Saturday, 16 July 2016

'Ode to Wisdom' - Elizabeth Carter

When Fortune drops her gay parade,
When Pleasure’s transient roses fade,
And wither in the tomb;
Unchang’d is thy immortal prize,
Thy ever-verdant laurels rise
In undecaying bloom.
 
‘Ode to Wisdom’
Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806)
(Published in Poems on Several Occasions, 1762)
 
Wisdom: it’s something the world could do with more of.  Evidently Elizabeth Carter felt the same way in the early eighteenth century.  Her ‘Ode to Wisdom’ is a powerful, personal expression of both praise and longing for wisdom.  It begins with ‘The solitary bird of night’ (the owl), a creature associated with the classical Greek deity of wisdom, the goddess Pallas Athene.  Using the first stanza to set the scene, Carter creates an atmospheric image of an owl, having roosted alone all day in some ruinous ‘time-shook tow’r’ now flying through the mysterious darkness of the night. 
 
The persona of the poem hears the ‘solemn sound’ of the owls flight, and via this symbolic link to classical wisdom, she offers obeisance to the imagined throne of Wisdom.  In the third stanza, therefore, the opening pronoun ‘She’ now functions as a personification of Wisdom founded upon the Greek image of Pallas Athene: the owl is, after all, referred to as the ‘Fav’rite of Pallas’.  Wisdom, Carter writes, ‘loves the cool, the silent eve, / Where no false shews of life deceive’.  Here the darkness of night-time is used as a visual and moral leveller, a time when truth can no longer be disguised. 
 
The fourth stanza continues the praise of Pallas, identifying her, and therefore also wisdom, as the ‘queen of ev’ry art, / That glads the sense, and mends the heart’.  It is wisdom, Carter claims, that is the ‘source of purer joys’.  The longing of the poetic persona to achieve true wisdom is then crystallised in the subsequent stanza, in which she figures herself as a ‘modest suppliant’ whose ‘vow’ to Pallas Athene is more of a request to be ‘taught by thy [Pallas’s] unerring rules, / To shun the fruitless wish of fools’ and to instead aim at ‘nobler views’.

 

In the pursuit of this wisdom, the poet rejects ‘Fortune’s gem, Ambition’s plume’ and ‘Cythrea’s fading bloom’ (in case you’re wondering Cythrea is just another name for Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love).  All of these goals are simply ‘glitt’ring toys’, childish trinkets far beneath the aspirations of this poet who seeks instead ‘Each moral beauty of the heart, / By studious thoughts refin’d’.  The only ‘Power’ this poet hopes for is ‘An empire o’er the mind’.
 
To express the transience of material triumph, Carter then examines the effects of time upon these competing qualities:
 
When Fortune drops her gay parade,
When Pleasure’s transient roses fade,
And wither in the tomb;
Unchang’d is thy [wisdom’s] immortal prize,
Thy ever-verdant laurels rise
In undecaying bloom.
 
By choosing Wisdom as her moral specialism, the poet will be ‘protected’ from the ‘ignorance and spite’ of those who seek to mock through the ‘pointed ridicule / Of undiscerning wit’.  A means of escaping ‘From envy, hurry, noise and strife’, embracing wisdom enables the poet to rest in ‘the peaceful groves’ where only the spirits of clever philosophers such as Plato may be found.  The following stanza continues in praise of Plato, referencing his ‘philosophick theme / Of Perfect, Fair, and Good’.  Upon arrival in Athens, this philosophy ‘Reclaim’d, her [the city’s] wild licentious youth’ as under the influence of wisdom ‘The Passions ceas’d their loud alarms’. 
 
Returning once more to addressing wisdom directly, the poet lists how:
 
Thy breath inspires the Poet’s song,
The Patriot’s free, unbiass’d tongue,
The Hero’s gen’rous strife’
 
But before the poet gets too carried away in praise of classical deities – at a time when Christianity was the predominant European religion – she adds a deft and subtle twist upon the classical model.  ‘No more to fabled Names confin’d’, she writes, ‘To the supreme all-perfect Mind / My thoughts direct their flight’.  Obliquely indicating her acknowledgement of Pallas Athene as a ‘fabled Name’, she now identifies wisdom as the ‘gift’ of ‘the supreme all-perfect Mind’ (an implicit allusion to the Christian God).  Thus it is also with an address to this ‘supreme all-perfect Mind’ that the poem ultimately concludes, as Carter bids this power to ‘send her [wisdom’s] sure, her steady ray, / To regulate my doubtful way’.  For it is:
 
Beneath her clear discerning eye
The visionary shadows fly
Of Folly’s painted show:
She sees thro’ ev’ry fair disguise.
That all but Virtue’s solid joys
Are vanity and woe. 

