Showing posts with label morality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label morality. Show all posts

Saturday, 16 July 2016

'Ode to Wisdom' - Elizabeth Carter

When Fortune drops her gay parade,
When Pleasure’s transient roses fade,
And wither in the tomb;
Unchang’d is thy immortal prize,
Thy ever-verdant laurels rise
In undecaying bloom.
‘Ode to Wisdom’
Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806)
(Published in Poems on Several Occasions, 1762)
Wisdom: it’s something the world could do with more of.  Evidently Elizabeth Carter felt the same way in the early eighteenth century.  Her ‘Ode to Wisdom’ is a powerful, personal expression of both praise and longing for wisdom.  It begins with ‘The solitary bird of night’ (the owl), a creature associated with the classical Greek deity of wisdom, the goddess Pallas Athene.  Using the first stanza to set the scene, Carter creates an atmospheric image of an owl, having roosted alone all day in some ruinous ‘time-shook tow’r’ now flying through the mysterious darkness of the night. 
The persona of the poem hears the ‘solemn sound’ of the owls flight, and via this symbolic link to classical wisdom, she offers obeisance to the imagined throne of Wisdom.  In the third stanza, therefore, the opening pronoun ‘She’ now functions as a personification of Wisdom founded upon the Greek image of Pallas Athene: the owl is, after all, referred to as the ‘Fav’rite of Pallas’.  Wisdom, Carter writes, ‘loves the cool, the silent eve, / Where no false shews of life deceive’.  Here the darkness of night-time is used as a visual and moral leveller, a time when truth can no longer be disguised. 
The fourth stanza continues the praise of Pallas, identifying her, and therefore also wisdom, as the ‘queen of ev’ry art, / That glads the sense, and mends the heart’.  It is wisdom, Carter claims, that is the ‘source of purer joys’.  The longing of the poetic persona to achieve true wisdom is then crystallised in the subsequent stanza, in which she figures herself as a ‘modest suppliant’ whose ‘vow’ to Pallas Athene is more of a request to be ‘taught by thy [Pallas’s] unerring rules, / To shun the fruitless wish of fools’ and to instead aim at ‘nobler views’.


In the pursuit of this wisdom, the poet rejects ‘Fortune’s gem, Ambition’s plume’ and ‘Cythrea’s fading bloom’ (in case you’re wondering Cythrea is just another name for Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love).  All of these goals are simply ‘glitt’ring toys’, childish trinkets far beneath the aspirations of this poet who seeks instead ‘Each moral beauty of the heart, / By studious thoughts refin’d’.  The only ‘Power’ this poet hopes for is ‘An empire o’er the mind’.
To express the transience of material triumph, Carter then examines the effects of time upon these competing qualities:
When Fortune drops her gay parade,
When Pleasure’s transient roses fade,
And wither in the tomb;
Unchang’d is thy [wisdom’s] immortal prize,
Thy ever-verdant laurels rise
In undecaying bloom.
By choosing Wisdom as her moral specialism, the poet will be ‘protected’ from the ‘ignorance and spite’ of those who seek to mock through the ‘pointed ridicule / Of undiscerning wit’.  A means of escaping ‘From envy, hurry, noise and strife’, embracing wisdom enables the poet to rest in ‘the peaceful groves’ where only the spirits of clever philosophers such as Plato may be found.  The following stanza continues in praise of Plato, referencing his ‘philosophick theme / Of Perfect, Fair, and Good’.  Upon arrival in Athens, this philosophy ‘Reclaim’d, her [the city’s] wild licentious youth’ as under the influence of wisdom ‘The Passions ceas’d their loud alarms’. 
Returning once more to addressing wisdom directly, the poet lists how:
Thy breath inspires the Poet’s song,
The Patriot’s free, unbiass’d tongue,
The Hero’s gen’rous strife’
But before the poet gets too carried away in praise of classical deities – at a time when Christianity was the predominant European religion – she adds a deft and subtle twist upon the classical model.  ‘No more to fabled Names confin’d’, she writes, ‘To the supreme all-perfect Mind / My thoughts direct their flight’.  Obliquely indicating her acknowledgement of Pallas Athene as a ‘fabled Name’, she now identifies wisdom as the ‘gift’ of ‘the supreme all-perfect Mind’ (an implicit allusion to the Christian God).  Thus it is also with an address to this ‘supreme all-perfect Mind’ that the poem ultimately concludes, as Carter bids this power to ‘send her [wisdom’s] sure, her steady ray, / To regulate my doubtful way’.  For it is:
Beneath her clear discerning eye
The visionary shadows fly
Of Folly’s painted show:
She sees thro’ ev’ry fair disguise.
That all but Virtue’s solid joys
Are vanity and woe. 

Happy Reading!

You can find this poem:
(This fantastic free copy of the poem is the source of the quotations given in this blogpost, and a superb resource!! Definitely worth having a shufty around the rest of the site too!!)

(Was recently introduced to this site by a senior academic, and it’s absolutely fab! Follow this link and find Carter’s ‘Ode to Wisdom’ on page 84.  Or you could just start at the beginning if you’re enjoying her poetry!)

You can find out more about Elizabeth Carter:

(Another shockingly short biography for such an influential writer.  It does have all the main dates and events of her life, though, so a useful starting point at least)

(this page has a short bibliography of references to Carter in published

Sunday, 18 October 2015

'An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich' - Mary Barber

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

‘An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich’
Mary Barber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!!!

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

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

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

You can find out more about Mary Barber:

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

Information for compiling this blogpost was taken from:

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