WHATEVER may be true of other periods, the poets of the eighteenth century wrote their poetry fully intending that it should be read. It is therefore of some importance to know the sort of public they had in mind. If we know what people made a habit of reading the new poems as they came out we shall be in a better position to understand why the poets wrote as they did; for though they did not write at their public they did unquestionably write for a public whose tastes they knew, and probably shared, and whose views on poetry they would not normally wish to flout.
Who, then, read Pope and Gay and Johnson? Who read Tickell and Paul Whitehead and James Bramston, the Armstrongs and Somervilles, the Mallets and Mickles, and scores of other half-forgotten poets? We know that Lord Chesterfield and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu read and enjoyed the poetry of their contemporaries, but we also happen to know that Stephen Duck, the Wiltshire thresher, read Paradise Lost and Pope's Messiah, and that he had a friend who had been a footman for some years in London and who had there bought a number of books which they afterwards read together. (1) Between those two extremes lies the greater part of the population of England, which in the first half of the eighteenth century amounted to about six millions. We may, however, reach some more definite conclusions if we can answer another question: Who bought eighteenth-century poetry? How many people in 1700 or i 750 could afford to buy modern poetry as it came from the press? For the contemporaries of Addison and Pope there were almost no circulating libraries available, and though a number of the new poems might be found lying about on coffee-house tables along with the newspapers and other periodicals, it is safe to say that the reader of poetry had either to buy a copy for himself or else borrow one from a friend.
We can form a rough estimate of those who could afford to buy the new poems as they came out if we set the price of books opposite the average income of the period. There will always be Stephen Ducks who will go without food to purchase a book, but they may be safely left out of the calculation. On such evidence as is available it becomes clear that to most Englishmen in the eighteenth century poetry was economically a luxury, and that the public which habitually bought new books must have been confined to a relatively small class. For the lower ranges of income statistics are plentiful. We need go no lower in the scale than artisans and handicraftsmen, since with them we touch the fringe of illiteracy; their annual income averaged about £40 throughout the century. The average for the shopkeeper and tradesman class was only a little more, though obviously the upper limit might be a good deal higher. For this large lower-middle class an income of £50 a year was above rather than below the average. The cost of living was a good deal lower than it is to-day, but clothing was not particularly cheap, and among the upper classes with their perukes, silk stockings, linen shirts, lace ruffles, and silver-buckled shoes (to confine the estimate to one sex) it was relatively dearer than it is to-day. Rents were lower, and servants' wages much lower; but then more servants were kept, and they had to be fed and to some extent clothed by their employers. The wonder is that lower-middle-class people lived as well as they did; but obviously they had little left over to spend on the last new poem or play, even if they had wanted to read it.
The book-buying public was therefore to be found mainly among the upper classes. Here, unfortunately, statistics of average income are far less plentiful, and much more subject to variation within the class. A contemporary estimate (2) still respected by economic historians (for want, perhaps, of anything better) puts the average income of temporal lords at £2,800; of baronets at £880; of esquires at £450; and of other gentlemen at £280. To this we might add that the Law was a profitable vocation, and that many of the gentlemen able to form extensive libraries were in fact lawyers. On the other hand, the great majority of the minor clergy were little better off than tradesmen, though their position was considerably better by 1800 than it had been in 1700. The esquire with £450 might easily find that his various expenses left little over for the buying of books. When he came to Town with his family in the winter they expected him to find money for fashionable lodgings, for visits to the theatre, to the opera (where a seat, as the Branghtons in Evelina were to discover, might cost him a guinea), to concerts of vocal and instrumental music (tickets from five shillings to a guinea), to balls and ridottos, Ranelagh and other fashionable places of resort; and he himself would probably wish to dine with his friends at expensive eating-houses like Locket's or the Blue Posts. Even if he were unencumbered with a wife and family and preferred to spend his money in buying books rather than in running after the pleasures of the Town, poetry was only one of several sorts of literature he might wish to buy. Poetry competed in the literary market with political pamphlets, plays, travel books, history, sermons, technical and professional books (often expensive), the Tatler, the Spectator, and their successors, and, as the century advanced, with more and more prose fiction.
