There is something miraculous about the phenomenon of Mary Leapor (1722—46), a Northamptonshire kitchen-maid who wrote sparkling, intelligent poetry in the spare moments when she wasn't cleaning and keeping house for others. She died at the age of twenty-four before her first book of poems could be published, just when she was emerging from provincial obscurity and beginning to attract the attention of the London literary establishment. To become a poet at all, given her laboring-class origins, was remarkable, though far from unique in a century when "self-taught" poets were catching the public's imagination; but what makes Leapor special is her sharp eye and subtle ear, her ironic alertness to social performance and poetic conventionality. She responds satirically to anything predictable and false, and while she echoes other poets — notably Pope — she plays with and around their work, giving ideas a particular twist or individual nuance. She rarely offers her voice for our approval or patronage; indeed, she enjoys projecting herself as "Mira," an awkward, garrulous, impatient, daydreaming, and distinctly unprepossessing young lady. Like so many of her creations, Leapor's poetic name (from the Latin miror, to "wonder" or "marvel at") is double-edged: as a poetical serving-girl "Mira" is a miracle to others; but the name also hints at her own capacity to wonder (admiringly or satirically) at the world around her — and to give rein to her imagination. Leapor is forever wondering about things: hinting, conjecturing, or having doubts. This enigmatic self-image is part of a game Mira is constantly playing with the world and with us, and it makes her poetic voice an intriguing one. Let her introduce herself:
You see I'm learned, and I shew't the more, That none may wonder when they find me poor. Yet Mira dreams, as slumbring Poets may, And rolls in Treasures till the breaking Day: While Books and Pictures in bright Order rise, And painted Parlours swim before her Eyes:
Till the shrill Clock impertinently rings, And the soft Visions move their shining Wings: Then Mira wakes, — her Pictures are no more, And through her Fingers slides the vanish'd Ore. Convinc'd too soon, her Eye unwilling falls On the blue Curtains and the dusty Walls: She wakes, alas! to Business and to Woes, To sweep her Kitchen, and to mend her Clothes.
Mira loves mixing the quirky and the predictable, and here in the opening couplet she toys with our expectations, our readiness to "wonder" at this highly literate housemaid. She insists to us that she is merely conforming to the traditional stereotype of the poor scholar or starving poet. Indeed, the scene that follows resembles a recent popular print, The Distrest Poet by William Hogarth (1737), which pictures the poverty-stricken poet writing in his garret, while above him tantalizingly hangs a map entitled "A View of the Gold Mines of Peru." In her imagination Mira "rolls in Treasures," but hers are the riches of the mind. She dreams of having a house of her own, but the only furnishings mentioned are "Books and Pictures" — things that will feed her thoughts. It is a parlor and a library that she covets — a place for warmth and intimate conversation, and a place to read quietly. This is Leapor's world. But the clock chimes, and, like Pope's Belinda at the opening of The Rape of the Lock, she experiences the moment between sleeping and waking when fantasy lingers in the consciousness. In Leapor's poem the transition is compressed into a single line: "And the soft Visions move their shining Wings." The dream prepares to leave, but offers a last glitter of its wings before flying away. Now awake, Mira feels the gold dust slipping through her fingers, and her eyes focus on the material world where the "dusty Walls" recall her to her servant's duties of cleaning, sweeping, and mending. In Hogarth's print the poet's wife sits beside him darning clothes, and Leapor ends her passage with her own satiric overlaying of his two images: she is poet and seamstress in one. We end the passage full of wonder — but at the way she has taken a hackneyed idea and wittily reworked it.
