V. Poetry In A Polite Society: Refinement
A Preface To Eighteenth Century Poetry by James Sutherland

Polite society not only exercises certain restraints on its members; it expects certain refinements. These can only be obtained at a cost. Refinement frequently comes into conflict with expressiveness; you must avoid some statements and some expressions because they are too crude, too forthright, because they arouse sensations of disgust. The point at which anything becomes disgusting will vary enormously with different individuals and different nations; it will vary, too, from one century to another, and from one class of society to another.

There can be no question that the formal manners of upper-class society in the eighteenth century were often abnormally fastidious. No doubt the coarseness, both of thought and expression, which becomes immediately apparent in this century as soon as we step among the middle or lower classes had a good deal to do with the exaggerated refinement of polite society. The artificial dikes which had been built to hold back the encroaching flood of vulgarity had to be maintained in strict repair; the muddy boots of the squire, the aroma of stable-dung and tobacco which he brought with him, his horse-laugh and coarse jests, had to be kept out of the drawing-room. Millamant coping distastefully with her country cousin, drunk and boisterous—'Sir Wilfull grows very powerful. Eh! how he smells! I shall be overcome if I stay' —is an epitome of the whole period. Where manners are artificial rather than natural one cannot be too careful, and the more careful one is the greater is the effect of a faux pas. In any case the culture of the Millamants and the Mirabells was rarely much more than skin-deep. The century never achieved more than a precarious balance: the second book of the Dunciad and some of the verses which Swift allowed himself to write would alone show how precarious it was. The combination of an exquisitely delicate artistry with a coarseness of spiritual fibre is one of the paradoxes of the period. Little wonder, then, that the polite, beset on all sides, were driven in self-protection to an excessive refinement and artificiality which end only too often in a refusal to accept the ordinary facts of existence.

The effect of this upon poetry—and particularly in the first half of the century—is curious. Partly owing to this excessive refinement, and partly to the widespread notion that poetry, like the church service, necessitated a conscious withdrawal from everyday concerns and a certain remoteness from ordinary life, the eighteenth-century poet was often driven to exclude from his poetry much of his normal environment. That could be done, and was done, quite easily; but it necessarily narrowed the range of the instrument on which the poet played and the tunes he might play on it. He was beset by inhibitions, and from a good deal of what was going on in the street or in the human heart he had to avert his eyes.

It was not merely the thought that had to be refined to satisfy the contemporary reader; language, too—the 'dress of thought' —had also to be decontaminated from all mean or vulgar associations. The eighteenth-century point of view on this important matter was put by Addison with his customary lucidity:

If clearness and perspicuity were only to be consulted the poet would have nothing else to do but to clothe his thoughts in the most plain and natural expressions. But, since it often happens that the most obvious phrases, and those which are used in ordinary conversation, become too familiar to the ear, and contract a kind of meanness by passing through the mouths of the vulgar, a poet should take particular care to guard himself against idiomatic ways of speaking.

So far from thinking that it is an advantage to the poet to write in 'a selection of the language really used by men', Addison is of opinion that Homer and Virgil may be counted fortunate to have written their poetry in what are now dead languages:

Were there any mean phrases or idioms in Virgil and Homer, they would not shock the ear of the most delicate modern reader so much as they would have done that of an old Greek or Roman, because we never hear them pronounced in our streets, or in ordinary conversation. (1)

Elsewhere Addison notes (I) that the names of English rivers— because of their familiarity—are less poetical than those of the ancient world; and in his remarks on the ballad of 'Chevy Chase', after quoting two stanzas recounting the deaths of Earl Douglas, Sir Hugh Montgomery, Sir Charles Carrel, Sir Charles Murrel of Ratcliff, and Sir David Lamb, he observes with entire consistency that 'the familiar sound in these names destroys the majesty of the description'. (2) Three of his own poems, 'The Battle of the Pygmies and Cranes', 'The Barometer', and 'A Bowling-green', are concerned with 'mean' or trivial subjects, and Addison has written them in Latin. Commenting on this, Johnson remarks that 'when the matter is low or scanty a dead language, in which nothing is mean because nothing is familiar, affords great conveniences'. (3) But English poets must, of course, write most of their poetry in English; and since English is not a dead language, Addison and his contemporaries felt that—for epic and certain other kinds of poetry— they had to deaden it or anaesthetize it by suitable injections of words not used in the street or market-place.

