Wednesday, 12 December 2018

'Saturday' - Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

‘How am I changed! alas! how am I grown
A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!’

‘Saturday’ (published 1747)

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)


Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley
Montagu by Johnathan Richardson,
1725 (held at Sandon Hall, Stafford).
If you’ve never heard of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu then you’ve seriously been missing out – as well as being a talented poet and writer, she also played a key role in dispelling British suspicion of inoculation against small-pox and thus ultimately contributed to the preservation of countless lives. Although her father had wanted her to marry a wealthy heir called Clotworthy Skeffington, Lady Mary instead eloped with the lawyer and MP Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712. Later, she accompanied her husband during his appointment as ambassador to Constantinople at the heart of what was then the Ottoman Empire, and it was during her time here that she first learnt of the Turkish practice of inoculation. The subject was of particular importance to Montagu, for she had herself survived a potentially fatal case of small pox in 1715.

The poem I’ll be looking at today forms one of Montagu’s Six Town Eclogues, a series of short poems in which there is one for every day of the week except Sunday. The series was written around 1715-16 but was not officially published until 1747 (three of them were pirated by the publisher Edmund Curll in 1716, but ‘Saturday’ was not one of these). The poem is written from the perspective of a society lady whose beauty has been affected by small pox, and so it begins:

The wretched Flavia on her couch reclined,
Thus breathed the anguish of a wounded mind. 
A glass reversed in her right hand she bore,
For now she shunned the face she sought before.
   ‘How am I changed! alas! how am I grown
A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!
(lines 1-6)

The shift from external narrator to the actual voice of Flavia here allows Montagu to convey the psychological impact of the physical scarring.  Her appearance irrevocable altered, Flavia is now ‘to [her]self unknown’, and the rest of the poem is narrated from her perspective as she is overwhelmed by the loss of self-worth that she equates with the loss of her beauty.  In particular, this worth is defined through the influence her good-looks had given her over men from many different walks of life.  She lists her former triumphs:

‘For me the patriot has the House [i.e. the Houses of Parliament] forsook,
And left debates to catch a passing look;
For me the soldier has soft verses writ;
For me the beau has aimed to be a wit.
For me the wit to nonsense was betrayed;
[…]
The bashful squire, touched with a wish unknown,
Has dared to speak with spirit not his own:
Fired by one wish, all did alike adore;
Now beauty’s fled, and lovers are no more.
(lines 28-32, & lines 37-40)
Remember that the poem’s opening highlighted that Flavia perceives her appearance as indistinguishable from her identity when it stated that she is now to ‘[her]self unknown’. The ‘me’ in these lines does not so much refer to Flavia herself but to her physical features. It is her beauty which the politician wants ‘to catch a passing look’ of, and it is for her beauty that ‘the soldier has soft verses writ’.  No hint is given in the poem of Flavia possessing any other qualities beyond her physical attractiveness. We are told how in the past Flavia has gazed into her dressing room mirror:  
 While hours unheeded passed in deep debate,
How curls should fall, or where a patch to place
 (lines 48-49) [just in case you don’t know, the ‘patch’ referred to here is a beauty patch, usually a small fancy shape in black that was intended to draw attention to the most attractive feature of the face]
Later in the poem Flavia throws spiteful shade upon women she deems ‘meaner beauties’ (meaning those less beautiful than she had been) claiming that ‘Tis to my ruin all your charms ye owe’, and that if ‘pitying heaven’ would return her to her former glory her now successful rivals ‘still might move unthought of and unseen’ (around line 60). But this is actually the closest the poem comes to allowing Flavia an opportunity to expose herself to ridicule.  Montague’s crucial, unspoken question here is whether Flavia has allowed herself to be defined by her appearance, or whether it is the everyday sexism of her time that has caused her to equate her personal value solely with her physical appearance. 