Leapor probably had a rudimentary education at the local dame school in Brackley, where her father ran a nursery garden, and she had the chance to develop her reading while in service at nearby Weston Hall. Its owner, Susanna Jennens (née Blencowe), had literary interests, and the library was well stocked with the works of the poets, dramatists, and essayists. Jennens evidently encouraged her employee's writing, and in the subscription list for Leapor's Poems (1748) the Blencowe family is well represented. By the end of her short life Leapor had accumulated her own small shelf of books, "of about sixteen or seventeen single Volumes, among which were Part of Mr. Pope's Works, Drydens Fables, some Volumes of Plays, &c." We learn this from the memoir written by Bridget Freemantle, daughter of a local rector, who became the poet's close friend after Leapor returned to Brackley to keep house for her father. Freemantle speaks warmly of her good nature and cheerfulness, and of her extraordinary fluency with the pen, "her Thoughts seeming to flow as fast as she could put them upon Paper." Philip Leapor recalled that his only daughter "would often be scribbling, and sometimes in Rhyme," and it seems that this tendency sometimes distracted her from her servant's duties. The only other employment we know about is her job as a kitchen-maid at Edgcote House, a big, old, untidy house owned by the Chauncy family. Many years later an anonymous correspondent in the Gentleman's Magazine (perhaps one of the Chauncys) recalled Leapor "sometimes taking up her pen while the jack was standing still, and the meat scorching." At Edgcote she was apparently expected to fulfill the most menial of kitchen tasks — turning the "jack" or roasting-spit over the fire. It is the kind of vivid detail recorded in her poem about Edgcote, "Crumble-Hall," which appeared in the second volume of Poems (1751).
"Crumble-Hall," like the building it describes, is rambling, full of character, and crammed with odd details. Mira acts throughout as our guide, and not just poetically. She is there at our side, pointing out objects to interest us; or ahead of us, walking briskly through the labyrinth of corridors and twisting staircases, telling us to mind our head. Under such circumstances the reader should be cautious about summarizing the poem's "theme," or fixing it with a single viewpoint. We are being kept on the move, and to be true to the poem's character any reading of it ought to acknowledge its elusiveness. There is no fixed angle of vision, but a series of glimpses, and the reader feels almost physically the variety of spaces that are drawn to our attention — by turns lofty and narrow, public and private, busy and somnolent, dark and light. The many different rooms, each with its distinctive ambience and particular furniture, come before us in no logical order, but each is part of the life of the house. It is a world through which Leapor moves with assurance, like a guide to an old property where she feels at home, and we are only visitors. As critics, therefore, we have to be careful about making up our minds too easily.
Critical discussion of the poem has certainly found it hard to agree. During the 1990s, with the rediscovery of Leapor's work, "Crumble-Hall" became one of her most admired and discussed poems, but sharp differences have arisen about what kind of poem it is, and what attitude the poet takes to her subject. Is it a satire on Edgcote or a celebration of it? Does Leapor speak with the radical voice of an oppressed servant class, or is she happy with her menial place? Is the poem conventional or subversive of convention? Each reader has to find his or her own bearings on these questions; however, such either/or alternatives oversimplify interpretation and tempt us to package up the poem and its author too conveniently. At some moments in describing Crumble-Hall, Leapor clearly has in mind Pope's Epistle to Burlington (1731), with its satiric portrait of the empty magnificence of "Timon's villa" contrasted with the civilized values of Lord Burlington and William Kent; but Pope's dualities — good and bad taste, right and wrong expense, natural and unnatural landscape, humane and pompous architecture, usefulness and mere show, sociability and egotism — need not imply that Leapor's poem is constructed round similar binaries. To read the poem as a satire does not mean that it is mounting an attack on its subject: a satire can employ its ironies more playfully and more variously. We have also to be careful about projecting onto this eighteenth-century servant-girl a set of attitudes based on later models of class conflict, "them" against "us." Indeed, the very concept of an "attitude" implies a relatively stable viewpoint, something that the poem's restless and miscellaneous character might be challenging.
The most provocative and influential reading of "Crumble-Hall" has been that of Landry (1990), who places it within a "satiric scheme" based on a binary of domination/suppression. Leapor the servant is writing back at the system of male hierarchy that the house represents; hers is a plebeian viewpoint "that undeniably mocks and seeks to demystify the values of the gentry, whose social power in large part depends upon the deference — and the continued exploitable subservience — of servants and laborers" (p. 107). Greene (1993) takes the opposite view, finding in the poem "a conservative view of society organized around principles of dependence and obligation," in which Leapor looks back nostalgically to an older social and economic order (pp. 139—40). Griffin (1996) also disagrees with Landry's "ideological" interpretation and prefers to focus on the text as "ironic observation of country-house poem conventions"; Leapor's stance as a poet, he concludes, "seems resignation and bemused ironic deference rather than resentment and anger" (p. 195). In a thoughtfully contextual-ized discussion of the poem, Rumbold (1996) returns to a more radical Leapor, an "alienated insider" who indeed disrupts the conventions of the country-house poem, but does so in a satirically demystifying way: "Leapor's sense of the grand house as a heap of scattered effects . . . expresses a systematic and radical refusal to be impressed, a refusal to construct any coherent aesthetic effect which could resonate with idealizing symbolism" (p. 67). Issues of structural coherence and interpretative detail obviously play an important part in identifying the poem's social message (what critics nowadays tend to call its "politics") — but again there is a danger that thinking in either/or terms will oversimplify. If the poem refuses to idealize, does that constitute criticism? Is Crumble-Hall's incoherence (or lack of cohesion) something negative? Is the house meant to represent a "system," and, if so, is it a system that has broken down or is functioning badly? Or does the poem take pleasure in the unsystematic, and find something positive in the degree to which the life of the place seems to lie in its accumulation of richly varied materials without imposing order or system upon them? This latter possibility needs to be borne in mind as we take a tour of the house.
