T0 say that eighteenth-century poetry was patronized for the I most part by the upper classes of society is to say less than enough to account for its predominantly aristocratic tone. A really extensive middle-class public for poetry can hardly be said to have existed in England until the days of Tennyson and Browning. If we go back to the seventeenth century, and still more to the sixteenth, the reading public grows steadily smaller, while the proportion of readers belonging to the upper class correspondingly increases. Yet the poetry of Donne and Herbert, of Jonson and Drayton, while not noticeably the expression of a middle-class mind, does not give the impression of being addressed to the upper-class reader, or for that matter to any specific reader at all. Why, then, does the upper class exert so marked a pressure on the writers and artists of the eighteenth century?
The explanation is to be found in a new and closer relationship between the writer and his patrons. In the years that followed the Restoration the English upper class was much better organized for the task of keeping itself amused and supporting 'le pénible fardeau de n' avoir rien a faire' than it had ever been before. The great landowners still had their noble mansions in the country, and still passed a few months of the summer there; but the lords and the country gentlemen were beginning to spend more of their time in London, for long the great centre of culture and fashionable amusement, but never more so than since the Restoration. This movement into Town had not perhaps reached its full significance until the 1670s and 1680s, when London was being rebuilt after the Great Fire. Writing in 1667 Thomas Sprat could still say of the French that 'their nobility live commonly close together in their cities, and ours for the most part scattered in their country houses'.(1) But even in 1667 there was a 'season', when Parliament and the law courts were sitting, when the two theatres were open and the places of resort were crowded by men and women of fashion. Out of the season society still kept together at Bath, Tonbridge, and the other spas and seaside resorts which were one by one coming into prominence. Society, in fact, was more compact, more conscious of itself than it had been in Elizabethan or Jacobean days. This new gregariousness is reflected in the vastly increased number of eating-houses, and of the comparatively new coffee-houses and chocolate-houses, some of which (like Will's, and, a little later, Button's) were the recognized haunts of literary men. Conversation, that most social of all the arts, was cultivated there, and the discussion of new books and new authors proceeded at different levels of urbanity and wit. After the Restoration, too, the men of letters appear to have enjoyed increased opportunities of mixing on easy terms with the aristocracy. Dryden and Shadwell, Wycherley and Congreve, Swift and Pope and Gay, were all familiar with some of the great noblemen of their day, who were often amateurs of letters themselves.
For a proper understanding of the eighteenth century we should never forget the value then placed upon good conversation. This was the most universal of all the arts, cultivated by all but the most boorish. The writers are never tired of discussing it. Steele gives much of his space in Tatlers, Spectators, and Guardians to explaining the nature and significance of polite conversation; Swift satirizes conversational cliches; Fielding writes a long essay and Cowper a long poem on conversation; Johnson deals with it in the Rambler and practises it continually, while Boswell and others record it ; Jane Austen counts it among the essential qualifications of a hero or heroine. Whatever the Englishman may have been in the seventeenth century or was to become in the nineteenth and twentieth, there can be no question that in the eighteenth century he was a person of genuinely sociable habits; and the high value placed upon the art of polite conversation is the clearest indication of it. As he became more and more urban, the Englishman grew a little more urbane. 'We polish one another', Shaftesbury had noticed in 1709, 'and rub off our corners and rough sides by a sort of amicable collision.' (2)
The art of polite conversation, then, was the special grace of the lady and gentleman; it depended upon the finest qualities of intelligence and character. Restraint, propriety, an absence of emphasis, consideration for others and the desire to give them pleasure, a willingness to subordinate what is merely personal or private or a matter of 'self-expression' in favour of what is generally interesting and universally intelligible in polite society, a sense of proportion, the avoidance of mere display, the conscious imitation of the best models (in this case the conversation of the fine lady and the fine gentleman)-these are some of the qualities of good conversation as the eighteenth century understood and practised it. They are also the qualities of the best eighteenth-century architecture, and they are everywhere present in its most characteristic prose. They are also, to a remarkable extent, the qualities of its most characteristic poetry. The poetry of that century, however remote its diction may sometimes be from the idiom of contemporary speech, has at least this in common with conversation that it is consciously addressed to someone else. The eighteenth-century poet is addressing the reader in a variety of ways, and with different ends in view, but he is not murmuring to himself alone. Poetry was to him, like good conversation, a social activity; it exacted from him a consideration for the reader and a corresponding restraint upon himself.
