of the major virtues in an English poet.