It is relatively easy to detect the assumptions made by earlier generations about the nature and purpose of poetry, and to see that they were no more than assumptions; it is much more difficult to realize that the twentieth century has formed or inherited certain assumptions of its own, and that its attitude to the poetry of past ages is unconsciously guided by those. From the time of Wordsworth it has been commonly assumed that Nature (trees, flowers, birds, mountains, and so on) must necessarily form the subject of a large part — perhaps even the chief part — of all poetry.
'There are two great subjects of poetry', a critic tells us. 'One of these [is] the natural world.... The other . . . is human nature.'(1)
The sociable eighteenth century gave to Nature a less prominent place, and held that the proper study of mankind was not the river Duddon or the Westmorland mountains, but Man. Natural description in Pope is usually incidental, serving characteristically to adorn or emphasize some statement or event, as it does, too, in the epic similes of Homer and Virgil.
The eighteenth-century attitude to Nature is put clearly by James Beattie. Human nature must always come first: that never fails to arouse interest.(L)
Human affairs and human feelings are universally interesting. There are many who have no great relish for the poetry that delineates only irrational or inanimate beings; but to that which exhibits the fortunes, the characters, and the conduct of men, there is hardly any person who does not listen with sympathy and delight.... Mere descriptions, however beautiful, and moral reflections, however just, become tiresome where our passions are not occasionally awakened by some event that concerns our fellow-men.(2)
When Beattie wrote these words he had not forgotten Thomson's Seasons and the many other descriptive poems such as Mallet's Excursion and Savage's Wanderer. The descriptive poem had become so familiar to readers of English poetry that in 1762 it was actually included among the recognized Kinds in a well-known manual on poetry.(3) But to Beattie, as to most eighteenth-century readers, Nature was always more interesting when it was involved with Man.
Do not all readers of taste receive peculiar pleasure from those little tales or episodes, with which Thomson's descriptive poem on the Seasons is here and there enlivened? and are they not sensible, that the thunderstorm would not have been half so interesting without the tale of the two lovers; nor the harvest-scene, without that of Palemon and Lavinia; nor the driving snows, without the exquisite picture of a man perishing among them ?(4)
It was Man, walking amid the glad (or sad) creation, that gave to Nature its crowning interest and justified the extended description.
The taste for mountains and cataracts, for tempests and floods, for the turbulence of stormy seas and the tortured and fractured surfaces of the earth, has rightly been associated with romanticism. The normal eighteenth-century preference was for the natural scene that showed welcome signs of Man's occupation, for the cultivated landscape with smoke rising from cottage chimneys, and the spire of the decent church topping the neighbouring hill.(5) It was on such scenes that Cowper looked out with quiet pleasure in the depths of his eighteenth-century Buckinghamshire:
...The distant plough slow-moving, and beside
His labouring team that swerved not from the track,
The sturdy swain diminished to a boy!
Here Ouse, slow-winding through a level plain
Of spacious meads with cattle sprinkled o'er,
Conducts the eye along his sinuous course
Delighted. There, fast rooted in their bank,
Stand, never overlooked, our favourite elms,
That screen the herdsman's solitary hut;
While far beyond, and overthwart the stream,
That, as with molten glass, inlays the vale,
The sloping land recedes into the clouds;
Displaying, on its varied side, the grace
Of hedge-row beauties numberless, square tower,
Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells
Just undulates upon the listening ear,
Groves, heaths, and smoking villages, remote.(6)
Yet such is the prestige of the great Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century that many readers still privately measure the intensity of a poet's experience by his preference for romantic landscapes rather than the more pastoral scenes which the eighteenth-century poet usually favoured. Is there some special virtue in waterfalls and precipices? Does the natural prospect please in proportion as it is emptied of all traces of Man? Or is Man to be admitted only as he is a solitary, a wanderer, an outcast from society? Apparently that good (and in some respects typical) eighteenth-century poet, James Thomson, was not far from thinking so. In the Preface to his 'Winter' he claims that
the best, both ancient and modern, poets have been passionately fond of retirement, and solitude. The wild romantic country was their delight. And they seem never to have been more happy, than when, lost in unfrequented fields, far from' the little busy world, they were at leisure, to meditate, and sing the works of Nature.