Social intercourse would be almost impossible if the individuals forming a society were not willing to accept certain restrictions on their freedom of expression. In dress, behaviour, conversation, and 'all the little intercourses of life', .as Steele insists, 'there is a certain deference due to custom; and . . . a man ought to sacrifice his private inclinations and opinions to the practice of the public'. (3) No doubt our manners to-day are a good deal freer than those of the upper classes in the eighteenth century; yet even to-day most people adjust themselves, whether consciously or not, to the company in which they find themselves. But society would become excessively tedious if there were no nonconformists, no eccentrics. Dr. Johnson's reputation in the eighteenth century as a formidable talker was partly due to his habit in a conventional and artificial age of being remarkably unconventional. He resented any doubts being cast on his good manners, but it is clear that he sometimes offended against the contemporary standards of politeness. You never could tell what he would say next, and polite society can only survive on the understanding that truth will not be pursued too eagerly into awkward places. Johnson's conversation was not, in fact, wholly characteristic of his century; the measure of his originality as a talker is that he continually overstepped the limitations that Lord Chesterfield accepted with habitual self-control. How severe those restraints could be may be seen from the kind of advice that Lord Chesterfield used to give his son. He went so far as to warn the boy against laughing:
Having mentioned laughing, I must particularly warn you against it: and I could heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill manners: it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind there is nothing so illiberal and so ill bred, as audible laughter. . . . I am neither of a melancholy, nor a cynical disposition, and am as willing, and as apt, to be pleased as anybody; but I am sure that, since I had the full use of reason, nobody has ever heard me laugh. (4)
Behind Chesterfield's advice to his son, here and elsewhere, lies his consciousness of that society in which all our actions are mirrored. We are in the presence of others, and we must act accordingly.
If Johnson was occasionally hurried into an extravagance of thought or a violence of expression it was when he was carried away by the excitement of conversation; it did not happen in his poetry. His poetry was more deliberately submitted to the public. The eighteenth-century poet's consciousness of this public inhibited the expression of emotion, unless it was of a recognized and acceptable kind. (E) It is absurd to contend that eighteenth-century poetry is lacking in feeling; it is still more naive to suppose that the poets of that century did not feel as men. Nothing had happened to England or to Englishmen that prevented them feeling the loss of a wife or a child with as much intensity as Englishmen in the reign of Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria; nothing had intervened to prevent them from delighting in a warm spring day or from falling in love or from looking back with regret on their lost youth. They felt such things as those, and much more, but they rarely gave direct expression to such feelings in their poetry. Certain more public emotions, such as the love of country or the sense of national grief at the death of some illustrious soldier or statesman, they found little difficulty in expressing adequately. But it is clear that the more private and personal emotions aroused a certain self-consciousness; a man kept those to himself, or unburdened his soul only to a friend. It is not therefore an eighteenth-century poet who writes:
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
'0 mercy!' to myself I cried,
'If Lucy should be dead!'
Such revelations of feeling would have seemed to the eighteenth century altogether too naive. Wordsworth's poems, in fact, made their way very slowly into public favour in the face of a criticism that complained of their silliness and childishness. Francis Jeffrey in particular, doggedly upholding the standards of the eighteenth century at a time when they were gradually beginning to disintegrate, puts perhaps more clearly than it had ever been put before a view of poetry that his own father and grandfather would certainly have endorsed. In all large and polished societies, he tells his readers, there is such a thing as a general taste. There is, too, 'a certain tact, which informs us at once that many things, which we still love and are moved by in secret, must necessarily be despised as childish, or derided as absurd'. In this tact he finds Wordsworth woefully deficient.