In the Postscript to his translation of the Odyssey Pope echoes Addison; he, too, seems half to regret that English is not a dead language, but only too disconcertingly alive:

It must also be allowed that there is a majesty and harmony in the Greek language, which greatly contribute to elevate and support the narration. But I must also observe, that this is an advantage grown upon the language since Homer's time: for things are removed from vulgarity by being out of use; and if the words we could find in any present language were equally sonorous or musical in themselves, they would still appear less poetical and uncommon than those of a dead one, from this only circumstance, of being in every man's mouth. (4)

Some thirty years earlier Dryden had also had occasion to remark on the difficulties that beset the poet writing in what was still a living language. Virgil's mollis amaracus, for instance; how should a modern English poet translate that sonorous phrase?

If I should translate it sweet marjoram, as the word signifies, the reader would think I had mistaken Virgil: for those village words, as I may call them, give us a mean idea of the thing; but the sound of the Latin is so much more pleasing, by the just mixture of the vowels with the consonants, that it raises our fancies to conceive somewhat more noble than a common herb, and to spread roses under him, and strew lilies over him; a bed not unworthy the grandson of the goddess. (5)

Dryden's Venus, therefore, crowns the head of the young Ascanius with a wreath of myrtle, and softly lays him, not on marjoram, but on 'a flowery bed'. In Dryden's dilemma we can catch a glimpse of the influence—here, at any rate, a baleful influence—of constantly reading poetry in a dead language. The reason that Dryden gives for preferring mollis amaracus to sweet marjoram' ('the sound of the Latin is so much more pleasing, by the just mixture of the vowels with the consonants') will scarcely bear examination; the English words sound as pleasingly in the ear as the Latin. His real reason for shrinking from 'sweet marjoram' is that it is a 'village word', and that means, for Dryden, that it is too humble for epic poetry. (6) Worse still, it brings with it too sharp an air of actuality; it disturbs that calm and remote atmosphere which he associates with classical poetry. But the calm and the remoteness are at least partly due to the passage of the centuries, and if Virgil was not afraid of mollis amaracus his translator should not refuse 'sweet marjoram'. The twentieth-century translator would not hesitate for a moment; it would need something much more prosaic-like, say, 'bachelor's buttons'—to drive him to such a periphrasis as 'flowery bed'.

It cannot be denied that eighteenth-century refinement is often a false and exaggerated refinement, or that the poet and his readers had an almost morbid dread of mean or ludicrous associations radiating from the words used in everyday life. (7) The more poetry refused those everyday words, the greater was the danger that the unguarded introduction of some quite natural expression might break the poetical circuit between poet and reader. To-day—such is the gap between us and the eighteenth century—the situation is almost completely reversed: the modern poet must guard himself against 'poetical' words. But we must accept here a genuine difference of poetical conventions, a difference in the sort of expectations present in the mind of a reader when he opens a volume of poetry. There is no lack of evidence as to how the eighteenth century felt in those matters. In a well-known passage Johnson singles out a speech of Lady Macbeth's to illustrate the unfortunate effect of low expressions. After telling us that 'words become low by the occasions to which they are applied, or the general character of them who use them; and the disgust which they produce arises from the revival of those images with which they are commonly united', he proceeds to quote Lady Macbeth's words—

Come, thick night!
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes;
Nor heav'n peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, Hold, hold!

To the language of this passage Johnson has three objections to offer: 'dun' is an epithet 'now seldom heard but in the stable', 'knife' makes him think of butchers, and the expression 'peep through the blanket' has such a ludicrous sound in his ears that he can 'scarce check [his] risibility'. (8) We cannot suppose that Johnson is thinking up those objections to support a thesis: Shakespeare's language was continually giving such shocks to a century accustomed to a poetic diction which, like Dante's, had been passed through a kind of linguistic sieve. A contemporary of Johnson's, the Scottish poet William Hamilton of Bangour, undertook on one occasion to show what might be done by way of refining Shakespeare. He chose for his experiment some words uttered by Lear in his agony: 'Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. . . .' Meditating on this, Hamilton produced his own version for an age of greater refinement:

For thee, the skilful worm, of specious hue,
No shining threads of ductile radiance drew;
For thee no sun the ripening gem refin'd;
No bleating innocence the fleece resign'd:
The hand of luxury ne'er taught to pour
O'er thy faint limbs the oil's refreshing show 'r. . . . (9)