Happy Reading!


You can find this poem:
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/o5154-w0420.shtml
(This fantastic free copy of the poem is the source of the quotations given in this blogpost, and a superb resource!! Definitely worth having a shufty around the rest of the site too!!)

(Was recently introduced to this site by a senior academic, and it’s absolutely fab! Follow this link and find Carter’s ‘Ode to Wisdom’ on page 84.  Or you could just start at the beginning if you’re enjoying her poetry!)

You can find out more about Elizabeth Carter:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Carter
(Wikipedia!!!)

(Another shockingly short biography for such an influential writer.  It does have all the main dates and events of her life, though, so a useful starting point at least)

(this page has a short bibliography of references to Carter in published

Saturday, 2 July 2016

'The Seasons' - James Thomson


Gradual sinks the breeze
Into a perfect calm; that not a breath
Is heard to quiver through the closing woods,
Or rustling turn the many twinkling leaves
Of aspen tall.  The uncurling floods diffused
In glassy breadth, seem, through delusive lapse,
Forgetful of their course.  ‘Tis silence all,
And pleasing expectation.  Herds and flocks
Drop the dry sprig, and, mute imploring, eye
The falling verdure.  Hush’d in short suspense,
The plumy people streak their wings with oil,
To throw the lucid moisture trickling off;
And wait the approaching sign to strike, at once,
Into the general choir.  E’en mountains, vales,
And forests seem impatient to demand
The promised sweetness.  Man superior walks
Amid the glad creation, musing praise,
And looking lively gratitude.  At last,
The clouds consign their treasures to the fields;
And, softly shaking on the dimpled pool
Prelusive drops, let all their moisture flow
In large effusion o’er the freshen’d world.
The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard,
By such as wander through the forest-walks,
Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.
But who can hold the shade, while Heaven descends
In universal bounty, shedding herbs,
And fruits, and flowers on Nature’s ample lap?
Swift Fancy fired anticipates their growth;
And, while the milky nutriment distils,
Beholds the kindling country colour round.
   Thus all day long the full-distended clouds
Indulge their genial stores, and well-shower’d earth
Is deep enrich’d with vegetable life;
Till, in the western sky, the downward sun
Looks out, effulgent, from amid the flush
Of broken clouds, gay-shifting to his beam.
The rapid radiance instantaneous strikes
The illumined mountain; through the forest streams,
Shakes on the floods, and, in a yellow mist,
Far-smoking o’er the interminable plain,
In twinkling myriads lights the dewy gems.
Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.
Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,
Mix’d in wild concert with the warbling brooks
Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,
Engraved title-page for 'Spring' in the 1876
illustrated edition of Thomson's Seasons 
The hollow lows responsive from the vales,
Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion, running from the red,
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And, to the sage-instructed eye, unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze.  Not so the boy:
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,
Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds the amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.

(Excerpt from ‘Spring’)
The Seasons James Thomson (1700-1748)
1728-30


Engraved frontispiece for 'Spring' from the 1876
illustrated edition of Thomson's Seasons.
You might be wondering why today’s quotation is so long.  Well, quite simply it’s because this is something of a tricky poem to get hold of (and I didn't want folks put off reading it by its eulsiveness).  Published in 1730, James Thomsons’s Seasons would have a profound effect on English Literature throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century.  Sadly, however, like many great eighteenth-century poets, his works are not always remembered today.  Indeed, my attention was only drawn to this talented poet and his work through my investigations into pre-chapter quotation, since extracts from Thomson’s Seasons frequently appear in the works of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (whose novels I am currently researching).  It’s a fantastic example of how an interest in one thing can stimulate a love of something else in literary studies!
Divided into four sections, each corresponding to a specific season, Thomson’s Seasons is a lush, and glorious poem.  It’s also rather long, so for the purposes of this blog post I’ll focus on the extract I’ve typed up above.  This section is taken from ‘Spring’, and narrates the approach and arrival of a brief spring shower, finishing with the inevitable rainbow splashed across the sky.  Thus it begins with a sense of anticipation: ‘‘Tis silence all, / And pleasing expectation’.  The herds stop their grazing, and ‘The plumy people [the birds] streak their wings with oil’ in preparation for the forthcoming rain.  Importantly, the rain is also seen as a good thing here as ‘E’en mountains, vales, / And forests seem impatient to demand / The promised sweetness’ that the rain will bring.