If Mr. Wordsworth, instead of confining himself almost entirely to the society of the dalesmen and cottagers, and little children, who form the subjects of his book, had condescended to mingle a little more with the people that were to read and judge of it, we cannot help thinking that its texture might have been considerably improved. (6)
There, unflinchingly expressed, is the attitude of the eighteenth century to the poet and his poetry. The poet's readers are men and women who have arrived at a certain standard of culture, and it is a culture of an urban and aristocratic kind; they have certain well-defined interests, a characteristic (and, though they do not know this, peculiar) mode of thinking and feeling, and when they read poetry they expect a specific kind of pleasure and no other. Their way of thinking is not that of a Covent Garden porter or a Cumberland shepherd; but they, after all-and not the porter or the shepherd-are the readers of poetry, and until they change their nature 'it will remain the poet's office to proceed upon that state of association which actually exists as general'.(7) The readers of poetry (in Jeffrey's words, the people who are 'to read and judge of it') are accustomed to a certain reticence in the expression of all feeling, and to a complete silence about some feelings which it is not considered proper to disclose to the world at large. How heavily eighteenth-century manners weighed upon some of the more impulsive souls of the period may be seen from a characteristic outburst of Rousseau's:
In our day, now that more subtle study and a more refined taste have reduced the art of pleasing to a system, there prevails in modern manners a servile and deceptive conformity; so that one would think every mind had been cast in the same mould. Politeness requires this thing; decorum that; ceremony has its forms, and fashion its laws, and these we must always follow, never the promptings of our own nature.
And he continues:
We no longer dare seem what we really are, but lie under a perpetual restraint; in the meantime the herd of men, which we call society, all act under the same circumstances exactly alike, unless very particular and powerful motives prevent them. (8)
If Rousseau were to return to-day he would find less ground for complaint; he might conceivably feel embarrassed at the length to which the twentieth-century writer is prepared to go in exposing to the public his most private thoughts and feelings. That there are still some limits recognized may be deduced from the embarrassment that most people feel when confronted in a railway carriage or a restaurant by some stranger who insists on confessing his sins. But in literature we have grown accustomed to almost every kind of self-display. This breaking down of the once solid barriers between public and private life (the process has not yet been carried so far in Europe as in America) is one of the reasons why eighteenth-century poetry is apt to seem deficient in feeling and intimacy to the modern reader. He misses the personal note with which he has nowadays grown so familiar. When Gray writes an ode 'On a Distant Prospect of Eton College' there is no direct expression of his feelings, except in the second stanza:
Ah happy hills, ah pleasing shade,
Ah fields belov'd in vain,
Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
A stranger yet to pain!
Yet the whole poem is about Gray's feelings, a Gray who has already experienced the vicissitudes of life, and who now feels as a man what, as a schoolboy at Eton, he had only construed- 'Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt'. But Gray is an artist of exquisite restraint; his feelings steal upon us imperceptibly as he recalls, but hardly seeks to individualize, particular experiences:
Who foremost now delight to cleave
With pliant arm thy glassy wave?
The captive linnet which enthrall?
Gray never walks boldly up to the front door and rattles on the knocker. His personal feeling is almost never stated, it emerges; and the eighteenth century hiked him the better for it. (F)
Naturally enough men and women could not always live up to those severe standards even in the eighteenth century; and among the novelists Fielding delighted, with a humanity which seemed to Richardson perverse and 'low', to depict those moments of crisis when all restraint is thrown aside. But a poet could not decently plead overpowering feelings as an excuse for some emotional indiscretion in print. Whatever he might be driven to write in the warmth or hurry of feeling, there was no compulsion on him to publish it in cold blood. It is significant that some of Johnson's most personal poems were written, not in English but in Latin: the dead language was almost a cipher by means of which he could express himself more freely and frankly than he would have cared to do in English. Nor did he think of publishing those poems; he was writing for himself alone.
So little was the eighteenth-century poet habituated to the free expression of spontaneous emotions that when a writer like Edward Young attempts to 'give a loose' to feeling in his Night Thoughts, we are apt to-day to doubt his sincerity and deplore his exhibitionism. We feel almost as if we had come unawares upon the poet in his underclothes; there is nothing to be done but close the door and tiptoe away as softly as possible. What came naturally enough to Wordsworth was difficult and even embarrassing to the eighteenth-century poet: if one has grown accustomed, like public-school boys, to conceal rather than express the feelings it becomes more and more troublesome to express them naturally and without self-consciousness. It was therefore natural for Gray to write impersonally about 'the wretch' who long had tossed on the thorny bed of pain, and to express his sense of returning vitality through the discoveries of this anonymous convalescent:
The meanest flowret of the vale,
The simplest note that swells the gale,
The common Sun, the air, the skies,
To him are opening Paradise.
