Thursday, 12 November 2015

'An Old Cat's Dying Soliloquy' - Anna Seward

‘O'er marum borders and valerian bed
Thy Selima shall bend her moping head,
Sigh that no more she climbs, with grateful glee,
Thy downy sofa and thy cradling knee;
Nay, e'en at founts of cream shall sullen swear,
Since thou, her more loved master, art not there.’

(lines 39-44)

An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy
Anna Seward

If you like cats, and if you have a favourite feline, you will probably want to give it a hug after reading this poem.  Not that it is as morbid as the title implies; in fact, it is really quite sentimental.  In its simplest terms, this is a poem about the affection between a cat and its owner. 

The poem is narrated from the perspective of the cat, who has lived for years in the home of her owner, Acasto.  The narration then gets distracted a little as the cat spends time describing herself, demonstrating typically feline self-appreciation through her claim to being ‘The gentlest, fondest of the tabby race’, with ‘The snowy whisker and the sinuous tail’ (lines 2 & 8).  Yet this immodesty is tempered by the cat’s subsequent acknowledgement of her own limitations – ‘pain has stiffened these once supple limbs’ (line 10).  The cat feels old, and that she has almost run out of her lives: ‘Fate of eight lives the forfeit gasp obtains, / And e'en the ninth creeps languid through my veins’ (lines 11-12).  Yet still the cat feels her future has ‘Much sure of good […] in store’ (line 13), when she finishes the last of her lives and floats off to cat-heaven. 

In the cat’s imagination, heaven is a place ‘where the fish obligingly lie on the shore and birds have no wings’, as Katherine Rogers so succinctly puts it (p. 89).  If you were just beginning to feel a bit tearful over the ailing cat, this wonderful piece of humor should give you a much-needed lift; personally, the only cats I have ever known have been quite attached to the occupation of hunting, and would probably be quite sad to have the whole thing made so easy and effortless.  Fortunately, this cat at least seems rather keen on the idea; yet still she wants ‘Some days, some few short days, to linger here’ (line 30).  And this is where the really sweet part comes, because the reason for wanting to linger is so that, through the ‘softest purrs’ (line 32) she can try to convey to her owner the simple truth that heaven would not be perfect without him.  Preferring the scraps of food from her masters’s table to the beautiful ‘golden fish and wingless bird’ of heaven (line 38), she wants somehow to let him know that, even in heaven, ‘Thy Selima shall bend her moping head, / […] / Since thou, her more loved master, are not there’ (lines 40 & 45).

If you have a cat, you will probably want to give it a hug now. 

Happy reading!

You can find this poem:-
(free online copy of the poem!! Purrfect to get reading right away!!)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 319-20.
(yes, I’m going on about this one again…but it really is a very fascinating book!!  Perhaps this is a good time to mention that I’m really not on commission…)

You can find out more about Anna Seward here:-
(this is a shockingly short entry, but still conveys something of her life)

The following book was used in this blogpost:-

Katherine M. Rogers, The Cat and the Human Imagination: Feline Images from Bast to Garfield (University of Michigan Press, 2001)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

'An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich' - Mary Barber

‘His income’s regularly spent,
He scarcely saves to pay his rent.
No man alive would do more good,
Or give more freely, if he could.
He grieves, whene’er the wretched sue,
But what can poor Castalio do?’

‘An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich’
Mary Barber

Looks serious, doesn’t it?  ‘He scarcely saves to pay his rent’ (line 36).  Poor Castalio, you might think.  But don’t forget the title; the title gives a huge clue about how this poem is actually meant to be read.

Mary Barber began writing poetry as a way of educating her four children ‘by making precepts easier to memorize’ (Lonsdale, p. 118), and the integral purpose of this verse seems to be to explain how a wealthy man might believe he has no spare income to devote to charity.  The ironical approach of the poem lends a humorous touch that makes it enormously memorable, and indeed it is a beautiful example of eighteenth-century satirical social comment.

Throughout the poem, the whole situation is presented from the perspective of our wealthy hero, Castalio (I’m using the term hero very loosely here…).  He is praying, imploring heaven to make it possible for him to ‘have the power to bless, / And raise up merit in distress?’ (lines 3-4).  In other words, he wants to be able to spread his bounty amongst the deserving poor, the ones whose ‘merit’ deserves raising above the level of ‘distress[ing]’ poverty.  So far so good.  He seems a fair, moral sort of chap, eh?

The next line is key to the educational value of the poem – ‘How do our hearts deceive us here!’ (line 5). Immediately, the plural pronoun ‘our’ includes everyone involved in this poem within its moral compass: Castalio, the writer of the poem, and most importantly the reader. 

‘How do our hearts deceive us here!
He gets ten thousand pounds a year.’ (lines 5-6)

For anyone unacquainted with the glittering merits of ten thousand pounds a year in the eighteenth century, suffice to say that it was a fantastic heap of cash!  If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s novels, then you might remember that this is the level of income enjoyed by her extremely eligible hero Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  Our Castalio is therefore being placed firmly within the ranks of the landed gentry.  To imagine that he has no spare income with which to fulfil his wish of alleviating the sufferings of the poor is, frankly, ludicrous.  How can he so deceive himself? the poem asks.