As Greene notes (1993: 16), Edgcote was a building with a long and distinguished past, and an awareness of its history and physical features can help make sense of some of the details in Leapor's poem. It was owned by Henry V while Prince of Wales (i.e. prior to 1413 when he became king), and in the next century it was in the possession of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister, who was executed in 1540 partly because of his responsibility for the King's disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves. By a neat irony, Edgcote was seized by Henry and given to Anne as part of the costly divorce settlement. A few years later it was bought by William Chauncy, a wealthy lawyer. A surviving drawing of the house dating from 1721 (Heward and Taylor 1996: 19) conveys its sprawling character and shows that it had developed in a piecemeal way, with odd variations in floor level and extensions from different periods, including projecting turrets and a highly elaborate porch added to the main entrance. It is in all senses a "gothic" building, one that, when viewed as a whole, presents a confused mixture of styles and hints at an interior full of fascinating twists and turns. In "Crumble-Hall" Leapor has designed a poem whose aesthetics match those of the house. It is not a grand structure, or one that encourages formality and order; instead it offers corners in which to hide and escape — for those who know their way around. Leapor is clearly such a person, and we have no choice but to place ourselves in her hands and listen carefully.
The lively, talkative qualities of the voice that guides us are established from the outset, where Leapor presents herself in the character of Mira — here in a moping and depressed mood, "With low'ring Forehead, and with aching Limbs, / Oppress'd with Head-ach, and eternal Whims" (ll. 3—4). At this point she is determined to abandon poetry altogether; but the weather suddenly brightens, and her friend Artemisia (Bridget Freemantle) arrives to cheer her up:
Then in a trice the Resolutions fly;
And who so frolick as the Muse and I?
We sing once more, obedient to her Call;
This opening links the poem to the tradition of the eighteenth-century verse letter, a sociable form that exploits the qualities of good conversation. The tone of voice modulates as the talk moves through different subjects. "Artemisia" becomes an addressee along with us, and her good-humored encouragement gives Mira the confidence to begin the tour. But first, before we even glimpse the building, it is presented to us through its history — how it used to be in medieval and Elizabethan times. Mira is aware of the house's tradition of hospitality, and in her role as host she is sensitive to the old courtesies — of greeting strangers and feeding your guests generously. It is good that we should feel welcome, as generations have done before us:
That Crumble-Hall, whose hospitable Door Has fed the Stranger, and reliev'd the Poor; Whose Gothic Towers, and whose rusty Spires, Were known of old to Knights, and hungry Squires. There powder'd Beef, and Warden-Pies, were found; And Pudden dwelt within her spacious Bound: Pork, Peas, and Bacon (good old English Fare!), With tainted Ven'son, and with hunted Hare: With humming Beer her Vats were wont to flow, And ruddy Nectar in her Vaults to glow.
As Mira presents it, this was no mere aristocratic institution, but a place of wider social provision that included the stranger and the poor. Charity was dispensed from its "hospitable Door," and the house was part of the old system of poor relief. Inside, the emphasis is not on male authority, but on female domesticity (the sweet wine glows in "her Vaults"), and in place of a static order the lines describe how everyone joined in and mixed together — the knight, the traveling friar, and the peasant ("Clown"). The "old English Fare" of those days was generous and inclusive:
Here came the Wights, who battled for Renown,
The sable Frier, and the russet Clown:
The loaded Tables sent a sav'ry Gale,
And the brown Bowls were crown'd with simp'ring Ale;
While the Guests ravag'd on the smoking Store,
Till their stretch'd Girdles would contain no more.