Hints as to the answer to this question are given in various subtle ways throughout the poem, for example when Flavia begs her servants to remove the portrait of herself before her illness:

Far from my sight that killing picture bear,
The face disfigure, or the canvas tear!
That picture, which with pride I used to show,
The lost resemblance but upbraids me now.
(lines 43-46)

Perceiving herself to be mocked by the portrait of her former self, the choice of the term ‘upbraid[ing]’ here indicates Flavia’s assumption of blame for the situation, as if she herself is somehow at fault.  This is of course totally untrue, and having suffered an illness like small pox she is genuinely lucky to still be alive; but the fact that she even unconsciously absorbs blame or fault for what has happened to her contains within it the implication that it is somehow a duty or responsibility for her to look beautiful.  Her success or failure as an individual, her whole worth as a person, is defined by her appearance.  As the poem draws to its conclusion, the problem that Flavia now feels she faces is the inability to reclaim a life for herself in a society that prioritises surface appearance over substance. It is not just her sense of identity which she has lost, but her capacity to influence others and be respected as an individual.  Flavia exclaims:
But oh, how vain, how wretched is the boast
Of beauty faded, and of empire lost!
What now is left but weeping to deplore
My beauty fled, and empire now no more?
(lines 61-64)
The syntactic repetition of the clause structure – ‘Of beauty faded […] of empire lost’ – solidifies the link between the two terms still further.  As a woman, Flavia’s power has been derived from her appearance. It’s especially worth keeping in mind here that this pessimistic self-expulsion from society is not, of course, the approach Montagu took in her own life – the very existence of this poem (written after Montagu’s own experience of small pox) obviously belies the sense of uselessness that Flavia has fallen prey to here. All that Flavia believes is left for her is to ‘Forsake mankind, and bid the world adieu’ since she believes she is now fit only for the mockery of those men who previously worshipped her beauty.  Although she refers briefly to some visits from male admirers come to console her, she is painfully conscious of what their eventual attitude towards her will be when their predictions of her swift recovery and resumption of beauty are not fulfilled: ‘Men mock the idol of their former vow’, she notes darkly. What Montagu draws attention to here is actually that Flavia is only worth less because of her illness if the society in which she lives considers her to be so. There is also an implicit critique of a society in which women like Flavia are made to feel that physical beauty is the only way in which they can contribute. That Montagu was able to use her own experience to fuel her passion for promoting better standards of health-care owed much to the privileged position she occupied, and to her own determination to use that position to best effect.  As her most recent biographer Isobel Grundy notes, ‘Lady Mary had more of a life outside her family than most women of her class’ (p. 261).

You can find this poem:

(Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive – a nice free copy with added notes and information)
(Poetry Foundation – a nice free copy)
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘Saturday’, from Six Town Eclogues, in Roger Lonsdale (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pages 143-6(A fantastic collection of poetry, highly recommended!!)

You can find out more about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:

 
(Wikipedia – often a useful first stop for general information)

(Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive – includes links to many of Montagu’s poems, and a short biographical note; also details editions of her poems and writings in case you want to delve further)

Resources used in writing this blogpost:


Paula Backscheider, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

'An Essay on Woman' - Mary Leapor

‘...with ten thousand follies to her charge
Unhappy woman’s but a slave at large.’

Mary Leapor (1722-1746)

‘An Essay on Woman’ (written before 1746)


Although her life was cut tragically short by an attack of measles at the age of 24, Mary Leapor left behind a splendid array of excellent poetry. One of her most brilliant works is ‘An Essay on Woman’, a fiery feminist attack on the narrow role allotted to women in eighteenth-century British society. It begins with delicious sarcasm by playing directly into the stereotypes:

   Woman, a pleasing but a short-lived flower,
Too soft for business and too weak for power:
A wife in bondage, or neglected maid;
Despised, if ugly; if she’s fair, betrayed.
‘Tis wealth alone inspires every grace,
And calls the raptures to her plenteous face.

The situation of women is, she suggests, impossible: they are ‘too soft’ and ‘too weak’ for any useful work, but their sole asset of beauty is only ever ‘short-lived’. Good-looks are also a curse leading to the ‘bondage’ of marriage or the betrayal of a seducer, but without them a woman will only be ‘despised’. The only way a woman can gain social advantage is through marriage, and thus the archetypal woman herself is presented as only interested in securing ‘wealth’ in a future partner, since it is this ‘alone’ which ‘calls the raptures to her plenteous face’. A catalogue of attractive feminine attributes follows, raising this model woman to the level of a ‘sparkling Venus’: until Leapor warns, marriage ‘Dissolves her triumphs, sweeps her charms away, / And turns the goddess to her native clay’ (line 10 & lines 17-18).  The total potential of her life fulfilled, there is nothing left for woman to do but to decline.