The answer is simple of course: ‘one must live as others do’ (line 15).  Castalio is a hypocrite; yet again there is a very strong sense here that he is not alone.  He is spending his income in a way that is entirely consistent with the way in which his contemporaries are spending theirs.  There are certain luxuries that it is simply expected for a member of the gentry to have, such as ‘A coach-and-six to take the air, / Besides a chariot and chair’ (lines 31-2).  (The ‘chair’ most probably referring to a sedan chair; if you’ve never seen one, it’s basically a small portable chair, boxed in on all sides and designed to be carried by two servants).  Once again, the point is underlined: these are ‘Calls of necessity, not pride’ (line 34): in other words, these are not extravagant luxuries, but things that every respectable gentleman is supposed to have. 

But the final couplet dispels any shred of sympathy that we might still have had for 'poor' Castalio:
‘Would Heaven but send ten thousand more,
He’d give – just as he did before.’ (lines 41-2)

That is, not at all.  What Castalio is doing is making excuses for himself; what Mary Barber has done in her poem is to take us inside Castalio’s mind, to show us how he has constructed those excuses.  The reader is ultimately allowed to laugh with Barber at Castalio’s absurd self-delusion…to laugh but then afterwards to reflect.  For had she not been writing about how ‘our hearts deceive us here’?

This is such an intriguing poem, one that makes genuine excuses for morally questionable behaviour, but which also peels aside those excuses to examine the complacent hypocrisy that lies behind.  This is a poem which does not so much satirise an individual, but rather human weakness itself.

Happy reading!!!

You can find this poem:
(a handy free version of the poem!  Useful for those who can’t wait to get reading…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) pp. 121-2
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an excellent volume!!  Beautifully edited, with brief bios of all the writers included!) 

I've uploaded a reading of this poem on youtube.  It's not perfect (technical limitations!) but hopefully good fun!

You can find out more about Mary Barber:

(Wikipedia!! On this occasion the only useful online resource I could actually find.  If any literary academics are reading this, please feel free to contribute more resources if you know of any!
Lonsdale’s book is also, as mentioned above, an exceedingly valuable resource in this regard.)

Information for compiling this blogpost was taken from:

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

‘Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was.  I cherished hope, it is true; but it vanished, when I beheld my person reflected in water, or my shadow in the moonshine, even as that frail image and that inconstant shade.’
(Chapter XV)

Mary Shelley
(1818, reprinted and amended in 1831)

Ok, so you’re probably wondering why I didn’t save this for Halloween.  I didn’t because, despite popular myth, this actually isn’t a horror story.  Over a century of cinematic dramatizations and ‘reimaginings’ have created an image of this tale as a straightforward terrifying-monster-chases-helpless-populace kind of plot; a bit like an eighteenth-century Jurassic Park.  I’m not much of a horror/thriller fan myself, so I must confess that it was quite a long time before I finally decided to read Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein.  When I did, I was astonished to discover that the ‘monster’ is actually quite an appealing character.  

I know I said this book isn't about a rampaging
monster, but isn't he cute?  Lego Frankenstein,
with many thanks to
who don't realise they have generously lent this image.
To me, he is portrayed as something of an ‘ugly duckling’ figure, always searching for a place to belong yet unable ever to overcome the sense of revulsion that his own physical being creates in others.  There’s certainly the midnight laboratory scene of popular and pulp fantasy, but even here it is a misguided rather than an evil Dr. Frankenstein who creates the ‘creature’, and who is promptly so horrified by his actions that he goes to bed.  Yes, he really does go to bed, and then becomes terrified when he wakes to see his creation peeping at him through the bed curtains.  What did he expect his little ‘monster’ to do? 

It is after this creation scene, though, that things become really interesting. In a cosy fireside reunion sometime later, the ‘creature’ tells Frankenstein what he has been up to since leaving the workshop.  This includes voyeuristically watching the daily life of a small family, during the course of which he performs small, silent acts of kindness for them such as cutting firewood.  He longs for inclusion within the affectionate arms of this family, but when he attempts to place himself under their protection he is repulsed, not because he is not a nice person (indeed, he is at this point quite an affectionate and philosophical individual, who has spent his leisure time reading classics such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives).  Rather, he is rejected because they just find him hideous to look at.  There is an poignant scene involving a blind father, and a couple of young, sight-possessing, fainting girls which Shelley uses to explore judgements based upon personal appearance…but you probably get the idea.

Suffice to say, this is a book that deals with far more than a simple monster-rampage.  The question of whether the ‘monster’ even is a genuine ‘monster’ is a good starting point for discussion.  Shelley uses her novel to explore a meeting point between theology and science, and to confront issues of the moral responsibility attached to the creation of artificial life that remain relevant to this day.  The added dimension of the creature’s apparent ‘ugliness’ also seems designed to provoke thought and discussion upon perceptions of so-called deformity, a useful exercise in itself.

