Showing posts with label early-eighteenth-century. Show all posts
Showing posts with label early-eighteenth-century. Show all posts

Saturday, 2 July 2016

'The Seasons' - James Thomson


Gradual sinks the breeze
Into a perfect calm; that not a breath
Is heard to quiver through the closing woods,
Or rustling turn the many twinkling leaves
Of aspen tall.  The uncurling floods diffused
In glassy breadth, seem, through delusive lapse,
Forgetful of their course.  ‘Tis silence all,
And pleasing expectation.  Herds and flocks
Drop the dry sprig, and, mute imploring, eye
The falling verdure.  Hush’d in short suspense,
The plumy people streak their wings with oil,
To throw the lucid moisture trickling off;
And wait the approaching sign to strike, at once,
Into the general choir.  E’en mountains, vales,
And forests seem impatient to demand
The promised sweetness.  Man superior walks
Amid the glad creation, musing praise,
And looking lively gratitude.  At last,
The clouds consign their treasures to the fields;
And, softly shaking on the dimpled pool
Prelusive drops, let all their moisture flow
In large effusion o’er the freshen’d world.
The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard,
By such as wander through the forest-walks,
Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.
But who can hold the shade, while Heaven descends
In universal bounty, shedding herbs,
And fruits, and flowers on Nature’s ample lap?
Swift Fancy fired anticipates their growth;
And, while the milky nutriment distils,
Beholds the kindling country colour round.
   Thus all day long the full-distended clouds
Indulge their genial stores, and well-shower’d earth
Is deep enrich’d with vegetable life;
Till, in the western sky, the downward sun
Looks out, effulgent, from amid the flush
Of broken clouds, gay-shifting to his beam.
The rapid radiance instantaneous strikes
The illumined mountain; through the forest streams,
Shakes on the floods, and, in a yellow mist,
Far-smoking o’er the interminable plain,
In twinkling myriads lights the dewy gems.
Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.
Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,
Mix’d in wild concert with the warbling brooks
Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,
Engraved title-page for 'Spring' in the 1876
illustrated edition of Thomson's Seasons 
The hollow lows responsive from the vales,
Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion, running from the red,
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And, to the sage-instructed eye, unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze.  Not so the boy:
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,
Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds the amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.

(Excerpt from ‘Spring’)
The Seasons James Thomson (1700-1748)
1728-30


Engraved frontispiece for 'Spring' from the 1876
illustrated edition of Thomson's Seasons.
You might be wondering why today’s quotation is so long.  Well, quite simply it’s because this is something of a tricky poem to get hold of (and I didn't want folks put off reading it by its eulsiveness).  Published in 1730, James Thomsons’s Seasons would have a profound effect on English Literature throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century.  Sadly, however, like many great eighteenth-century poets, his works are not always remembered today.  Indeed, my attention was only drawn to this talented poet and his work through my investigations into pre-chapter quotation, since extracts from Thomson’s Seasons frequently appear in the works of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (whose novels I am currently researching).  It’s a fantastic example of how an interest in one thing can stimulate a love of something else in literary studies!
Divided into four sections, each corresponding to a specific season, Thomson’s Seasons is a lush, and glorious poem.  It’s also rather long, so for the purposes of this blog post I’ll focus on the extract I’ve typed up above.  This section is taken from ‘Spring’, and narrates the approach and arrival of a brief spring shower, finishing with the inevitable rainbow splashed across the sky.  Thus it begins with a sense of anticipation: ‘‘Tis silence all, / And pleasing expectation’.  The herds stop their grazing, and ‘The plumy people [the birds] streak their wings with oil’ in preparation for the forthcoming rain.  Importantly, the rain is also seen as a good thing here as ‘E’en mountains, vales, / And forests seem impatient to demand / The promised sweetness’ that the rain will bring.

Finally ‘The clouds consign their treasures to the fields’, and the world is ‘freshen’d’.  In just three lines, Thomson forms an exquisite and evocative image of wandering beneath the trees as the rain falls overhead:
 
‘The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard,
By such as wander through the forest-walks, Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.’

(I had to look up what ‘umbrageous’ means, so just in case you’re not sure either it means ‘shady’, or ‘shaded’.  Good word to use at parties, and in crosswords.).  Yet neither is this just a romantic description of the countryside: there’s a practical side to it too.  This ‘universal bounty’ or ‘milky nutriment’ will call to life ‘herbs, And fruits, and flowers’; that the rain also causes ‘the kindling country [to] colour round’ is simply an added bonus.  It’s like when you think of how vibrantly green the beautiful hills of Wales always look, because of the rain from the mountains.  Here too, the rain is bringing out all the glorious colours of nature.