Perhaps the fairest comment on those remarkable lines is a passage from one of Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son. In those modern days, he tells the boy, elegance is all:

People know very little of the world, and talk nonsense, when they talk of plainness and solidity unadorned; they will do nothing: mankind has been long out of a state of nature, and the golden age of native simplicity will never return. Whether for the better or the worse, no matter; but we are refined; and plain manners, plain dress, and plain .diction, would as little do in life, as acorns, herbage, and the water of the neighbouring spring, would do at table. (10)

Low thoughts and low expressions, then, were to be avoided. The eighteenth-century poet, writing his own original poetry, had little difficulty in complying with the taste of the age. But when he was translating the poetry of an earlier and less refined age, he might, as we have seen, encounter serious difficulties. When Pope undertook to translate the Odyssey he secured the assistance of two friends, Elijah Fenton and the Rev. William Broome. On his way through Book XX Fenton ran into trouble, and wrote to Broome about it:

How I shall get over the bitch and her puppies, the roasting of the black puddings, as Brault translated it, and the cow-heel that was thrown at Ulysses' head, I know not. (11)

The bitch that Fenton found to be a poetical liability appears in a simile near the beginning of the book:

And as a bitch stands over her tender whelps growling, when she sees a man she does not know, and is eager to fight, so his [sc. Ulysses'] heart growled within him. . . . (12)

In his rendering of the passage Fenton avoids the word 'bitch', but succeeds, by a departure from English idiom, in indicating the sex; the puppies are generalized, and both the growling and the person growled at are dignified:

As o'er her young the mother-mastiff growls,
And bays the stranger groom: so wrath compress'd,
Recoiling, mutter'd thunder in his breast. . . (13)

The cow-heel which Ctesippus flung at the head of Ulysses presented Fenton with a stiffer problem of devitalization. This unheroic action, which took place when the suitors were at dinner, is described by Homer quite simply and directly:

So saying, he hurled with strong hand the hoof of an ox, taking it up from the basket where it lay. (14)

Fenton does not dare to omit the incident altogether, but he tries his best to veil its indecency with an elaborate periphrasis:

He said: and of the steer before him plac'd,
That sinewy fragment at Ulysses cast,
Where to the pastern-bone, by nerves combin'd,
The well-horn'd foot indissolubly join'd. (15)

If the missile has not become even yet entirely heroic it is not the fault of the translator. He, at least, has wrapped it up in a napkin of poetic diction. To introduce humble and undignified facts into epic poetry was to Fenton like bringing pots and pans into the dining-room and setting them on the glossy sideboard with worthier and more polite vessels. The eighteenth-century poet believed in rendering unto Apollo the things he reckoned to be Apollo's; and whatever might be proper to the familiar epistle or the mock-heroic, the epic was held to demand from the poet a heightening of thought and expression well above the ordinary. In the same spirit eighteenth-century sculptors were accustomed to portraying contemporary English statesmen in the Roman toga. 'We go so far', Reynolds admits, 'as hardly to bear a statue in any other drapery.'(16) It is not, therefore, surprising to find him assuring his students that

the manner in which poetry is offered to the ear, the tone in which it is recited, should be as far removed from the tone of conversation, as the words of which that poetry is composed. . . . Whatever is familiar, or in any way reminds us of what we see and hear every day, perhaps does not belong to the higher provinces of art, either in poetry or painting. (17)

Pope was well aware that a translator must accept the simplicities of Homer, and not try to write him up where the original does not justify such treatment.

There is a real beauty [he saw] in an easy, pure, perspicuous description, even of a low action. . . . Whenever the poet is obliged by the nature of his subject to descend to the lower manner of writing, an elevated style would be affected, and therefore ridiculous. (18)

But when it came to the pinch Pope seems to have become conscious of the ladies and gentlemen who had subscribed (at a guinea a volume) for his translation, and he usually spares them too sharp a contact with the actual. Broome, too, was equally circumspect. Where Homer had written:

Now so long as my men had grain and red wine they kept their hands from the cattle, for they were eager to save their lives. But when all the stores had been consumed from out the ship, they must needs roam about in-search of game, fishes, and fowl, and whatever might come to their hands, fishing with bent hooks, for hunger pinched their bellies(19)-

Broome feels impelled to translate:

Unhurt the beeves, untouch'd the woolly train
Low through the grove, or range the flowery plain:
Then fail'd our food; then fish we make our prey,
Or fowl that screaming haunt the watery way.
Till now, from sea or flood no succour found,
Famine and meagre want besieg'd us round. (20)