The emphasis is on fullness, not exclusion. The house's "spacious Bound" (l. 18), like the bellies of her guests, was able to accommodate a great deal, and there was more than enough to go round.
Landry's reading of this passage doesn't quite enter into the spirit of things: "the venison is tainted," she notes, "the vulnerable hare has been hunted to death to provide meat for this already groaning table, the guests gorge themselves until they are grossly bloated" (1990: 109). As Greene points out (1993: 139), "tainted" actually means having a "gamy" smell, a sign that the venison was well hung and ideal for eating. Like the hares, the deer were home-reared, and, as Greene says (p. 139), there is no reason to think that Leapor ("a kitchen-maid who had regularly to dress fowls, and probably to wring their necks") was at all squeamish about hares. The language in fact shows her determination to bring the scene alive to the senses, as if to whet our appetites: "humming" (l. 21) means "really strong" and recalls Stephen Duck's enthusiastic celebration of the harvest feast in The Thresher's Labour: "A Table plentifully spread we find, / And Jugs of humming Beer to cheer the Mind" (ll. 270-1). "Smoking" and "simp'ring" (simmering) are similarly meant to tickle our palates.
The description makes the house's former character palpable, as though we can still smell and taste the food. This evocation is linked to our sense of the building's old spirit of generosity and capaciousness - its ability to contain so much history and so many layers of human experience. The place is an antique survival, and if it has a soul it does not lie in the possession of the Chauncys, who a few years later pulled the whole ramshackle edifice down. By stressing Edgcote's rich past, Leapor takes it out of the hands of its present owners — who make only a fleeting appearance in the poem — and suggests its independent life. From the outset we see that it is an inconvenient, gothic building. Bits have been added on here and there; part is brick, part stone; the rooms are a jumble, and there is no sign of planning. Like history itself, the house and its contents have somehow accumulated over time. The "gothic" elements of the poem therefore can be viewed as resisting an imposed order. Its aesthetic is defiantly not one of beauty and harmony, but of decay, disorder, untidiness, and mixture, in which the grotesque is repeatedly invoked. It is important to stress that these elements are not, as they would tend to be in Pope or Swift, inherently negative. The effects of this gothic aesthetic in the poem are more subtle, and we should not automatically assume that anything untidy or grotesque is being subjected to satiric disapproval. It is, after all, the place that Leapor's wealthy employers want to get rid of.
Nevertheless, there is satiric potential in the way Mira's eyes scan the details of the building. The effect is more than slightly forbidding:
two grim Giants o'er the Portals stand; Whose grisled Beards are neither comb'd nor shorn, But look severe, and horribly adorn [= "ornate"].
Then step within - there stands a goodly Row Of oaken Pillars — where a gallant Show Of mimic Pears and carv'd Pomgranates twine, With the plump Clusters of the spreading Vine. Strange Forms above, present themselves to View; Some Mouths that grin, some smile, and some that spew. Here a soft Maid or Infant seems to cry: Here stares a Tyrant, with distorted Eye . . .
The elaborate stone porch in Elizabethan style, with its "high ornate gable decorated with an achievement of arms flanked by statues in niches" (Heward and Taylor 1996: 204), was thrust out from the front of the house to provide a grand entrance. It was probably erected to receive Queen Elizabeth when she visited Edgcote in 1572, and Her Majesty would have been expected to appreciate the symbolic carvings. The two "grim Giants" were probably Gog and Magog, the mythical guardians of the City of London's liberties, familiar to the queen from the statues at the Guildhall. For Mira they are little more than a pair of ruffians. Passing inside, Elizabeth would note the symbols of fertility (pomegranates) and fruition — at a moment when she was contemplating marriage with the Duke of Alengon. Mira delights in their lifelike mimicry. Above her head the grotesque carved heads make a vivid impression, but if there was any symbolic narrative here Mira ignores it. She does, however, recognize an angry tyrant when she sees him.