Finally ‘The clouds consign their treasures to the fields’, and the world is ‘freshen’d’.  In just three lines, Thomson forms an exquisite and evocative image of wandering beneath the trees as the rain falls overhead:
 
‘The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard,
By such as wander through the forest-walks, Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.’

(I had to look up what ‘umbrageous’ means, so just in case you’re not sure either it means ‘shady’, or ‘shaded’.  Good word to use at parties, and in crosswords.).  Yet neither is this just a romantic description of the countryside: there’s a practical side to it too.  This ‘universal bounty’ or ‘milky nutriment’ will call to life ‘herbs, And fruits, and flowers’; that the rain also causes ‘the kindling country [to] colour round’ is simply an added bonus.  It’s like when you think of how vibrantly green the beautiful hills of Wales always look, because of the rain from the mountains.  Here too, the rain is bringing out all the glorious colours of nature.

In Thomson’s poem, the rain lasts ‘all day long’, spreading its goodness around until the ‘well-shower’d earth / Is deep enrich’d with vegetable life’.  Only as the day draws to a close does the sun peek out ‘effulgent’ or radiant from the clouds.  It’s sunset, and the light ‘instantaneous strikes / The illumined mountain’, glowing ‘in a yellow mist’ as it ‘In twinkling myriads lights the dewy gems’ of all the settled raindrops clinging to the plants.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  And then, ‘Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around’, and the birds sing as in the woods ‘every music wakes’ to blend with ‘the distant bleatings’ of sheep and the ‘hollow lows’ of cattle in the valleys.  And crowning all, a rainbow appears:
Engraving from 'Spring' in the 1876 illustrated
edition of Thomson's Seasons.
‘Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion, running from the red,
To where the violet fades into the sky.’


The reference to Newton alludes to his discovery of the refractive properties of light, in which a glass prism can separate ‘The various twine of light, […]/ From the white mingling maze’.  It’s a nice touch of science in this otherwise eminently poetic description.  But the last word goes not to Newton, but to the ‘wondering’ boy who longs to catch hold of the rainbow, which fades and pulls away as he tries to grasp it.  It’s a good image for the whole purpose of this kind of nature poetry, which aims to capture the intangible beauty of a world that must be experienced to be fully enjoyed and appreciated.  Through the words of Thomson, even those not fortunate enough to live in the countryside can capture a sense of that experience of the natural environment.

Happy Reading!!

You can find this poem…
…with great difficulty.  For some strange reason, it doesn’t seem to be in popular print anymore.  Which is a huge shame because it’s an absolute masterpiece!!  Here are a few suggestions of starting points, though:

(Not perhaps the most attractive font in the world, but this does seem to include the whole poem!  And lots of other lovely Thomson material too!! Go forth and read folks!)

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-four-seasons-summer/
(This only contains one of Thomson’s four seasonal poems, ‘Summer’, but still it’s a start!)

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/james-thomson#about
(Poetry foundation: contains extracts from ‘Spring’ and ‘Winter’.  Also includes Thomson’s other famous poem, ‘Rule Britannia’, from which comes the seminal Last of the Proms anthem!)

There are also umerous old/antique copies of this poem available from second-hand retailers online and on the high street, some of them not too expensive.  There was an annotated Oxford edition of the text published in the 1980s, but even today this is priced for only the most enthusiastic of readers.
 
You can find out more about Thomson and his work:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Thomson-Scottish-poet-1700-1748
(A biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica that is shockingly short for such an important chap!  But it does have lots of the most important dates)

(Wikipedia – a rather longer biography, so might actually be more interesting than Britannica’s entry)

(Interesting blogpost about illustrated versions of Thomson’s poem)

(Another nice blogpost about the influence of Thomson’s Seasons upon later romantic poets to whom time has been somewhat kinder, such as Coleridge)

https://www.waterstones.com/book/weatherland/alexandra-harris/9780500292655
(I believe there's also a rather nice section on Thomson in Alexandra Harris's fab new award-winning book Weatherland.  The link connects to Waterstones website, though of course it is available at all good bookstores, online and on the high street!! I haven't read this yet, but it's on my list... )

Copyright notice: All images used in this blogpost are the property of the author.  I'm happy for others to use these images for educational or research purposes free of charge, on condition that due acknowledgement is given.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

'Death and the Doctor' - David Garrick

‘As Doctor ** musing sate,
Death saw, and came without delay:
Enters the room, begins the chat
With, “Doctor, why so thoughtful, pray?”’