As for the cost of books in this age of low incomes, it was comparatively high. The average price of a new play, published in quarto and sold 'stitched', was eighteen pence; cheaper editions in duodecimo might follow. New poems of the length of Pope's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (419 lines) were usually first published in folio or quarto and sold at eighteen pence. The Dunciad Variorum (1729) cost 6s. 6d., and The Dunciad in Four Books (1743), 7s. 6d.; but these were both large quarto volumes, swollen by Pope's prose commentary and intended, as part of the joke, to present a pompous appearance. Poetical miscellanies running to 250-300 pages in octavo usually cost five or six shillings. Such prices were prohibitive for a large section of the community, and must have acted as a serious deterrent to many gentlemen of middling means. In the circumstances the sale of poetry throughout the century is remarkable.
That there was a public willing to buy poetry and yet discouraged by the bookseller's prices may be seen from the many pirated editions of poems sold at cut prices. In the first decade of the century Henry Hills made a practice of pirating poems and printing them on cheap paper. Defoe's Jure Divino, published in folio and sold to subscribers at ten shillings, was promptly pirated in an octavo edition that sold at five shillings, and this edition was undercut not long afterwards by another in chapbook form selling at sixpence. In 1729 a number of booksellers pirated the Dunciad, and issued an advertisement claiming that the public had been 'insulted' by having to pay 6s. 6d. for 'the pompous Quarto Edition' when they could now have the same book for two shillings. Examples of such piracies could be multiplied.
In the later decades of the century cheap editions of the English classics became more numerous. The works of poets and prose writers were often issued serially, and the parts later bound together as a book. By 1782 the German traveller Moritz was able to remark on the familiarity of the English people with the great writers of their own country.
The English national authors are in all hands, and read by all people, of which the innumerable editions they have gone through are a sufficient proof. My landlady, who is only a tailor's widow, reads her Milton; and tells me that her late husband first fell in love with her on this very account, because she read Milton with such proper emphasis. (3)
He goes on to note how
the quick sale of the classical authors is here promoted also by cheap and convenient editions. They have them all bound in pocket volumes, as well as in a more pompous style(4)
and how, too, it is possible to pick up good books for a penny or a halfpenny on the stalls of second-hand dealers.
From this and other sources we know that the reading public was steadily increasing as the century advanced. But those new readers at the lower income-levels had little effect on the course of contemporary literature. What they had read had rarely been written for them; they were merely reading in a cheaper format what had already been published, and they had to take what the publisher in his wisdom thought fit to reprint for them. Occasionally an eighteenth-century poet deliberately sought the widest possible public. Sir Richard Blackmore claimed that he had adapted his Creation to 'the general apprehension and capacity of mankind', by trying to write as clearly as possible, by using 'easy and familiar expression', and by avoiding 'any term of art, or any phrase peculiar to the writing and conversation of learned men'. (5) Defoe's True-Born Englishman and his Jure Divino, Isaac Watts's Divine Songs attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children, the hymns of the Methodists, were all addressed to the unlearned, though their value is more often hortatory or educational than literary. But then there is Swift. It was his practice, we are told, to have two of his men-servants brought in to listen to his poems being read, 'which, if they did not comprehend, he would alter and amend, until they understood it perfectly well, and then would say, This will do; for I write to the vulgar, more than to the learned.'(6) How well he succeeded may be seen on almost any page of his poetical works, where the idiomatic and familiar style carries his meaning easily and forcibly to the least learned reader. But here, as in some other matters, Swift was not wholly at one with his age. This conscious ignoring of the polite was part of 'Dr. Swift's odd way', and aroused no protest because everyone knew that Swift was himself one of the polite, a learned man, and one used to courts and the conversation of gentlemen. Swift was a law to himself; he did not absolve other writers from their obligations to polite society. The eighteenth-century poet who wished his poems to make their way with the reading public, and the publisher who hoped to live by selling them, still counted-in the first instance, at least-on the patronage of the upper classes of society; and those polite readers had a clear, and in some respects limited, conception of what poetry was and how it should be written.