Or again:

The mother sat at her hearth with her handmaidens, spinning the yarn of purple dye . . . (21)

becomes in Fenton:

the Queen her hours bestow'd
In curious works; the whirling spindle glow'd
With crimson threads, while busy damsels cull
The snowy fleece, or twist the purpled wool. (22)

The process here is not simply one of refining: Fenton has amplified, and he has also managed to impart a rhetorical excitement ('whirling', 'glowed', 'busy') which is perhaps endemic in the heroic couplet. In Homer's less emphatic hexameters it is no doubt easier to say simple things simply. Yet refinement is certainly responsible for many of the modifications made by Pope and his assistants.

It is the same when he tries his hand at modernizing Chaucer. When Chaucer has a thing to say he goes the shortest way about it; the thing felt or thought is expressed with the minimum of fuss. But Pope, for a variety of reasons—because 'old Chaucer' is too naive, or too frank, or too unadorned—feels bound to give him a different turn. So we have Chaucer's

And folwed ay his bodily delyt
On wommen, there—as was his appetyt—

softened by Pope to

Yet led astray by Venus' soft delights,
He scarce cou'd rule some idle appetites; (23)

and Chaucer's

Now wolde God that it were waxen night:
And that the night wolde lasten evermo!

conventionalized to

Restless he sate, invoking ev'ry pow'r
To speed his bliss, and haste the happy hour. (24)

Pope is here turning Chaucer's natural (and therefore perpetually fresh) English into the fashionable idiom of a later century, the sort of idiom that softens the blow of actuality by referring to a birth in the family as 'a happy event'. We are not therefore surprised to find Pope in his ironical Art of Sinking in Poetry counselling the poet who wishes to excel in bathos to be sure to paint nature 'in her lowest simplicity' (ch. v), and to 'familiarize his mind to the lowest objects' (ch. vii). To this end, he adds, 'vulgar conversation will greatly contribute'.

As might be expected, the eighteenth-century reader had some difficulty in taking the old English and Scottish ballads seriously. (J) He was the victim of his own 'good taste'. If one has gone to the best masters in pianoforte it seems ridiculous to sit and listen to a penny whistle, and still more so to take it senously. In his two interesting attempts to gain a hearing for the ballads of 'Chevy Chase' and 'The Two Children in the Wood', it is significant that Addison did not offer to defend the way in which they were expressed. In his discussion of the first he cautioned the reader not to let the simplicity of the style blind him to the greatness of the thought. In the second, he admitted that there is 'a despicable simplicity in the verse', and that the author has told his story 'in such an abject phrase and poorness of expression' that to quote him would only invite a laugh. But the thoughts are natural, 'and therefore cannot fail to please those who are not judges of language'. (26) Not knowing any better, he implies, they will not be disgusted by the familiarity and naked simplicity of the expression. Those who are judges of languages will inevitably (Addison supposes) be put off by the humble expressions, but they should still be able to appreciate the natural thoughts, if they have 'a true and unprejudiced taste of nature.

If Chaucer could be modernized, why not the ballads? If language is only 'the dress of thought' we can have a new dress whenever we want one, and the ballad—a sort of Cinderella among the literary Kinds—can come sparkling forth in a new gown and in the latest fashion. So, more than once, it did, and in so doing it completely lost its original character.

One of the most interesting examples of an eighteenth-century poet transmuting the work of an earlier day is Prior's treatment of 'The Nut-Brown Maid'. Prior had a genuine admiration for this old poem, or he would not have set to work upon it; he must have admired the natural feeling so simply and directly expressed. But in his 'Henry and Emma' this feeling has all but evaporated. What Prior has done is not so much to translate the poem into modern English as to inject it with some sort of poetical serum which completely alters the blood-content. He has treated it as a modern choreographer might treat some fairy-tale so as to evolve from it a delicate and sophisticated ballet. Emma, who undergoes a transformation similar to that of Liza in Shaw's Pygmalion, has become 'the dame' at whose feet Henry has often breathed his 'amorous vows. Upon a spreading beech-tree

Henry, in knots involving Emma's name,
Had half express'd, and half conceal'd his flame. (27)

When, in the old poem, the Man asks the Maid if she could bear to marry an outlaw, a banished man—

