Monday, 29 June 2015

Epistle to Robert, Earl of Oxford

'And sure, if aught below the seats divine
Can touch immortals, 'tis a soul like thine:
A soul supreme, in each hard instance tried,
Above all pain, all passion, and all pride,
The rage of power, the blast of public breath,
The lust of lucre, and the dread of death.'

Epistle to Robert, Earl of Oxford, and Earl Mortimer

Alexander Pope

Writing poetry that was dedicated to, and about, an individual was enormously popular in the eighteenth century.  Indeed, composing dedicatory verses was in widespread use as a way of gaining (financial) patronage from a wealthy noble.  This poem, however, is a rather more genuine expression of respect and esteem.  The poem’s author, Alexander Pope, and its subject, Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford were good friends, and both were part of the influential group of writers known as the Scriblerus Club (and which also included Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell, John Gay, and Dr. John Arbuthnot).  Unlike the other members of the group, Harley’s literary output was not in any way great, but he did leave a lasting legacy to British literature by gathering much of the collection of books, manuscripts, and pamphlets which his son would later donate to the nation to form the foundation of the British Library (the photo depicts Harley's portrait outside the Maps and Manuscripts reading room in the British Library).

Today’s poem owes much to the friendship that existed between the Scriblerians (as they are now referred to).  After Parnell’s death in 1718, Alexander Pope prepared an anthology of the late writer’s poems, composing this dedicatory verse to preface the collection and delivering a draft copy of the poem to its subject Harley on 21 October 1721.  Although this might be seen as somewhat self-advertising, an exchange of poetry had been an important part of the relationship between the friends during the heyday of their Scriblerus Club meetings in 1714.  Indeed, it is to these meetings that today’s poem seems to refer when it states how Harley was:
‘Fond to forget the statesman in the friend;
For Swift and him, despised the farce of state,
The sober follies of the wise and great;
Dexterous, the craving, fawning crowd to quit,
And pleased to ‘scape from Flattery to Wit’
(lines 7-12)

 The sense here is of the group as aloof from a world of petty political wrangling, free from the party politics that divided the government and thus able to find satirical humour in all the intrigue and political posturing.  Yet the poem is also very much about Harley’s own place in the political arena.  Having served as Lord Treasurer from 23 May 1711 to 27 July 1714 (effectively equivalent to the modern day role of Prime Minister), Harley had been at the very centre of the British government through what was perhaps the country’s most important political crisis in the early eighteenth century: the problem of who should inherit the crown when Queen Anne died.  The choice was between the Catholic heir of the deposed James II (Anne’s father, thrust from power in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 by Anne’s sister Mary and her husband William III of Orange), or the royal family’s nearest Protestant relations in the German House of Hanover (the family which would indeed succeed to the throne upon Anne’s death in 1714).  As Lord Treasurer, Harley managed the opposing factions so well that, to this day, the question of which side he actually supported is still very much up for debate.  Whichever way his views truly tended, however, when Hanoverian George I succeeded Queen Anne in 1714, Harley’s rivals in government managed to implicate Harley as an opponent of the new regime, to the extent that from 1715 to 1717 he was held in the Tower of London, accused of treason.  Despite his ultimate release, his political career was now well and truly over, and it is to this that Pope alludes when he states that ‘In vain to deserts thy retreat is made’ (much like the political wildernesses often referred to today when politicians fall from power).

A true friend, Pope emphasises how Harley has retreated to this desert ‘In vain’, for ‘The Muse’ (presumably an allusion to Pope’s own poetic endeavour) has not deserted Harley but intends to ‘dignify disgrace’ of political exile through the honest admiration of the poem.  For as Pope is quick to emphasise, these dedicatory verses lack the more traditional financial motive; he describes the poem’s artistic ‘Muse’ (personified in classical style as ‘she’) as ‘No hireling she, no prostitute to praise’.  The flattery of this poem is not offered in exchange for money, but as a sincere and grateful return for friendship. 

You can find this poem: 

(a free copy available online!)

Alexander Pope, The Major Works, ed. Pat Rogers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, repr. 2008)
(a beautiful collection of Pope’s poetry, and with a helpful amount of explanatory notes; as always, check reputable second hand dealers for cheaper copies, e.g. Ebay, Amazon, and independent bookstores)

About the author:

Alexander Pope was one of the most important poets of the eighteenth century, and one of the best loved and most studied by eighteenth-centuryists today.  Suffering throughout his life from a curvature of the spine, Pope was further disadvantaged by the oppressive anti-Catholic laws of the time, and which forbid any Catholic from living in London or holding public office.  There is no repressing so great a poetic talent, however, and his place in the canon of eighteenth-century poetry is amply deserved.  His major works include comic poetry such as The Dunciad (1728) and The Rape of the Lock (1712-14) (yes, I know, the title does not tend to suggest humour, but the poem is actually about the theft of a lock of hair).  During his life he was most prominently known for his English translations of the Greek poet Homer’s Iliad (pub. 1720) and Odyssey (pub. 1725-6), the first major English versions of these texts to be published.