By the first decades of the nineteenth century a change was clearly on the way. The fact that John Murray could pay Crabbe £3,000 for his Tales of the Hall (1819), and that two years earlier Byron asked £ 2,500 for the fourth canto of Childe Harold and got £2,000 , points unmistakably to a very considerable extension of the public for poetry, and also (it may be added) to a rise in the national income. In 1764 Goldsmith had received twenty guineas for The Traveller; Johnson had ten guineas for London (1738), and fifteen for The Vanity of Human Wishe (1749). Francis Jeffrey, who as editor of the Edinburgh Review was in a position to make a good guess, estimated in 1812 that there were probably 'not less than 200,000 persons who read for amusement or instruction, among the middling classes of society'. By the 'middling classes' he meant 'almost all those who are below the sphere of what is called fashionable or public life'. (Q) In the higher ranks of society he reckoned 'not as many as 20,000'. (7) He would certainly have arrived at a lower estimate in 1712 — the year, incidentally, in which The Rape of the Lock first appeared in print. As late as 1753 the poet Armstrong was not prepared to put the fashionable class (in London alone) at much more than 12,000:
Range from Tower-hill all London to the Fleet,
Thence round the Temple t'utmost Grosvenor-street:
Take in your route both Gray's and Lincoln's Inn;
Miss not, be sure, my lords and gentlemen;
You'll hardly raise, as I with Petty guess,
Above twelve thousand men of taste; unless
In desperate times a connoisseur may pass. (8)
It was those men and women of taste, whatever precisely their numbers may have been, who were the main supporters of Pope's poetry during his lifetime. It was for them that Nicholas Rowe wrote tragedies and Handel operas, and for them that Thomas Chippendale, a little later, designed furniture, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted portraits, and the Adam brothers built town and country houses. By the middle of the nineteenth century this aristocracy is no longer imposing its tastes so exclusively on the various arts; it is being displaced by a new moneyed class, and by a new middle class with less cultivated tastes and cruder responses.
It is not generally thought that this new middle class did much good to architecture (to take what is perhaps the most striking example) or indeed to any of the fine or the applied arts, but there is a widespread impression that the change which came over society in the nineteenth century brought with it nothing but good to poetry. It may be so; but if it is so, it requires more explanation than it appears ever to have been given. Why should the aristocratic taste that produced Bedford Square be so widely approved, and the aristocratic taste that produced Pope's Eloisa to Abelard be so often ridiculed and condemned? Have we one set of values for architecture and quite a different set for poetry? Or does the aristocratic taste express itself more satisfactorily in architecture than in poetry? For the present it is enough to note that the charge brought against eighteenth-century poetry by Wordsworth-that it is addressed to a particular class of society, and not to mankind in general- is on the whole justified. It distressed Wordsworth to find
How we mislead each other; above all
How books mislead us, seeking their reward
From judgments of the wealthy few, who see
By artificial lights; how they debase
The many for the pleasure of the few-
how, too, they continually reflect the prejudices of this 'wealthy few' by emphasizing
Extrinsic differences, the outward marks
Whereby society has parted man
and how, in so doing, they 'neglect the universal heart'. (9) This heavy charge cannot be lightly dismissed. For good or for ill (and Wordsworth had no doubt which it was) eighteenth century poetry is fundamentally aristocratic. The poet of the period is not so much 'a man speaking to men' as a man speaking to men like himself, or to one rather higher in the social scale. His standards, his values, his emotions and intellectual interests, his mode of expressing himself are often characteristic of the upper class. To that class, or the upper-middle class, he almost certainly belonged himself by birth, or education, or both.
To get some idea of the education of the average poet of this period we may conveniently turn to those whose lives were written by Johnson. John Dryden (Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge) died in 1700, and may therefore be omitted from our calculations. Of the forty-three poets in Johnson's collection whose lives fell either wholly or partially within the eighteenth century, sixteen were educated at Oxford, eleven at Cambridge, three at Trinity College, Dublin, and three at Edinburgh University. Of the remaining ten, three (Rowe, Dyer, Hammond) were Westminster boys. Two (John Hughes and Isaac Watts) were Dissenters, and one (Pope) a Roman Catholic: these were debarred by statute from matriculation at Oxford and Cambridge. Two (Dorset and Sheffield) were noblemen, and, as often happened with the sons of noblemen, were privately educated. This leaves us with only John Gay and Richard Savage, and Gay certainly got a good grounding in classics at his school in Barnstaple. If any of those forty-three poets can be spoken of as uneducated, it is Savage, and even he attended for some years a small grammar-school near St. Albans'. (10) No fewer than ten of our poets were Westminster boys, five were at Winchester, four at Eton. Of their parents a considerable number were either noblemen or landed gentlemen, but rather more of them were professional men-lawyers, doctors, or clergymen. Eight of the poets (or about one in five) were the sons of parsons, and no less than thirteen of them (almost one in three) became parsons themselves.
