Christine Gerrard

The landscape of eighteenth-century poetry has changed dramatically over recent decades. In the late 1970s it was not uncommon for undergraduates to advance week by week through a course represented, typically, by Dryden, Pope, Swift, Gay, and Johnson. Many students at that time — myself included — found something antipathetic in an "Augustan" canon that seemed overwhelmingly male, metropolitan, neoclassical, and conservative. Yet already there were hints of alternative perspectives. Charles Peake's evocatively titled anthology Poetry of the Landscape and the Night (1967) offered a glimpse of a different kind of eighteenth-century poetry — meditative, melancholic, descriptive, and subjective — while Pat Rogers's Grub Street (1972) reconstructed a refreshingly vulgar and material counter-culture to correctness and couplets. Views multiplied further in the 1980s, when the New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (1984) and Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (1989), the fruits of Roger Lonsdale's inexhaustible efforts to recover from oblivion forgotten poetic voices — the voices of laborers, dissenters, provincial writers, and, most importantly, women — powerfully reinforced a growing awareness of the plurality and diversity of eighteenth-century poetic culture. The second of these anthologies showed for the first time the range and variety of poetry written by women during this period: women inspired and incensed in equal measure by their male models (primarily Pope and Swift). Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology (1999, 2004), which I was fortunate enough to co-edit with David Fairer, attempted to recreate, through careful juxtapositions, a contemporary sense of male and female voices in poetic dialogue. Since the early 1980s editors, biographers, and critics have made steady progress toward placing the work of such important female poets as Jane Barker, Mary Chudleigh, Anne Finch, Mary Collier, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Ann Yearsley in the public domain. It is a testament to the efforts of such dedicated scholars as Carol Barash, Margaret Ezell, Kathryn King, and Isobel Grundy that university English departments now frequently, even routinely, incorporate women poets of this period within their syllabuses.

These recent acts of literary retrieval have re-emphasized the relationship between text and print culture. A sequence of distinguished studies, including Margaret Ezell's Social Authorship and the Advent of Print (1999) and James McLaverty's Pope, Print, and Meaning (2001), have helped make readers newly aware of the processes by which texts were produced, assembled, and disseminated, ranging from an unexpectedly tenacious coterie manuscript culture to the popular marketplace for poetry in periodicals such as Edmund Cave's Gentleman's Magazine. Brean Hammond's lively The Rise of Professional Imaginative Writing (1997) explored the complex interdependencies of "high" and "low" literary culture. The boundary between a dominant literary culture and its subculture — charted in Rogers's Grub Street — was now seen to be unstable and fluctuating. In 1972 Rogers had affirmed Pope's aesthetic superiority to the "dunces" whom his Dunciad so confidently dismissed. Recent critical work, particularly on the Whig literary tradition, has revealed how the aesthetic value judgments we have inherited from Pope and his literary associates — judgments uncannily persistent in shaping later generations' perceptions of the period — were driven as much by political as by literary bias.

Some of the liveliest and most energetic work on eighteenth-century poetry has cut across, dismantled, and re-assembled in new and thought-provoking ways the poetic texts and trends of the period. Alongside the single-author study have flourished works such as Eric Rothstein's Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Poetry (1981) and Margaret Doody's The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered (1982), which helped transform eighteenth-century poetry from an orderly, harmonious, and slightly dull field for humanist enquiry into a constantly surprising, sometimes unstable world in which such preoccupations as pain, pleasure, power, and metamorphosis exerted a powerful hold on the poetic imagination. David Fairer's wide-ranging English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century (2003) similarly resists and counters rigid classifications, including the vexed issue of "Augustan" and "Pre-Romantic," by evincing evidence in the first three decades of the century of an early eighteenth-century romantic mode. The plethora of recent critical studies that have enriched and complicated the traditional equation of eighteenth-century poetry with political satire by emphasizing the political inflections of other genres and modes (landscape poetry, the ode, the epic, and the lyric) have also served to loosen the bonds around the eighteenth century as a "period." Dryden's artificially buoyant lines from the Secular Masque, written a month before his death in 1700 — " 'Tis well the old age is past, 'tis time to begin the new" — might serve to suggest, like the ill-fated millennium celebrations of the year 2000, that any attempt to construct a period boundary along a century divide is bound to fail. As chapter 1 will show, poets of the first three decades of the new century carried with them the legacy of the post-Civil War and Restoration years in their shared preoccupation with party politics and dynastic uncertainties. The genres and forms that came to dominate verse in the middle and later century — the ode, and especially Miltonic blank verse as it evolved through Thomson's The Seasons, Young's Night Thoughts, Cowper's The Task, and eventually Wordsworth's The Prelude — derive from the generic experimentation of the Civil War period. The preoccupation with the sublime, as Shaun Irlam shows (chapter 37), stretches back into the seventeenth century and forward into the nineteenth. Poets at both ends of the century were capable of producing public poetry and political satire. As Carolyn Williams shows in chapter 35, the century began, as it would end, with an attempt to recuperate the antiquarian past — in Dryden's 1700 adaptation of "Palamon and Arcite," a chivalric epic from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The essays in this Companion are arranged in four sections. The first offers a series of contexts — aesthetic, cultural, economic, political, and religious — for reading and understanding eighteenth-century poetry. The second section contains a sequence of close readings of individual texts, pairs of texts, or groups of texts. The choice of these has been determined in part by their ready availability to readers of Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, to which this Companion is designed to be what its title proclaims. But the texts in "Readings" go far beyond those included in the Anthology, encouraging readers to range more widely. The third section pays attention to a number of different genres and modes that recur through the eighteenth century. The final section, "Themes and Debates," picks up a number of strands of argument and investigation that run through current critical work on eighteenth-century poetry, such as Whig and Tory poetics, the role of the sublime, the self-taught tradition, the constructions of femininity, and the uses of the past.

References and Further Reading

Doody, Margaret (1982). The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ezell, Margaret J. M. (1999). Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Fairer, David (2002). English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century 1700—1789. London: Longman.

Fairer, David, and Gerrard, Christine, eds. (2004). Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell (1st edn. 1999).

Hammond, Brean (1997). The Rise of Professional Imaginative Writing in England 1670—1749: "Hackney for Bread." Oxford: Clarendon.

Lonsdale, Roger, ed. (1984). The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lonsdale, Roger, ed. (1989). Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLaverty, James (2001). Pope, Print, and Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Peake, Charles, ed. (1967). Poetry of the Landscape and the Night: Two Eighteenth-Century Traditions. London: Edward Arnold.

Rogers, Pat (1972). Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture. London: Methuen.

Rothstein, Eric (1981). Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Poetry 1660—1780. Boston, London, and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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