Thursday, November 19, 2020

Demonstrate and consider the range and variety (or lack of it) in the work of several eighteenth century poets writing on man and nature. Consider approach and poetic means.

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Eighteenth century Britain was a time of great movement, in the literal sense as well as the metaphorical. In science, theories were being proved that contradicted religious belief. This brought about an increasing interest and wonder in the natural world, its simplicity and primal nature. In a way the eighteenth century can be seen as a waking of consciousness to the world and society but also as a demonstration of the immense ignorance of people's perception. The middle class was apparent as a large portion of the population who had leisure time. In this leisure time, many wished to be amused by reading poetry. In this sense, poetry came about in a very commissioned form. It was supplied on demand with the impression and meaning as desired in this period. Themes principally of nature and simplicity were adopted. However, because of the demand, the views conveyed in the poetry were often very false and artificial due to the poet never living the simple life or considering deeply what they wished to convey through their poetry. Nevertheless, despite this false view of nature and country life seen in much eighteenth century poetry, amongst it there are exceptions showing a truthful picture and a deeper meaning.

In Dyer's 'Grongar Hill', a typical awkwardly formed poem of this period, nature is seen arriving as two things. Firstly, as scenery, as in the landscapes one sees around us or a setting, something associated with the theatrical sense. People had a set view of what the idyllic country setting would look like and since the real country wasn't like this, they altered it to make it so. They built their own ruins and made their own lakes on their estates. A device called the 'Claud Glass' also was invented where to use it one had to turn their back on the image they wanted to see. Then by use of a mirror and tinted lens they were able to see the image as a picturesque Claud painting. This image of people turning their backs on nature to see something picturesque, essentially like a picture is a very good metaphor for what was happening in poetry such as Dyer's at this stage. This poem contains no subtlety. It has an obvious, insistent form with short line lengths and rhyming (or supposed to be rhyming) couplets. This form makes it very difficult for Dyer to expand on ideas. This also makes it seem very unnatural which is the opposite of the effect trying to be achieved. However, nature in this poem is also seen as a moral primer, something which one can learn little moral lessons from. It is very difficult reading it now, in the twenty-first century to even attempt to consider the obvious morals it is trying to put forward. The whole poem strikes us as hilarious. The single adjectives used to describe the trees are seen as very simplistic observations.

'The gloomy Pine, the Poplar blue,'

It seems that Dyer is coupling them with an adjective that will fit in with the awkward rhyming structure and line length. To a reader, it shows that his perception of nature is very base indeed. Another, noticeable feature about this poem and many of the period is the use of Classical references, here to 'Phillis'. These were popular names just to slip in to make it more in sync with what was desired. Classical names refer to Grecian times of great simplicity in the world, which was a popular notion in the eighteenth century. Personification is a much overused poetic means in poetry of this time. 'Grongar Hill' has limited use of it compared with other poetry such as Thomson's 'Winter'. However, it still seems rather tedious and at times inappropriate.

'Whose ragged Walls the Ivy creeps,

And with her Arms from falling keeps;'

This particular usage doesn't make sense. The plant 'Ivy' is a vine, which clings to walls and buildings. Dyer is implying that 'Ivy' would keep up the 'Walls' of the castle it is describing. However, in reality it would be the walls keeping the Ivy there. This shows again the meaning being twisted and restricted by this limited structure. It emphasises Dyer as being simply one of these middle class gentlemen approaching poetry as a means of filling his leisure time. The role he places himself in is also important to note. The first line-

'Below me Trees unnumber'd rise,'

He places himself above the scene giving him the sense of some godly figure, all seeing, all perceiving. However, this role he puts himself into makes it all the more amusing as his grasp on the natural world is so base.