In the eighteenth-century grammar-school the greater part of the young scholar's time was given to the study of Latin and Greek. Day after day, and week after week, he was
Lashed into Latin by the tingling rod. (11)
The contemporary curriculum was set forth, unsympathetically enough, by Thomas Sheridan in his British Education: Or, The Source of the Disorders of Great Britain (1756). Sheridan had his own axe to grind, but on the whole his picture is an accurate one.
When a boy can read English with tolerable fluency, which is generally about the age of seven or eight years, he is put to school to learn Latin and Greek; where seven years are employed in acquiring but a moderate skill in those languages. At the age of fifteen or thereabouts, he is removed to one of the universities, where he passes four years more in procuring a more competent knowledge of Greek and Latin, in learning the rudiments of logick, natural philosophy, astronomy, metaphysicks, and the heathen morality. At the age of nineteen or twenty a degree in the arts is taken, and here ends the education of a gentleman.
And what good comes of it? Sheridan asks:
Of the few who, from a love of the arts in which they have been trained, would still keep them alive in their memories, and display their talents to the world, much the greater part serve only to increase the number of bad versifiers, miserable essay writers, and minute philosophers. (12)
It was all expressed more brilliantly in the Dunciad, where Pope brings on the ghost of Dr. Busby, the famous headmaster of Westminster School, to boast of his educational regime:
We ply the memory, we load the brain,
Bind rebel wit, and double chain on chain,
Confine the thought, to exercise the breath;
And keep them in the pale of words till death. (13)
To the last line Pope appends a note: 'By obliging them to get the classic poets by heart, which furnishes them with endless matter for conversation, and verbal amusement for their whole lives.'
But Pope knew better than that. A classical education will produce pedants and bores if it works upon the insensitive and the superficial; but when a Gray or a Matthew Arnold comes in contact with classical literature it will permeate his intellectual and moral being. Something of this sort undoubtedly happened to Addison:
He employed his first years in the study of the old Greek and Roman writers; whose language and manner he caught at that time of life, as strongly as other young people gain a French accent or a genteel air. An early acquaintance with the classics is what may be called the good-breeding of poetry, as it gives a certain gracefulness which never forsakes a mind that contracted it in youth, but is seldom or never hit by those who would learn it too late. (14)
Addison was perhaps more thoroughly influenced by his classical studies than most men of his time; but if he was steeped in the literature of the ancient world, most of his literary contemporaries were at least strongly tinctured by it. Accustomed at school and college to get the Latin poets by heart, they could scarcely write English poetry without echoing, consciously or unconsciously, their Virgil and Horace, alluding to classical mythology, and employing classical idioms and turns of phrase. So completely was contemporary poetry in the hands of this educated class that when an outsider like Stephen Duck attempted to write poetry he set himself to learn the poetic idiom at second hand. He 'got English', we are told, 'just as we get Latin. . . . He study'd Paradise Los, as we study the classics.'(15) So equipped, Duck was able to refer to the harvest as 'Ceres' gifts', and to say of the threshing with which his own arms had so often ached:
Nor with more heavy strokes could Aetna groan,
When Vulcan forg'd the arms for Thetis son. (16)
Fifty years later, a greater than Duck resisted more stubbornly the contemporary idiom; but even Burns was sometimes prompted to show his paces as an orthodox English poet, almost always with unhappy consequences. Had he listened to the well-meant advice of Dr. John Moore, an Anglo-Scot who had made good in London both as a writer and a physician, his excursions into standard English poetry would have been more frequent and more thorough. After advising Burns to 'deal more sparingly, for the future, in the provincial dialect', since that was bound to limit the number of his admirers, Moore goes on to suggest a course of reading. Burns should study
most of the best English poets, and read a little more of history. The Greek and Roman stories you can read in some abridgement, and soon become master of the most brilliant facts, which must highly delight a poetical mind. You should also, and very soon may, become master of the heathen mythology, to which there are everlasting allusions in all the poets, and which in itself is charmingly fanciful. (17)
'You want to write poetry', Moore is saying to the young provincial. 'Well, this is what poetry is made of nowadays. This is what they want in London; and if you are going to become known outside Ayrshire you will have to remember that we are living in the eighteenth century now, and that polite readers have grown accustomed to a special kind of refined enjoyment when they read poetry. As a small farmer and a young man with only an elementary education, you start with grave disadvantages; but there are certain short cuts to knowledge, and with proper application to books you will soon equip yourself to write poetry that conforms to the recognized standards of the age.' Moore's letter to Burns might almost be called an early example of market research: this and this, he says, is what people are buying and reading to-day; these are the poetical wares that are most in demand in the literary market.