‘Death and the Doctor’
David Garrick
(published 1763)

Even today, the name of David Garrick has a glamorous magic: perhaps the most famous actor of the eighteenth-century, the dramatic painting of him in the role of Richard III is for many (myself included) one of the great highlights of a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.  As an actor, he was famed for the bewitching power of his voice, and his ability to portray a broad register of different emotions on-stage, but he was also a writer of both plays and poetry.  Sometimes the latter would take the form of poetic prologues or epilogues to be spoken before or after a theatrical performance by one of the actors in character.  Today’s offering is simply a standalone narrative, but it is also a splendid example of Garrick’s sly, witty brilliance.

The subtitle provides all the background the reader needs:  this is a defensive poem, ‘Occasioned by a Physician’s lampooning a Friend of the Author’.  If you’ve never encountered this term before, to lampoon is to ‘Publicly criticize (someone or something) by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm’ (the definition is from Oxford Dictionaries, the free version!).  Call me a sentimentalist if you will, but I think it’s rather sweetly loyal of him to have gone to so much effort to support his friend as the construction of a whole poetic narrative!  Even the title is a bit of a clever put-down, since in saying ‘Death and the Doctor’ Garrick places gives Death the priority by placing it first in the sentence.  As the great Sir Ian McKellen said recently in a programme to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare, who would want to play Romeo if the play was called ‘Juliet and Romeo’?

In the poem, the scene starts somewhat theatrically with the doctor sitting and thoughtfully ‘musing’; Death notices this, and hurries at once to investigate.  At first, the doctor is a bit startled (who wouldn’t be if the grim reaper suddenly appeared in the living room wanting a chat?).  He ‘started from his place’ in a manner that again seems to evoke the spirit of theatrical performance.  Perhaps more surprisingly, the pair soon ‘more familiar grew’ and fall into conversation about such a conventional everyday topic as the state of the Doctor’s practice.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable talking shop with Death; yet in a sense this is a subtle way of beginning to discredit the anonymous Doctor, by suggesting he has a rather mercantile and desensitised personality.  A few minutes after meeting Death, the ultimate arch-enemy of humanity, he is gloomily complaining that ‘trade was low and friends were few’.

Death of course takes a rather more practical view.  ‘Away with fear’ he cries, advising the doctor to at once ‘mend [his] trade’ for, he says, ‘we both are losers if you fail’.  There is no indication that the Doctor sees anything odd about this statement, though the reader will notice the huge irony in the idea that a lack of business for a doctor would mean Death losing out on victims.  The business of Doctors should, after all, be to bring people back to health.  Though the joke about doctors killing off their patients was by no means new at this point, Garrick makes it fresh through the argument that follows.  For it is not through conventional medical treatment that Death suggests the Doctor would be able to furnish him with a steady supply of victims.  Rather, it is through the poisonous nature of his satirical scribbling.  ‘Go write’, suggests Death, disregarding the quality of such compositions as he claims that it is ‘No matter, whether smart, or true’. Advocating the dispersion of these writings among the doctor’s friends, Death suggests that this will inevitably make all readers ‘grow sick’ and dependent upon the doctor’s (somewhat dubious) services.  The final joke comes as Death claims that this will help them both, for this way he says ‘you are sure to have your fees, / And I am sure to have your friends.”’  Splendid, isn’t it?  Without directly insulting the doctor at all, Garrick neatly manages to completely demolish the physician’s whole credibility.  Whoever this man is, he is no longer to be regarded as a serious medical professional, but rather as a money-minded charlatan, ready to stoop to any low trick to conjure business for himself.  The true wit here is not the doctor with his character-assassinating writings, but Garrick. 
Happy reading!!

You can find this poem:
 
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/o5154-w0530.shtml
(A wonderful new site loaded with free editions of obscure eighteenth-century verse.  Go on, you know you want to look…)

More about the lovely David Garrick:

(I didn’t want to reproduce this image directly in case of copyright issues, but do follow the link to the Walker Art Gallery website.  Hogarth’s ‘Garrick as Richard III’ is one of the iconic masterpieces of 18th century art, and an absolute must-see!! And while you’re at it, why not visit the Walker and come see all the other lovely 18th century paintings at one of the absolute best art galleries in the country?)

(Wikipedia, for details about this fascinating chap’s exciting life!)

(And to cross reference, why not check out Encyclopaedia Britannica?  This could be the most interesting thing you read all day!!)

(And if you’re really getting into this by this point, why not look at the info about him at the Twickenham Museum?  Looks like it could be a good day out folks…)

(Ok, by this point you’ve probably realised that Garrick is still quite a popular guy… If you want to get even more detail the links on this page are definitely for you!!)

http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/david-garrick
(Fab image of, and info about, the memorial to Garrick in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey!)