It would have been unnatural for Wordsworth to write on such impersonal terms. He would have written in the first person, speaking either for himself, or more probably, perhaps, for some aged cottager-simple, garrulous, and direct, using the language really spoken by men:
Oh Sir! I get about a bit,
I see the blessed sun on high;
And I must think, do all I can,
'Tis Paradise in yon blue sky.
Wordsworth's poetry continually takes the form of a personal statement of what he had thought or felt ('And much it grieved my heart to think . . .'; 'And, oh, the difference to me!'; 'My heart leaps up when I behold . . .'; 'I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy'; 'Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!'): Gray's poetry is almost uniformly impersonal. But the difference is not one of feeling and not-feeling; it is a difference mainly in the conventions of expression, which turns ultimately on a different relationship with the reader.
A curious and interesting example of the eighteenth-century expression of feeling is the poem which Lord Lyttelton wrote to the memory of his first wife, who died in childbed. There can be no doubt about the sincerity of his grief, as those who read the poem in the Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse will readily agree. The poem opens in a vein of unforced simplicity, which would be the natural expression of sorrow in any age.
In vain I look around
O'er the well-known ground,
My Lucy's wonted footsteps to descry;
Where oft we us'd to walk,
Where oft in tender talk
We saw the summer sun go down the sky;
Nor by yon fountain's side,
Nor where its waters glide
Along the valley, can she now be found:
In all the wide-stretch'd prospect's ample bound No more my mournful eye
Can aught of her espy,
But the sad sacred earth where her dear relics lie.
But the Oxford editor has given us the poem that Lyttelton should have written, not the one that he actually wrote. After two more stanzas in the same strain (his Lucy preferred the quiet retirement of Hagley to the glitter of courts; she devoted herself to her children, guiding their infant steps; how will the unhappy father, alone and oppressed with his griefs, bring up those infants without her?) Lyttelton suddenly breaks out into:
Where were ye, Muses, when relentless Fate
From these fond arms your fair disciple tore?
and in succeeding stanzas we meet with 'Castalia's plain', 'the Thespian vallies', 'Mincio's bank', Petrarch and his Laura, and much else. All this the Oxford editor judiciously omits, together with the most purple of all Lyttelton's patches, the stanza of the orange-tree:
So where the silent streams of Liris glide,
In the soft bosom of Campania's vale,
When now the wintry tempests all are fled,
And genial Summer breathes her gentle gale,
The verdant orange lifts its beauteous head:
From every branch the balmy flowerets rise,
On every bough the golden fruits are seen;
With odours sweet it fills the smiling skies,
The wood-nymphs tend it, and th' Idalian queen.
But in the midst of all its blooming pride,
A sudden blast from Apenninus blows,
Cold with perpetual snows:
The tender blighted plant shrinks up its leaves, and dies.
Towards the close Lyttelton returns to his earlier and happier manner:
0 best of wives! 0 dearer far to me
Than when thy virgin charms
Were yielded to my arms,
How can my soul endure the loss of thee?
How in the world, to me a desart grown,
Abandon'd and alone,
Without my sweet companion can I live? . . . (10)
Two voices are there in this monody: one giving us the natural unaffected melody that corresponds to Lyttelton's real feelings, the other supplying the sort of orchestration that an eighteenth-century poet considered proper. Among contemporary comments on the poem, two may be cited for the light they throw on eighteenth-century taste. 'If it were all like the fourth stanza,' Gray wrote to Horace Walpole, 'I should be excessively pleased. Nature and sorrow, and tenderness, are the true genius of such things; and something of these I find in several parts of it (not in the orange-tree): poetical ornaments are foreign to the purpose, for they only shew a man is not sorry.'(11) Gray's attitude here is the same as Johnson's on similar occasions, and it would probably be endorsed by most readers of poetry to-day. But to Lyttelton's friend, Dr. Philip Doddridge, it was the simplicity that let the poem down, and the orange-tree stanza that was most admirable. In replying to Doddridge's criticism, Lyttelton not unnaturally defended both simplicity and orange-tree.
