Showing posts with label Alexander Pope. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alexander Pope. Show all posts

Monday, 18 January 2016

'A Night-Piece on Death' - Thomas Parnell

‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky,
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie,
While through their ranks in silver pride
The nether crescent seems to glide.
The slumb’ring breeze forgets to breathe,
The lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled show
Descends to meet our eyes below.’
(lines 9-16)
A Night-Piece on Death
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
(published 1722)
Surely the eighteenth century was the great age for poetic descriptions of landscape: in just a few lines Thomas Parnell captures his reader and takes them out by the hand to wander through a cool, still night.  This is not a long poem, but it has a lot to say.  It also has a lot of really splendid images: when he begins by describing ‘the blue taper’s trembling light’ (line 1), for example, we can instantly see inside his cosy little study, and see the frail quiver of the candle flame.  Parnell writes that ‘No more I waste the wakeful night’ (line 2), and he doesn’t waste words either. 
The poem starts off late at night in a study; the poet has been reading the works of ‘The schoolmen and the sages’ (line 4), trying to find the path to wisdom.  But ‘at best’, he decides, such books can only ‘point […] the longest way’ (line 6).  The real way to understand the world here ‘below’ the heavens, is to go outside and experience it first hand: ‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky, / Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie’ (lines 9-10).  Beautiful, isn’t it?
Thomas Parnell.  Image courtesy of
Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Then as he walks he sees ‘a place of graves’ (line 19), and gently the poem grows more solemn.  Another subtle shift here is that the poem suddenly begins to address the reader (or, to use the jargon, talking in the second person):
‘There pass, with melancholy state,
By all the solemn heaps of fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable dead,
“Time was, like thee they life possessed,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.”’
(lines 23-28)
Ok, so it sounds a little gloomy perhaps; but it’s also a fair point.  It’s also interesting that Parnell is now addressing his reader directly.  Somewhat paradoxically, he has now become like the ‘schoolmen and sages’ whose books he had been reading, as he now begins to write about the knowledge and wisdom he has gained through his midnight ramblings.  (Needless to say, late-night wanderings around graveyards are NOT recommended for today’s readers!)
To Parnell, the graves are a symbol of labour at rest.  Once again his delightful turn of phrase produces such poignant images as ‘The flat smooth stones that bear a name, / The chisel’s slender help to fame’ (lines 33-34).  As is frequently the case with graveyard poetry in the eighteenth-century, the emphasis is firmly upon death as a social leveller – in this graveyard are the poor, the ‘middle race of mortals’, and those who ‘in vaulted arches lie’ (lines 37 & .  40). The rich and great might try to preserve their fame after death through elaborate tombs, but as Parnell neatly notes they are those ‘Who, while on earth in fame they live, / Are senseless of the fame they give’ (lines 45-6).  The ‘they’ in the second line here refers to the ‘Arms, angels, epitaphs and bones’ (line 43) that adorn the graves of the rich.  In other words, while alive, these people paid little or no attention to the fame of their ancestors, proclaimed in the same manner in which they themselves have since attempted to proclaim theirs.  It’s a bit of a sweeping swipe at the aristocracy, but all the same rather cleverly put.
Then things get a bit more spooky, as he imagines the ghosts rising up from their graves as ‘pale Cynthia fades’ (line 47); Cynthia here refers to the moon, via Greek mythology.  The poet hears ‘a voice begin’ (line 55), and the lines between imagination and the supernatural become delightfully blurred.  The voice is that of Death, the ‘King of Fears’ (line 62), but the words he speaks are rather less terrifying than might be expected.  According to this voice, ‘Death’s but a path that must be trod, / If man would ever pass to God’ (lines 67-8).  Mocking the traditional eighteenth-century funeral fare of ‘flowing sable stoles, / Deep pendant cypress, mourning poles’ (lines 71-2) and so on, the voice then proceeds to paint a rather cheery picture of death that draws upon Christian religious belief in rebirth and resurrection.  Accordingly, the voice suggests that life is like a long prison sentence from which worthy souls may ‘Spring forth to greet the glitt’ring sun’ after death, and ultimately ‘mingle with the blaze of day’ (lines 82 & 90).  Certainly a very upbeat ending for a poem that is, essentially, all about death!
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
 Thomas Parnell was ordained as a deacon in 1700, and installed as a minor canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in 1704, so perhaps it is not surprising that his poem takes religious belief as its centrepoint.  At St Patrick’s, Parnell met Jonathan Swift, and both men were later members of the informal social grouping known today in academic circles as the Scriblerus Club.  Although this grouping included some of the most acclaimed literary figures of the early eighteenth-century (such as Alexander Pope and John Gay), Parnell’s poetry was not published until 1722, four years after his death.
If you want to find out more about Thomas Parnell:
(Encyclopaedia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, but sounds more intellectual!)
You can find this poem:
(Can’t wait to start reading?  Know how you feel… Check out this free copy online at the Poetry Foundation!)
(English Poetry 1579-1830: a fascinating database of poetry with a healthy smattering of notes and commentary.  Compiled by David Hill Radcliffe, Virginia Tech.  Great stuff!!)
David Fairer & Christine Gerrard (eds), Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology 3rd ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015)  pp. 66-67.
(Want a copy you can hold in your hand?  This anthology has this poem and loads more inside! It’s often used as a student text, so check for second-hand copies on eBay or similar before purchasing if you’re shopping on a budget!)
Information for this blogpost came from the following source:
Bryan Coleborne, ‘Parnell, Thomas (1679-1718), poet and essayist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. <> [accessed 18 Jan 2016]
(If you are fortunate enough to have a subscription to this database, or to study at an institution that does, do have a read: it’s a fascinating little article!)

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!!)

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)