This is only a small book, but it is an immensely powerful one.  Philosophical rather than horrific, thought-provoking rather than nightmare-inducing, this is a book that all readers should investigate at some point.  So why not this week, hey?

You can find this text:

(If you’re on a tight budget, this Wordsworth classics edition is a great choice: nice presentation of text, only £1.99 at the moment!  Also, as this is a text that habitually recurs on university and A-Level courses, it’s always worth checking second hand dealers for nice affordable copies of Penguin or Oxford World’s Classics editions!)

(Penguin classics edition of the text.  I’ve linked to Waterstones rather than Amazon because I believe in supporting actual bookshops! I have no idea what the cover image has to do with the story, but that aside this looks a very interesting edition! As always, try to buy a copy of the text that has explanatory notes, as these can be enormously useful when reading novels that were written in a different century)

You can find out more about Mary Shelley:


(Encylopædia Britannica: the more sophisticated Wikipedia.  I would say, though, that this article seems ludicrously short for an account of the life of a woman who is widely regarded as the founder of the modern sci-fi genre.  Just saying.)


Sunday, 4 October 2015

'To Autumn' - John Keats

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;’
(lines 1-4)
‘To Autumn’
John Keats
(written 1819)
It’s a poem often quoted around this time of year, and it’s not hard to see why.  Right from its first few lines, Keats’ glorious ode ‘To Autumn’ epitomises everything that is so wonderful about the season, not just the misty days and glowing fruit but also the sense of warm friendship inherent in the cultivation and distribution of harvest bounty. 
The poem is divided into three stanzas (posh term for ‘verses’), and, to me, this has always seemed to reflect the three distinct phases through which a British autumn appears to pass.  First there is the abundance of life, the almost celebratory culmination of the year’s growth, exemplified here through the sun ‘budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease’ (lines 8-10). 
Just because I thought this needed some autumn leaves...
Photo taken at Ness Gardens, 21/9/2013, © C.J. Readioff
In the second stanza, it is the drowsy rest after activity that is depicted and celebrated.  When I first read this poem (many years ago now!), this section actually rather confused me, but the clue is in the opening rhetorical question: ‘Who hath not seen thee oft amidst thy store?’ (line 12).  The ‘thee’ here addresses autumn as if it were an individual capable of joining in a conversation; yet this also slides neatly into the next ‘thee’ which refers to a farm worker ‘sitting careless on a granary floor’ (line 14), exhausted after bringing in the harvest.  Essentially, what Keats is suggesting is that the spirit of autumn is embodied and personified by characters such as the tired harvester lying ‘on a half-reaped furrow, sound asleep’ (line 16).
The final stanza shifts the tone still further.  This is the end of autumn now, and there is a definite sense that winter is just around the corner.  The images created now are bleaker, as ‘full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn’, and the ‘gathering swallows twitter in the skies’, ready for their seasonal migration to sunnier climbs (lines 30 & 33).  Indeed, it is perhaps this sense of departure more than anything else that contributes towards the commonly held view that this poem is, at least to some extent a metaphor for the progression of life.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry claims that ‘the question of transience is hardly raised’, yet for me it is actually the transience of life and the unstoppable continuum of the seasons which Keats celebrates here.  The sense of passing time is subtle, but it is there.  The bees ‘think warm days will never cease’; it is the poignantly reflective ‘think’ that is important here.  This transience is not necessarily a bad thing however, as he writes: ‘Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-’ (lines 23-4).
To me, this is one of the most beautiful and perfect poems in the English language.  Autumn has always been my favorite season – a time of new beginnings (academically speaking), and of plotting new projects for the winter, a time of cosying into warm woolly jumpers and of crunching through heaps of brown-gold leaves.  The beauty of Keats’ poem is that it remains understated, and thus simply yet powerfully creates a succession of images that effectively   encapsulate the natural environment of the season, and thus everything that really makes autumn. 
You can find this poem: -
(a free online version of the text at Poetry Foundation!)
(an Oxford World’s Classics anthology of some of Keats’ best loved poetry; if, like me, you don’t want to stop at Autumn, this is the book for you!)
N.B. ‘To Autumn’ is a poem of such profound fame that it is frequently reproduced in popular poetry anthologies.  If you have any collections of ‘nation’s best-loved poems’ lurking on your bookshelves, have a root around: you’ll probably find this one tucked away somewhere!
You can find out more about Keats:
(a fascinating biography of Keats’ sadly short life; Encyclopaedia Britannica looks a lot like Wikipedia in layout, but is more accurate, and also sounds more intellectual in dinner conversation!)
(the website of the house in Rome where Keats died in 1821, which is now a museum; if you are lucky enough to be going to Rome anytime soon, this looks as if it would be very much worth having a look at)
(the website of the Keats-Shelley association)

Saturday, 15 August 2015

'To a Young Lady, With Some Lampreys' - John Gay

‘Should I tonight eat Sago cream,
‘’Twould make me blush to tell my dream;
‘If I eat Lobster, ‘tis so warming,
‘That ev’ry man I see looks charming;
‘Wherefore had not the filthy fellow
‘Laid Rochester upon your pillow?
‘I vow and swear, I think the present
‘Had been as modest and as decent.’