How accurate Dr. Moore was in his diagnosis of contemporary taste may be seen by anyone who takes the trouble to read through one of the most popular miscellanies of the century, Dodsley's Collection of Poems by Several Hands, first published in 1748 and reprinted frequently in the next thirty years. We are safe in taking the reader of this miscellany as the typical poetry-reader of the period. Not everything that he liked would be in Dodsley, but there was little in Dodsley that he would not enjoy. Dodsley's poets were men of culture writing for a reader who had enjoyed the same sort of education as their own, and who could therefore share their literary tastes and draw upon the same stock of knowledge. They assumed, for instance (as Dr. Moore assumed), that their readers would be tolerably familiar with at least the less recondite facts of ancient mythology. How far they were prepared to trust to his having this sort of knowledge may be judged from a passage in one of Burke's most popular pamphlets. (18) Driving home one of his favourite points, that the State is an organism of slow growth, and that consequently we should be chary of any sudden innovation, he goes Oh to say:
By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father's life.
No doubt there were some of Burke's readers for whom this reference to Medea and the daughters of Pelias meant nothing at all, but many-perhaps the majority-must have been better informed; Burke would hardly have risked clouding his argument with an allusion that was not likely to be fairly generally intelligible. The episode referred to is to be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VII, a work of which any boy who had been educated at an eighteenth-century grammar-school could hardly have been ignorant, and which indeed he probably knew well. This, then, was the sort of knowledge that an eighteenth-century poet or prose-writer counted upon your having. A twentieth-century writer, even if he had such knowledge at his finger-tips, would probably hesitate to make use of it, for he would be much less certain to make himself understood. A shift in the emphasis of education has left the modern reader only moderately equipped to respond to many of those literary associations-classical and Biblical, especially-to which neoclassical poetry confidently appeals, and on which in fact it relies for a good deal of its effect. The entire attitude to literary quotation has altered in the twentieth century; it is rare nowadays for an English author to be as allusive as Hazlitt, or (to take an example from more modern times) as the late Professor Saintsbury: Such a change is highly significant, and points to an unlettered reading public. We can hardly suppose that the best contemporary writers are less well read than those of earlier periods; but to be allusive where only a few are likely to understand is bad manners, the mark of the literary snob. To quote Latin to-day in the House of Commons without self-consciousness is almost impossible; in Burke's day such quotation was a commonplace. When Wilkes argued that quotation was a sign of pedantry, Johnson resisted the suggestion: 'No, Sir, it is a good thing; there is a community of mind in it. Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world.'(19) Of literary men, it will be noticed; not specifically of the learned. It is just this 'community of mind' which is absent from the far larger and less select reading public of the twentieth century; and the knowledge that was once freely employed to diversify and deepen the significance of literature is rapidly being banished to the cross-word puzzle and the quiz. Such a change may leave the poetry of Wordsworth almost undamaged, but it is bound to impoverish the effect of the far more allusive literature of the eighteenth century.
Yet all the evidence from the eighteenth century does not point in the same direction. How, for instance, are we to interpret the fact that almost every classical poet of note was translated into English verse (some of them several times) during the century? We may readily suppose that a gentleman would often turn an ode of Horace into English verse, and that the more cultured among his friends would be able to appreciate the delicate modern application he had given to the original. But for what readers did Pope translate Homer? The frequent reprinting of this great work in the eighteenth century points rather to a public that could not read Homer in the original than to one which read the translation for the pleasure of comparing the English version with the Greek. The study of Greek, it is true, was less general than the study of Latin. But the frequent translation of the Aeneid — by Dryden, Nicholas Brady, Trapp, Pitt, and some half-dozen others-suggests again a public that could enjoy the poem only in English. At the same time, the remarkable popularity of Dryden's Virgil and Pope's Homer, and the fact that publishers found it worth their while to put out other translations both in verse and in prose, would suggest that Homer and Virgil in English were among the favourite authors of the eighteenth century. There is no comparable demand for them to-day. We must not, of course, make a hard-and-fast division between those who could enjoy Virgil in the original and those who had no Latin at all; many of the readers of Dryden's Virgil were probably somewhere between those two extremes. Again, the publication in 1712 of Mottoes in Five Volumes of the Tatler and to the Two Volumes of the Spectators, Latin and English indicates, perhaps, an attempt on the part of a publisher to profit from the exasperation of the uninitiated. It was followed by a similar publication in 1737, which included the mottoes to the Guardian and the Freeholder.