In this passage an innocent eye ignores the visual imagery that underpinned state ceremonial. Standing where Her Majesty stood, Mira looks at things in a very different way. Her meanings tend to be literal ones, readings of the surface that leave symbolic interpretations alone. In this sense her language is humorously "demystifying." But she is not afraid to introduce imagery of her own alongside the observed physical detail, and the effect can be disconcerting. Instead of having a scene composed for us, we are given a rapid succession of different effects. This happens on entering the great hall:
The Roof — no Cyclops e'er could reach so high: Not Polypheme, tho' form'd for dreadful Harms, The Top could measure with extended Arms. Here the pleas'd Spider plants her peaceful Loom: Here weaves secure, nor dreads the hated Broom. But at the Head (and furbish'd once a Year) The Heralds mystic Compliments appear: Round the fierce Dragon Honi Soit twines, And Royal Edward o'er the Chimney shines.
At the very moment we notice the roof, Mira makes us imagine Polyphemus, the threatening giant in Homer's Odyssey, reaching up into its lofty spaces. But in the next line the effect is utterly different, and in place of the fearful monster we notice the tiny spider weaving its web in peace. Our eyes then switch to the carved coat of arms ("The Heralds mystic Compliments") which takes us into the world of medieval chivalry and the house's royal associations. Henry V was a Knight of the Order of the Garter, established by Edward III ("Royal Edward") in the fourteenth century. Its patron saint was St George, and the carving evidently showed him slaying the dragon, entwined with the motto of the order, Honi soit qui mal y pense ("Shame be to him who thinks evil of it"). The succession is dizzying: from Homer's Cyclops, to the domestic spider, to the garter knight's regalia. There is no hierarchy here, and the effect seems confused - until we realize that what links these details are the thoughts of a servant who had to clean the place. At various times Mira must have wished for the "extended Arms" of Polyphemus, noticed the spider's web out of reach of her broom, remembered that the coat of arms would soon need its annual clean, and checked that the carved wooden chimneypiece was well polished.
The old symbolic meanings of Crumble-Hall may have fallen away, but this does not drain the house of its richness or make its world less fascinating to Mira's eyes. For her it has developed many new meanings. It has become a great benign storehouse where many lives can be lived. We have already noticed the spider, who feels at home where the dust accumulates. There are also spooky, dark passageways, but these make an ideal refuge for the mice:
Safely the Mice through yon dark Passage run,
Where the dim Windows ne'er admit the Sun.
Along each Wall the Stranger blindly feels;
And (trembling) dreads a Spectre at his Heels.
Mira enjoys squeezing the mice and the disoriented visitor into the same space. The "gothic" character of the house is clearly double-edged. In the mind of the "Stranger" it may create sublime terror; but for Mira, who knows the place, its elements of wildness and confusion create a mixed economy in which all forms of life, however humble, can find a home:
These Rooms are furnish'd amiably, and full:
Old Shoes, and Sheep-ticks bred in Stacks of Wool;
Grey Dobbin's Gears, and Drenching-Horns enow;
Wheel-spokes — the Irons of a tatter'd Plough.
It is a house where nothing seems ever to have been thrown away. Crumble-Hall is crammed with characters, living and dead, historical and mythological (here Dobbin the old horse lingers on in spirit), and various odd contraptions that no longer work but still reside there. Inside the piled-up wool the sheep ticks live undisturbed, part of the organic microcosm of the place. The phrase "amiably, and full" is characteristic of a poem where elements of chaos and confusion become part of a good-natured gothic excess. What might be satiric juxtapositions tend to be viewed as intriguing mixtures.
This idea is crucial to the "politics" of the poem. As Leapor presents it, Edgcote is not a place that is easily controlled. In an elegant neoclassical building like Burlington's Chiswick House, with its interiors by William Kent (celebrated in Pope's Epistle), every space is ordered and harmoniously proportioned in the "Palla-dian" style, its levels hierarchically planned so that the piano nobile (the first floor containing the formal public rooms) would be set apart from the domestic spaces; but in Crumble-Hall things tend to be jumbled together. Not surprisingly, Mira isn't bothered about ideas of classical proportion, and mocks the notion of "Form": "The Form — 'tis neither long, nor round, nor square; / The Walls how lofty, and the Floor how wide, / We leave for learned Quadrus to decide" (ll. 65—7). As she presents it, the house has no "formal" life, and matters of form seem to go by the board. In such a place it is hard to watch over the servants, and this particular kitchen-maid has obviously had lots of opportunities to roam and to pry. The great hall, at ground level (where muddy boots would make expensive carpets impossible) evidently functions as a corridor, across which the staff come and go:
Shall we proceed? — Yes, if you'll break the Wall: If not, return, and tread once more the Hall. Up ten Stone Steps now please to drag your Toes, And a brick Passage will succeed to those.