‘To a Young Lady, With Some Lampreys’
John Gay
Published 1720

It’s been two weeks now since I last posted, and so I felt that something light-hearted was needed to herald my return to the cypersphere. This poem begins with a conventional romantic situation – the writer is assuming the persona of the hopeful lover, trying to find a present to give to his lady love.  This is the eighteenth century of course, so figures from classical mythology are inevitably mentioned: the ‘Atalanta’ referred to appears in Greek legend as a virgin huntress who was given a boar’s head by her ‘Hero’, Meleager.

The poetic voice of this poem (by which I mean the persona through which John Gay’s monologue is constructed), then continues to evaluate the appropriateness of various tokens of affection or love-gifts.  The rhetorical question ‘Why then send Lampreys?’ thus identifies his present and the reaction of incredulity he expects it to provoke.  A Lamprey is a type of eel-like fish, at the time widely assumed to be an aphrodisiac.  Accordingly, the following speech attributed to the ‘maiden Aunt’ (an indispensable accessory for every beautiful young eighteenth century heroine) includes references to other traditionally aphrodisiac foodstuffs, such as Sago cream and Lobster.  Best of all (from a literary perspective) is the assertion that the poet-lover is a ‘filthy fellow’ who might just as well have ‘Laid Rochester upon your pillow’.  If you have never read the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, then I can assure you it is not for the faint-hearted!  Indeed, its explicit nature has ensured its continuing popularity…  Hence the maiden Aunt expresses her indignation by suggesting that the present of Lampreys is as ‘modest and decent’ as a present of Rochester’s collected poems; that is, not very.

Of course, one might question the ‘maiden’ Aunt’s intimate knowledge of aphrodisiacs and their effects – there is likewise something amusing in her staunch belief that the ‘danger of undoing’ lies in prawns and shrimps, as if romantic sentiment was entirely a matter of digestion.  Classical allusion again comes to the fore here as ‘Dian’s maids’ alludes to any chaste virgin (Diana was the Roman goddess of wild animals and hunting, and usually associated with the moon and chastity).  In other words, if virtuous young women all started eating Lampreys, the maiden aunt has visions of complete sexual anarchy.  The final punchline comes from the poet, who admits that the Aunt would be right to think that he himself has no need of such aphrodisiac methods.  For him, the girl herself is quite sufficient to engage his attention and admiration; the real joke is that he has to resort to an aphrodisiac present to get her interested.

You can find this poem:
(Free copy!!!! Useful for on-the-go reading…) this volume does not appear to include today’s poem, it is a useful starting point if you want to read more of Gay’s poetry; also available on second-hand sites, for those on a tight budget!)
About John Gay:
John Gay (1685-1732) was a poet and playwright, and also a member of the Scriblerian group of writers (which included Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Dr. Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, and Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford).  His most famous work was a play entitled The Beggar’s Opera, a work so popular it is still sometimes performed today.  He is buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Geoffrey Chaucer.
Information for this blogpost was derived from these sources:
(Encyclopædia Brittanica! A kind of more scholarly, and more accurate, Wikipedia)

Friday, 31 July 2015

‘At Shotwig I chose to be married my dear
(A small country church, and to Saughall quite near);
For myself I had flattered in that rural scene
No other spectators around me would reign,
Excepting fair Flora, and the feathered train.
But trust me, when we to the village drew near,
The nymphs and the swains all in ranks did appear,
To see us fine folks; for sure, fine we must be,
When powdered, and dressed, à la mode de Paris!’

from Letter to a Sister, Giving an Account of the Author’s Wedding-Day
Priscilla Pointon
Written c. 1788; published 1794

It might seem affected or overblown to construct a ‘letter’ as a poem, but in fact there is a long and rather eminent tradition of letter-poems in the eighteenth century (a format that is technically known as ‘epistolary verse’).  Bill Overton has noted that ‘The verse epistle was a key form in eighteenth-century Britain’, but also marks the distinction between literary verses that were written as letters, and letters that happened to be written in verse.  For me, Pointon’s poem would seem to fall into the latter category.   In an earlier blogpost we looked at Alexander Pope’s Letter to Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, a good example of an epistolary verse that was always intended for publication.  The gap of six years between the composition of Pointon’s poem and its ultimate publication would seem to imply a rather less formal motivation behind this poem’s composition.  Pointon’s husband sadly died by 1794, and Roger Lonsdale has suggested that Pointon’s ‘desolate situation’ following this may have prompted the publication of the new anthology of her poems in which this epistolary verse appeared.

