Showing posts with label Scriblerians. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scriblerians. Show all posts

Saturday, 14 May 2016

'A Description of a City Shower' - Jonathan Swift


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

You can find a copy of this poem:

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

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

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

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

Resources about Swift:

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

 

 

 

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. <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21390> [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…)
https://www.waterstones.com/book/selected-poems/john-gay/marcus-walsh/9781857547023(Although 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:

http://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Gay-British-author
(Encyclopædia Brittanica! A kind of more scholarly, and more accurate, Wikipedia)

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180840

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
(1721)

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)
http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199537617.do
(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:

(Encyclop√¶dia 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)