You can find out more about Pope:

(Encyclopædia Britannica: so much glorious information here, so beautifully and approachably presented! And freely available…)

(An absorbing example of current academic scholarship on Pope, this article is a really interesting look at Pope and his political poetry, together with the broader context in which he was working.  Like most academic writing, it does assume a certain knowledge of eighteenth-century literature, but nothing that can’t be gained with aid of an internet search engine! The author is on twitter @josephhone1 and well worth following!) 

(A museum about the Twickenham area, where Pope lived; this site has some interesting biographical info)

The facts and figures for this blogpost was obtained from the following sources:

Pat Rogers, The Alexander Pope Encyclopedia (Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 2004)

Anne Somerset, Queen Anne: The politics of passion (London: Harper Collins 2012)



Saturday, 20 June 2015

'January 1795' - Mary Robinson

‘Lofty mansions, warm and spacious;
Courtiers cringing and voracious;
Misers scarce the wretched heeding;
Gallant soldier fighting, bleeding.’

January 1795

Mary Robinson

It’s another less-than-catchy title, I know, but in fact it is a very accurate description of the content of the poem.  English society at the start of 1795: that is exactly what this poem gives you.  Not just the frozen snapshots of architecture and furniture that we glimpse in museums and art galleries today (fascinating and useful though they are).  This is a poem about activity, about living people, inhabiting a diverse and industrious world.  The power of this poem, for me, comes from Robinson’s consistent use of active verbs throughout (the words ending in ‘-ing’).  There is no single story to this poem; rather it is a long description of action, a collage of moving images.

Still more fascinating is the life of Mary Robinson herself.  Actress, poet, society girl and royal mistress, reading through the biography of her life on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a bit like reading a novel.  By the time she wrote this poem in 1795, she was nearing the end of her life (she died in 1800), yet her artistic appreciation for detail, and her capacity for satiric observation, remains acute.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge (a major figure in the romanticist movement of poetry, whose work will certainly feature in a later post!!) described her as ‘a woman of undoubted Genius’. 

I enjoyed this poem so much, that I thought I would use it to test a new idea for showcasing featured poems.  It’s great to read poetry on the page, but it’s also important to remember that eighteenth-century poetry in particular was often intended to be read aloud.  As my computer demonstrated a profound reluctance to upload only an audio file, this will run as a video, but there are no visuals.  Just sit back, close your eyes, and step into the eighteenth-century:

Happy reading! (and, hopefully, listening!)
Feel free to ask questions and leave comments!

NB after initial problems with the video element I have made some technical adjustments, and it should now work fine!  If not, do please let me know!

You can find this poem:

(Poetry Foundation: an excellent source of free poetry, and also the text used for my reading)

You can find out more about Mary Robinson:

(A biography of Robinson’s life by Paula Jane Byrne.  I discovered this myself whilst writing this blogpost, and (having read some of Paula’s other books) I might now have to visit a bookshop… As always, check Amazon/Ebay etc for cheaper options or secondhand copies.  Also, don't let the title confuse you: Perdita was a sort of pseudonym for Robinson throughout her relationship with the prince who would become King George IV)


(another interesting blog article about the scandalous Mary Robinson)

The Coleridge quotation was taken from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Mary Robinson.  I’ve included the link below, but sadly only those who have a registered account with the site can access this information:

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner - James Hogg

'I felt a sort of invisible power which drew me towards him, something like the force of enchantment, which I could not resist'

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
James Hogg
(Novel, first published 1824)

Catchy title, huh?  I suspect this book is one of those whose title is probably its worst enemy.  What it sounds like you’re going to get is a lengthy biographical account of a religious devotee.  What you actually get is a weird little story of doppelgangers and devilry, in which murder and mayhem abound, and where two women finally turn detective to uncover the truth. 