In many ways, it is simply a narrative account of a rather delightful wedding day, involving lots of driving around through the countryside and eating.  Such a fun way to spend a day!  Like much eighteenth-century poetry, there is also ample use of classical characters, such as the reference to ‘Flora’ which (before margarine was invented) referred to the Roman goddess of flowers and spring.  When Pointon writes that she was getting married in the country in the expectation that ‘No other spectators around me would reign, / Excepting fair Flora and the feathered train’ what she is really saying is that she thought the only company would be the flowers and the birds.  Rather a nice way of putting it, eh? 
View of Parkgate today: the wall you can see at the bottom of
the picture would have originally been the quayside.  You can
also see Wales in the distance, visible as a blue line of hills.

For me, this poem is even more enjoyable because I am actually familiar with many of the locations which it refers to.  The historical city of Chester is hopefully already known to many.  It’s a glorious old place that, once upon a time, was an important Roman port; walking around the Roman walls that still encircle the city was a much enjoyed activity in my childhood, as was playing around the equally splendid ruins of a Roman amphitheatre.  I don’t want to start sounding like a travelogue here, but seriously it is definitely a place worth visiting!  Parkgate – one of the places to which the wedding party drive in the poem – is also of significant eighteenth-century interest: Lady Emma Hamilton, the mistress of the sea commander Lord Nelson, was born in nearby Ness and used to often visit Parkgate for the waters.  There is still a seawall at Parkgate today, and a lovely view across to Wales, but the River Dee has long since silted into a lush green marshland.  Now it is a major wildlife site, with an award-winning ice-cream shop across the road (highly recommended!).  It’s absolutely mindblowing to think how much, yet also how little, the place will have changed from when Pointon travelled there on her wedding-day, about 230 years ago.  

Happy reading!  As always, feel free to ask questions and/or leave comments!

You can find this poem:
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 excellent volume!  Last time I mentioned this book I said it looked like an interesting read: see, I was right!  The non-italicised ‘from’ reveals that this is an extract from a longer poem)
Trying to find sources of Priscilla Pointon’s poetry has actually been surprisingly difficult, so I have attached a reading of this poem from Lonsdale’s book:

(a link to a googlebooks preview from which some more of Pointon’s poetry can be accessed!)

About Priscilla Pointon:
Finding information about Pointon has proved rather more challenging than anticipated!  Pointon would seem to have been born in about 1740, and died in 1801.  From a fascinating seminar talk given by Kathleen Keown at Oxford earlier in the year, I learnt that Pointon was a woman who basically made her living from her poetry.  Having lost her eyesight at the age of 12, her poetry was composed inside her head and then written down by an assistant.  As such, Pointon became very good at extempore poetry, that is poetry made up on the spur of the moment (an enormously popular genre in the eighteenth-century).  Keown’s talk gave a fascinating insight into the life of a professional woman, whose disability did not prevent her from travelling widely around the country in search of subscribers willing to commit funds for the publication of her poetry.  Kathleen Keown is on Twitter @kathleenkeown and regularly tweets about matters relating to 18th century women’s poetry.

Information for this blogpost was derived from the following books:
Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Bill Overton, The Eighteenth-Century British Verse Epistle (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)
(A useful source of more information about epistolary verse!!)

Saturday, 25 July 2015

'The True-Born Englishman. A Satire' - Daniel Defoe

‘A horrid Medly of Thieves and Drones,
Who ransack’d Kingdoms, and dispeopl’d Towns.
The Pict and Painted Britain, Treach’rous Scot,
By Hunger, Theft, and Rapine, hither brought.
Norwegian Pirates, Buccaneering Danes,
Whose red-hair’d Offspring ev’ry where remains.
Who join’d with Norman-French, compound the Breed
From whence your True-Born Englishmen proceed.’

‘The True-Born Englishman.  A Satire’
Daniel Defoe

At first glance, it is difficult to know what to make of this poem.  In its earliest stages the poem positively fumes acid from the earnest bigotry with which Defoe constructs stereotypes for just about every kind of nationality that existed at the time.  Readers be reassured, however: this text was in fact intended as a critique of the racist elements of English society who thought the ‘True-Born Englishman’ was a being altogether superior to the rest of humanity.  He does this by first listing all the faults that such racist detractors might identify with these supposedly inferior nationalities, and then by pointing out that the ‘True-Born Englishman’ of the title is in fact descended from all these various nations through Britain’s mottled history of invasions, raids, violence, and intermarriage (or similar).  Thus he asserts the fundamental absurdity of claiming that any Englishman is ‘True-Born’, as they are all basically descended from what the racists would term ‘foreigners’.  To avoid the risk of misinterpretation, Defoe provides the helpful pointer in his Preface that he is ‘one that would be glad to see Englishmen behave themselves better to Strangers’ (with 'strangers' in this context meaning foreigners). 