Not to know Latin at all was undoubtedly a handicap to the reader of eighteenth-century poetry. That this was recognized at the time is borne out by an advertisement inserted in the Craftsman of 19 April 1729, announcing a new (and comparatively painless) method of learning Latin. The course was intended
as a means of gentlemen's being qualified to receive the truest and utmost diversion and entertainment that can arise from those books that are in polite learning, as essays, plays, poetry etc. by judiciously discerning the fine thoughts, arguments, images, figurative expressions, and elegancies, many of which are taken from the classical writers.
In short, a course in Latin to enable a reader to understand and enjoy English poetry, since so much of the enjoyment must lie in a reader's ability to recognize immediately the conscious echo of Virgil or Horace or Ovid. No one in the eighteenth century doubted that this was one of the legitimate pleasures of poetry. Indeed, it extended, as the Craftsman advertisement indicates, to all polite literature. In the Preface to Joseph Andrews Fielding remarks of the burlesque passages that
many instances will occur in this work, as in the description of battles, and some other places, not necessary to be pointed out to the classical reader; for whose entertainment those parodies or burlesque imitations are chiefly calculated.
It may be that eighteenth-century writers relied overmuch on literary allusion. Johnson has an interesting passage on Gilbert West's imitations of Spenser. They are highly successful performances of their kind; but —
such compositios are not to be reckoned among the great achievements of intellect, because their effect is local and temporary; they appeal not to reason or passion, but to memory, and presuppose an accidental or artificial state of mind. An Imitation of Spenser is nothing to a reader, however acute, by whom Spenser has never been perused.... The noblest beauties of art are those of which the effect is co-extended with rational nature, or at least with the whole circle of polished life; what is less than this can be only pretty, the plaything of fashion and the amusement of a day. (20)
Johnson was more conscious than most contemporary critics of the 'common reader', and he realized better than most that much eighteenth-century poetry passed slightly above the common reader's head. But if imitations of Spenser fail to meet the supreme test of great literature, are imitations of Horace-or Juvenal-any better? Johnson might have replied that Horace and Juvenal are comprehended in 'the whole circle of polished life', but in fact he did not choose to make that claim. In discussing Pope's imitations of Horace (the 'relaxations of his genius') he still insisted on the limitations of this kind of literature:
The man of learning may be sometimes surprised and delighted by an unexpected parallel; but the comparison requires knowledge of the original . . . . (21)
And that knowledge, Johnson implies, cannot be fairly asked of the reader. (If he already has it, of course, so much the better for him; but the enjoyment of English literature should not depend on one's ability to read a Latin author in the original.) The imitation of classical authors, however, though common enough in eighteenth-century poetry, is an extreme case of that literary inspiration which was so widespread in the period. That modern English poetry could fairly draw some of its nourishment from classical literature Johnson would never have doubted.
If a knowledge of classical literature and mythology was the most important element in the eighteenth-century reader's intellectual equipment, it was far from being the only knowledge required of him or of the poet. Dryden makes several significant pronouncements about the sort of education which he considered essential for the good poet.
A man should be learned in several sciences, and should have a reasonable, philosophical, and in some measure a mathematical head, to be a complete and excellent poet; and besides this, should have experience in all sorts of humours and manners of men; should be thoroughly skilled in conversation, and should have a great knowledge of mankind in general. (22)
In the Essay of Dramatic Poesy Neander [Dryden] argues that one 'would be loth to say that he who is endued with a sound judgment has no need of history, geography, or moral philosophy to write correctly'. (23) Elsewhere he insists that many who understand Greek and Latin are ignorant of their mother-tongue, and that there is little chance for an English poet to acquire and appreciate the delicacies of the English language
without the help of a liberal education, long reading, and digesting of those few good authors we have amongst us, the knowledge of men and manners, the freedom of habitudes and conversation with the best company of both sexes; and, in short, without wearing off the rust which he contracted while he was laying in a stock of learning. (24)
A poet, Addison told the readers of the Spectator, 'should take as much pains in forming his imagination, as a philosopher in cultivating his understanding'. For pastoral poetry he will require some knowledge of country life and the works of nature.