Saturday, 14 May 2016

'A Description of a City Shower' - Jonathan Swift


‘Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.’

‘A Description of a City Shower’
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
1710

Familiar to many as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift was in fact a writer of many and various talents.  It might be his tiny Lilliputian people that has secured him a place in popular culture, but in the realm of eighteenth-century literature Swift is an absolute giant.  A member of the Scriblerus Club, he was friends with some of the most influential writers and politicians of the early eighteenth century, including Alexander Pope, Dr. John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, John Gay, and the Earl of Oxford, Robert Harley (who effectively headed Queen Anne’s government for a time). 

In this poem, Swift seems to be in one of his merrier moods.  Originally published in a periodical journal by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, The Tatler (1709-1711), this is a poem about one of the simplest and most ordinary occurrences: a shower of rain in town.  It starts in a delightfully gloomy manner: ‘Careful observers may foretell the hour / (By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower’.  It’s so deliciously melodramatic, with its heightened sense of ‘dread’.  Then Swift details these ‘prognostics’, such as ‘the pensive cat’ who, with that innate sense animals seem to have of changes in the weather, has stopped playing and probably found somewhere cosy and sheltered to sit.  The ‘sink’ that is next alluded to refers to the local cesspool, which possibly smells stronger because of the increased humidity in the air.  Then comes the warning: ‘If you be wise, then go not far to dine; / You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine’.  This assumes of course that the most obvious reason for the reader to eat out is to dine at his friends’ expense; the threatening rain would negate this benefit because the mercenary diner would then have to pay to hire a coach home afterwards.  Next come more traditional signs of changing air pressure as ‘Old aches throb’.  The ‘Dulman’ seen sauntering in the coffeehouse is simply an instance of the splendid practise of naming a character after their character-type: ‘Dulman’ is exactly what he sounds like. 

The second section of the poem brings the approaching rain a step closer, as the personified ‘South’ comes sweeping in ‘with dabbled wings’.  It’s just typical Swift that after this beautiful image he brings the whole thing crashing back to earth again with the much less attractive image of the ‘sable cloud’ as a drunkard ‘That swilled more liquor than it could contain’ and yes, you guessed it, ‘gives it up again’.  Fortunately, we can hurry on swiftly (pun absolutely intended) to the image of the maid who ‘whips her linen from the rope’ as the rain finally arrives.  At the moment, it is only a slight shower, ‘Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean / Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean’.  Here ‘quean’ also refers to a maid, here flicking dirt from a mop onto a passerby. Gritty realism continues as Swift describes the ‘dust’ and dirt from the street getting muddled with the rain.  Relating this in terms of a conflict, this dust ‘aided by the wind, fought still for life’ until ‘’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust’.  The hapless passerby is simply caught in the crossfire, whilst ‘dust and rain at once his coat invade’.  The practical effect of this is to ruin his only coat by leaving dirty stains. 

And now we really get to the rainstorm, ‘Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down’.  No place for understatement here, as the idea of the rain ‘Threatening with deluge this devoted town’ creates an impression of a downpour of Biblical proportions.  The humour is maximised by positioning this grandiose image just before the description of the ‘daggled females’ rushing into shops to hide from the rain (as they ‘Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy’).  The ‘Templar spruce’ mentioned next is a similarly grand way of referring to a law student who, ‘while ev’ry spout’s abroach’ with rain water, lingers indoors, only ‘seem[ig] to call a coach’.  This series of wet-weather vignettes is continued with the depiction of a ‘sempstress’ hurrying along beneath the cover of an umbrella.  Elsewhere the rain serves to dissolve social boundaries as ‘various kinds, by various fortunes led, / Commence acquaintance underneath a shed’.  Here, members of the two opposing political parties of the time, Tories and Whigs, have ‘join[ed] to save their wigs’, the obvious satire being that, when both are threatened with the destruction of their fashionable gear in the rain, they are content to ‘Forget their feuds’ and share the shelter.  The ‘chair’ in which the ‘beau’ (fashion-conscious young man) sits is a Sedan chair, quite literally boxed in on every side and carried by two chairmen.  Inside, the beau can hear the ‘frightful din’ of the rain on the leather roof of his vehicle, and ‘he trembles from within’.  Once more, Swift splices the everyday with the epic, as he likens the chair-men to the Trojans, carrying the wooden horse loaded with Greek soldiers into Troy at the end of the Trojan War. 

