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date: 06 December 2019

(p. xix) Introduction

(p. xix) Introduction

Eighty years ago Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray were riding high—they were the very models of great poets. Through the middle of the twentieth century, from at least the 1930s to the 1960s, the poetry of the eighteenth century was adored by critics, and received not only the tribute of large-scale scholarly projects—the Twickenham Edition of Pope, say, and Harold Williams’s edition of Swift’s prose—but even attention in primary and secondary schools. Anyone with pretensions to education could repeat tags from An Essay on Criticism or An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

For much of their history, though, both before and after this golden age, the poets of the Restoration and eighteenth century have struggled for respectability. Already by the 1750s there were complaints that their poetry was not poetic enough. Joseph Warton’s Essay on Pope (1756), for instance, defined poetry so as to exclude the most famous poet of his own century: “The sublime and the Pathetic are the two chief nerves of all genuine poesy. What is there sublime or very Pathetic in Pope?” He was willing to grant that “In that species of poetry wherein Pope excelled, he is superior to all mankind,” but could not help adding that “this species of poetry is not the most excellent one of the art.”1 For William Wordsworth a few decades later, the eighteenth century’s problem was “vicious diction.” With his “curiously elaborate” language, Gray had worked “to widen the space of separation betwixt Prose and Metrical composition,” and the result—not merely for Gray, but for Pope, Johnson, and Cowper as well—was affectation, and therefore at odds with true poetry.2 Eighty years later still, and the problem was just the opposite—instead of being too flashily poetic, eighteenth-century poets were too prosaic. “Though they may write in verse,” Matthew Arnold declared in 1880, “though they may in a certain sense be masters of the art of versification, Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose.”3

A Handbook of British Poetry, 1660–1800 takes for granted that Dryden, Swift, Pope, Gray, and company are very much classics of our poetry, and should be discussed as such. The book is not a chronologically organized literary history, nor an encyclopedia, nor a collection of thematically related essays; rather it is an attempt to provide a systematic overview of the poetry of the age, and to restore it to a position of centrality in modern criticism. This Handbook is concerned with the English-language poetry of the British Isles during the (p. xx) “long eighteenth century,” 1660–1800, though these boundaries are tested on occasion. The focus on Britain does not systematically rule out verse from elsewhere; Latin, French, and Gaelic verse make brief appearances; and the volume inevitably includes glances backward to the 1640s and 1650s, and forward into the 1800s and 1810s. Still, the focus is generally on the period from the Restoration through the end of the eighteenth century, between the age of Sir John Denham, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton in the middle of the seventeenth century and the age of Charlotte Smith, William Blake, and William Wordsworth at the end of the eighteenth. The purpose is not to repeat conventional wisdom, but to survey the current trends in scholarship and, I hope, to set a research agenda.

The volume is organized in seven large parts. The first, “Poems in social settings,” considers the sociology of poetic production and reception, from marketplaces and bibliography through education and oral tradition. Our unspoken understanding of eighteenth-century poetry involves carefully prepared texts of “literary” authors, and our editions strive to make that experience available to us. But in fact eighteenth-century audiences for poetry—“readers” is too limiting a term, for even the illiterate encountered poems—were accustomed to getting their poetry in very different packages. The Handbook therefore opens by looking into some of the places where verse might be encountered: not merely in the clean pages of a Tonson quarto, but also on the streets of Edinburgh, in the pit at Drury Lane, in the cramped type of monthly magazines, and in the middle of novels. This is also the era when vernacular poetry was becoming a mainstay of education, from young children first learning their ABCs through the lecture halls of Dissenting academies and even the universities.

Perhaps one reason some later critics have had trouble appreciating eighteenth-century poetry is that other ages have had narrowly circumscribed conceptions of who could be a poet and what poetry could be about. The eighteenth century helped to create several archetypes of the poet that have since become clichés: the impecunious hack starving in a drafty garret, the rebellious genius rejected by an uncaring critical establishment. But the range of identities open to the eighteenth-century poet was vast. Poets were reclusive and sociable, wealthy establishment figures and destitute rebels, shrewd entrepreneurs and dreamy flâneurs. They could be teachers and preachers, sentimentalists and geniuses, dukes and milkmaids and slaves. And the poetry they wrote could be about traditionally “poetic” topics like martial valor and lovers’ eyes, but more often it was about Newtonian optics and tariffs, dildos and the reproductive processes of flowering plants. The Handbook’s second part, “Poetic identities,” considers these diverse subject positions open to eighteenth-century poets—the poet as clubman, the poet as professional, the poet as laborer—while part III, “Poetic subjects,” surveys some of the major topics that exercised the minds of eighteenth-century poets, including empire, science, and poetry itself.

Parts IV through VI—“Poetic form,” “Poetic genres,” and “Poetic devices”—tell the stories of various formal features over the course of the long eighteenth century, and give the lie to the notion that eighteenth-century verse begins and ends with satire in heroic couplets. Formalism has been accused of promoting sterility; late in the twentieth century it became critical code for being hermetically sealed from the outside world. In recent years, though, formalist studies have experienced a rebirth, and there is much talk of “new formalisms.” Poetic forms, after all, carry with them histories and associations, present to every eighteenth-century poet and reader, and much of the best recent scholarship manages to combine formalism with historical awareness. These chapters are organized around formal, generic, and technical questions, but never lose sight of the social and political meanings of (p. xxi) various modes of poetic expression—even pastoral, which may seem on the surface to be a retreat from society, is inevitably engaged with the world. The result is more pages on formal and generic questions than in any book on eighteenth-century literature in many years.

Finally part VII, “Criticism,” treats literary criticism as an integral part of the subject of eighteenth-century poetry. Eighteenth-century poets had a genuinely symbiotic relationship with critics: critics responded to poets, but also shaped poetic concerns, and therefore poetic practice. The number of major poets who were also major critics—Dryden, Johnson, Warton, and others—is high. During the Restoration and eighteenth century the methods of scholarship were applied to modern, vernacular poetry for the first time; the first histories of English poetry were written, part of what Lawrence Lipking has called “the ordering of the arts”;4 the book review as we know it came into being; and the Oxford Professorship of Poetry and dozens of prizes for poetry came into being.

The forty-four contributors to this volume—senior scholars from the US, UK, Canada, Republic of Ireland, Belgium, and South Africa—have paid attention to the entire era, from 1660 to 1800, and noted developments over the course of the period. They engage with a mix of canonical and unfamiliar poets and critics, men and women, English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish poets, and so on, and offer a range of specific examples from the poetry of the period. Most important, they have accepted the challenge both to summarize conventional wisdom and to go beyond it. The result is the most comprehensive overview to date of the poetry of the long eighteenth century. (p. xxii)


(1) Joseph Warton, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (London, 1756), vol. i, p. iv.

(2) Wordsworth, preface to Lyrical Ballads, in Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, 1797–1800, ed. James Butler and Karen Green (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 749, 764.

(3) The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. Robert H. Super, 11 vols. (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1960–77), vol. ix, p. 181.

(4) See Lawrence Lipking, The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970).