Thomson's 'Winter' also contains a conscious placing of the poet, giving him a role to fill. However, instead of some god looking down on earth he portrays himself as a 'pensive' muse. This creates an equally unbelievable character as his thought process in the poem is no more sophisticated than Dyer's. As I implied before, Thomson has absurd use of personification. Almost every aspect of nature is personified. We are introduced to a 'pining Grove' a 'Breeze, that sobs' and various other equally odd characters. Thomson's use of personification though more well accomplished than Dyer's is still quite inappropriate as rarely could one ever identify a 'Grove' as 'pining'. Archaism is a feature used not just in Thomson's work but widely throughout the eighteenth century poets. Thomson here adopts words like ' perchance' which hasn't been in common use since Shakespeare's time. By using archaism, Thomson is dramatising it and by doing so is moving it as far away from colloquial speech as possible. At times it seems frustrating never calling something what it is. This is shown particularly ridiculously by replacing the simple word sheep with ' the bleating kind. Yet, at times his usage is thoroughly appropriate creating absolutely beautiful images. In this way his poem can be seen as far superior to Dyer's in all aspects apart from the artificiality contained through some of the ideas and archaisms. Thomson has adopted a far more versatile form- blank verse. In his Iambic pentameters he can simulate thought patterns and speech thus making it far more natural. Yet, one still sees the artificiality coming through with him using an exclamatory and public tone. This then moves it away from realism due to his use of exclamation in phrases such as ' Lo!' and 'But hark!' These essentially indicate emotional intensity however, the emotional charge here is not much showing greater falsity. The poetry in the eighteenth century seems to be in a language of its own not just with the archaism but with the formation of the sentences. The sentences often adopt a Greek or Latin construction which is the opposite of how it is in English.

' And all the various Family of Flowers

Their sunny robes resign.'

In normal English one would say 'resign their sunny robes'. This inversion of the sentences brings it even further away from natural speech. These lines are also a demonstration of Thomson's archaism using elaborate language to describe petals falling of a flower. Thomson as well as Dyer uses classical references such as 'Philomel'. As well as dropping it in for popularity of the whole Greek notion, this combined with the Greek inversion of sentences shows that this sort of poetry is meant for the intellectual elite, those who have been schooled in Latin and Greek. This further distances the poetry from the simplicity in nature it is trying to describe.

Thomas Gray's 'An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' also conveys this idealistic view of nature seen in the other poems. This poem is slightly different from the previous two as it introduces man into the poetry. One is presented with images of the simple farmer another idealistic notion of the middle classes. Gray hasn't managed to present a realistic picture of the farmer's life just like Thomson and Dyer couldn't present a realistic picture of nature. Everything is idealised. In particular, the description of his home life is very idealistic.

'For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn,

Or busy Housewife ply her Evening Care

No Children run to lisp their Sire's Return

Or climb his knees the envied Kiss to share.'

Gray presents it as a clich of the country cottage complete with a 'blazing Hearth' and 'busy Housewife' and 'Children' to take care of his every need. The phrase 'Sire's Return' is particularly ridiculous as no plough-man's child in that time would ever refer to their father as 'Sire' a term associated with Lordship and noblemen. There would not be this much lordly worship of their father. The complete idealism here shows Gray not understanding at all what country life is like. Another example of this is in his description of the farmer setting off for work in the morning.

'How jocund did they drive their team afield!'

This is very unrealistic as no man joyfully sets off to work in the morning, particularly not an agricultural labourer who has a hard physical slog before him. However, in amongst Gray's misinterpretation he is getting across a social argument. At the end one can see Gray confronting his own death in the words he makes the 'hoary-headed Swain' say and the Epitaph. He is expressing feelings of disappointment in life and his prospects and essentially saying that in life man will not be fulfilled. This sort of pessimistic statement is not usual in eighteenth century poetry, which despite Gray's false image of the countryside does how some profound thought. In this sense, Gray's 'Elegy' is not really a nature poem. He never goes into detail about a certain aspect of observed nature instead, everything is generalised. It seems at times his language, though with a good rhythm, has unnecessary decoration.

'The breezy call of Incense-breathing Morn,'

This line presents a contradiction. 'Incense breathing' suggests something heavy and overpowering whereas 'breezy' implies something light and fresh. The juxtaposition of these opposites proove that Gray was not paying full attention to his meaning instead, he concentrated on the rhythm and flow that the words create. This poem in fact doesn't tell a reader much about the natural world at all. The Poet is very far from the scene and through his misunderstanding of subjects and language it is blatantly evident that he is an aristocrat who probably never even sat in a 'Country Churchyard' where he is supposed to be writing the poem from.

