Politics and Poetics

At first glance, the very phrase "party political aesthetics" looks like an oxymoron. The very concept of the aesthetic is often assumed to transcend the historical and political; but this quintessentially post-Romantic idea of the aesthetic serves us poorly in attempting to comprehend the relations between artistic and political spheres in the eighteenth century. Late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets and literary critics perceived art and politics to be fundamentally interdependent: as we shall see, the close (and often slippery) relationship between the two determined matters as diverse as a poet's choice of genre; the plotting of literary history; and notions of poetic originality and conformity, order and liberty. In a period in which the opposition between Whig and Tory frequently seemed to permeate every area of public discourse, debates about poetry and poetic form were inevitably marked by contemporary political debate.

We only have to look at the language of eighteenth-century literary criticism to find the idiom of political involvement. Those writers in this period who talked of the "slavery of rhyme," the "restoration of wit," or the "authority of the ancients" were clearly reading literary debates about order and influence through a political paradigm. Analogies between political and poetic matters were frequently articulated through the widespread conceit of the "republic" or "commonwealth" of letters. The act of literary borrowing and allusion was often configured in terms of legitimate and illegitimate authority: critics write of plagiarism as "usurpation"; of "servile imitation" in those who fail to assert their authorial independence. But beyond this linguistic conflation of the literary and the political there were also perceived to be more substantive connections between the two spheres. One of the most famous examples of contemporary comment on the political implications of poetic form occurs in John Milton's preface to Paradise Lost, in which he offers an explanation for his use of blank verse, asserting that his poem "is to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming" ("The Verse," added to 1668 edition of Paradise Lost).

Here Milton makes an explicit comment on the perceived correlation between poetic and political freedom. In rejecting the contemporary fashion for the "bondage" of rhymed heroic couplets, he claimed that his unrhymed iambic pentameters asserted a poetic liberty that mirrored the restitution of ancient political liberties that was central to his republican politics. If we start to think about how the analogy between literary and political form might operate, we can see from this example that some debates about poetics lent themselves to political analogy: in particular, here the restraining force of the rhyming couplet could be contrasted with the comparative freedom of blank verse. Looking more broadly at the poetry and criticism of the period, the discussion of the role of order and regularity in poetry, of adherence to neoclassical rules, is frequently couched in terms of "authority" and laws; and, conversely, the transgression of prescriptive poetic rules could be seen as a form of poetic liberty [see ch. 25, "Rhyming Couplets and Blank Verse"].

The trouble with trying to formulate the exact nature of these very suggestive correspondences is that any analogy between political and poetic order risks being invalidated by numerous counter-examples. It seems obvious to assume as a general principle that the defiance of formal and generic convention should signal some sort of political defiance. Yet we should be wary of such an assumption: while, as we have seen, John Milton praises the liberties of blank verse, the republican and, later, Whiggish theoretical commitment to blank verse was rarely manifested in practice. If we look at the poetic pronouncements on the freedoms of blank verse made by Whig poets, we shall see that they are commonly framed in the very "servile" heroic couplets that they purport to reject. It is one of the ironies of the development of poetics in this period that the poet who was most successful in popularizing blank verse was in fact a Tory poet, John Philips. Philips parodied Miltonic verse in his early works, The Splendid Shilling (1701) and Blennheim (1705), and with his more serious blank-verse georgic Cyder (1708) he firmly established his reputation as "the Milton of his time." As Juan Pellicer has shown [see ch. 29, "The Georgic"], Philips's poem about cider-making was profoundly rooted in its author's Tory politics, both in its references to friends and patrons, and in its accounts of English history. Philips's decision to imitate the republican Milton in his choice of form clearly demonstrates the struggle for the appropriation of particular forms and genres in this period: while Whig poets were keen to link Milton's blank verse to ideas of political liberty, Philips showed that Tory poets were also reluctant to lose purchase on a verse form that was increasingly associated with a genuine classical style. Clearly, then, any assumption of a correlation between rhyme form and political ideology is problematic. The argument of this essay is not that certain forms exclusively embodied certain ideological values, but that contemporaries struggled against one another in their reading and practice of poetry to lay claim to, or repudiate, political values.

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