Critical Debates

Scholarship of the past three decades has enriched and complicated our understanding of eighteenth-century political history. Debates that began in the 1980s and still reverberate today have challenged traditional preconceptions of the eighteenth century as a period of stability and complacency. Linda Colley's pioneering work on British-ness, which stimulated wide-ranging discussions of national identity, examined the ways in which the 1707 Act of Union forged a sense of nationhood in which distinctive Scottish, Welsh, and Irish allegiances were subsumed under a larger sense of Britain as a Protestant nation pitted against Catholic France (Colley 1992). Britain's growing confidence as an imperial power has been the subject of some broad-ranging studies of empire [see ch. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"]. Revisionist historians such as J. C. D. Clark, debating the nature and impact of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, have argued controversially that England remained a static, confessional state, still dominated by the Anglican Church and not altered substantially by secularization, urbanization, or proto-democratic parliamentary change (Clark 1985). Both revisionist historians and historians of nationhood placed a renewed emphasis, for different ends, on the importance of monarchy: its rituals, its court culture, its literature. The tradition of Tory political satire centered on Dryden, Pope, Swift, and Johnson was reanimated by debates over the extent to which any or all of these writers remained secretly committed to the exiled House of Stuart. Jacobitism, once dismissed as an antiquarian idyll, was again taken seriously by some (not all) historians and literary scholars. Critics such as Howard Erskine-Hill and Murray Pittock mined the writ ings of all the major male poets in the canon for evidence of Jacobite innuendo and symbolism (Erskine-Hill 1981-2, 1982, 1984, 1996; Pittock 1994). Other critics compensated for the comparative neglect of the literary culture of the Whig party which dominated British political life between 1688 and 1760 (Womersley 1997, 2005; Williams 2005). Their work established the contours of a modern, forward-looking Whig cultural agenda embracing piety, politeness, and patriotism. Poets such as Richard Blackmore, Thomas Tickell, and Ambrose Philips, familiar as the butt of Pope's satire on "dull" writers, are now seen to have participated in, and even prompted, a dialectic with Tory poetry and criticism.

Pioneering work by critics such as Carol Barash, Kathryn King, and Sarah Prescott has enlarged the field of enquiry to include the work of women poets, once entirely absent from critical accounts of poetry and politics in this period. Barash's seminal work on late seventeenth-century women poets - Aphra Behn, Katherine Phillips, Mary Chudleigh, Jane Barker, and Anne Finch — emphasized their Tory, royalist, and Jacobite affiliations and their associations with queens and consorts such as Mary of Modena and Queen Anne (Barash 1996). More recent work has begun to reconstruct the lives and works of female poets writing in the Whig tradition. As Prescott has shown (2005b), Elizabeth Singer Rowe and Susannah Centlivre greeted the new order under William III with enthusiasm, advancing a cultural and political agenda that was essentially Protestant, militaristic, and modern. Centlivre, a firm supporter of the Hanoverian succession, subsequently produced some stringently anti-Jacobite verse. George Il's intellectual and ambitious consort, Caroline of Anspach, became a muse figure for male and female Protestant Whig poets as well as the satiric butt of male Tory satirists. As King asserts, women poets participated in a wide range of different political discourses — republican, Whig, Tory, Jacobite — and a range of genres: satire, pamphlets, panegyrics, and odes (King 2003).

Many of the subsequent essays in this volume — notably those by Suvir Kaul (ch. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"), John Morillo (ch. 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm"), Brean Hammond (ch. 27, "Verse Satire"), Margaret Koehler (ch. 28, "The Ode"), Juan Pellicer (ch. 29, "The Georgic"), Abigail Williams (ch. 32, "Whig and Tory Poetics"), and Gerard Carruthers (ch. 41, "Poetry Beyond the English Borders") — show how the relationship between poetry and politics in this period informs genre and permeates, even generates, aesthetic debate. A number of essays in the "Readings" section (Part II) place individual texts or pairs of texts in their context and offer a detailed interpretation of their political implications. The present essay is designed primarily as an introduction to such debates by offering a chronological discussion of poetic responses to major political events and concerns in the period covered by this volume.

0 0

Post a comment