Yet take good hede; for ever I drede that ye coude nat susteyne
The thornie wayes, the depe valeies, the snowe, the frost, the rayne,
The colde, the hete: for, drye or wete, we must lodge on the playne;
And us above, none other rofe, but a brake, bush, or twayne:
Which sone sholde greve you, I beleve, and ye wolde gladly than
That I had to the grene wode go, alone, a banyshed man—

Prior's Henry inquires:

But canst thou, tender maid, canst thou sustain
Afflictive want, or hunger's pressing pain?
Those limbs, in lawn and softest silk array'd,
From sunbeams guarded, and of winds afraid;
Can they bear angry Jove ? can tney resist
The parching dog-star, and the bleak north-east?
When, chill'd by adverse snows and beating rain,
We tread with weary steps the longsome plain;
When with hard toil we seek our evening food,
Berries and acorns, from the neighbouring wood;
And find among the cliffs no other house,
But the thin covert of some gather'd boughs;
Wilt thou not then reluctant send thine eye
Around the dreary waste; and weeping try
(Though then, alas! that trial be too late)
To find thy father's hospitable gate,
And seats, where ease and plenty brooding sate? (28)

If it is asked whether the eighteenth-century lover talked to his mistress like this, the answer is, No; nor did the Elizabethan lover talk like Romeo. But in so far as Henry's language is the language of gallantry it would be perfectly well understood by the eighteenth-century fine lady, to whom it would also be, in its own affected fashion, the language of the heart. To Johnson, it is true, Prior's love poetry was in general 'unaffecting or remote', and 'Henry and Emma' in particular 'a dull and tedious dialogue'. (29) But Johnson's reactions were not always typical of his century, and his poor opinion of Prior's love poetry is partly accounted for by his inveterate distaste for the mythological trimmings of Venus, Cupid, and the rest which Prior introduced so profusely into his work. To set against Johnson's adverse criticism there is the testimony not only of Horace Walpole (who was, of course, the sort of reader that Prior had in mind) but also the poet Cowper, who can hardly be accused of any want of natural feeling. 'There are few readers of poetry of either sex in this country', Cowper wrote, 'who cannot remember how that entertaining piece has bewitched them.'(30) There are not many of whom those words could be spoken today. Indeed, 'Henry and Emma' is to eighteenth-century poetry what 'The Idiot Boy' or 'Simon Lee' are to the poetry of Wordsworth: a test which only the initiated are likely to pass. To the open-minded reader, however, Prior's poem has still some of the charm of a period piece, if nothing more.

Why so many people come with an open and receptive mind to eighteenth-century furniture, architecture, or music, and yet approach the poetry of that period with a closed and even hostile mind is something of a mystery. A Chippendale chair is a period piece and is willingly accepted as such; but when the reader of poetry comes upon some equally perfect period piece in the work of John Gay he is, as often as not, far less ready to' respond to the fashion of an earlier age. The average reader of poetry, it may be, is not content with a purely aesthetic pleasure; he looks for some reflection, or at least adumbration, of his own habitual thoughts and feelings in the poem he happens to be reading. It is in the poetry of his own generation that he has most chance of finding it—or, if he is not quite abreast of his own day, in that of a generation back. If he does read the poetry of past ages he is apt to prefer what comes nearest in spirit to the poetry of his own day. If this is his habitual approach to poetry, then a good deal of the most characteristic work of the eighteenth-century poets will seem remote enough from his field of interest. But much of it—at its most remote, and even because of that remoteness—is capable of yielding a genuine aesthetic pleasure, the sort of pleasure that he may be accustomed to receiving from a Chelsea shepherdess or a conversation-piece by Zoffany. Gay at his best is among the most finished artists in that sophisticated and artificial style. He transmutes the raw materials of life into something at once delicate and artificial and remote. As with the chef in the Dunciad, working his culinary miracles,

Beeves, at his touch, at once to jelly turn.

When Gay thinks of summer days in London he sees the lovers lying in the long grass beyond 'the dusty town', but before he has finished with them they have merged in his gentle mockery into the setting for a modern pastoral:

When the sweet-breathing spring unfolds the buds,
Love flys the dusty town for shady woods . . .
Then Chelsea's meads o'erhear perfidious vows,
And the prest grass defrauds the grazing cows. (31)

Perhaps no eighteenth-century poet got so much fun and so much beauty out of the poetic diction of the period as Gay. In Rural Sports and Trivia he revels in its absurdity, its dangerous dignity, its exquisite artificiality, and its serenity. He takes it seriously—more so, for example, than Cowper—but not too seriously; he delights in it, he has a delicate understanding of its possibilities, and so he can produce objets d'art in verse, completely satisfying to the aesthetic sense, and with no more (but no less) importance than a vase from the workshops of Josiah Wedgewood.