Daniel Defoe, engraving by M. Van der Gucht,
after a portrait by J. Taverner, first half of the
18th century.  This copy was, er, 'borrowed' from
the Encyclopædia Britannica.  The earliest image
of Defoe was recently discovered by Joseph Hone,
and is an illustration on a pack of playing cards
(in which Defoe is depicted being pilloried as
punishment for penning some political pamphlets).
Indeed, the importance of this Preface as a means of interpreting the poem would seem to be very great. At the Defoe Society’s biennial conference this week, Andreas Mueller gave a very interesting talk on later reprints of the text, in particular American reprints; somewhat amusingly, an abridged version was published in Philadelphia around the time of the British occupation of that same city during the American Revolutionary War.  The removal of the Preface was one of various alterations which, Muller showed, had reconstructed the text as a depiction of the ‘True-Born Englishman’ as a somewhat vain and inglorious individual.  Defoe would probably have been horrified.

For the aim of his original poem would seem to have been to promote racial integration rather than to just annoy everyone.  Defoe claims in his poem’s Preface that ‘The End of Satire is Reformation’, referring here to the reform of absurd or offensive ideologies; in particular, he is keen to whip up support for the Dutch King William of Orange (the Protestant William III who, together with his wife Mary, had just usurped the English throne from Mary’s father James II).  Yet the sense that this is primarily a piece of political propaganda is perhaps dispelled by considering the broader attitude towards foreigners that is featured across Defoe’s writings.  As Angela Gehling demonstrated in her conference talk, Defoe was somewhat unique in his depiction (across various works) of Spaniards as paragons of honesty and courteousness.  At the time, Spaniards were often regarded as being the complete opposite of this (a stereotype which Gehling demonstrated still features in popular culture today). 

These are complex issues and this is a complicated poem, but don’t let this put you off: it is also an enormously engaging and thought provoking text, and the issues it deals with surrounding racism and politics remain vividly relevant in today’s political arena.  Frankly, this is a poem that everyone should read, whether or not they regard themselves as ‘True-Born’ English. 

Happy reading!  As always, feel free to ask questions and leave comments!

You can find this poem:

(a digital edition of the original, first edition of Defoe’s poem, compiled by Luke Dawson; a very concise, useful, and free way to enjoy this text)

(a new printed version of the book… a word to the wise, though, don’t bother reading the Amazon reviews.  One of them claims that this is ‘Austen from a man’s point of view’, and I have to admit it has been a very long time since I read a sentence that was such complete tosh!)

(This is a short extract from the poem on Poetry Foundation, which omits the most vitriolic aspects of the poem.  It is nonetheless interesting if you just want a quick snapshot of the style of the piece)

About the Defoe Society Conference:
The Defoe Society ( ) was established in 2006 to promote research upon, and interest in, the works of Daniel Defoe, and to basically just spread the word about what a masterful and engaging writer he is.  This week’s conference was an opportunity for Defoe scholars from all over the world to come together and exchange ideas; the people I’ve referenced in my discussion above are only a very small sample of what was a vibrant and absorbing array of academic knowledge.  To gain access to a broader range of the thoughts and ideas that were being mooted, search for the hashtag #Defoe15 on Twitter to look back over the excellent live-tweeting of Stephen Gregg ( @gregg_sh ) during the conference.  Because literary research is for everyone, not just academics!

You can find out more about Defoe:

(The Defoe Society website pages have lots of fascinating info)


Encyclopædia Britannica (a more sophisticated, and perhaps more reliable, form of Wikipedia)

Friday, 17 July 2015

'The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat' - Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

‘The Queen of Birds, t'encrease the Regal Stock,
Had hatch'd her young Ones in a stately Oak,
Whose Middle-part was by a Cat possest,
And near the Root with Litter warmly drest,
A teeming Sow had made her peaceful Nest.
(Thus Palaces are cramm'd from Roof to Ground,
And Animals, as various, in them found.)’
(lines 1-7)

The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea
(published 1713)

It sounds like the start of a joke, but the only humour here is of the darkest kind.  Three animals are
all living in the same tree, but one of them sees a chance of monopolising the situation and takes it.  By playing upon the fears of his neighbours, the cat finds a cunning way of coming out on top; there is no hero in this story, only a stark warning about being careful when taking advice that the advisor doesn't have their own best interests at heart.

