Michael Schmidt

From The Story of Poetry III: from Pope to Burns

From The Story of Poetry III: Pope to Burns

The Little Virtues


…negligence and irregularity, long continued, will make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible.

Samuel Johnson, The Life of Savage


In London, during the spring of 1960, the Italian novelist Natalia Ginsburg wrote her most famous essay, 'The Little Virtues'. Her premise was simple. Having observed the British way of life, she had come to a contrary disposition. 'So far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one's neighbour and self-denial; not desire for success but a desire to be and to know.'

The British eighteenth century is largely about the little virtues. After the abundance and excess of the Jacobeans, the purity and self-denial of the Cavaliers, the vehemence of the Commonwealth and the Frenchified hedonism, hectic posturing and spiritual void of the Restoration; and after the heartless repression of Monmouth's rebellion of 1685, critics and writers alike were keen that John Bull should acquire recognisably good manners (in the European mode), and that London should be as powdered and polite as Paris. Wren's St Paul's was consecrated in 1697. John Vanbrugh had already begun perpetrating his comedies and would soon begin to execute those ponderously sumptuous buildings which are characteristically his, most notably his first, Castle Howard in Yorkshire, on which he collaborated with Nicholas Hawksmoor; and Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Queen Anne's reward to her captain-general the Duke of Marlborough who won her wars for her.
George Farquhar and William Congreve were writing comedies which reveal a social order riven between the manipulative, the affected and the uncomprehending or provincial classes and mind-sets. A rural English wholesomeness survives, but only just. The wider world is one of cultural importations and studied politeness on the one hand, and aggressive xenophobia on the other. A year after Indian printed calicoes were banned because they were too popular, the novelist-to-be Daniel Defoe wrote his one famous poem, The True-Born Englishman (1701), making fun of national prejudices which threatened to impoverish English political and cultural life for years to come. The political point of his poem was rather more ingratiating, for the King of England was not English-born and the King was himself a catalyst of xenophobia.

The Romans first with Julius Caesar came,
Including all the Nations of that Name,
Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards; and by Computation,
Auxiliaries or Slaves of ev'ry Nation.
With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,
In search of Plunder, not in search of Fame.
Scots, Picts, and Irish from th' Hibernian Shore:
And Conqu'ring William brought the Normans o'er.
All these their Barb'rous Offspring left behind,
The Dregs of Armies, they of all mankind;
Blended with Britons who before were here,
Of whom the Welsh ha' blest the Character.
From this Amphibious Ill-born Mob began
The vain ill-natur'd thing, an Englishman.
The Customs, Surnames, Languages, and Manners,
Of all those Nations are their own Explainers:
Whose Relics are so lasting and so strong,
They hs' left a Shibboleth upon our Tongue;
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.

It was a point worth labouring then, as it is now. The next year Defoe, a Dissenter, was put in the pillory and imprisoned for six months because of a savagely satirical prose pamphlet, The Shortest Way with Dissenters. The day of the explosive prose pamphlet was far from over: Swift's ruthless masterpieces, starting with A Tale of a Tub, on the theological conflicts of the day, appeared from 1704.
Against satirical and the oblique truth-tellers, the tyranny of fashion had begun to form. Snuff-taking from pretty little pewter, enamelled and silver boxes, with an elaborate series of rituals and gestures, became de rigueur for the man of fashion. Beau Nash started his half a century's reign at Bath, establishing himself as a model of dress and deportment. The 'polite world' of unquestioning obedience to often arbitrary laws and of cruel exclusions was emerging. People upgraded their names. Early in the century even Daniel Foe, son of James Foe the butcher, enhanced his with a De, a true-born Saxon-Norman Englishman.

The word 'polite' has nothing to do with polis or politics. It derives from the Latin verb polire, to smooth down, to polish. In the sixteenth century it had meant correct and scholarly. By the middle of the eighteenth it meant refined, cultivated, well bred; it was a measurable virtue, subserving fixed conventions and decorums of conduct in every sphere. In the handsome old subscription libraries, the Portico in Manchester for example, even today a whole quarter of the shelving is apparently devoted to what a large gilded inscription announces as Polite Literature. There is no space for the Impolite.

