Liberty and Letters

While Montagu's poem is mainly concerned with the moral reformation of English literature, her emphasis on freedom and progress reflects an emphasis on the native development of liberty and letters found elsewhere in critical writing of the eighteenth century. Rather than dating the heyday of modern letters from the Restoration of 1660, many Whig writers instead saw the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 as the pivotal point in the nation's literary history. They argued that the constitutional freedom of post-Revolution Britain created the ideal political context within which to develop native literary excellence, and they traced a cyclical history of the growth and decline of classical Greece and Rome which they used to demonstrate a correspondence between political liberty and literary achievement. One of the reasons why so many Whig writers were convinced of the link between political liberty and literary excellence was because of the influence of the Greek theorist Longinus' influential treatise on the sublime, Peri Hupsous [see ch. 37, "The Sublime"]. Longinus' theories of poetic process were rooted in the concept that great writing could flourish only with political freedom, a concept that was to provide the basis for the longstanding perception that great poetry - and in particular, the sublime - was intrinsically linked to political liberty.

As early eighteenth-century Whig writers saw it, the recently established freedoms of the English constitution heralded a period of literary excellence, and we can trace the influence of this belief in the interconnection of liberty and letters through to mid-eighteenth-century poetry and to Mark Akenside's long poem, The Pleasures of Imagination (1744). Throughout the Pleasures, the glories of freedom are extolled in relation to civic virtue and patriotism, and in Book II in particular Akenside asserts the interdependence of aesthetic process and political order. He describes the unstringing of the Muses' lyre under despotism, and then the revival of letters and liberty:

Each muse and each fair science pin'd away The sordid hours: while foul, barbarian hands Their mysteries profan'd, unstrung the lyre, And chain'd the soaring pinion down to earth.

But now, behold! the radiant sra dawns When freedom's ample fabric, fix'd at length For endless years on Albion's happy shore In full proportion, once more shall extend To all the kindred pow'rs of social bliss A common mansion, a parental roof.

There shall the Virtues, there shall Wisdom's train, Their long-lost friends rejoining, as of old Embrace the smiling family of arts, The Muses and the Graces.

We see here that some of the rhetoric formerly used to celebrate the Restoration of the arts in 1660 is now being employed to articulate a Whiggish political agenda. Where the Tory Dryden had associated literary barbarism with the republicanism of the 1640s and 1650s, in the Whig Akenside's poem it is the decline of classical republicanism and the ensuing despotism of monarchical rule that represent the unstringing of the lyre by "foul barbarian hands." The "radiant era" for Akenside is not the new Augustan age of the Restoration, but the period ushered in by the post-1688 constitution. Order, or "proportion," and virtue are the products of the political settlement established at the Glorious Revolution.

Akenside's belief in the transition of liberty and letters from classical Greece and Rome through to modern Britain was a theory that found expression in the early and mid-eighteenth-century "progress poem." Works such as Samuel Cobb's "The Progress of Poetry" (1707), Judith Madan's Progress of Poetry (1721), and James Thomson's Liberty (1735-6) represent a popular genre that offered a politico-historical account of Western literature. In tracing liberty's westward movement from classical Greece and Rome through to modern Britain, the progress poem provided a narrative of cultural development that seemed to confirm that British arts would flourish under the present constitution. By the mid-eighteenth century this theory had become something of a commonplace. Yet it had also become a source of concern. In "The Progress of Poetry" (1757), Thomas Gray describes a fairly familiar story, the flight of the Muses from first Greece, and then Rome:

Every shade and hallowed fountain

Murmured deep a solemn sound:

Till the sad Nine in Greece's evil hour

Left their Parnassus for the Latian plains.

Alike they scorn the pomp of tyrant-power,

And coward Vice that revels in her chains.

When Latium had her lofty spirit lost,

They sought, oh Albion! next thy sea-encircled coast.

Yet although Gray, like so many others, identifies England as the new home of political liberty, his conviction of the mutuality of political and poetic progress has none of the confidence of earlier writers. Gray's progress poem does not end with the generically conventional triumph of contemporary verse. We have instead a sense of the evanescence of the poetic muse, as the speaker laments "Oh! lyre divine, what daring spirit / Wakes thee now?" (ll. 112-13). One can see a similar loss of faith in the idea of poetic progress in William Collins's "Ode on the Poetical Character" (1747), a poem which again seems to emulate the progress genre in tracing the English poetic tradition through Spenser and Milton, but yet concludes with the dramatic announcement of the speaker's failure to follow Milton's visionary poetics: "My trembling Feet his guiding Steps pursue; / In vain" (ll. 71—2). Where earlier eighteenth-century poets had proudly heralded the advent of the brave new world of liberty and letters, we can see in the poetry of Collins and Gray a suspicion that the sophisticated culture of modern Britain might not be the place to find the Muses. As contemporary historians and philosophers developed their understanding of the history and culture of primitive societies, mid-eighteenth-century writers began to look to the poetry of those earlier "ancient" cultures in an attempt to understand, and recapture, the most primal sources of poetic power. Increasingly, the sources of poetic inspiration were more likely to be associated with primitive cultures. Collins's Oriental Eclogues (1757), his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands (written 1749—50, published 1788), and Gray's "The Bard" (1757) all offer explorations of alternative, much earlier poetic traditions in which inspiration and poetic vision could still be found. Within a few years James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton would attempt to recover genuine ancient poetry by reconstructing or fabricating the voices of the past, in the form of the poems of Ossian and the manuscripts of Thomas Rowley. This late eighteenth-century enthusiasm for poetic primitivism signaled the death knell for the progress poem, which had been rooted in the conviction that the development of civilization and that of poetry were coterminous.

It could be argued that in the examples cited above we have seen the poles of critical opinion about poetry in this period: the Tory poems emphasize the need for the restoration of order, the Whigs the desire to free literature from the "chains" of formal convention. They bring us back to the question of the actual correlation between the ideological and the aesthetic. Trying to formulate some general principles based on the analogy between ideological and aesthetic stance, we might expect that Whig poetry, with its emphasis on liberty, would promote freedoms in poetic form, while Tory poetry would stress order and custom in form. So how far do these associations operate in the literature of the period?

0 0

Post a comment