Thomson supports this uncompromising statement by only two references, to the Book of Job and Virgil's Georgics. But here he was surely generalizing rashly: a preference for 'the wild romantic country' was genuine enough in Thomson himself, but it is as noticeably absent in other poets, such as Chaucer, or, among men of his own century, Cowper and Crabbe. A great deal of unnecessary controversy would be avoided if poets would only say, 'What I like in poetry is this, or that,' instead of saying categorically, 'Poetry is this' or 'The best poets always do that'. The love of romantic scenery forms an interesting chapter in the history of Taste, but half-way through the twentieth century we ought to be able to see this particular shift in human consciousness in its proper perspective. Precipices and cataracts may be more dramatic per se than a field of buttercups or ducks dabbling in a village pond, but they are not more 'poetical'.
More generally, the cult of Nature (and not merely Nature as it appears in 'the wild romantic country') is due in large measure to conditions of which the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have little reason to be proud — the hideousness of our towns and the triviality of urban life. When the contemporaries of Pope thought of Nature they did not necessarily see it as a blessed escape from the ugliness and the distracting roar and bustle of the town. Their towns were, generally speaking, not ugly, and for the upper classes the life lived in them had a formal gaiety and variety that have now largely disappeared. In such small cities as Norwich and Bristol there were bad slums, and there were shocking slums in London; but there were also wide areas of pleasant streets, dignified terraces, and spacious squares. Critics sometimes write as if the men and women of the early eighteenth century had no interest in the country-side at all. 'When Pope was writing', we are told, 'the love of Nature for itself had quite decayed.(7) But this is wildly wrong. The Restoration affectation that all beyond Hyde Park was a desert had soon passed, though country cousins continued to be laughed at, very naturally, in contemporary comedy. Pope, the poet of the Town, passed most of his life, from choice, in the country; in the summer, when the roads were dry, he frequently rode off into the country on visits to his noble friends. Addison, to whom the coffee-house was a second home, purchased a small estate at Bilton in Warwickshire and took a great deal of interest in its improvement. Nicholas Rowe had a cottage in the country to which he frequently retired. Even Gay, the most sedentary and urban of them all, spent considerable periods with the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry in Wiltshire. All this is either not known or too often forgotten; what is remembered is Johnson's lack of enthusiasm for country life, or Gibbon closeted in his library.
Having no prejudice (as the nineteenth century had) against the artificial — delighting, in fact, in the products of art — the eighteenth-century poet not unexpectedly tended to prefer those scenes and those aspects of Nature which recalled to his mind most pleasingly the works of Man.
'We find the works of Nature', Addison told his readers, 'still more pleasant the more they resemble those of art.'(8)
Some of the most delightful descriptive passages in eighteenth-century poetry are therefore concerned with the winter landscape, when frost and snow have combined to give to the trees and the flowers an odd appearance of artificiality. It was this natural artificiality that charmed Ambrose Philips one winter (1709) at Copenhagen:
And yet but lately have I seen, e'en here,
The winter in a lovely dress appear.
E'er yet the clouds let fall the treasur'd snow,
Or winds begun thro' hazy skies to blow.
At ev'ning a keen eastern breeze arose;
And the descending rain unsullied froze.
Soon as the silent shades of night withdrew,
The ruddy morn disclos'd at once to view
The face of Nature in a rich disguise,
And brighten'd ev'ry object to my eyes.
For ev'ry shrub, and ev'ry blade of grass,
And ev'ry pointed thorn, seem'd wrought in glass.
In pearls and rubies rich the hawthorns show,
While thro' the ice the crimson berries glow.
The thick-sprung reeds the watry marshes yield,
Seem polish'd lances in a hostile field.
The stag in limpid currents with surprize
Sees chrystal branches on his forehead rise.