Illustration from 1668 edition of Jean de La Fontaine's
Fables, Book III.  Woodcut by François Chauveau.
This image courtesy of:
The basic storyline comes from a French poem by Jean de La Fontaine, entitled ‘L’Aigle, la Laie, et la Chatte’, published in 1668 with the accompanying illustration by François Chauveau.  Yet Anne Finch’s poem is far more than a simple translation.  In analysing Finch’s work, both Charles H. Himnant and Paula R. Backsheider have noted how in Finch’s hands this little fable becomes a subtle political comment.  In 1688 William and Mary of Orange deposed Mary’s father, James II of England; differences of religion were the focus of the coup.  Yet while this incident is frequently referred to as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ because of the comparative peacefulness with which it took place, there were those who opposed the change.  Anne Finch and her husband, Heneage Finch, were amongst those who refused to support the new monarchs.  Fleeing London for the safety of the country, they remained active in support of James (with Heneage even ending up imprisoned for a time for having attempted to join James's exiled court in France).  For Anne, this activity was in the form of writing; through the cat’s smooth assumption of power in ‘The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat’ it is easy to see, as Paula Backsheider points out, the character of ‘the wily courtier, a figure risen from the middle ranks, who rejoices in sowing dissent’ (p. 47).  Though this is not strictly allegorical, and the politics surrounding the ‘Glorious Revolution’ is much more complex and intricate than there is space to discuss here, this is certainly a poem that assumes a highly critical tone of those who use deceit and betrayal to usurp power.

I don’t want to get too heavy though: I originally chose this poem for inclusion here because, at least on first reading, it does seem rather funny.  A bit like an Aesop fable, it conveys a serious moral message through the means of entertainment.  It’s the kind of poem designed to make you first laugh at the gullibility of the eagle and the sow - then stop and realise that, actually, the author has quite a serious point.  Not least, it's aim is to provoke reflection upon gullibility more generally, and on the importance of not letting the selfish concern for personal safety create destructive panic.  The eagle and the sow both abandon their young because of the cat’s machinations, yet this is as much a result of their own preoccupation with self-preservation as of the cat’s deceit.    

One or two points to note before you read this: the first two lines look like a clumsy attempt at rhyme, but it’s useful to remember that pronunciation of words has changed a lot over time.  Linguistic historians would probably be able to explain it better, but basically don’t write her off as a poet just because her first couplet doesn’t seem to work; when she was writing, it probably did rhyme.  Also, when the poem refers to ‘Sow’s paps’ as a great delicacy, it is referring to mammary glands (I know, sounds disgusting: but then the cat is the villain of the piece, remember). The 'sycophant' referred to in the moral describes a person who is ingratiating towards another simply for their own gain (in this poem, the cat). 

Happy reading! And apologies to all the internet cat lovers out there!
As always, feel free to leave comments and ask questions!

You can find this poem:

(editions of Anne Finch’s poetry are not always easy to come by, so I would recommend readers use this free version of the poem available online, and from which I have taken the reading that follows.)

Other poems by Anne Finch can be found here:
(Poetry Foundation online: great free resource!!)

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Selected Poems, ed. by Denys Thompson (Carcanet Press Ltd,
(this is pretty much what it says on the tin: selected poems by Anne Finch.  Available from numerous places; I just put the link to Waterstones for variety.  And because they have a points card system…)

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 excellent volume!  Last time this came up in a blog post I entered up ordering a copy, which arrived in the post the other day… Look out for future blogs referring to poems in this exciting little anthology! There are plenty of economical priced second-hand copies of this available online too!)

The information for this blogpost was taken from the following sources:

Paula R. Backscheider, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (JHU Press, 2005), p. 47
(This looks to be a fascinating and clear book; like many works of literary criticism, this might be a little expensive for small budgets (like mine), so I’ve attached a link to the pages relating to this poem, available via a preview on googlebooks)  

Charles H. Himnant, The Poetry of Anne Finch: An Essay in Interpretation (University of Delaware, 1994) pp. 194-6
(The link should lead to a googlebooks preview of the book that gives most of the relevant information about this poem)

Barbara McGovern, ‘Finch, Anne, countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [accessed 16 July 2015]
(sadly, this resource is accessible by subscription only)

Leslie Clifford Sykes, “Jean de La Fontaine”, Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2015 [accessed 17 July 2015]
(an excellent, and free, resource!)

(a website all about Jean de La Fontaine, written in French but accessible to to English-only speakers via google translate)
(a useful free dictionary online!  Always worth looking up unfamiliar words!)

You can also find out more about Anne Finch on her Wikipedia page:,_Countess_of_Winchilsea

Friday, 10 July 2015

'Evelina' - Frances (Fanny) Burney

‘This moment arrived.  Just going to Drury-Lane theatre.   The celebrated Mr. Garrick performs Ranger.  I am quite in extacy.  So is Miss Mirvan.  How fortunate, that he should happen to play!  We would not let Mrs. Mirvan rest till she consented to go; her chief objection was to our dress, for we have had no time to Londonize ourselves; but we teized her into compliance, and so we are to sit in some obscure place, that she may not be seen.  As to me, I should be alike unknown in the most conspicuous or most private part of the house.
   I can write no more now.  I have hardly time to breathe – only just this, the houses and streets are not quite so superb as I expected.  However, I have seen nothing yet, so I ought not to judge.’
(from Letter X)

Evelina or The History a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World

Frances (Fanny) Burney

A mother abandoned by her husband; a paternity dispute; a child brought up by a foster carer; a quest for identity as the child becomes a young woman; her struggle to assert her own worth amidst a crowd of embarrassing relatives.  All sounds like it could be from a modern-day TV drama, doesn’t it?  In fact, all these elements combine within Frances Burney’s first (and in my opinion best) novel Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World.   