The equivalent satiric passage in Pope's Epistle to Burlington is entirely different in its implications:
My Lord advances with majestic mien, Smit with the mighty pleasure, to be seen:
But soft — by regular approach — not yet — First thro' the length of yon hot Terrace sweat, And when up ten steep slopes you've drag'd your thighs, Just at his Study-door he'll bless your eyes.
There is no doubt who is in command of these vast spaces. Lord Timon rules over his domain, and the guest has to rise, with painful slowness, to his majestic level. In Crumble-Hall the owners have no such vantage-point, and although we sense that Mira would like to knock the wall through and make a convenient short cut for herself, there is a certain glee in the way she, a mere menial servant, can boss us around:
Would you go farther? — Stay a little then: Back thro' the Passage — down the Steps again; Thro' yon dark Room — Be careful how you tread Up these steep Stairs — or you may break your Head.
Where Pope satirizes the layout of Timon's villa as a stage-set for its owner's pride and control, Leapor's scene has a servant in charge, warning, advising, and directing. The owners of Crumble-Hall are kept out of the way, except for the moment when Mira lets us peep into the library. Here we find someone who clearly doesn't appreciate his surroundings or value what he has. For someone who so prized her own handful of books, her master's indifference to his collection is to be noted with a touch of contempt:
Here Biron sleeps, with Books encircled round;
And him you'd guess a Student most profound.
Not so — in Form the dusty Volumes stand:
There's few that wear the Mark of Biron's Hand.
The phrase "in Form" is the devastating one. The books stand in their orderly arrangement — they exist only for ceremony, for what they say to a visitor, not for what they mean for the owner. They are, for Leapor, symbolic. This distinction helps us appreciate both the house and the poem, where "form" and symbolism are shunned, and it is informality — even an element of formlessness — that generates life and meaning.
But Leapor has promised us a landscape description, one of whose formal features was the "prospect," where the poet occupies a commanding position and displays the sweeping view for the reader. It is almost as though she realizes she is doing this only for form's sake; and when Mira finally coaxes us up to a small door in the lead roof, where a panorama of the Edgcote estate is waiting, the result is brief and characterless. We reach it exhausted and protesting, but she must go through with it:
No farther — Yes, a little higher, pray: At yon small Door you'll find the Beams of Day, While the hot Leads return the scorching Ray. Here a gay Prospect meets the ravish'd Eye: Meads, Fields, and Groves, in beauteous Order lie.
That is all we are given. After the vivid, confused details of the house, the moment when we are ready to contemplate the "beauteous Order" of Edgcote becomes a poetic anti-climax. Lines 105—6 are bland and cursory in the extreme (anyone could have written them), and the scene is generalized to nothing. It is clearly with a sense of relief that Mira acknowledges this is not a place where her muse feels at home:
From hence the Muse precipitant is hurl'd, And drags down Mira to the nether World.
The underworld that awaits is the kitchen, a busy, warm place full of enticing smells, where all the estate servants and the dogs congregate. At last we recognize how the old traditions of Edgcote hospitality are continuing. Here is to be found the modern equivalent of those guests who once "ravag'd on the smoking Store, / Till their stretch'd Girdles would contain no more" (ll. 27—8):
O'er stuff'd with Beef; with Cabbage much too full, And Dumpling too (fit Emblem of his Skull!) With Mouth wide open, but with closing Eyes Unwieldy Roger on the Table lies.
There is something of the house's character in unwieldy Roger, a modern gargoyle stirring into life. He is a living descendant of those carved faces on the porch roof ("Some Mouths that grin, some smile, and some that spew," l. 40), and in him the grotesque is humanized. While Biron takes his dignified sleep alone in the library, Roger becomes part of a social comedy, with his disappointed lover, Ursula, improvising an amusing anti-pastoral scene around the kitchen table ("I baste the Mutton with a chearful Heart, / Because I know my Roger will have Part," ll. 148—9).
The person who presides over this comic "nether World" is Sophronia the pastrycook, whose skill and experience make her another figure who embodies both the spirit and the mixed aesthetics of Leapor's poem:
Sophronia sage! whose learned Knuckles know To form round Cheese-cakes of the pliant Dough; To bruise the Curd, and thro' her Fingers squeeze
Ambrosial Butter with the temper'd Cheese: Sweet Tarts and Pudden, too, her Skill declare; And the soft Jellies, hid from baneful Air.