If the twentieth-century reader is prepared to smile at Fenton's nervous approach to the cow-heel and the black puddings, he is not so ready to forgive another aspect of eighteenth-century refinement—the tacit assumption that the poor and the humble were not worth taking very seriously. It was an assumption that the novelists—from Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding onwards—were steadily undermining, but that the poets, for various reasons, were slower to discard. The normal attitude of the eighteenth-century poet to the peasant ought not to shock or surprise us; it does not differ noticeably from the attitude of the Oxford or Cambridge undergraduate of to-day to his scout or gyp, or of the average Londoner to a 'cabby', or of the normal housewife to her 'char'. In all but exceptional circumstances the usual relationship is still one of good-natured condescension to an inferior: a gentleman will take care that his condescension does not become too apparent, but when he is alone with his friends he will be quite undemocratically facetious about the cabby or the scout or the gyp. The twentieth-century novelist still considers himself entitled to make fun of butlers and taxi-drivers and charwomen; it has always been the most important literary function of the poor to provide comic relief. If you make fun of a cabinet minister that is satire; if you make fun of a taxi-driver or a country bumpkin it is comedy. But we no longer permit our poets to make that sort of fun. Since the days of Wordsworth it has become customary to assume that to any real poet not only the meanest flower that blows, but the humblest man that walks the earth, ought invariably to give 'thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears'. It is a remarkable tribute to Wordsworth that we should think so. To that great poet it seemed self-evident that pride,

Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy. (32)

There was little of this feeling in the eighteenth century, and the poets did not do much to encourage its growth. What, for instance, are we to make of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu ? When Pope, still troubled by the sudden death of John Hewet and Sarah Drew, told her all about it in his letter and enclosed the epitaph he had written, Lady Mary (who was on her way home from Paris) replied in a letter so devastatingly facetious that we can scarcely read it to-day without a feeling of discomfort.

I must applaud your good-nature [she tells Pope] in supposing that your pastoral lovers (vulgarly called haymakers) would have lived in everlasting joy and harmony if the lightning had not interrupted their scheme of happiness. . . . Since you desire me to try my skill in an epitaph, I think the following lines perhaps more just, though not so poetical as yours:

Here lie John Hughes and Sarah Drew;
Perhaps you'll say, what's that to you?
Believe me, friend, much may be said
On this poor couple that are dead.
On Sunday next they should have married;
But see how oddly things are carried!
On Thursday last it rained and lighten'd;
These tender lovers, sadly frighten'd,
Shelter'd beneath the cocking hay,
In hopes to pass the storm away;
But the bold thunder found them out
(Commission'd for that end, no doubt),
And, seizing on their trembling breath,
Consign'd them to the shades of death.
Who knows if 'twas not kindly done?
For had they seen the next year's sun,
A beaten wife and cuckold swain
Had jointly curs'd the marriage chain;
Now they are happy in their doom,
For P. has wrote upon their tomb.

I confess these sentiments are not altogether so heroic as yours; but I hope you will forgive them in favour of the two last lines. . . . (33)

Perhaps if Lady Mary, and not Pope, had been staying at Stanton Harcourt when the storm broke she might have felt differently about John Hewet (not Hughes, as she has it) and Sarah Drew. Something, too, should be allowed for the fact that most of us tend to resist a direct call upon our sympathy, though we may respond readily enough if we are not so prompted. But Lady Mary's reaction to Pope's rural tragedy is quite clear: she thinks that he is making altogether too much fuss over a couple of mere villagers. These are people that one would scarcely notice at all if they were alive: why grow heroic about them merely because they have come to a sudden end ? If the bolt had struck Lord Harcourt, that would have been something! Her response does at least indicate how such an incident was apt to strike an aristocratic lady in the eighteenth century. Pope had asked her to take his rustic lovers seriously; but his epitaph was not nearly good enough to persuade her to alter her habitual attitude to such folk.

