Blackmore and Philips

Heroi-comical poems, then, are ones that may or may not carry the actual term "heroi-comical" in their title, that achieve a specialized mock-heroic irony by talking in inflated terms about a trivial subject, that sometimes contain a mythological account of the genesis of an object or practice, and that engage with the rise of luxury as a phenomenon of the new consumer society. Among other categories of mock-heroic poem there is one other that I want to single out here; one that could be described in two distinct ways. It is constituted by works parodying Milton's epic style or, to put it another way, that poke fun at the arch-practitioner of English epic, Sir Richard Blackmore. Blackmore, because of his cantankerousness as well as the doubtful quality of his poems, became a figure of abuse in Augustan literary London (Solomon 1980). He had been at loggerheads with Dryden before falling into enmity with the great poet of the immediately following era, Pope: in fact, the very nature of his literary vocation could not help but rile the purists. Blackmore was a career physician who boasted openly of having dashed off his several epic poems while taking coach trips around London visiting patients. This sacrilegious disregard for the venerability of epic gave Blackmore's enemies every provocation to damn his poetry, and this they did in a united hoot of derision. What was seen as wrong with Blackmore's poems was their overstraining for the sublime: they were noisily sonorous but bereft of the largeness of conception on which the true sublime depended.

Blackmore seemed to his contemporaries to epitomize how an epic poem could go wrong, and this perception was to prove a gift for mock-heroic poets. For to do ill by epic was inevitably to do well by mock-epic, and accordingly one understanding of how to produce mock-heroic works was simply to ape the discredited epic manner of Blackmore (Terry 2005). The earliest poem to do this is John Philips's influential

The Splendid Shilling (1701), which tells in inflated Miltonics the story of a starveling poet, living in a draughty garret and pursued by creditors. However, as well as parodying Milton's grand style, and indeed instituting a poetic vogue for doing this, Philips's poem is an exercise in exactly that kind of verbal afflatus that Dryden and others had identified as the hallmark of Blackmore's own style. Take these bravura lines from the final verse paragraph, in which the poet complains about a hole in his trousers (or "galligaskins"):

Afflictions Great! yet Greater still remain: My Galligaskins that have long withstood The Winter's Fury, and Encroaching Frosts, By Time subdu'd, (what will not Time subdue!) An horrid Chasm disclose, with Orifice Wide, Discontinuous; at which the Winds Eurus and Auster, and the dreadful Force Of Boreas, that congeals the Cronian Waves, Tumultuous enter with dire chilling Blasts, Portending Agues.

These lines mimic the drum-roll of Miltonic style but also the clanking sonorousness so closely identified with Blackmore. Although the imagery of winter storms aims at sublimity, modeled on the "vast, immeasurable gulf " of Milton's sublime chaos, Philips applies it to the pettiness of the poet's gashed trousers. The comedy lies in the fact that the sublime idiom is so overcooked as to turn into fustian, and is then applied to a subject so trifling as to constitute an outright affront to the idea of sublimity. Accordingly, the poem epitomizes a literary pitfall that critics like Dennis had expressly warned against: that of generating an epic "sound" without having the epic conceptions necessary to justify it. Literary historians have made a great deal of Philips's role as the pioneer of one distinct kind of mock-heroic (Bond 1932), but no less important to the development of the genre is Blackmore, whose failed epics provided a blueprint for mock-epic practitioners.

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