In the last section, Swift builds rapidly to the climax.  The ‘kennels’ alluded to are not dog houses, but open gutters running down the street and which are now overloaded with rainwater.  Like most gutters, they are also the lowest level of the street to which all the rubbish has descended: the ‘trophies’ which are carried along in the water.  With grim fascination, Swift almost admiringly notes how the ‘Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell / What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell’.  It’s gritty, unpleasant reading, designed to make the reader wince after having laughed at the scurrying gentry in the previous section.  The sense of unity that was cultivated there is here compounded, as various locations are listed to convey the course of the ‘torrent’, including Smithfield, Snow Hill ridge and Holborn Bridge.  I’m not a native Londoner, but I imagine these locations would probably mean something to those who are (not that I’m casting any aspersions upon the condition of the gutters in any of these places which, I am sure, has been vastly improved since the early 1700s).  The final three lines delineate the precise nature of the rubbish that is being swept along and ‘come tumbling down the flood’. Apologies to dog and cat lovers: this poem is not for the faint-hearted.  In a version of the poem published in 1735 a note was added stating that ‘These three last lines were intended against that licentious manner of modern poets, in making three rhymes together, which they call triplets.[…] They were the mere effect of haste, idleness and want of money; and have been wholly avoided by the best poets, since these verses were written’.  Perhaps, then, we can forgive Swift these last few lines, if it was in fact a satire against inartistic poetry rather than a frankly indulgent exploration of eighteenth-century garbage.

Distasteful imagery aside, there’s an immediacy to this poem that is simply magic.  For rather than narrating an epic tale or a mythological story, Swift takes an everyday occurrence and transforms it into something special purely through the way in which he describes it.  Pure genius!

Happy reading!

You can find a copy of this poem:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180932
(Free copy of the poem online!!)

(This is a lovely annotated edition of the poem, but I’m afraid I have no idea who did the annotations as I found the pdf through Google; hats off to them anyway, it’s a lovely edition of the poem!!  Information from this edition was also used in the composition of the above blogpost.)

You can find out more about Swift:
 
(this poem is so famous it even has its own Wikipedia page!)

(Britannica!! Like Wikipedia…only makes you sound ever so much more intellectual when you quote from it at parties and quizzes!)

Resources about Swift:

(This looks new and very exciting!!  Still seems to be a work in progress, but very much worth a look!! Go on, you know you want to…)

 

 

 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

'An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize' - Oliver Goldsmith

‘She strove the neighborhood to please
With manners wondrous winning;
And never follow'd wicked ways--
Unless when she was sinning.’

‘An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’
Oliver Goldsmith
(1748)


Oliver Goldsmith was a bit of an all-rounder: a playwright (She Stoops to Conquer, 1771), novelist (The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766), and poet, he also compiled one of the first major scientific studies of the natural world in English, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774).  This poem, however, sees him in a rather more playful mood.

Ostensibly this is an elegy, a sad, reflective poem dedicated to the memory of the eponymous Mrs. Mary Blaize (‘eponymous’ is the correct way to refer to a character named in the title; some people use ‘titular’, but this is not quite the same thing).  It begins with a proclamation of sorrow – ‘Good people all, with one accord, / Lament for Madam Blaize’.  The next two lines are a little strange but no more than confusing at this point: ‘Who never wanted a good word - / From those who spoke her praise’.  It seems like a compliment…except that it’s also a rather meaningless statement.  All it translates to is that anybody who praised Mrs. Blaize…well, they said nice things about her!  It doesn’t actually tell the reader whether anyone did praise her though.

This clever wordplay becomes still more apparent in the next stanza.  Here it is proudly asserted that ‘She freely lent to all the poor – ’; but after the dash, the final qualifying line rather diminishes the compliment since it reveals that she only lent to those of the poor ‘Who left a pledge behind’.  A pledge in this sense means some form of security that they would repay, though whether this is intended to mean simply a promise or to indicate some more practical form of security is left to the generosity of the reader’s interpretation.

My own personal favourite stanza is the next one, in which the pattern of this poem becomes still more obvious through the declaration that the deceased Mrs. Blaize ‘never follow’d wicked ways - / Unless when she was sinning’.  It is a pattern of continual assertion and contradiction, all combining to construct an elegiac tribute that actually reveals remarkably little about the deceased subject.  Even the apparent claim that she received the admiration of the King, when it is said that ‘The King himself has follow’d her’ is undone by somewhat more prosaic explanation that he only does so ‘When she has walk’d before’ him in the street.