Sophronia, too, continues the tradition of the house, and her mixture is a particularly delicious one. As a culinary artist she knows how to "form" the cheesecakes, but she does so by bruising and squeezing her materials, working them together with energy and flair. Form is not an imposed regularity, but a shaping of the "pliant" ingredients. This is the message that Leapor's Crumble-Hall has for life and art. It is not a modern idea, but an old theme that has grown over centuries with the house itself.
But by the end of the poem all these untidy generosities are about to be cleared away. Mira finally takes us out into the garden, which is a place where art has allowed nature to be herself, and where she too is free to "let frolick Fancy rove" (l. 156). This is Mira's natural playful mode ("who so frolick as the Muse and I?," l. 10), and the scene delights her with its surfaces, colors, and reflections. Around the lake the water-reeds ("Flags") contribute their sharpness to the softened forms:
Soft flow'ry Banks the spreading Lakes divide:
Sharp-pointed Flags adorn each tender Side.
See! The pleas'd Swans along the Surface play;
Where yon cool Willows meet the scorching Ray . . .
In this landscape opposing effects (the "pointed" and the "tender," the "cool" and the "scorching"), rather than being harmoniously compromised, are set in lively and refreshing contrast. This consciously "poetic" and composed passage comes as something of a relief after the steaming activity of the kitchen ("But now her Dish-Kettle began / To boil and blubber with the foaming Bran," 150-1) - but it is a tactical composure, soon broken by an unexpected scream:
But, hark! What Scream the wond'ring Ear invades!
The Dryads howling for their threaten'd Shades:
Round the dear Grove each Nymph distracted flies.
There is nothing "demystifying" about Leapor's approach here - quite the contrary. Mira's landscape is full of invisible spirits, and the emotive imagery of invasion and violation tells us that she is no rationalist. The felling of the grove is a sign that change is on the way, and the magic of the place is disappearing. The old romantic place is about to be opened up, with the shady, tangled woods transformed into smooth slopes. Edgcote's days were indeed numbered, and its gardens are beginning to feel the effects of the formal "improvements" begun in 1742 (Heward and Taylor 1996: 206). As for the buildings, the kitchen was pulled down three years later, and in 1748 the rambling gothic house was demolished.
Its replacement was constructed to an elegant Palladian design (complete withpiano nobile) by William Jones of London, a follower of William Kent and author of The Gentlemens or Builder's Companion, containing variety of usefull designs for doors, gateways, peers, pavilions, temples, &c. (1739). No doubt Pope would have approved.
Leapor's poem, however, although often recalling Pope's Epistle to Burlington, raises questions about the artistic principles his poem endorses. "In all, let Nature never be forgot," advises Pope, "Consult the Genius of the Place in all" (ll. 50, 57). These are fine sentiments; but Leapor's poem about the "Genius" of Crumble-Hall complicates both the idea and the decorous aesthetic on which it is founded. Her guiding spirit is no abstraction, but something woven into the physical fabric of the place; and her "Nature" is not a shaping ideal, but someone who would prefer to be left alone. The poem suggests that Leapor would have nodded in sympathy with Joseph Warton's rhetorical question: "Can Kent design like nature?" ("The Enthusiast," 1744, l. 47). But as Mira watches the felled trees being carted away, she is conscious of another dimension to the unnaturalness, one that is bound up with a notion of respecting the past and valuing your links with it. She laments the loss of "those Shades,"
Whose rev'rend Oaks have known a hundred Springs; Shall these ignobly from their Roots be torn, And perish shameful, as the abject Thorn; While the slow Carr bears off their aged Limbs, To clear the Way for Slopes, and modern Whims; Where banish'd Nature leaves a barren Gloom, And aukward Art supplies the vacant Room?
It is clear that what is being severed here is a palpable continuity between past and present, and we realize that Leapor has throughout been keeping this idea in view. There are no vacant rooms in "Crumble-Hall." On the contrary, what comes across to readers is the sheer fullness of its life. This is never exhausted, and criticism will continue to find new aspects to focus on. It is understanding the life within the art that is the challenge and reward of the poem.
See also chs. 8, "Women Poets and Their Writing in Eighteenth-Century Britain"; 31, "The Constructions of Femininity"; 40, "Rural Poetry and the Self-Taught Tradition."
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