The time had come, now that the court was no longer a plausible arbiter of social or cultural propriety and the King could not be depended upon to speak, much less to read, English, for another kind of authority, another instrument of legitimacy, to emerge, for rules, schedules and regulations to be promulgated. They would be decreed not from the palace but from – the coffee house. Before Joseph Addison gave us the Tatler and the Spectator, Doctor Samuel Johnson remarks, 'We had many books to teach us our important duties, and to settle opinions in philosophy and politics; but an Arbiter elegantiarum, a judge of propriety, was yet wanting, who should survey the track of daily conversation, and free it from thorns and prickles, which tease the passer, though they do not wound him.'
Some poets who entered the eighteenth century with substantial ballast from the century before made play of the new conventions. Matthew Prior (1664-1721) could be as serious as the next man, as great a flatterer, but a sense of realism and of the absurd irrupts in some of his poems, either in their diction, incident or tonality. A writer of vers d'société, poems on specific occasions and themes, the poems come alive because of their wit and irony, suddenly shifting from high diction to low. He goes so far as to make fun of his own voice and tone as a poet, standing outside his poems, cocking a snook at the artifice, if not the art, of verse itself, deliberately violating a chosen form to achieve specific effects. He caused Dryden tears when he parodied The Hind and the Panther. An enemy of hypocrisy, he is a kind of pre-emptive corrective to some of the excesses that were to come; he allies himself with Falstaff, the truth-telling liar.

As the eighteenth century let itself loose on the literature of the English past, it tidied it up considerably. Dryden had begun pruning and repairing what he took to be the broken arbours and inadequacies of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Such restorations continued; scholarship became a function equally of erudition and propriety, culminating in 1818 with Thomas Bowdler's famous Family Shakespeare, from which every innuendo and impropriety has been, with greater or lesser subtlety, excised. Bowdlerised.

In terms of making literature, it was not a question of scaling down: literary works produced in the eighteenth century are as ambitious and innovative as any that had come before. It was rather a matter of re-proportioning, of adjustment of parts to the whole. Just as the handsome old Jacobean mansion was given a neoclassical façade and new buildings strove for an elegant, neutral harmony, so in poetry integration, semantic depth, prosodic correctness, give rise to an elaborated, correct diction and all that follows from such an enrichment and codification of certain kinds of meaning at the cost of other poetic resources.

'Correct diction', 'poetic diction', the terms are used so loosely that they retain as much, and as little, meaning as the term 'post-modern'. One twentieth-century critic insisted that the only way we could begin to understand the poetry of the eighteenth century was to understand poetic diction in a very specific way. In his first major critical work, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) Donald Davie distinguishes between 'the language of poetry' and 'the diction of verse'. A diction is a selection, made according to certain rules of propriety, class, etymology, precedent, from the language as a whole. There are poets, he says, who give him the feeling 'that a selection has been made and is continually being made, that words are thrusting at the poem and being fended off from it, that however many poems these poets wrote certain words would never be allowed into the poems, except as a disastrous oversight.' A writer with a pure diction of this kind writes, Davie insists, verse. The verse may also be poetry, but it is different in texture, intent and provenance from the kind of poetry which seems as though it might, given a context, admit any word in the language.

Davie makes it clear that while Milton has a style, he does not have a diction. We can imagine any word at some stage finding lodging in one of his poems. However, poets who follow Milton closely, like James Thomson and others in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, use a Miltonic diction. They use those words whose use Milton licensed, those words that his style seems to sanction. Thomson's 'selection of language' is a subset of the selection made by John Milton. Early on, William Wordsworth too used a Miltonic diction. Early on Milton used a Spenserian diction.

If we can reserve the word 'diction' to mean 'a selection from the whole language', it begins to play a more useful part in our discussion of the eighteenth century and of the revolutions against its rules as the century progressed. A poetry which depends on rules of diction will also evolve rules of decorum and propriety: what range of diction is appropriate to the ballad, the hymn, the lyric, the epic and the satire? Johnson found King Lear's 'Undo this button' a dreadful error of tact: the word 'button' had no place in tragedy.

The choice of appropriate diction imparts information and a range of expectations to readers, who knows what poetic area they are in from the first line. Furthermore, poems can be judged against, as it were, very nearly objective (though in origin arbitrary) criteria. So long as all those participating in a literary culture, as readers, critics and writers, accept the appropriateness of the criteria, a succinct and expressive poetry can develop. Its expressiveness and succinctness are accessible, of course, only to those familiar with the criteria. Such consensus might imply a rather narrow literary class: metropolitan for the most part, polite in a special sense, and taking pleasure in the intensity of word-play going on in a few lines which sound to uninitiated us merely rhetorical. Davie reminds us of what Oliver Goldsmith made of three lines of Thomson:

O vale of bliss! O softly swelling hills!
On which the power of cultivation lies,
And joys to see the wonders of his toil.