In Thomson’s poem, the rain lasts ‘all day long’, spreading its goodness around until the ‘well-shower’d earth / Is deep enrich’d with vegetable life’.  Only as the day draws to a close does the sun peek out ‘effulgent’ or radiant from the clouds.  It’s sunset, and the light ‘instantaneous strikes / The illumined mountain’, glowing ‘in a yellow mist’ as it ‘In twinkling myriads lights the dewy gems’ of all the settled raindrops clinging to the plants.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  And then, ‘Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around’, and the birds sing as in the woods ‘every music wakes’ to blend with ‘the distant bleatings’ of sheep and the ‘hollow lows’ of cattle in the valleys.  And crowning all, a rainbow appears:
Engraving from 'Spring' in the 1876 illustrated
edition of Thomson's Seasons.
‘Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion, running from the red,
To where the violet fades into the sky.’


The reference to Newton alludes to his discovery of the refractive properties of light, in which a glass prism can separate ‘The various twine of light, […]/ From the white mingling maze’.  It’s a nice touch of science in this otherwise eminently poetic description.  But the last word goes not to Newton, but to the ‘wondering’ boy who longs to catch hold of the rainbow, which fades and pulls away as he tries to grasp it.  It’s a good image for the whole purpose of this kind of nature poetry, which aims to capture the intangible beauty of a world that must be experienced to be fully enjoyed and appreciated.  Through the words of Thomson, even those not fortunate enough to live in the countryside can capture a sense of that experience of the natural environment.

Happy Reading!!

You can find this poem…
…with great difficulty.  For some strange reason, it doesn’t seem to be in popular print anymore.  Which is a huge shame because it’s an absolute masterpiece!!  Here are a few suggestions of starting points, though:

(Not perhaps the most attractive font in the world, but this does seem to include the whole poem!  And lots of other lovely Thomson material too!! Go forth and read folks!)

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-four-seasons-summer/
(This only contains one of Thomson’s four seasonal poems, ‘Summer’, but still it’s a start!)

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/james-thomson#about
(Poetry foundation: contains extracts from ‘Spring’ and ‘Winter’.  Also includes Thomson’s other famous poem, ‘Rule Britannia’, from which comes the seminal Last of the Proms anthem!)

There are also umerous old/antique copies of this poem available from second-hand retailers online and on the high street, some of them not too expensive.  There was an annotated Oxford edition of the text published in the 1980s, but even today this is priced for only the most enthusiastic of readers.
 
You can find out more about Thomson and his work:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Thomson-Scottish-poet-1700-1748
(A biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica that is shockingly short for such an important chap!  But it does have lots of the most important dates)

(Wikipedia – a rather longer biography, so might actually be more interesting than Britannica’s entry)

(Interesting blogpost about illustrated versions of Thomson’s poem)

(Another nice blogpost about the influence of Thomson’s Seasons upon later romantic poets to whom time has been somewhat kinder, such as Coleridge)

https://www.waterstones.com/book/weatherland/alexandra-harris/9780500292655
(I believe there's also a rather nice section on Thomson in Alexandra Harris's fab new award-winning book Weatherland.  The link connects to Waterstones website, though of course it is available at all good bookstores, online and on the high street!! I haven't read this yet, but it's on my list... )

Copyright notice: All images used in this blogpost are the property of the author.  I'm happy for others to use these images for educational or research purposes free of charge, on condition that due acknowledgement is given.

Saturday, 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…)

 

 

 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

'To Memory' - Elizabeth Singer Rowe


To Memory
 
   Best Gift that Heav’n’s Indulgence could bestow!
To Thee our surest Happiness we owe;
Thou all the flying Pleasures dost restore,
Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more;
For we no sooner grasp some frail Delight,
But ready for its everlasting Flight,
E’er we can call the hasty Bliss our own,
If not retain’d by Thee, it is for ever gone.
Thou to the kind successful Lover’s Heart,
A Thousand melting Raptures dost impart,
When yet more lovely than herself, and kind,
Thou bring’st his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind
The flatt’ring Image wears a livelier Grace,
A softer Mien, and more inticing Face.
   Thou from the flying Minutes dost retrieve,
The Joys CLORINDA’s Wit and Beauty give;
Those Joys which I had once possess’d in vain,
Did not the dear Remembrance still remain,
Methinks she speaks, and all my Soul inspires,
Brightens each Thought, and gives my Muse new Fires;
‘Tis she who lends my daring Fancy Wings,
Softens my Lyre, and tunes its warbling Strings.
   Thou only to the Guilty art severe,
Who the Review of their past Actions fear;
But to the Innocent and Virtuous Mind,
Art still propitious, smiling still, and kind,
To Thee we all those charming Pleasures owe,
The Pleasures which from gen’rous Actions flow,
They’re still the Noblest we possess below.  