If he would go beyond pastoral, and the lower kinds of poetry, he ought to acquaint himself with the pomp and magnificence of courts. He should be very well versed in everything that is noble and stately in the productions of art, whether it appear in painting or statuary, in the great works of architecture which are in their present glory, or in the ruins of those which flourished in former ages. (25)
Johnson's Imlac has similar large demands to make. 'To a poet nothing can be useless'; the poet must 'store his mind with inexhaustible variety'. (26) In the same spirit Reynolds repeatedly advised the young artist to 'amass a stock of ideas', to prepare his mind by 'laying in proper materials' and to see that it was 'continually fertilized and enriched by foreign matter'. 'Nothing can come of nothing', he warned his students.
The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on its own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will soon be reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself. (27)
All through our period, then, the consensus of opinion is that the poet must be an educated man, well read, far travelled, accustomed to the best society. The list of requirements might be considerably extended, but it will be enough here to mention one more: the poet should know the Rules. In the Dunciad there is a contemptuous note on James Ralph:
This low writer. . . was wholly illiterate, (28) and knew no language, not even French. Being advised to read the rules of dramatick poetry before he began a play, he smiled and reply'd, Shakespeare writ without rules. (29)
In poetry and drama Pope found a growing number of those upstarts who 'writ without rules', and he resented their intrusion into polite letters. He saw in them a threat to the whole tradition of literary culture that he and his friends represented. His opposition to the Ralphs, therefore, resembled that of the registered practitioner to the chiropractors: such men had not taken the recognized training, they had not graduated.
To Hobbes, writing in 1675, it seemed self-evident that the 'readers of poesie are commonly persons of the best quality'(30) The spread of education to all classes of society, more especially in the present century, may tend to conceal from us the chasm that yawned two hundred years ago between the educated and the uneducated. They spoke a different language. They still do, but the number of the educated is much larger. In commending the ballad of 'Chevy Chase' to the sympathetic attention of his readers, Addison had argued that human nature was the same in all reasonable creatures, 'and whatever falls in with it, will meet with admirers among readers of all qualities and conditions'. He then proceeds to cite the 'little old woman' to whom Moliere used to read his comedies, and whose reactions were always confirmed by the polite when the play was performed. (31) To this specious argument John Dennis replied that the taste of Moliere's old woman was really beside the point. She might, indeed, have a true taste for comedy, since comedy is 'an imitation of human nature depraved'; but we should hardly care to accept her as ajudge of poetry. 'What can be more absurd than to conclude, that because the rabble, that is, such as never had any education, are tolerable judges of human nature depraved, that therefore they are judges of human nature exalted, of which none can be judges but they who have had the best education?' Addison had thought to propitiate his polite readers by suggesting a resemblance between
The hounds ran swiftly thro' the wood
The nimble deer to take,
And with their cries the hills and dales
An eccho shrill did make.
_vocat ingenti clamore Cithacron
Taygetique canes, domitrixque Epidaurus equorum
Et vox assensu nemorum ingeminata remugit.
But Dennis appealed equally confidently to his polite readers: 'What is there in the first but what is vile and trivial? What ploughman, what tinker, what trull is not capable of saying the like?'(32)
Some fifty years later the same point of view was expressed, but rather more soberly, by Shenstone. In his essay 'On the Test of Popular Opinion' he introduces to us a citizen, a courtier, and an academic. The citizen says that he hears a lot of talk about taste, refinement, and politeness,
but methinks the vulgar and illiterate generally approve the same productions with the connoisseurs. One rarely finds a landskip, a building, or a play that has charms for the critick exclusive of the mechanick.
To this the courtier replies that he cannot answer for every individual instance, 'but I think, moderately speaking, the vulgar are generally in the wrong'. He meets the argument that the vulgar find the same beauties in poetry as the man of reading with a flat denial.