The spreading oak, the beech, and tow'ring pine,
Glaz'd over, in the freezing aether shine.
The frighted birds the rattling branches shun,
That wave and glitter in the distant sun.
When if a sudden gust of wind arise,
The brittle forest into atoms flies:
The crackling wood beneath the tempest bends,
And in a spangled show'r the prospect ends. . .(9)
Cowper, in his 'Winter Morning Walk', notices the 'glittering turrets' of ice and the 'pillars of pellucid length' formed by the drops of water as they congeal, and goes on to reflect:
Thus Nature works as if to mock at Art,
And in defiance of her rival powers.(10)
Nature mocking delightfully at Art may be seen again in Pope's description of the woody landscape mirrored in the still waters of the river Loddon:
Oft in her glass the musing shepherd spies
The headlong mountains, and the downward skies,
The wat'ry landscape of the pendant woods,
And absent trees that tremble in the floods;
In the clear azure gleam the flocks are seen,
And floating forests paint the waves with green.....(11)
'Tis Nature still, but Nature so far methodized as to have become almost a landscape-painting framed in the still depths of the Loddon: the scene appealed to Pope, we may be sure, because Nature was here mocking so successfully at Art.
When it comes to placing the human figure in the natural scene, the eighteenth-century poet often shows an understandable fondness for those human activities which most partake of art. The angler who 'eyes the dancing cork, and bending reed', or who seeks more subtly to simulate 'the wanton errors of the floating fly', is a favourite figure in the eighteenth-century poetical landscape. He has that faint unreality which contemporary poets welcomed, he blends easily with the natural scene at the same time as he — not too seriously — humanizes it, and he is engaged in a skilful and gentlemanly pursuit, the perfection of negligent and graceful artifice. So too, in Nicholas Amhurst's 'The Bowling Green' (a translation of Addison's Latin poem, 'Sphaeristerium') we are allowed to look on at another delicately artificial activity:
The leader poises in his hand the bowl,
And gently launches to the distant goal:
The current orb prolongs its circling course,
Till by degrees it loses all its force.
When now another o'er the level bounds,
And orb succeeding orb the block surrounds:
Scattered they lie, and barricade the green,
That scarce a single bowl can pass between.
When now with better skill, and nicer care,
The dexterous youth renews the wooden war,
Beyond the rest his winding timber flies,
And works insinuating, and wins the prize.
But if perchance he sees, with madness stung,
The lagging wood move impotent along;
If its faint motion languish on the way,
And, short of length, it press the verdant lay;
Nimbly he strides behind across the grass,
And bending, hovers o'er the rolling mass. . .(12)
The eye of the poet is fixed steadily enough on his object (he notes how the bowler chafes and 'his body to a thousand postures screws' when his bowl runs wide of the mark); but the bowl so observed is 'the erroneous wood', and the emphasis is all the time on the charming artificiality of the game (the 'wooden war') rather than on its natural setting.
Man, therefore, is the measure of all things in eighteenth-century poetry, and by adapting his mood and treatment to his theme the poet was able to deal with a surprisingly wide range of human actions. From the publication of Thomson's Seasons, however, Nature plays a more and more important part in the poet's thoughts, until scenery ends by becoming a spiritual blight on the minor poetry of the nineteenth century.
The determination of many readers of poetry to bring every piece of descriptive writing to the naturalistic test, and to praise or condemn in proportion to the degree of naturalism achieved, is frequently beside the point when applied to the work of the eighteenth-century poet. As often as not he is treating Nature in a purely decorative spirit; and what he does with leaf and twig, bird and beast, may then be compared to the carving of, say, Grinling Gibbons in wood, or to the floral design in a book ornament or in a piece of needlework. The details may, indeed, be true to life, but equally well they may be formalized, and in any case it is the design that matters. When Pope writes, for instance, of the various fish which our plenteous streams supply—
The bright-ey'd perch with fins of Tyrian dye,
The silver eel in shining volumes roll'd,
The yellow carp, in scales bedropp'd with gold,
Swift trouts, diversified with crimson stains,
And pikes, the tyrants of the wat'ry plains — (13)
he is not trying to give an exact description of British fish that would enable anyone to identify at once what he had pulled out of the water. The visual effect is, in fact, almost heraldic: we might see such light and such colour in a stained-glass window on a sunny day, or in the arms of the Fishmongers' Company. The auditory effect — and above all the magnificent euphony and voluptuous movement of
The silver eel in shining volumes roll'd —
amplifies the visual effect, and emphasizes the formality of the whole design.