Simplicity [he argues] if it does not descend into vulgarism, is the chief excellence of all kinds of writing, but above all of those in which the heart is to speak. Without the utmost simplicity, both of thought and diction, the pathos cannot be preserved; and I would admit no ornaments into such a work, but merely as pauses at proper intervals, to relieve the reader from the emotions of grief, which are excited by the more passionate parts. In those parts, figures, or metaphors, or any high colouring, or hardness of style, are quite improper; and points, or concetti, are insupportable faults, however witty and brilliant they may be. . . .(12)
As for the orange-tree, the 'high colouring' of that simile would have been 'very improper in those [parts] where grief alone could find room to speak'.
How little eighteenth-century poetry was 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' may be guessed from an unlucky episode in the poetical career of Pope. In the summer of 1718 he was staying at Stanton Harcourt as the guest of Lord Harcourt. One day a thunderstorm broke over the district, and Lord Harcourt's servants, who were haymaking at the time, scattered in all directions to seek shelter. Among them were two young lovers, John Hewet and Sarah Drew-two names very common in the Berkshire villages to this day. Sarah was terrified and sank down on a haycock, and her lover hurriedly raked together some heaps of hay to cover her, and then lay down beside her. The thunder rolled, the lightning flashed; and when the storm had blown over the other labourers came out to look for John and Sarah. They found John Hewet with one arm about his Sarah's neck, as if to screen her from the lightning. But both of them were dead. There was no mark or discolouring on either of them, except that Sarah's eyebrows were a little singed, and there was a small spot between her breasts. This sad event so preyed on the poet's mind (as well it might) that he told the story, quite unaffectedly and with genuine concern, to several different correspondents, and- what was quite unusual for him-set himself almost immediately to mourn the event in verse. The situation with which he had to deal was one that Wordsworth would have had no difficulty in handling; it was the perfect theme for a lyrical ballad. But for Pope it was not nearly so easy; indeed, it was the wrong material altogether. He did not attempt to present the death of the lovers as a moving accident, and still less as an experience that had come to him. Instead, he suggested to Lord Harcourt that he should erect a monument to the memory of the unhappy lovers, and himself set about writing their epitaph. The result, to say the least of it, was not a triumph for decorum:
When Eastern lovers feed the fun'ral fire,
On the same pile their faithful fair expire:
Here pitying Heav'n that virtue mutual found,
And blasted both, that it might neither wound.
Hearts so sincere th' Almighty saw well pleas'd,
Sent his own lightning, and the victims seiz'd.
To this Pope added gallantly in a letter to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:
The greatest honour people of this low degree could have was to be remembered on a little monument; unless you will give them another, -that of being honoured with a tear from the finest eyes in the world. (13)
An epitaph is not (or certainly was not with Pope) a cry of the heart, and it would be unfair to blame Pope for not giving what he never intended to give. But we could hardly find a better example of the way in which the raw materials of human experience were habitually transmuted in eighteenth-century poetry. A Burns, a Blake, a Wordsworth constantly succeed to a remarkable degree in finding the words that will enable them to hand on their experience to the reader, who re-experiences it in all its original freshness. Pope's epitaph, though it had its origin in a genuine and moving experience, is not intended to be a mere statement of it, but a decorative rendering of0 it, or, more accurately, of ideas arising from it. The sharp impact of the experience has been lost; indeed, it has never been desired. Pope's own feelings have been decently veiled; he has concentrated on the memorial. The event and its accompanying emotions have been formalized and made impersonal to the poet. But that, of course, is what the polite reader of the period wanted. He had no desire for naked experience; about that he felt much as the lady in the stage-coach did about Joseph Andrews: '0 J-sus! A naked man! Dear coachman, drive on and leave him.'
This sort of preference is one of the most difficult things for the modern reader to understand, let alone to accept or enjoy. What is characteristically absent from eighteenth-century poetry (and, indeed, from all the arts of the period) is the sense of immediate, direct contact with experience. Eighteenth-century poetry had almost always been submitted to a process in the poet's mind analogous to what went on in the kitchen before dinner was served in the dining-room. Mr. Knightley's dislike of picnics is characteristic of the whole century. His idea of the simple and natural, it will be recalled, was 'to have the table spread in the dining-room. The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants and furniture, . . . is best observed by meals within doors.' The reader of poetry in Mr. Knightley's day liked his poetry that way too.