Collins' 'Ode to Evening' is similar in approach to Thomson's 'Winter'. He places himself as some sort of shepherd playing on his pipe of some sort to the evening. The image of the shepherd was another much idealised figure. In France at this time, Marie Annetoinette wife of Louis XVI, had her own little farm made inside the palace walls so she could dress up and play as shepherdess. This idea seems absurd as in reality the shepherd's life isn't picturesque or delightful at all, but this was the mind state that eighteenth century middle and upper class society had. The language here is again alien talking about his pipe as an 'Oaten Stop' a word probably not even used in earlier English. The line-

'Whose Numbers stealing thro' thy darkening Vale,'

is interesting due to the meaning of the word 'Numbers'. This can be interpreted as referring to the mathematical construction of poetry with very tight line lengths and such which also has to be observed in the composition of music with bars. This emphasises the link between poetry and music in not just the art form but also the way they were placed in eighteenth century society. Collins like all the poets uses personification making the evening into a modest, 'chaste' girl or 'Nymph' as he later refers to her. The Classical language of the word 'Nymph' presents the eternally artificial tone of the poem. This is particularly ironic as Collins is trying to write about a simple every day occurrence.

Collins' 'St Kilda' is different from the other poems as its subject matter is of a rock off the Hebrides in Scotland whereas all the others are about the English countryside. Here, nature is presented as virtuous and 'sincere'. The simplicity and rawness of this place is seen as all the more beautiful, untouched by the rest of the world. The main idea encompassed in this is that the closer to bare nature is seen as closer to virtue. This idea reflects a popular philosophy at this time that the world is something like a machine that one can learn to understand and appreciate. In 'St Kilda' Collins writes of men living in 'primal innocence'. This reflects the story of Adam and Eve in Eden in the simplicity of living and bliss. This idea comes from Rousseau's philosophy that the simpler one is the more virtuous one is.

' I realise that our existence is nothing but a succession of moments perceived

through the senses.'

This is describing Rousseau's epiphany, a realisation of something through intense emotion. This reflects the new attitude that I feel therefore I am, opposed to the earlier attitude of I think therefore I am. This brings about the debate between sense and sensibility in the arts. Henry MacKenzie wrote 'The Man of Feeling', an overly emotional novel of a man reduced to tears at everything he sees. However this is contrasted harshly with Jane Austen's novels where she, a sensible women, makes a mockery of this concept. Nevertheless, the new movement of opinion of simplicity being virtuous led to an increasing public interest in anything 'primal'. At this time the Pacific islands where being discovered. Intelligent men took part in discovery expeditions and saw the paradise of sun, sea and sands with the natives there in their nudity as a confirmation of Rousseau's idea of simplicity being good and virtuous. The increasing popularity in this idea entered greatly into poetry like Collins 'St Kilda'. Thomas Gray wrote when crossing ice-capped mountains-

'Not a torrent, not a precipice- but is pregnant with religion ands poetry.'

In this statement he is identifying nature as being holy and in itself effectively poetry. The word 'pregnant' here is associated with birth when man is at his most simple reinforcing this idea. This shift of opinion of natural wonders like mountains being seen as a way of being closer to God and simplicity from just a nuisance for travelling or places where ignorant beings lived. Mountains are now identified as being sublime. This brought an increasing interest in the 'noble savage' and any writings apparently by them were in great demand. This led the way for immense fraud. Chatterton produced poetry, which he claimed to have been written by the middle age monk, Rowley. This is one example of this type of fraud taking place and Chatterton was exposed. He died very young, in a sense for his art, which made him a tragic figure of his day to other young poets. This incident changed the image of poetry from being simply a gentleman's occupation into more of an art form. Ballads, which hadn't been in use as a poetic form for centuries, suddenly became popular again, as they were the works of simple men told originally by wandering singers. Hence, 'bard' became a respectable word for a poet, which before had always been associated with gypsies, outcasts of society.