What prevented the average eighteenth-century poet from being fully conscious of his common humanity with the poor was not so much an economic inequality as an inequality in education. He talked a different language from the poor man, he had a wider range of ideas and interests. For a century in which polite expression meant so much, the barrier erected between the classes by a different mode of' speech was almost insuperable. The full significance of Wordsworth's heresy about adopting or adapting the language of humble and rustic life for poetry will not be apparent unless we can realize what such a suggestion would have meant to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu or Lord Chesterfield, or even to a man of such comprehensive sympathies as Edmund Burke. The normal attitude to the poor in the eighteenth century was, as has been suggested, one of good-natured condescension to Goody Smith or Gaffer Brown or Granny White. So Goldsmith, the kindly but amused spectator from a different monde, recalls the village inn, where the country innocents were to be seen relaxing in characteristic attitudes—

Where grey-beard mirth, and smiling toil retired,
Where village statesmen talked with looks profound,
And news much older than their ale went round. (34)

No one would question the kindliness of that, but the rustics are not Simon Lees or Betty Foys; they are much nearer to being the fauna of the place—only a little more important to Goldsmith than the flora, or the noisy geese that gabbled o'er the pool, or the varnished clock that clicked behind the door. Goldsmith makes more of his rustics than most eighteenth-century poets, but he remains aware of their limitations as poetic material. Those limitations were set forth by Johnson with all his customary candour:

The state of a man confined to the employments and pleasures of the country, is so little diversified, and exposed to so few of those accidents which produce perplexities, terrors, and surprises, in more complicated transactions, that he can be shown but seldom in such circumstances as attract curiosity. His ambition is without policy, and his love without intrigue. He has no complaints to make of his rival, but that he is richer than himself; nor any disasters to lament, but a cruel mistress or a bad harvest. (35)

All of which, Johnson suggests, makes for dull poetry, since a man only becomes interesting when he has arrived at a stage of some emotional and intellectual complexity. In direct opposition to this statement of Johnson's may be placed the equally downright assertion of Wordsworth about humble and rustic people. 'From their rank of society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse'—they are not just dull or boring with the tedious repetition of their unsophisticated notions, but—'being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.'(36) And what they have to convey—'the essential passions of the heart'—is what interests Wordsworth, as man and poet. Johnson and Wordsworth, it will be noticed, start from precisely the same premiss (that rustic life is simple, unvaried, and narrow in scope), and arrive at exactly the opposite conclusions. It is not that Johnson did not know a good deal about the essential passions of the heart; it is certainly not that he lacked any feeling of common humanity with the poor. He had known poverty, and he never ceased to know the poor. It is therefore all the more significant that it is Johnson—and not Lord Chesterfield or Horace Walpole—who undertakes to demonstrate that the rustic poor have only a limited value for poetry. They failed to interest the eighteenth century deeply in the same way, and for much the same reason, as children failed to interest Pope or Gray: they were not fully adult, they were intellectually immature, and their sentiments and expressions were crude. The century's normal attitude here was that expressed by Hume in his essay on 'Refinement in Writing':

Sentiments which are merely natural affect not the mind with any pleasure, and seem not worthy of our attention. The pleasantries of a waterman, the observations of a peasant, the ribaldry of a porter or hackney coachman, all of these are natural, and disagreeable. . . . Nothing can please persons of taste, but nature drawn with all her graces and ornaments, La belle nature; or if we copy low life, the strokes must be strong and remarkable, and must convey a lively image to the mind. (37)

It follows therefore that if pastoral poetry is to be made tolerable to a polite age the poet must shun any strict adherence to the sort of life actually led by shepherds, since (as Johnson observed) 'according to the customs of modern life, it is improbable that shepherds should be capable of harmonious numbers, or delicate sentiments'(38)—and both were required by the eighteenth-century reader. Shepherds are accordingly to be described 'as they may be conceived then to have been, when the best of men followed the employment' . (39) What to an eighteenth-century poet was the logical outcome of describing country folk 'as at this day they really are' Gay showed in The Shepherd's Week, and Pope demonstrated even more hilariously in the mock ballad of Roger and Cicely which he inserted in his Guardian essay on Philips's Pastorals:

But the most beautiful example of this kind that I ever met with, is in a very valuable piece, which I chanced to find among some old manuscripts, entituled, A Pastoral Ballad: which I think, for its nature and simplicity, may (notwithstanding the modesty of the title) be allowed a perfect pastoral: It is composed in the Somersetshire dialect, and the names such as are proper to the country people. It may be observed, as a further beauty of this pastoral, the words Nymph, Dryad, Naiad, Fawn, Cupid, or Satyr, are not once mentioned through the whole. I shall make no apology for inserting some few lines of this excellent piece. Cicely breaks thus into the subject, as she is going a-milking:

Cicely.Rager go vetch tha kee, or else tha zun
Will quite be go, be yore c' have half a don.
Roger.Thou shouldst not ax ma tweece, but I've a be
To dreave our bull to bull tha parson's kee.