To Wordsworth, on the other hand, the important thing is always the experience in all its original purity. If his poem is successful he has made us feel exactly what he himself felt at the time: the very wind of it passes across our brow, the taste of it is on our lips. Like the strawberries that poor Mrs. Elton wanted to pick. ('we are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees; . . . it is to be all out of doors') the experience in each poem of Wordsworth's is fresh and unspoilt; it has not been fingered, nothing has been 'done' to it.
To see Wordsworth at work we could not do better than turn to 'The Idiot Boy', where he is transmitting an imaginative experience in all its uniqueness and unexpectedness: what it feels like to be an idiot boy riding on a pony in bright moonlight; what it feels like to be a mother who has lost her idiot son-the whole palpitating, bewildering, agonizing experience of a rather weak-witted woman driven nearly crazy by the loss of her child. Almost everything is seen from the point of view of the idiot ('But when the pony moved his legs.. .'), or from the standpoint of the distracted mother:
She looks again-her arms are up-
She screams-she cannot move for joy... .
These astonishing lines have all the force of a primitive painting: human action and human passion have been reduced to their simplest terms. Sometimes the experience comes to us from neither mother nor son. The stillness of the night, the silent town with the moon riding high above it in the blue sky, the queer hush before dawn-
The streams with softest sound are flowing,
The grass you almost hear it growing-
the hooting of the owlets, the little birds beginning to stir sleepily in the hedgerows, the gradual fading of the moon ('so pale you scarcely looked at her'), the return of the travellers to their cottage: everything is given with a remarkable directness that even Wordsworth never surpassed.
In Donne's poem 'The Calme' or in Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight' we again meet with an experience just as sharply individualized, and one from which (as with 'The Idiot Boy') the original glow and colour have not departed. Why do we so rarely find anything comparable in the poetry of the eighteenth century? The answer, it has already been suggested, can scarcely be that the poets of that century never had such matters to express. To suppose so is to postulate a quite unprecedented break in the continuity of human experience. Even if we committed ourselves to so rash a theory the poets themselves would disprove it, since they occasionally give us poems, hike Ambrose Philips's 'Winter Piece', of the kind in question. Normally, however, they drew a clear distinction between what they considered to be private and what could be made public, what was merely a matter of personal memoranda and what might be worked into a regular poem.(G) That some such distinction was widely accepted, and that it was not peculiar to the poets, may be seen from the remarkable sketches of nature made by Gains-borough, but made by him as private records for his own use. In those sketches, so obviously dashed off at speed, Gains-borough seized with remarkable intimacy the momentary appearance, the atmosphere of a sunny morning, the look of the wind passing through a clump of trees. But a picture was another thing altogether: that was a work of art, based on the recollection of many sunny mornings and many wind-swept clumps of trees. In the finished picture the sense of immediacy has largely disappeared; instead, many separate observations and much artistic experience are blended into one harmonious composition. It is much the same with the poet Gray. What he wrote in his Journal was for his own eye, and what he wrote in letters to his friends was for their eyes alone; in both journal and letters he is far freer and far closer to the momentary appearance of things and to the thoughts and feelings that take shape in his consciousness as he writes than he ever cared to be in his poetry. It is significant that when his friend Mason came to publish Gray's letters he felt compelled to prepare them for the public. It was never his intention to present the public with Gray's letters (private letters, not written for publication) exactly as they stood. 'I will promise my reader', he said, 'that he shall, in the following pages, seldom behold Mr. Gray in any light than that of a scholar and poet'(15)-the very light, in fact, in which Gray had always presented himself to the public, in so far as he had ever allowed himself to publish what he had written. He therefore prepared the letters for publication by eliminating Gray's slang, his contractions, and many of his little intimacies and indiscretions. About such editing the twentieth century is apt to express indignation, and many people to-day probably feel that Mason cut out all the most interesting bits; but Mason was publishing a book, and he drew the distinction, usual in that century, between what was and what was not fit for the public. Boswell's Life of Johnson had not yet appeared to accustom readers to a new range of intimacy; still less Rousseau's Confession. When Boswell's Life did appear, its intimacies startled many readers; they startled even XVordsworth. 'The Life of Johnson by Boswell', he wrote, 'had broken through many pre-existing delicacies, and afforded the British public an opportunity of acquiring experience, which before it had happily wanted.'(16) The twentieth-century writer and his readers are scarcely aware of any such inhibitions, and when they meet with restraint and formality in eighteenth-century poetry are too apt to assume a want of feeling or an obtuseness of perception. In an age of publicity we have almost no private life left; the newspaper reporter enters the cottage and the palace, views the body and gets the widow's story, photographs the fatal mansion and marks the window with a cross. Whether we wish to or not, whether we are tender or unfeeling, we are 'condemn'd alike to groan' for the pains of others. But in the eighteenth century this curiosity about what was happening to other people had not yet become intense; men were left to live their own private lives, they were not expected to unbosom their feelings to strangers, they did not obtrude their personal concerns upon society.