Pope's eel is indeed a poetical eel, an eel that never was on sea or land. He frequently passes in this fashion beyond the actual to some ideal conception of his own:
Lo where Macotis sleeps, and hardly flows
The freezing Tanais thro' a waste of snows.(14)
Pope had never seen the Tanais, he had only read about it. But he knew the Thames is at Twickenham well enough, and he must often have seen it flowing between snow-covered banks in the winter months. Even so, the effect of this couplet lies less perhaps in its visual than in its auditory effects, and in the suggestion latent in 'sleeps' and 'a waste of snows'. More significantly, the couplet is not to be torn from its context, where it contributes its own special note of numbness and dreariness to a passage dealing with the spread of dullness in the wake of the conquering Vandals.
It is, finally, a noble justification of the contemporary preference for general descriptions. Those can sometimes be dull enough; but is the dullness then due to the generalizing process? All writing is tedious when the poet does not feel, or when his words fail to convey what he is feeling. Pope is dull in just that way in some lines at the opening of Windsor Forest:
Here waving groves a chequer'd scene display,
And part admit, and part exclude the day;
As some coy nymph her lover's warm address
Not quite indulges, nor can quite repress.
There, interspers'd in lawns and op'ning glades,
Thin trees arise that shun each other's shades.
Here in full light the russet plains extend:
There wrapt in clouds the blueish hills ascend.
Ev'n the wild heath displays her purple dyes,
And 'midst the desert fruitful fields arise,
That crown'd with tufted trees and springing corn,
Like verdant isles the sable waste adorn.
Had Pope written often thus, it would be useless to praise him. The trouble is not that he was not writing with his eye fixed steadily on the object; he was describing a scene that was familiar to him in every detail, and that may have been before his eyes as he wrote. But it was an untidy scene for an early eighteenth-century poet to describe; it lacked that ordered significance that the poet and the painter normally desired. Pope probably knew this, and his insistence that the landscape around Windsor Forest was 'harmoniously confused' and that it was one of those in which 'order in variety we see' is perhaps an attempt to justify his description of such a mixed scene. But unity here was obscured by variety, and the whole subordinated to the parts. Worse than that, it was a scene recorded in considerable detail without any of that particularization which could alone have given life to such a description. And lastly it was mere description (apart from the 'coy nymph' who gets so superfluously among Pope's trees); it was a record of things seen, not 'felt in the blood and felt along the heart'. When Pope writes, some fifty lines later, of the desolation that followed the Norman conquest, the effect is altogether different:
The levell'd towns with weeds lie cover'd o'er;
The hollow winds thro' naked temples roar;
Round broken columns clasping ivy twin'd;
O'er heaps of ruin stalk'd the stately hind;
The fox obscene to gaping tombs retires,
And savage howlings fill the sacred quires.
This Pope had never seen with his own eyes. He had seen ivy-covered ruins, no doubt; but he was an Englishman born too late, or too early, to have witnessed such scenes of comprehensive devastation as he described here. He was therefore unembarrassed on this occasion by the actual, and could give free scope to his imagination. What it showed him was a scene of general horror, the crystallized memory of many particular scenes of military devastation — in the Bible, in the Iliad, in the Pharsalia of Lucan, in the Greek and Latin and modern historians, perhaps in Italian and French paintings, and in much else that he had read and heard about,(15) reflected upon, and imaginatively experienced. At its finest, the general description (of Nature or of anything else) is not achieved by merely leaving out, and still less by not looking steadily at the object, but rather by the distillation of many separate experiences into a sort of poetical cordial.