And so forth, ending with the lines:

So Rager parted vor to vetch tha kee,
And vor her bucket in went Cicely. (40)

That, then, is Pope's reductio ad absurdum of Ambrose Philips's simplesse. John Hewet and Sarah Drew might qualify for an epitaph, but Pope would see to it that they never strayed into pastoral poetry.

As the century wore on, this attitude to the poor began very gradually to change. In his Elegy Gray is reminding his readers that the great and the important must die like everyone else; death is not a fate reserved only for the poor and humble. Some of the humble folk, it is true, might in more affluent circumstances have become famous, but 'their lot forbad'. Never mind: it also forbade them to grow great in wickedness. The poor, then, are taken seriously in the Elegy; but it is rather the deadness of the dead, and the universality of death (made all the more apparent by the anonymity of the mouldering heaps distinguished by no 'storied urn or animated bust'), that the poet's imagination has seized most firmly. As a man of culture Gray still has a decent respect for the storied urn, and is even prepared to be slightly apologetic about the frail memorials of the villagers, with 'their uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd' — the lapidary equivalent of ballads and broadsides in literature. He is still, in fact, thinking of 'the rude forefathers of the hamlet'. Goldsmith is perhaps more democratic, a humorous soul who was probably quite as much at ease with his landlady as with Burke or Johnson; but Goldsmith, too, with his smith who 'relaxes his pond'rous strength and leans to hear', or his swain 'mistrustless of his smutted face', or his awed rustics listening to the polysyllabic disputation of parson and schoolmaster, is hardly taking his rustics quite seriously. You do not feel that anyone in the village is quite adult. Cowper, too, is still (for all his sympathy and interest) one of the gentlefolk writing naturally of 'swains' and 'boors' and of the woodman with 'the short tube that fumes beneath his nose.

The change comes, when it does come, not so much in the habitual way of seeing the poor as a different race (for that continues) as in a greater readiness to feel for them when they are in distress. This may be seen, as early as 1730, in some lines of James Thomson:

Ah! little think the gay licentious proud,
Whom pleasure, power, and affluence surround-
They, who their thoughtless hours in giddy mirth,
And wanton, often cruel, riot waste-
Ah! little think they, while they dance along,
How many feel, this very moment, death
And all the sad variety of pain; . . .
How many pine in want, and dungeon-glooms; . . .
. . . sore pierced by wintry winds,
How many sink into the sordid hut
Of cheerless poverty. . . . (41)

If men would only think of these things, and of the 'incessant struggle' that life means for so many unfortunate wretches,

The social tear would rise, the social sigh;
And into clear perfection, gradual bliss,
Refining still, the social passions work.

In the same way Goldsmith's voice changes when he pictures to himself 'yon widow'd, solitary thing', the last survivor of the now depopulated village,

forced in age, for bread,
To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread,
To pick her wintry faggot from the thorn,
To seek her nightly shed, and weep till morn...(42)

Cowper, too, has his Crazy Kate in The Task. (43)

Such miseries and such destitution made Goldsmith and Cowper sad; it is not until we come to Crabbe that we find a poet whom they make positively angry. The anger may not lead to better poetry, but it does suggest that the point of view has altered. Yet even Crabbe is still for the most part the spectator ab extra, moved by the hard lot of the poorer classes, and distressed by their shiftlessness and improvidence, but not particularly interested in their minds. For that sort of interest (if we except Burns, who was one of them) we have to wait till Wordsworth. We never really get it in Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, or Keats. It was Wordsworth, almost alone among the Romantic poets, who

saw into the depth of human souls,
Souls that appear to have no depth at all
To careless eyes. (44)

But it is a common mistake to assume that we are all Wordsworths now, and that the common human attitude to the poor (as distinct from the provision made for them) has radically, altered since the days of Pope and Swift. We are all Wordsworths now only when Wordsworth has shown us the way. Left to ourselves, most of us still approach a tramp or a charwoman with meagre expectations, and with a conscious or unconscious adjustment of our mental attitude.

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