Examples of classical women are then used to further demonstrate the hopeless limitations of women’s position in society, for example the clever Pamphilia:

 Pamphilia’s wit who does not strive to shun,
Like death’s infection or a dog-day’s sun?
The damsels view her with malignant eyes,
The men are vexed to find a nymph so wise:
And wisdom only serves to make her know
The keen sensation of superior woe.

Whilst the ‘men’ here are described through a term that solidly embraces their gendered humanity, the woman is denoted as a ‘nymph’, an idealised and ethereal being derived from classical mythology (typically female and very attractive).  If Leapor’s vexed ‘men’, like the Flavia’s male admirers in Montagu’s ‘Saturday’, are only interested in a woman being beautiful then for them intelligence in a woman would only be an unnecessary and thus irksome addition.  The point of the poem is not that Leapor herself believes woman to be ‘a pleasing but a short-lived flower’; rather it is an expression of profound frustration that this is the function to which they are limited. It’s a frustration with which Leapor would have been only too familiar, as her own mother had felt obliged to try to curb her poetic talent as a child because of fears this kind of clever behaviour would only make her a social outcast (in Leapor’s case not just because of her gender but also because of her working-class background).

The final section of Leapor’s Essay on Woman represents a weary capitulation as she feels herself to be ultimately powerless in combat against such firm and deeply held social oppression of women.  She writes:

[…] whether sunk in avarice or pride,
A wanton virgin or a starving bride;
Or wond’ring crowds attend her charming tongue,
Or, deemed an idiot, ever speaks the wrong;
Though nature armed us for the growing ill
With fraudful cunning and a headstrong will;
Yet, with ten thousand follies to her charge,
Unhappy woman’s but a slave at large. (lines 53-60)

The symmetrical balance of ‘wanton virgin’ with ‘starving bride’ is a powerful expression of these terms as ultimate antithetical signifiers.  A woman is either one or the other, married or unmarried, her whole usefulness and function defined by her marital status.  Addressing the stereotypical ‘cunning’ and wilfulness of women Leapor suggests that this was nature’s way of ‘arm[ing] us’ against social oppression.  Yet in spite of such ‘follies’, Leapor sadly admits, ‘Unhappy woman’s but slave at large’.  Always defined by their relationships with men, women are here allowed only a delusion of freedom.

Obliged to work as a kitchen maid during her teenage years, Leapor was keenly aware of the restrictions she faced because of both her gender and her class. Fortunately for us, she did not let this stop her from writing poetry, and when she later returned home to keep house for her widowed father the efforts of her new friend Bridget Fremantle meant that the publication of her poetry became a real possibility. The production of  two-volume anthology was funded via subscription publishing, a system through which interested patrons could basically preorder one or more copies of a work before it ever went to the press, with the money then being used to fund the printing costs.  Sadly Leapor herself died of measles before their plans could come to fruition but, in accordance with Leapor’s dying request, her poems were published after her death ‘for the benefit of her father’.  The posthumous subscription garnered almost 600 signatories.    

 

You can find this poem:


You can find scans of Leapor’s original volumes of poetry on Archive.org here:
https://archive.org/details/poemsuponseveral01leapiala (Volume 1)

Modern typed versions of some of Leapor’s poetry are available on this fab free resource, Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive. A short biographical note is also included, along with some information about additional reference works if you want to find out more:

Sources used in this blog post:

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
(This fantastic resource should be on the shelf of every eighteenth-century poetry enthusiast!)

Saturday, 20 May 2017

'Hamlet's Soliloquy: Imitated’ - Richard Jago

To print, or not to print — that is the question.
Whether 'tis better in a trunk to bury
The quirks and crotchets of outrageous Fancy,
Or send a well-wrote copy to the press,
And by disclosing, end them.