In his essay on Gray, Matthew Arnold makes a good deal, after his fashion, of the observation made about Gray by his Swiss friend, Bonstetten: 'He would never talk of himself never would allow me to speak to him of his poetry. If I quoted lines to him, he kept silence like an obstinate child.' On which Arnold reiterates, 'He never spoke out', and goes on to explain that 'Gray, a born poet, fell upon an age of prose'. The truth is surely less depressing than that: Gray's misfortune-if it was a misfortune-was only that he did not fall upon an age of romantic poetry. A. E. Housman behaved in much the same way to young men who quoted A Shropshire Lad at him-not because he fell in an age of prose, but because he was an Englishman and a don, and found it difficult to bring himself to such intimacies with men much younger than himself.
In his Epitaph on John Hewet and Sarah Drew Pope had felt very sincerely and expressed his feelings very badly. A far happier instance of his ability to transmit his feeling is the 'Epistle to Miss Blount on her leaving the Town after the Coronation'. The poet daydreams about his mistress in the country, confined to the society of 'dull aunts and croaking rooks', and with nothing whatever to do except
muse and spill her solitary tea;
Or o'er cold coffee trifle with the spoon,
Count the slow clock, and dine exact at noon. . . .
When she muses it is of the Town she is thinking, the Coronation celebrations, the lords and earls, the balls and assemblies- and then, one flirt of her fan and all the vision disappears! But the poet, too, has his vision as he languishes in the Town:
So when your slave, at some dear, idle time,
(Not plagu'd with headachs, or the want of rhime)
Stands in the streets, abstracted from the crew,
And while he seems to study, thinks of you:
Just when his fancy points your sprightly eyes,
Or sees the blush of Parthenissa rise,
Gay pats my shoulder, and you vanish quite;
Streets, chairs, and coxcombs, rush upon my sight;
Vext to be still in town, I knit my brow,
Look sow'r, and hum a song-as you may now.
Pope can manage his feeling perfectly here, because it never goes beyond the studied carelessness of fashionable society. It is what an intelligent young diarist noticed and duly entered in his diary in the year 1715, after watching some people of fashion playing at ombre at Lady Pilkington's: 'I don't find among these fine folks that their conversation is better or more improving or diverting than others', only they have a certain genteel way of carrying it and saying very ordinary things without concern.'(17) But if Pope has caught to perfection this unconcern of manner, the feeling is there beyond doubt-as anyone with an ear for rhythm could tell at once. As a love poem this Epistle of Pope's is a less passionate and a far less direct expression of feeling than
I sigh'd, and said amang them a',
'Ye are na Mary Morison'-
but it is none the less a love-poem, and there can be little doubt that the lady, who was well versed in the artificialities of polite society, had no difficulty whatever in recognizing the accents of genuine feeling. We must not allow the mothers of idiot boys to make us suspect the emotions of others more happily placed.
