Eighteenth Century English Poetry and the Classics Debates and Dilemmas

Ubiquitous as it was, the presence of the classics in eighteenth-century English poetry — and in eighteenth-century culture more generally — was, and remains, a focus of controversy. The late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century "Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns" (also known in England as "the Battle of the Books" — the title Swift gave to his satire of 1704) centered on whether ancient accomplishments in philosophy, science, and the arts should be regarded as absolute ideals, never to be surpassed, or whether modern writers and thinkers should strike out on their own, independent of classical precedent. The more extreme Moderns cast their opponents as nostalgic reactionaries who were both insufficiently respectful of recent literature and scholarship, and inadequately attentive to the historical "otherness" of ancient cultures (see Levine 1991; Patey 1997). The Ancients retorted that much modern scholarship was mere pedantry or modishness, that much modern literature was incompetent, dull, and venally motivated, and that an admiration for antiquity did not necessitate slavish genuflection and inert copying. Such arguments continued as the century progressed. The earlier eighteenth-century preoccupation with the classics, its critics maintained with increasing insistence, was grounded in a belief in timeless human values and unchanging human nature which was inadequately attentive to cultural difference and to the radically transforming processes of historical change. It also betrayed creative insecurity, and masked an essential lack of the "original genius" which, some now argued, constituted the only legitimate basis of literary greatness. [See ch. 34, "Augustanism and Pre-Romanticism."]

This trend, it should be emphasized, represented only one strand in a complex web of critical opinion, and for a long time coexisted with much enduring respect for earlier poetic classicism. Works like Pope's Iliad continued to be reprinted in popular editions, and were widely read throughout the literate population. But by the end of the nineteenth century the eighteenth-century handling of classical literature seemed substantially outmoded. Its reverence for classical precedent smacked of Frenchified rule-mongering. Its translations seemed decorous and "artificial" cuttings-down of their Greek and Roman originals to the size of the Age of Elegance. The scholar Richard Bentley's reported reaction to Pope's Iliad ("A very pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you mustn't call it Homer") now seemed merely a self-evident truism.

Such attitudes have remained surprisingly resilient to this day. A number of excellent specialist studies, to be sure, have offered positive revaluations of the aesthetic foundations of eighteenth-century poetic classicism. Such work has demonstrated the sensitivity, creativity, and intelligence with which the best writers of the period engaged with the literature of Greece and Rome. It has illuminated the subtle blend of similarity and difference which the eighteenth-century poets discovered in their classical precursors — a stance far removed from the naive "essentialism" with which they have been sometimes charged (see Brower 1959; Erskine-Hill 1983; Knight 1951; Mason 1972; Rosslyn 1980, 1990, 1997, 2002; Shankman 1983; Stack 1985; Tomlinson 2003). But, despite all this endeavor, the classicism of eighteenth-century poets remains uncongenial to many modern readers. In particular, the translations that formed such a central part of their project are nowadays mostly unread. The complete text of Pope's Iliad, for example — a work which most eighteenth-century readers would have automatically included among the supreme poetic masterpieces of the age — is not even currently in print. It gets no consideration on most literary courses, and no discussion in most student introductions to Pope's work.

Various factors seem to have conspired to produce this situation. Many modern readers feel at sea when confronting a world of classical myth and history in which they have no training or experience. And, despite the insistence of so much recent literary theory on the textually "constructed" nature of perceived reality, a vulgar-romantic aesthetic of "personal expression" still informs much common thinking about poetry, militating against the appreciation of work of such obvious intertextual "literariness" as that of the eighteenth-century classicists. On both counts, the late Philip Larkin probably spoke for many when, after declaring his conviction that nowadays "the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little," pronounced that poems come

"from being oneself, in life," rather than "from other poems" (Larkin 2001: 20, 54). Eighteenth-century classicism is, moreover, often regarded as suspect on political and ideological grounds. Ian Watt's still influential The Rise of the Novel (1957) campaigned for the early (middle-class) novelists' emphasis on "truth to individual experience" in the face of a supposed (elite) classicizing emphasis on "general human types" and "general truths" (Watt 1957: 9-34). And there has been a persistent tendency - no doubt reinforced by the continuing association of classical learning with educational and social privilege — to identify eighteenth-century classicism with a "gentry" culture, fighting a rearguard action against the more "progressive" tendencies of its age.

Nor has there been much support for the eighteenth-century translators of the classics from a quarter whence one might have expected it: modern classical scholarship. For if students of English literature have been reluctant to read these versions because they are insufficiently "original," professional classicists have — with a few distinguished exceptions - neglected them because they depart too regularly and too radically from the literal meaning of their sources. For some "translation theorists," such departures reveal the eighteenth-century translators' desire to "colonize" or "appropriate" their originals, overriding the "otherness" of the Greek or Latin texts in an attempt to "accommodate" them to their own ethical and aesthetic norms (see Venuti 1995). In such accounts, Bentley's quip (quoted above) acquires a further lease of life.

Some truth must be conceded to the hostile modern view of eighteenth-century classicism. The paraphernalia of classical art and learning were, indeed, sometimes used in the art and literature of the period in merely inert, conventional, and ideologically oppressive ways. Some of the classical allusions in eighteenth-century minor poetry are merely routine and predictable displays of learned lumber acquired in the course of a genteel education. And some of the period's translations may fairly be described as weakly derivative exercises in the mode of Dryden, Pope, or Milton.

But the classical engagement of the period's best poets is of an altogether different kind. In such work, the modern poet stands in an active, dialogic relationship with his classical source, using his encounter with a poetic peer or with styles and forms from a "foreign" culture to nourish and revitalize the native tradition, and extending his own imaginative vision by internalizing and articulating sentiments and perceptions derived from the distant past. In re-creating the imaginings of their ancient predecessors, the greatest eighteenth-century poets were simultaneously discovering potentialities in themselves and making those potentialities available to their readers. Philip Larkin's "being oneself, in life," such poets realized, far from guaranteeing superior creative integrity, can all too easily involve imprisoning oneself in the tunnel vision of one time, one place, one personality, and one literary tradition.

The creativity of the best eighteenth-century poetic classicism is visible both in direct translations and imitations of classical originals, and in works which are more obliquely based on ancient styles and forms. By way of illustration, let us briefly consider examples of all three types of writing, taken from the work of a single poet: Alexander Pope.

0 0

Post a comment