It begins, somewhat unconventionally, with a wedding scene in which a disgruntled bride is disgusted with her new husband’s dissipated partying, but quickly takes up the story of their two sons (well at least, there is some scope for debate about the parentage of one of the boys… but I won’t spoil it for you!).  The important thing to know before reading this book is that the ‘Justified Sinner’ of the title refers to an offshoot of Christianity called Antinomianism which adopts the belief that ‘Christians are by grace set free from the need to observe any moral law’ (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ‘antinomianism’ definition).  More simply put, this system states that a person can only gain a place in heaven through faith and the grace of God, and not by earning it through good deeds.  What James Hogg does in his book is to explore a bigoted, extremist version of this idea, in which one man comes to believe that, no matter what crimes he commits, it cannot be morally wrong because he believes he is one of God’s chosen people.

Underlying this is a brilliantly subtle, and typically eighteenth-century, conflict of supernatural vs scientific explanation.  One of my university tutors argued that, despite appearances, it is possible to provide a rational explanation for everything that occurs in the text... but then there are others (myself included) who simply cannot believe that there is not (quite literally) some devilry at work…

One other thing I should mention, when it says ‘Editor’s Narrative’ at the beginning, this is not some tedious explanation of abstract editorial practice, it is actually the start of the story.  As a way of giving the tale an enhanced realism, Hogg creates the character of an editor into whose hands have come the interesting documents in which the story continues.  Kind of a way of writing himself into his own story; neat, eh?
Set in Scotland, much of the action of the narrative occurs in Edinburgh, and as I’ve just got back from a brief visit there I couldn’t resist including a photo of Arthur’s Seat (the scene of an important encounter in this novel, but as I don’t want to give away any spoilers I had better say no more…)

With its emphasis on religious zealotry and the tragic absurdities to which this can lead, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is actually an extremely modern narrative, and a truly absorbing read.  Think Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is an intriguing character?  Just wait until you meet the elusive Gil-Martin…
Happy reading!  As always, feel free to ask questions in comments!


You can find this book:
Oxford World Classics edition:
(always hugely recommended: these offer just the right balance of historical information to understand the story without intruding on the text too much!)

Edinburgh University Press edition:
(a detailed scholarly edition) 

(an affordable edition, with some explanatory notes; apologies for the commercial bias of referencing Amazon here, this edition is available in various other shops)

All these editions have various quantities of annotation, a useful tool when reading texts this old, and something that I hope to discuss further in future blogposts.  Don’t worry, though, what are known as ‘scholarly editions’ don’t have to cost the earth: check out sites such as Ebay, etc. for second hand copies, as these are often readily available at very economical rates!  Free versions may be available for e-readers, though it should be remembered that such texts have not always been prepared carefully for publication.  I cannot overemphasise the importance of the helpful little notes that a publisher like Penguin or Oxford World Classics would include in illuminating obscure or archaic references!

If you want to know more about James Hogg:
(a useful starting point)

(includes an extensive reading list for those thirsting to know more!)

The James Hogg Society blog:
(contains lots of interesting info)

The quotation in this blogpost is from:
E.A. Livingstone, (ed.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.  Oxford Reference, 2006.  Online version [accessed 15 June 2015]

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat: Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes' - Thomas Gray

‘The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
      With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
     What cat’s averse to fish?’
                                                    (lines 19-24)

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat: Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes
Thomas Gray

In some ways it’s a shocking title: a beloved pet has died in tragic circumstances.  Yet, in typical eighteenth-century style, there is an element of satiric bathos.  It is a poem about death, a tribute to a treasured feline companion; yet it is also an attempt to construct a funny side to an otherwise dismal situation.  Certainly, it would seem to have been an attempt that succeeded: Horace Walpole, the owner of the unfortunate cat, had the first verse of the poem engraved onto a pedestal upon which he displayed the China vase in which his pet had met its end (apparently this is still on display in Walpole’s gothic mansion Strawberry Hill). 

The artist and writer William Blake was commissioned to produce an illustrated edition of Thomas Gray’s poetry; I’ve included one of the illustrations here, because I think it helps to understand the doubling of images in the poem.  What makes it funny is the way that the events are presented with such exaggerated solemnity: the two goldfish are ‘genii of the stream’, while the tragic victim is the ‘hapless nymph’.  The serious aspect of the final moral that ‘all that glisters [is not] gold’ also transforms the incident into a useful life example.  The concept itself is by no means original: Shakespeare includes an almost identical phrase in the play The Merchant of Venice, and, long after Gray’s death, Tolkien incorporated a similar idea into his description of the returning king, Aragorn, in The Lord of the Rings.  Yet the glorious juxtaposition of humour and solemnity that Gray achieves surely makes this the most unique and stunning depiction of this proverb.