Elizabeth Singer Rowe
(published in 1737 in Philomela: or, poems by Mrs. Elizabeth Singer, (Now Rowe,) Of Frome in Somersetshire.)

My first introduction to Elizabeth Rowe occurred only recently, whilst sharing a train carriage with Jessica Clement, a PhD student at the University of York whose thesis focuses upon Rowe’s poetry.  Her enthusiasm was extremely contagious, & I couldn’t wait to get hold of some of Rowe’s poetry to read it for myself; when I did, I wasn’t disappointed!
 
Simple, elegant, and often highly poignant, Rowe’s poetry certainly deserves more attention than has traditionally been given to it.  Musing upon the abstract concept of memory in the poem above (for once reproduced in its entirety owing to the almost impossibility of finding a reliable copy online), Rowe delicately yet powerfully points out the sheer wonderment of this attribute that so many of us are so used to taking for granted.

Beginning by praising heaven for this ‘Best gift’, Rowe then notes the ability of remembrance to preserve the ‘flying Pleasures […] / Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more’.  She then proceeds to provide examples of the usefulness and worth of memory, presenting her reader with the image of the lover who is able to use memory to bring ‘his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind’; that he furnishes her with ‘a livelier Grace, / A softer Mien, and more inticing Face’ in the process is simply an added bonus, and also a sly reference to the fallibility of remembrance and the way in which it may appear altered through the distorting lens of the rememberer’s own perspective.

Reference is then made to ‘Clorinda’, presumably a friend (or perhaps a classical pseudonym for a friend’s name) who would appear to have died.  The ‘Joys’ of her friendship, Rowe notes, would have been ‘possess’d in vain’ were it not for the fact that she can still remember them and thus receive both pleasure and instruction from her friend even after death.  It is the remembrance of this friendship that also provides Rowe with creative inspiration now, as she writes that the memory of her friend ‘lends my daring Fancy Wings’. 

Completing her survey of memory, Rowe then turns to those who might not find remembrance such a pleasurable experience.  Personifying memory with the pronoun ‘Thou’, she states that ‘Thou only to the Guilty art severe, / Who the Review of their past Actions fear’; that this is morally just is emphasised by her subsequent return to ‘the Innocent and Virtuous Mind’ to whom Memory is ‘still propitious, smiling still, and kind’.

A Note About the Text

The transcription of the poem ‘To Memory’ was taken from the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online digital copy of Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s poems printed in 1737.  I hope that its inclusion here will persuade others to uncover more about this fascinating poet, and to subscribe to what is undisputedly the best digital resource for the study of eighteenth-century literature, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Singer Rowe:

(Wikipedia! A useful means of finding information about a writer who currently doesn’t seem to have an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica online.  Wikipedia certainly has its uses…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(Yep, this one again – includes a nice little bit about Rowe’s life as well as a few more of her poems)

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!)
 

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
(1734)

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:
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/pba35-w0070.shtml
(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)

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

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
1701

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 ( http://www.defoesociety.org/ ) 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)

(Wikipedia!!)

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:
http://www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/aiglaichat.htm
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:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/anne-finch#about
(Poetry Foundation online: great free resource!!)

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Selected Poems, ed. by Denys Thompson (Carcanet Press Ltd,
2003)
(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
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=NPJuMBADoYAC&pg=PA194&lpg=PA194&dq=anne+finch+the+eagle+the+sow+and+the+cat&source=bl&ots=mK9qsHosPB&sig=S2QdnbXZfpMgRFrqWTPUBnx3P8g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAWoVChMIo6ec793hxgIVQZ8UCh0zVgB5#v=onepage&q=anne%20finch%20the%20eagle%20the%20sow%20and%20the%20cat&f=false
(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 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9426 [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
http://www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-de-La-Fontaine [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)

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
(a useful free dictionary online!  Always worth looking up unfamiliar words!)

You can also find out more about Anne Finch on her Wikipedia page:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Finch,_Countess_of_Winchilsea