He might not look a cheerful chap, but he's a total
genius! This painting of Goldsmith is by Sir Joshua
Reynolds and is, er, borrowed, from the mighty
Wikipedia - for which, many thanks!
The poem’s appeal as a comedic novelty is owing entirely to the matter-of-fact way in which the information is presented.  It isn’t trying to be insulting or nasty.  There may perhaps be a slight satiric edge implied by the adulation of the title, since the admiring declaration that Mrs. Blaize was 'the Glory of her Sex' receives no support from the fatuous and superficial praise offered in the poem.  The satire is more against the convention of proclaiming empty or senseless compliments upon the recently deceased and, certainly by eighteenth-century standards, it is only ever the lightest of satires.  Included in A Nonsense Anthology, edited by Carolyn Wells in 1915, this poem is easily identified as a simple nonsense work, since there seems no point to the poem.  However, it is definitely not ‘nonsense’ in the sense that something like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense (a poem also included in the same anthology).  Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’ is a simple poem, achieving humour through the blunt presentation of statements so true that nobody but a comedian would think of saying them.  As always, Goldsmith proves himself to be a consummate literary genius.


You can find this poem:

(Poetry Archive – an exciting website I’ve only recently discovered – definitely worth having an explore!)

(Project Gutenberg is an absolutely fantastic free collection of 51,368 ebooks.  If you follow this link, it will take you to an illustrated edition of Goldsmith’s ‘Elegy’, published in the nineteenth century by Frederick Warne & Co., the same publisher who brought to the world Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies)
 
You can find out more about Oliver Goldsmith:

(Wikipedia! A great place to start finding out about this clever chap!)

(Encyclopædia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, only a bit more sophisticated.  This also has links to articles about some of Goldsmith’s other works!)

Information for this blogpost was discovered in:

Glynis Ridley, Clara’s Grand Tour (London: Atlantic Books, 2004)
(This book is about the first rhinoceros to make a grand tour of Europe, way back in the eighteenth century…and yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds!  This book really drew my attention to the connection between Goldsmith and Natural History – I already knew he was a literary genius, but this revealed to me how brilliant a scientific mind he had too!  Seriously, check this book out!!)

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

'To Memory' - Elizabeth Singer Rowe


To Memory
 
   Best Gift that Heav’n’s Indulgence could bestow!
To Thee our surest Happiness we owe;
Thou all the flying Pleasures dost restore,
Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more;
For we no sooner grasp some frail Delight,
But ready for its everlasting Flight,
E’er we can call the hasty Bliss our own,
If not retain’d by Thee, it is for ever gone.
Thou to the kind successful Lover’s Heart,
A Thousand melting Raptures dost impart,
When yet more lovely than herself, and kind,
Thou bring’st his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind
The flatt’ring Image wears a livelier Grace,
A softer Mien, and more inticing Face.
   Thou from the flying Minutes dost retrieve,
The Joys CLORINDA’s Wit and Beauty give;
Those Joys which I had once possess’d in vain,
Did not the dear Remembrance still remain,
Methinks she speaks, and all my Soul inspires,
Brightens each Thought, and gives my Muse new Fires;
‘Tis she who lends my daring Fancy Wings,
Softens my Lyre, and tunes its warbling Strings.
   Thou only to the Guilty art severe,
Who the Review of their past Actions fear;
But to the Innocent and Virtuous Mind,
Art still propitious, smiling still, and kind,
To Thee we all those charming Pleasures owe,
The Pleasures which from gen’rous Actions flow,
They’re still the Noblest we possess below.  

Elizabeth Singer Rowe
(published in 1737 in Philomela: or, poems by Mrs. Elizabeth Singer, (Now Rowe,) Of Frome in Somersetshire.)

My first introduction to Elizabeth Rowe occurred only recently, whilst sharing a train carriage with Jessica Clement, a PhD student at the University of York whose thesis focuses upon Rowe’s poetry.  Her enthusiasm was extremely contagious, & I couldn’t wait to get hold of some of Rowe’s poetry to read it for myself; when I did, I wasn’t disappointed!
 
Simple, elegant, and often highly poignant, Rowe’s poetry certainly deserves more attention than has traditionally been given to it.  Musing upon the abstract concept of memory in the poem above (for once reproduced in its entirety owing to the almost impossibility of finding a reliable copy online), Rowe delicately yet powerfully points out the sheer wonderment of this attribute that so many of us are so used to taking for granted.

Beginning by praising heaven for this ‘Best gift’, Rowe then notes the ability of remembrance to preserve the ‘flying Pleasures […] / Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more’.  She then proceeds to provide examples of the usefulness and worth of memory, presenting her reader with the image of the lover who is able to use memory to bring ‘his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind’; that he furnishes her with ‘a livelier Grace, / A softer Mien, and more inticing Face’ in the process is simply an added bonus, and also a sly reference to the fallibility of remembrance and the way in which it may appear altered through the distorting lens of the rememberer’s own perspective.