Now half or more of the beauties of poetry depend on metaphor or allusion, neither of which by a mind uncultivated can be applied to their proper counterparts. Their beauty of consequence is like a picture to a blind man. How many of these peculiarities in poetry turn upon a knowledge of philosophy and history; and let me add these latent beauties give the most delight to such as can unfold them.
The academic, with characteristic timidity, takes up a middle position, but in the main he sides with the courtier. An author, he thinks,
should not flatter himself with a confused expectation of pleasing both the vulgar and the polite: few things, in comparison, being capable of doing both in any great degree.
His finest things will probably 'escape the organs' of the mob, but he will find his reward in the praise of the discriminating (the 'judicious few'), and in due course the few will impose their values on the many. (33)
Most eighteenth-century critics would have agreed with the courtier and the academic. In that aristocratic age it seemed almost self-evident that 'opinions, like fashions, always descend from those of quality to the middle sort, and thence to the vulgar'. (34) But whether innate or acquired, taste had to be cultivated. A true taste in poetry involved wide general reading, for (as Shenstone's courtier said) it was upon allusion and reference that the contemporary poets depended for most of their overtones. It is frequently suggested by critics that the poetry of Dryden and Pope is too much a poetry of plain statement, and that the denotation of words is for them more important than the connotation. This may be true (but only to a limited extent) of the way in which individual words were used, but behind the surface statement there are often layers of literary or historical reference. When, for instance, Dryden brought his alteration of The Tempest upon the stage in 1667, his Prologue contained a reference which could hardly be intelligible to anyone who had not read Shakespeare's play:
But Shakespear's magick could not copy'd be;
Within that circle none durst walk but he.
The imaginative identification of Shakespeare with his own Prospero, suggested by the circle drawn by magicians when they cast a spell, gives a delicate 'turn' to the thought. The poetry of Dryden and Pope is full of such confident yet subtle suggestion. How far the allusive habit had entered into the mind of the age may be seen from a characteristic reflection of Shenstone's on gardens. After remarking on the advantage enjoyed by some Italian noblemen and gentlemen whose estates are situated 'on ground mentioned in the classicks', he continues:
And, even in England, wherever a park or garden happens to have been the scene of any event in history, one would surely avail one's self of that circumstance, to make it more interesting to the imagination. Mottoes should allude to it, columns, etc. record it; verses moralize upon it; and curiosity receive it's share of pleasure. (35)
What, then, are we to conclude about the relationship of the poet to his readers in the eighteenth century? Are we to assume that he was quite out of touch with his unlearned readers? In a more democratic or less scholarly age would they have found poets to express their deepest thoughts and feelings in language that all might understand? In view of the esoteric poetry now being written by many poets in the less scholarly and more democratic twentieth century, it would be rash to make any such assumption. Yet it has often been suggested that in the time of Pope the hungry sheep looked up and were not fed. Pope and his contemporaries have been accused of cultivating poetry for a small and exclusive clique. 'Poetry was in the hands of a few', we are told, 'who kept it within the limits of their narrow interests; it was poetry in a park surrounded by high walls. The people were ignored, not admitted.' (36) If this is so, the people must have made a habit of climbing the walls: few poets have been read and admired by so large a proportion of their fellow countrymen as was Pope in his own day. It is true that his poetry was fully intelligible only to men and women who had reached a certain level of education; but that was well understood at the time, and the contemporary reader, looking on poetry as a special sort of pleasure which demanded from him a special sort of awareness, was at some pains to equip himself for the enjoyment of it. The demands made upon his literary knowledge differed from poem to poem: at one extreme was Gray's Elegy, in which the field of reference was tolerably familiar to the common reader, and at the other, 'The Bard' and 'The Progress of Poesy', which most of Gray's contemporaries, with some justification, found dreadfully obscure. But there is little evidence to show that the eighteenth-century reader was disappointed with the poetry which his poets were providing. As the century advanced, taste was modified in a variety of ways, the range of sensibility shifted slightly, new types of experience were desired; but the poets on the whole seem to have kept in touch with their readers. The notion of a parched and thirsty nation waiting eagerly for the prophet Wordsworth to smite the rock and let forth the living water is at variance with the facts. Wordsworth had first to persuade the public that it was thirsty before he could get it to drink his pure mountain streams at all.
|« NEXT »||« Preface to Poetry »||« Miscellaneous Works »||« Library »|