'We cannot conceive a more beautiful image than that of the Genius of Agriculture, distinguished by the implements of his art, imbrowned with labour, glowing with health, crowned with a garland of foliage, flowers, and fruit, lying stretched at his ease on the brow of a gently swelling hill, and contemplating with pleasure the happy effects of his own industry.' Goldsmith visualises conventionally, to be sure, in neoclassical generalities. Such detail as he adduces is characteristic rather than specific. His reading of the three lines is not unjust. The 'vale of bliss' imports into the eighteenth-century reader's mind the foliage of Spenser, the accents of Comus, even perhaps Milton's Paradise; the personifications are all there in precedents as well. The world of allegory is not far off. There are common meanings to be surmised here, characteristic meanings. Poetry is a social art from which every reader will receive the same meaning, though in different degrees; it cannot be misconstrued. Achieved poetic diction is a most precise shorthand, if we have the skill and will to decipher it.
Not for Keats, however. Writing a century later in Sleep and Poetry, he was categorical, setting up in Queen Anne a Georgian Aunt Sally with haughty eloquence:

Ah, dismal-soul'd!
The winds of heaven blew, the ocean roll'd
Its gathering waves – ye felt it not. the blue
Bared its eternal bosom, and the dew
Of summer night collected still to make
The morning precious: Beauty was awake!
Why were ye not awake? But ye were dead
To things ye knew not of – were closely wed
To musty laws lined out with wretched rule
And compass vile; so that ye taught a school
Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit,
Till, like the certain wands of Jacob's wit,
Their verses tallied. Easy was the task:
A thousand handicraftsmen wore the mask
Of Poesy. Ill-fated, impious race!

The chief culprit, in Keats's view, was French fashion, and in particular Nicolas Boileau, the maker of polite rules, for whom, Gustav Flaubert said, bad taste was an intense personal affront. Like most vehement critics of the eighteenth century, Keats is categorical, reductive – and young. Yet his personifications, his 'eternal bosom' (less material even than Thomson's 'softly swelling hills'), the abstractions 'Beauty' and 'Poesy', the way many of the nouns are carried under the arm of a convenient adjective – concrete and abstract or abstract and concrete – show how far from emancipation Keats himself was. The main difference between his rancour and Alexander Pope's, in this passage compared with something from The Dunciad, is not in the couplets but in the skill of their deployment (Keats can reverse into a rhyme, and the couplets run on, without epithetic closure); not in the uneven symmetries of syntax, but in the tone. Keats is angry and puffed up; Pope in such circumstances is wily, wry and deadly. Pope addresses us as intelligent individuals, Keats (in this passage) as a literary rabble; he tries to persuade us with eloquence, not convince us in our own intelligences.

At the end of the eighteenth century another young men, William Wordsworth, set his cap against the kinds of writing generated by prescriptive 'diction', divorced from the 'real language of men'. In his 'Preface' to Lyrical Ballads he touched upon the theme, but with insufficient clarity, so that he returned to it in an 1802 'Appendix'. 'The earliest poets of all nations,' he asserts, 'generally wrote from passion excited by real events.' The premise is certainly dubious; but he proceeds with his Rousseauvian history to describe this happy 'original' poetic occasion: passion, real events, and a language without a history of poetic usage, result in 'daring and figurative' language. That language, once set down, becomes a pre-existing language of poetry for the successors of those 'earliest poets', who, 'desirous of producing the same effect without having the same animating passion, set themselves to a mechanical adoption of those figures of speech'. As time passed, the language of poetry, without it being the poet's conscious intention that it should do so, came to differ 'materially from the real language of men in any situation' (Wordsworth's italics). It became archaic, formulaic, conventional. The question for Wordsworth was: how to re-root the language of poetry in 'real language'?

Yet just as for the conventional poet of the eighteenth century there were norms of diction, which made men write not 'in character' or with 'a distinctive voice' but rather in a common code, the diction itself effacing individual idiosyncrasy, so too Wordsworth proposes a norm. He proposes it over and over again without ever quite tying it down: 'real language'. Could he mean dialect? The language of a specific class? The language of an age? He means one or all these things, depending on his context. In other words, he is speaking of dictions too, only his dictions are those of best speech which he hopes will restore to poetry 'daring and figurative' language, the compelling particularity which, in the interests of 'moral value' of a conventional kind, the poets of the eighteenth-century 'main stream' had purged from their verse.
The eighteenth century is, like any other, irreducible. Wordsworth's take on it simplifies a diverse reality in the interests of his own timely polemic. But it is Wordsworth's rhetorically simplified account of the century which persists. Eighteenth century British poetry is not widely appreciated outside, or even inside, the academy. Only the insane and the profoundly depressive exceptions – Christopher Smart, for example, and Edward Young: 'Fate! drop the curtain; I can lose no more' – are read with general gusto: the exceptions, whose response was a way of dealing with intolerable cultural and political prescription. General readerly aversion to the characteristic manner of the eighteenth-century begins with Dryden who died on the century's threshold, in 1700, and persists until William Cowper and Charlotte Smith begin to break the 'chains of conventionality' from within, the French Revolution gets seriously under way, and William Blake and then Wordsworth rise above the horizon. Romanticism is at hand.

If we miss out or over-simplify the eighteenth century, we misread the nineteenth and twentieth and, more to the point, we ignore some extraordinary poetry.

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