Progress and Commerce

Dyer's ideal eye - a roving, "georgic" eye - is scientifically "curious": the injunctions to observe "how" and "why" emphasize his restless empirical drive. Typically, georgic method is experimental ("Trials must decide": The Sugar-Cane, i. 246). Philips urges apple cultivators to be guided by "experience" in the sense of "experiment" (Cyder, i. 326; OED 1. b). But georgic wisdom also consists in catching "sparks from experience," garnering "knowledge rare" from "improving talk" (The Fleece, ii. 552—4). For Dyer, science progresses incrementally, and sometimes also fortuitously, as when the Dutch alchemist Cornelius Drebbel (1572—1633), "seeking the secret source of gold," discovered the use of tin as a mordant for cochineal (ii. 584—90). Characteristically, this modern example (which owes something to Philips's casting of the modern scientist as alchemist, as e.g. in Cyder, ii. 333—43) is linked with a corresponding example from antiquity, which "prefigures" Drebbel's discovery of the link between tin and red dye. Dyer relates how the Phoenician hero-god Melqart (Tyrian Melicertes, identified by the Greeks as a local Hercules and by Dyer as an all-round georgic hero) first introduced Cornish tin to the Mediterranean, and how he chanced to discover the famous "Tyrian purple," a crimson dye yielded by the murex, a shellfish, when he observed its stain on his sheepdog's mouth: this is the discovery that "drew the pomp of trade to rising Tyre" (ii. 591—9). A great deal is going on here that is central to georgic's concerns. Scientific innovation is viewed in an evolutionary perspective, in which growth is represented as a cumulative process rather than a progressive displacement of the old by the new. Characteristically, georgic juxtaposes the old and the new in a spirit of extension and conservation (Fairer 2003a: 98). For this reason, though georgic poets are typically au fait with their scientific and agricultural topics, it will always be possible to accuse the poet of having failed to "choose" between the ancient and the modern, or between the old-fashioned and the up-to-the-minute. Dyer is not concerned to applaud or condemn "progress," but rather to suggest traces of providential continuity and recurrence in the connections he observes between the worlds of ancient and modern industry and trade: the links between shepherding, tin mining, and dyeing; between Britons and Phoenicians as maritime commercial peoples.

Georgic has always been commercially orientated. Since Hesiod's Works and Days and Odysseus' description of the Cyclops' island in The Odyssey Book IX (which contains the earliest contrastive description of pastoral and georgic landscapes in literature), georgic has described the ties between cultivated nature and maritime trade. The Virgilian theme of natural variety and its social mirror image, commerce, has already been observed. Among the many "georgic" utterances in The Spectator, perhaps the most emblematic is Addison's declaration in no. 414 that "the prettiest Landskip I ever saw, was one drawn on the Walls of a dark Room [a camera obscura], which stood opposite on one side to a navigable River, and on the other to a Park." This interplay of maritime and natural worlds precisely defines georgic. Underlining his attempt to further incorporate pastoral, Dyer has a "georgic" ship trim its sails by a pastiche-pastoral riverbank in the final lines of The Fleece Book I, and the end of the work triumphantly concludes its seaborne movement eastward and westward from secluded English and Welsh "pastoral" valleys to the farthest outposts of Britain's commercial empire (Barrell 1983: 91—9). Maritime trade is Dyer's great theme for sublime treatment. He uses georgic in part to naturalize commercial panegyric (the vein of Richard Glover's London: or, the Progress of Commerce, 1739) in the physico-theological tradition:

And when the priest displays, in just discourse, Him, the all-wise Creator, and declares His presence, pow'r, and goodness, unconfin'd, 'Tis Trade, attentive voyager, who fills His lips with argument.

Yet although The Fleece fully illustrates the degree to which commerce is germane to georgic concerns, trade is not equally important in all British georgics, as the examples of Somervile and Armstrong most obviously show. Philips's Cyder praises not the merchant fleet but the British navy, in support of a Tory blue-water policy rather than the commercial expansionism of later decades. Pope's Windsor-Forest (1713) begins to develop the theme of "benevolent" imperial trade in British georgic. In the years of the "Patriot" opposition to the Walpole ministry (which continued a few years beyond his resignation in 1742), this idealism gives way to a more aggressive version of the blue-water naval policy, urged in Smart's Hop-Garden as an instrument of commercial expansion.

What seems beyond doubt is that the reputation of trade among the reading public is a crucial variable in the career of British georgic. The rise of georgic in the first half of the eighteenth century coincides with a generally sympathetic, often celebratory, portrayal of commerce and merchants in polite literature - Defoe and Thomson are two of the many writers one might mention [see also ch. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"]. Georgic's decline coincides with the increasing hostility to "trade's unfeeling train" in the literature of the second half of the century (Raven 1992: 3-5). By 1810 Grainger's editor Alexander Chalmers objects to The Sugar-Cane on the grounds of its commercial topic: "what lessens the respect of the reader for the poem in general, is the object so often repeated, so unpoetical and unphilosophical, wealth" (Gilmore 2000: 49). Dyer stands astride this development. His account of the rise and ruin of Tyre in the conclusion of Book II of The Fleece warns simultaneously against holding tradesmen in contempt and against falling prey to the corruptive influence of wealth. The passage is a georgic set-piece based on Ezekiel 27, and is designed to parallel Virgil's account of the portents of Rome's disasters and the prayer for salvation concluding Georgics Book I (cf. the parallel set-piece in Cyder, i. 187-247). Dyer's defense of trade acknowledges its potential for moral corrosion quite as fully as John Brown's popular philippic against "luxury," An Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times, also published in 1757. Dyer is equally anxious that Britain should escape the fates of Tyre and Rome, and his stern paraphrase of Ezekiel shows that he offers hope not lightly, but in a spirit of prayer. Yet hope it is. Whereas Brown can see no way to avoid national enfeeblement and ruin except by limiting commerce, georgic allows Dyer to propose that militant discipline in industry will regulate the effects of the wealth it produces. The real enemies are not "toil and wealth," but "sloth and pride." Armstrong's Art of Preserving Health teaches that the circulatory system, in a well-exercised, healthy body, repairs the tissues it also corrodes (ii. 21-30): "the natural, vital, functions . . . the still-crumbling frame rebuild" (iv. 30—3). If this is true of the circulation of the blood, may it not also be true of the circulation of wealth in society?

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