Happy reading!
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments section!
Picture: Illustration for Gray's 'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat,' William Blake, 1798.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking, p. C.8. (It should be noted, that the original was much better quality than my low-resolution image)
You can find this poem:

A lovely free version of the poem available online!  This site also has a wealth of information surrounding Gray to suit all levels of interest and enthusiasm!

Another free version of the poem available online! if

The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking, pp. 3050-3051
If, like me, you prefer a good solid book, this is an excellent place to find the poem! 

For more information about Thomas Gray:

Wikipedia!! Always a good place to start…
A stunning resource!! Don’t be put off by all the talk about scholars and academics: this site is for anyone interested in Gray and his poetry!

Strawberry Hill, the gothic-castle-home of Horace Walpole, is now an exceedingly interesting museum: definitely worth a look!


Friday, 5 June 2015

'The Vanity of Human Wishes' - Samuel Johnson

‘Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wavering man, betrayed by venturous Pride
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
As treacherous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good.’
(lines 5-10)

The Vanity of Human Wishes
Samuel Johnson

It would not be unfair to say that the language and expressions used in many eighteenth-century poems can seem like something of a ‘clouded maze’.  In their excellent commentary on Johnson’s ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking note that ‘the difficulty of the poem is also related to its theme, the difficulty of seeing anything clearly on this earth’ (p. 2843).  Yet while it might present a challenge, it remains a hugely poignant and engaging text, full of rich rewards for the persevering reader.   

The most important thing to remember when reading a poem like this is that meaning frequently runs on over several lines (also known as ‘enjambment’, pronounced en-jam-ment).  This bit – ‘betrayed by venturous Pride / To tread the dreary paths without a guide’ – then clicks into focus, as an extra little piece of information about the ‘wavering man’.  The clue here is in the punctuation (something too frequently overlooked by those who read poems aloud, even at graduate level!).  The most inspiring of my university tutors used to encourage us all to read out extracts of the text that we were studying rather than just look at it cold on the page, and poetry in particular benefits from this treatment.  For example, if you read the above quotation leaving a pause for breath at the end of every line the whole thing becomes completely unintelligible.  Instead, try reading it out loud leaving pauses only where the commas fall.  Hopefully, the meaning should now start to pop out a bit more clearly. 

In its broadest term, this is a poem about the futility, not of life, but of the fundamentally human desire for wealth, status, and fame.  Although the poem ultimately advises the reader to ‘leave to Heaven the measure and choice’ of their life’s success and direction, the prioritisation of love and patience remains powerfully relevant to those of any or no religion.  The really important thing, Johnson is arguing, is to avoid the mental destruction of self suffered by the numerous examples he depicts of the covetous and vain. 

Happy reading! 
Feel free to ask questions in comments!

You can find this poem:

The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking, pp 2843-2851. (This volume is a good investment, as it provides an excellent survey of eighteenth-century literature, as well as containing lots of helpful information about eighteenth-century writers and the history of the period; this is also the edition from which the quotation above was taken). 

Samuel Johnson, The Major Works, edited by Donald Greene (Oxford World’s Classics)
(Absolutely superb series of books, Oxford World’s Classics!! Again, lots of useful extra information and annotation to help even the most inexperienced of readers to access a text)

Be wary of spurious copies of the poem available online or free for e-readers: these may not always have enjoyed the benefit of careful presentation, and as I mentioned above, a comma-pause in the wrong place can really confuse things!  If this is the only way that you can obtain the text however, by all means go for it!

To find out more about Samuel Johnson:

1. Wikipedia! (yes, even academics use this sometimes... but sssh! Don't say I told!)

2. The Samuel Johnson Society  (There is a whole list of helpful links on this page, too!)

3. Dr Johnson's House Museum: especially interesting for those who live in, or are visiting, London!



Monday, 1 June 2015

Reading the Eighteenth Century
When I was a teenager, I wanted to read.  What made me a little unusual, perhaps, is that I wanted to read books about, and from, the eighteenth century.  The problem was that I didn’t really know where to start.  I’d worked my way through all Jane Austen’s novels, but as any eighteenth-century academic will eagerly tell you, there is ever so much more to this most exciting of time periods than peak-bonnets and balls.  In fact, it was a time of science and superstition, of simmering intrigue and sweeping globalisation.  An age of brutal cruelty and beautiful craftsmenship, tragedy and comedy, class division and social transcendence, it is in this bubbling furnace of humanity that so much that characterises our modern world was formed. It is also when some of the finest literature in English was written.

This blog is for everyone interested in discovering more about eighteenth-century literature, whatever your age or knowledge of the period.  Because books are for everyone.