Gray The Marketplace And The Masculine Poet

To be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing.

Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (1975)

In 1767, an anonymous pamphlet appeared entitled The Sale of Authors, a Dialogue, in Imitation of Lucian's Sale of Philosophers. Written by naval official Archibald Campbell, this pamphlet features Apollo and Mercury conducting an auction among booksellers for the premier writers of the day, including James Macpherson, John Wilkes, Charles Churchill, and Thomas Gray. With its magnified sense of poets' powerlessness in the commercialized literary culture of midcentury England, Campbell's text seems a typical attack on the vigorously expanding book trade. Yet while satirizing the transformation of writers into commodities, and emphasizing the diminished social stature that accompanies this change, Campbell manages to capture with some accuracy the defining features of Gray's literary career. Most obviously, he calls attention to the poet's departure from current norms of masculine behavior:

Apollo. I see this good company are not a little surprised, that so eminent a poet is wrapt up in a watchman's coat. Pray, Mercury, inform them how it happened

Mercury. You must know, having made many unsuccessful attempts to catch this great poet, I was at last obliged to have recourse to stratagem. Though he has a great deal of poetical fire, nobody indeed more, yet is he extremely afraid of culinary fire, and keeps constantly by him a ladder of ropes to guard against all accidents of that sort. Knowing this, I hired some watchmen to raise the alarm of fire below his windows. Immediately the windows were seen to open, and the Poet descending in his shirt by his ladder. Thus we caught him at last, and one of the watchmen, to prevent his nerves from being totally benumbed by frigorific torpor, lent him his great coat. Here you have him, watchman's coat, ladder of ropes, silver tea tongs and all.1

The tale of Gray's capture that Mercury relates was based on an incident that various Cambridge men exaggerated and embellished; undergraduates out for a good time supposedly alarmed the poet (who indeed had a fear of fire) in his rooms at Peterhouse College. In some versions of the story, Gray responded to their warnings of fire by appearing at the window in a "delicate white night cap"; in others, he descended by means of his ladder (a rope "soft as the silky cords by which Romeo ascended to his Juliet") into a tub of water.2 All versions, however, strongly hint at the poet's effeminacy; these tales were considered so damaging to Gray's reputation that Horace Walpole warned William Mason to omit the event of Gray's removal from Peterhouse to Pembroke College in his memoirs of the poet's life.3 Yet despite the precautions of Gray's friends, this incident was seen as illustrative of Gray's character. England's greatest lyric poet of that period was ridiculed as a "butterfly" too feminine to accept the rigors of life at Cambridge—that training ground where privileged youths learned to exercise their social and cultural power.

Gray's effeminacy, moreover, was not considered a mere personal idiosyncrasy. According to Campbell, it also affected his choice of poetic form and subject matter:"The sweetly plaintive G[ray], the divine Author of Elegies in a Church-yard, and a Cat" (Corresp., 3:1217) stood accused of producing sentimental, lachrymose verses on trivial subjects. The mention of the "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat," with its seemingly unimportant subject matter (Samuel Johnson, like Campbell, considered it a "trifle"),4 appears to rank Gray with poets whose work privileges feeling over breadth and scope of thought, or emotional display over the concept and design exhibited by heroic poets such as Homer and Milton. And when Gray does attempt the heroic, as in "The Bard," Campbell charges that his poetry consists solely of commonplace sentiments expressed in inflated rhetoric. Praising the "Pindarick Powers" evident in "The Bard"'s opening line ("Ruin seize thee, ruthless king!"), Mercury invites the booksellers to "observe with what sublimity he has expressed the very vulgar phrase of Devil take ye" (Corresp., 3:1218). The poet's function as a moral or intellectual monitor for his culture—a "merciful substitute for the legislature,"5 in the words of his contemporary, Goldsmith—seems abandoned in favor of emotional or imaginative indulgence, a move that Campbell censures in the feminizing epithet ("sweetly plaintive") he repeatedly bestows upon Gray.

Finally, the very form of Campbell's satire suggests the diminution of poets and their verses to a purely ornamental function. Campbell portrays the market in texts as resulting not only in needy writers' sale of copyrights to mercenary booksellers, but in the exchange of the authors themselves for a price. After reciting some of his verses, Gray is auctioned off to Robert Dodsley at the bargain rate of half a guinea; Dodsley defends his bid for Gray's "plaintive poetical powers" by noting the low market value of verse: "Poetry is a mere drug now-a-days. It seldom pays for paper, print, and advertising. That I know both to my cost and sorrow" (Corresp., 3:1218). Although the model for this satire—Lucian's Philosophers for Sale—dates back to around a.d. 160, the prospect of authors on the auction block calls to mind the contemporary auctions of luxury goods that provided the English upper classes with an opportunity for both entertainment and conspicuous consumption.6 Like paintings, sculpture, or china vases, writers and their works exist as objects whose exchange is intended to enrich their sellers and adorn the lives of consumers. (Mercury emphasizes Gray's ornamental function, commending both his "elegant" verses and silver tea tongs.) But poetry, unlike the other items at auctions, confers neither wealth nor prestige. As Dodsley complains in Campbell's satire, poetry is a "mere drug"—a worthless commodity that in some ways resembles the patent medicines that also graced the shelves of booksellers' shops. As items for sale, medicines and poems are commonplace and cheap; as narcotics, they endeavor to promote pleasure and reduce pain for a short time, bestowing no real benefits upon consumers who come to crave the sensations they induce.

The criticisms raised in The Sale of Authors concerning Gray and his verse are by no means peculiar to Campbell. Rather, anxieties about the increasing marginality of poets and the supposedly trivial and ineffectual nature of their verses were an integral part of the literary culture of the mid-eighteenth century and characterize what Suvir Kaul terms "the public vocational crisis" experienced by poets of the time.7 As Kaul argues, the increased professionalization of writing threatened to erode hierarchies of distinction among poets—or the boundaries between hacks and gentle-men—since participation in the commercial book trade leveled them all to the status of commodity producers. Yet this crisis in poets' search for a vocation was articulated through socially sanctioned hierarchies of gender as well as class. We have seen that for Augustan writers such as Pope, participation in the book trade compromised poets' authority and masculinity alike, for it rendered them hacks, or literary prostitutes; dependent upon and subjected to the desires of others (particularly booksellers and readers), commercial writers in no way resembled the self-sufficient, disinterested gentlemen who formed the aristocratic ideal of civic virtue.8 Yet the example of Pope's career also suggests that the steady expansion of the commercial book trade made cultural attitudes toward involvement in the literary market more complicated: regardless of their class backgrounds or political allegiances, writers frequently began to associate masculinity and cultural power with commercial success, while characterizing poets' detachment from the market as an infantile, or effeminate, dependence upon others. (Samuel Johnson and Charles Churchill exemplify this trend; although he detested Churchill's politics and disliked his verse, Johnson admired his fertile invention: convinced that Churchill "cannot produce good fruit," he nevertheless concedes that "a tree that produces a great many crabs is better than a tree which produces only a few.")9 The following chapter will examine Gray's response to this productivist ethic, and will investigate his attempts to resist the emerging sexual and economic models of authorship.

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