Thomas Warton's 'The Enthusiast' was one such ballad. Even from the title one is presented by the ideas at this time. In the eighteenth century the meaning of the word 'enthusiast' was much stronger than its twenty-first century meaning. It essentially implied someone almost possessed by the Holy Spirit. In this context of nature is emphasises the idea nature being something holy. In the poem he claims he want to get away from the world of art and artifice into the simplicity of nature which is moral. This contains an irony as he seeks complete simplicity yet in doing so he uses the most elaborate and artificially poetic language possible. In these lines he expresses his attitude against all man created things-

'Rich in her weeping Country's Spoils Versailles

May boast a thousand Fountains, that can cast

The tortur'd Waters to the distant Heav'ns;

Yet let me choose some Pine-topt Precipice'

These lines would've been taken well as it contains some anti-French opinion, which was popular due to the war. It states that France has been plundered for the wealth of the Palace of Versailles. There is an implication that this wouldn't happen in Britain. The image of the waters going to the heavens is described as 'tortur'd', something painfully against nature. He claims he would prefer the 'Pine-topt Precipice' which we would call a waterfall. His archaism is thoroughly ridiculous. Even out of poetry he can't stop himself using elaborate artificial language-

'The Sublime and the Pathetic- are the two nerves of genuine poesy.'

The word 'poesy' isn't even an archaism as it was never a commonly used word for poetry. The word is more academic, nearer the Greek root, which makes it far more artificial. This is particularly effective when juxtaposed to the word 'genuine' as in using this elaborate language he is certainly not being genuine. It is very clear to see in this quotation the capitalised abstracts- 'Sublime', 'Pathetic'. Throughout all the poetry this technique has been used. It adds to this theme of artificiality with the poets trying to put emphasis on certain words. Instead of doing this it just makes it sound more false. 'Prospect' in the second stanza of 'The Enthusiast' is given such a capital. This is an elaborate word for view reinforcing the idea of nature as an art form, something picturesque and thoroughly idealised in all this poetry. 'Cotts' is an archaism of cottages, linking them here to something cosy and homely where essentially life in these cottages would be far from pleasant.

However, amongst this artificiality there are poets who depict the truth in their poetry, such as Crabbe in his poem 'The Pauper's Funeral'. The tone from the start is far bleaker than in any of the other poems. He describes the parish being 'glad' that they have to pay a 'fugal fee' for this pauper as this is the last contribution to his welfare they will have to make and also one less pauper to support through life. The description of the children originally seems to be quite sombre and melancholy as they seem to be originally paying their respects to this old friend. However, in the lines-

'While bending low, their eager eyes explore

The mingled relics of the parish poor'

It describes the reality. It is not a picturesque composed image of a group of children holding hands realising the death of this pauper. Instead, it shows them going to see the grave as some form of morbid entertainment. 'Mingled relics' describing the grave, exposes the truth of what a pauper's grave actually is- an open pit with all the long-dead poor decaying right beside the newly dead. This is a far more sinister image than any of the other poems chose to depict and through this one can see the reality of what a 'Pauper's Funeral' would actually involve.

The poetry of the eighteenth century seems much preoccupied with the topic of man and nature and appreciating the simplicity of this nature, which is seen as virtuous. However, due to preconceptions of what nature should be and the idea of it being picturesque leads to much artificiality in the poetry. This is not just through the descriptions of what it chooses to present but also in the artificial use of archaism, inverted sentences, insincere exclamation and capitalised abstracts. Many poets seemed to decorate their poetry with beautiful sounding language but through this getting their meaning confused. However, amongst this artificiality there are moments of truth and thought such as in Crabbe's 'The Pauper's Funeral' and the profound idea in Gray's 'Elegy'. This variation shows that the eighteenth century was not an era of ignorance and that many poets were simply writing to agree with the popular idea of 'primal innocence', not thinking for themselves. However through this, we, looking back from the twenty-first century, can understand the reasons behind the falsity and confront reality in the truth.

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