‘Hamlet's Soliloquy: Imitated’
Richard Jago
(1715-1781)

Whether or not you're a fan of Shakespeare (or a 'Bardolater' as the 20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw termed the most zealous Shakespeare enthusiasts), you've probably heard something of the famous soliloquy from his play Hamlet.  Even if you don't know off the top of your head where it's from or what it's about, the opening lines will probably strike a chord: 

'To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing, end them.'
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1…and yes, I’m afraid I did basically type it from memory!)

And having read that, I'm sure you'll see at once what Jago is doing with his 'Imitation'.  Although there might be a serious side to his reworking, it's difficult to see Jago's soliloquy as anything other than a huge, hilarious joke.

Richard Jago 1715-1781
Just to start by clarifying the jargon here, a 'soliloquy' is a speech in a play delivered by one character talking to themselves, rather like someone thinking out loud.  In the original Shakespeare play, the famous speech is said by Hamlet as he debates whether or not he should attempt to bring his uncle to justice for the murder of his father and usurpation of his and his father's crown (through marriage to Hamlet's mother) - the 'sea of troubles' he considers 'tak[ing] arms against'.  Jago replaces this with an author’s dilemma – ‘To print, or not to print’ (line 1).  ‘To print’, Jago wittily argues, is ‘to doubt / No more’ (lines 5-6), since once a manuscript is committed to print it cannot be changed and the ‘head-ach, and […] thousand natural shocks / Of scribbling frenzy’ are over (lines 7-8): as my very dear brother once rather wittily quipped, ‘novels are never finished, they just get sent to the publisher’.

The next section – still mimicking the original structure of Shakespeare’s immortal words – continues with the pros and, more importantly, the cons of publishing.  The aspiring writer’s work might ‘beam / From the same shelf with [Alexander] Pope, in calf [leather] well bound’ (lines 9-10), one of the finest satirical poets of the eighteenth-century and an enviable bookshelf companion for any author.  Or, more realistically the aspiring work may ‘sleep, perchance, with Quarles – Ay, there’s the rub’ (line 11).  The ‘sleep’ of which Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks is the sleep of death, but here it is the probable fate of the millions of forgotten authors who ‘sleep’ in disregarded silence.  Francis Quarles (1592-1644) was an English religious poet whose popularity does not seem to have extended very far beyond his own lifetime.  On one of the rare occasions when his name is mentioned in the latter half of the eighteenth century it is in a letter to the popular journal The Gentleman’s Magazine, in which the correspondent bemoans the fact that ‘[p]oor sleeping Quarles is at length disturbed’ by critics such as William Jackson who discussed the poet’s work favorably in his Thirty Letters on various subjects.  The threat of infamy here is very real, and one to strike fear into the heart of every aspiring author.

Detailing the numerous disadvantages of being a published author Jago also includes ‘th’impatient thirst of fame’ (line 16), i.e. the longing for continued popularity after even the smallest taste of it; and ‘[t]he tedious importunity of friends’ (line 18), doubtless hectoring for details of the next great work.  The ‘undiscover’d country’ of Shakespeare’s soliloquy is the unseen land of death, but here Jago redirects the term to refer to the mystic ‘Parnassus’ hill’ (line 22), in Greek mythology the home of the nine Muses who serve as guardians and inspirations of the arts.  Once again, however, it is the fear of criticism that is the strongest deterrent, as Jago writes of how preferable it is to ‘bear to live unknown, / Than run the hazard to be known, and damn’d’ (lines 25-6).  It is this fear which makes ‘the healthful face of many a poem’ sicken within the pages of ‘a pale manuscript’ (lines 28 & 29) and that deters many writers from sending their work to publishers such as the famous Robert Dodsley (1704-1764) that Jago here mentions by name.  We can only be thankful that this fear didn’t deter Jago himself!

Happy Reading!!

You can find this poem:

(eighteenth century poetry archive – a fantastic new resource of freely available poetry by all our favourite eighteenth-century poets, and quite a few less well-known ones too! 

You can find out more about Richard Jago:

(Wikipedia!! Always a useful starting point…)

(If you’re lucky enough to have access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography then this gives a more sophisticated account of Jago’s life.)

Sources:
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bardolater

Sharp, ‘Letter’ in The Gentleman’s Magazine: and historical chronicle, 56.6 (Dec 1786), p. 1106.

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…)