One of Hugh Thomson's superb illustrations
from a 1903 publication of the novel.
Written in the form of an exchange of letters (technically known as an epistolary novel), there is an immediacy to the story that simply leaps off the page.  The quotation I have included for today’s header is a good example of this: the events of the story are not simply narrated to the reader.  Rather, we get to live the events with the heroine, the Evelina of the title (the technical term for this is the eponymous heroine; a useful word with which to dazzle people at parties and pub quizzes).  It’s a bit like having an eighteenth-century pen-pal.  Evelina is an extremely easy person with whom to empathise: keen for adventure, longing to sample life in the big city, yet inexperienced and thus often getting things a little bit wrong.  Kind, intelligent, sensitive, and always trying to do the right thing, she is continually caught up in the ludicrous, pretentious, and sometimes downright dangerous behaviour of relatives whom it is socially impossible for her to avoid; it is perhaps this more than anything else that sweeps you up into the story, making you cheer for her every success, and wince with her at every unintentional faux pas.

Characters’ reactions may occasionally seem a little overblown (there is one point later on in the book where there is a lot of bursting into tears and dropping onto knees in a context that, perhaps surprisingly, has absolutely nothing to do with marriage proposals).  The only thing I can say about this is just to remember that the book was written at a time when sentimentality was a highly prized attribute.  If Evelina seems a little susceptible to what might today seem rather theatrical displays of emotion in one or two places, it is only eighteenth-century code for her general worth as a character. 

One of the most vibrant and engaging of eighteenth-century novels, this is a book that deserves to be savoured and enjoyed.  It is the story of a young woman’s entrance into the world, into life, into love, and it is the story of her quest for a sense of identity and of belonging. 

Happy reading!! And, as always, feel free to ask questions  in comments!  

You can find this book:

(this is a free edition of the text, and thus a quick, economical way of reading it!  A word of caution though: readers unfamiliar with some eighteenth-century words and phrases might enjoy enhanced reading pleasure by obtaining an edition of the text that has helpful annotations to explain unusual or archaic terms)

 Free editions may be available for Kindle, also a great way of accessing a text or taking it with you on the bus; just be aware that such editions might not have had the benefit of proper editorial production and thus may contain errors and spelling mistakes. 

(Oxford World Classics edition! I am slightly biased in recommending this, as it is the edition that I first read the novel from in my early teens.  It is full of really useful explanatory notes and so is a great way to read this story.  As this book frequently occurs on students’ reading lists, there is a plentiful supply of economically priced second-hand copies continually available from reputable second-hand dealers.)

(Penguin Classics edition!  This does have a snazzy cover, but I can’t see anything online about whether it has any explanatory notes.  Worth checking before purchase: I cannot overstate the importance of a healthy scattering of notes when first approaching a text like this!)

About the Author:
France Burney, painted by her cousin Edward
Francesco Burney.  This is the most popular,
and frequently reproduced, portrait of Burney.
This image was, er, 'borrowed' from Wikipedia.
Frances (Fanny) Burney had a long and enormously fascinating life; indeed, to try and condense this into one neat paragraph has been one of the greatest challenges of this blogpost.  The daughter of the musician Charles Burney, Frances was a personal friend of countless major eighteenth-century figures, including the actor David Garrick and Dr Samuel Johnson (the author of the subject of a previous blogpost, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’).  Later, in 1786, she became the second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte, a post which she greatly disliked and which she was very glad to leave in 1791.  In 1793 (aged 41) Frances married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay, a French émigré who had escaped to Britain in the wake of the French Revolution; they had one son, who died in 1837.  When Frances Burney died in 1840, she left behind a copious wealth of literary material, including an extensive collection of letters exchanged with some of the most prominent figures of the eighteenth-century, and also four major published novels, of which Evelina is the first. 

You can find out more about Frances Burney:

(Encyclopædia Britannica: kind of like a more sophisticated version of Wikipedia.  Do try and follow up the little blue links to other eighteenth-century figures, such as the wonderful David Garrick: it can lead you round an absorbing who’s who of eighteenth-century society)

(this is an engaging radio programme aired this year; I don’t want to sound like I’m namedropping or anything, but I have actually been fortunate enough to make acquaintance with two of the guests on the programme, Dr Nicole Pohl and Prof. Judith Hawley, and was impressed by their friendliness, enthusiasm and kind encouragement!  If you have a spare forty minutes, this programme is definitely worth a listen!) 

(Claire Harman’s Fanny Burney: A biography.  Apologies for only giving a link to this on Amazon: it is available at numerous other retailers, including independent bookstores!)

Information for this blogpost was taken from the following resource:
Pat Rogers, ‘Burney, Frances (1752-1840)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2015 [accessed 9 July 2015]
(unfortunately, access to this resource is by subscription only)