On the other hand, it would be useless to deny that the eighteenth-century poet generally makes poor work of the expression of his 'natural' feelings. He can give us 'Sally in our Alley' and Cowper's 'Lines on the Receipt of his Mother's Picture', but such poems, if not uncommon, are not very numerous during the period. Occasionally we get conscious exercises in feeling. The eighteenth-century poet, in his character as a poet, felt justified in departing very far from the ordinary prose levels of thought and feeling. Some interesting evidence on this aspect of the poet's profession comes from Coleridge, who had a good deal more of the eighteenth century in him than Wordsworth. In a letter to Southey Coleridge replies to a request for permission to reprint the 'Monody on the Death of Chatterton' in a forthcoming edition of Chatterton's poems. He has been re-reading his own poem, and he has now a poor opinion of it: the emotion he had felt when he wrote the poem was genuine enough, but it had hurried him into extravagance and hyperbole.
A young man by strong feelings is impelled to write on a particular subject, and this is all his feelings do for him. They set him upon the business, and then they leave him. He has such a high idea of what poetry ought to be, that he cannot conceive that such things as his natural emotions may be allowed to find a place in it; his learning, therefore, his fancy, or rather conceit, and all his powers of buckram are put on the stretch. (18)
In this devastatingly honest analysis of the 'Monody' Coleridge is, in fact, describing an attitude to poetry which (if kindlier expressed) most eighteenth-century poets would have found little difficulty in accepting. The poets (and their readers) had 'a high idea of what poetry ought to be', and consciously braced themselves at times to what they considered an adequate emotional state. Poetry, said Steele, with the air of a man stating a truism, 'is in itself an elevation above ordinary and common sentiments'. (19) It was not at times the poet's natural feelings as a man that were called into play so much as his elevated emotions as a poet. It was surely something of this sort that happened when Pope wrote Eloisa to Abelard: that poem is a conscious exercise in emotional utterance, similar in kind to the passionate monologues in the tragedies of his friend, Nicholas Rowe. In Rowe's tragedy, The Royal Convert, Rodogune is in love with Aribert, but Aribert loves Ethelinda. Rodogune is torturing herself with thoughts of her rival.
|Rodogune.|| How is she form'd? With what superior grace,|
This rival of my love? What envious God,
In scorn of Nature's wretched works below,
Improv'd and made her more than half divine?
How has he taught her lips to breathe ambrosia?
How dy'd her blushes with the morning's red,
And cloath'd her with the fairest beams of light,
To make her shine beyond me?
|Aribert.||Spare the theme. (20)|
But Rowe cannot afford to spare the theme; he is writing poetic drama, and this is what it required of him in the reign of Queen Anne. The trouble here is not that he is using a poetic diction (there is little of that), but that this highfalutin emotional utterance is what he believes to be proper to tragic drama. Rodogune's speech is over-wrought, over-coloured, remote from natural human expression. Rowe is constantly decorating ideas in this sumptuous fashion; his language has all the pomp of velvet trappings and elaborate folds of drapery. It belongs to the period just as much as the elaborate funeral processions with the mourners following the escutcheoned hearse in their ponderous and ill-sprung coaches.
Feeling such as that expressed by Rowe's Rodogune, rhetorical feeling, is common enough in eighteenth-century tragedy. It is perhaps to be found at its best just before the century opened, in some of Dryden's Heroic plays. The celebrated passage in The Indian Emperor (iii. ii) will show how good rhetoric can be at its best: (H)
All things are hush'd, as Nature's self lay dead;
The mountains seem to nod their drowsy head;
The little birds, in dreams, their songs repeat,
And sleeping flow'rs beneath the night-dew sweat.
Ev'n Lust and Envy sleep; yet Love denies
Rest to my soul, and slumber to my eyes.
Such passages as this serve the same purpose, in a more refined form, as the drums and trumpets and the stage battles to which critics of the Heroic Drama took exception; they 'raise the imagination of the audience' and help the dramatist to obtain 'an absolute dominion over the minds of the spectators'. (22) It is not in the nature of rhetoric to be precise; its purpose is to induce an emotional state in the mind of the reader or listener so that certain other more specific purposes may be served. There is little crude rhetoric in eighteenth-century poetry. When we do come upon it, as in Young's Night Thoughts, we are reading what is essentially a dramatic monologue. Eighteenth-century poetry, though it has normally a rhetorical basis, is usually a good deal quieter and more restrained than Young's; for that consciousness of an audience which encouraged extravagance in the theatre had usually the very opposite effect in the poetry of that milder Muse to which most of the poets owed their inspiration.
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