Reference is then made to ‘Clorinda’, presumably a friend (or perhaps a classical pseudonym for a friend’s name) who would appear to have died.  The ‘Joys’ of her friendship, Rowe notes, would have been ‘possess’d in vain’ were it not for the fact that she can still remember them and thus receive both pleasure and instruction from her friend even after death.  It is the remembrance of this friendship that also provides Rowe with creative inspiration now, as she writes that the memory of her friend ‘lends my daring Fancy Wings’. 

Completing her survey of memory, Rowe then turns to those who might not find remembrance such a pleasurable experience.  Personifying memory with the pronoun ‘Thou’, she states that ‘Thou only to the Guilty art severe, / Who the Review of their past Actions fear’; that this is morally just is emphasised by her subsequent return to ‘the Innocent and Virtuous Mind’ to whom Memory is ‘still propitious, smiling still, and kind’.

A Note About the Text

The transcription of the poem ‘To Memory’ was taken from the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online digital copy of Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s poems printed in 1737.  I hope that its inclusion here will persuade others to uncover more about this fascinating poet, and to subscribe to what is undisputedly the best digital resource for the study of eighteenth-century literature, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Singer Rowe:

(Wikipedia! A useful means of finding information about a writer who currently doesn’t seem to have an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica online.  Wikipedia certainly has its uses…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(Yep, this one again – includes a nice little bit about Rowe’s life as well as a few more of her poems)

Saturday, 30 January 2016

'On Viewing Herself in the Glass' - Elizabeth Teft

“Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?
Or, urged by haste to finish, could not stay?
Or dressed with all her store some perfect she,
So lavish there, she’d none to spare for me?”

'On Viewing Herself in the Glass'
Elizabeth Teft
(1747)

It’s not a new thing, the experience of looking in a mirror and feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the view.  But in this wonderful mid-eighteenth-century sonnet, Elizabeth Teft succinctly constructs the perfect self-affirming response. 

It all begins with a blunt rhetorical question (that’s a question addressed to nobody, just like when you talk to your mirror in the morning): ‘Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?’  Basically, she’s trying to think of some reason why she doesn’t look as great as she’d like.  I especially enjoy the image of a kind of pre-life production line, with ‘Nature’ personified as some kind of creative artist who, having ‘dressed with all her store some perfect she’, has nothing pretty left in her workshop to give to the poet. 

There is an attempt at indifferent impartiality in the next line – ‘I oft converse with those she’s deemed to grace’ – or is she just being ever so slightly bitchy there?  Nature has, after all, only been ‘deemed to grace’ these women ‘With air and shape, fine mien, and charming face’.  The mirror, or glass, is personified here as it is able to hear these women address their own reflections with the rather affected exclamation that they are ‘strange, unpolished thing[s]’.  The poet is restrained though – she never ‘once upraid[s]’ because (here comes the slightly catty part again folks) ‘Conscious I am that transient charms will fade’.  In all fairness, though, she does allow that their ‘beauty gives delight’ and that it is ‘wond’rous pleasing to the sight’. 

Ultimately, the final couplet makes up for any peevish envy.  Since her looks are ‘defective’, she prays, please ‘Heaven, be so kind / With never-fading charms to dress my mind’.  And this is really what makes this such a perfect poem, as the poet accepts that even if she was beautiful it wouldn’t last forever, and through that acceptance learns to seek the higher and much more important goal of beautifying her mind.  In the tradition of sonnets, there is usually a change of tone after either the eighth or the twelfth line (technically known as the volta).  Here, the definite change before the final couplet becomes also a question of shifting the discussion from women’s bodies to a woman’s own individual journey to improve her mind.  Timeless, isn’t it?

You can read this poem:

(Poetry Nook – a nice, free, online source of poetry.  Here’s where to start if you want to get reading this poem real fast!  This site also features some of Teft’s other poetry, all well worth a read!)

(You can read two of Elizabeth Teft’s other poems here, though not the one the blog post is about)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an truly masterful volume! Difficult to say how much I enjoy this book… ) 

About Elizabeth Teft

I was going to put a bit of biographical info here, but sadly, as Roger Lonsdale writes, ‘Little is known of “Elizabeth Teft of Lincoln’, except that she published Orinthia’s Miscellanies in London in 1747’.  But hey, that’s what researchers are for!  Maybe one day more information will be uncovered about this talented writer.