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PHILOSOPHICAL AND RELIGIOUS POETRY
If the regions through which we have just passed have seemed a rugged waste, those that lie before us form no land of dreams, rather
a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. In the realms of epic and descriptive poetry and of the technical treatise there are sometimes noble prospects, and, though rocks lie everywhere, they are often picturesquely piled and hold in their crannies fragrant herbs and flowers. Besides, often when the country is not beautiful it gains a certain interest from being unusual. No such interest attaches to eighteenth-century philosophical and religious poetry; for whoever advances into that flat and sandy desert is likely to feel, with Satan,
In the lowest deep, a lower deep
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven. Passing by for the present poems that are in the main not simply ethical but distinctively Christian, we have a group of versified reflections or moral harangues which, though almost as destitute of real philosophy as of real poetry, may for want of a better term be dubbed "philosophical poems.” The title of one of Coleridge's pieces, Religious Musings, a Desultory Poem, would fit most of them; for, if they are not devoted to the exposition of deistic doctrines or the defense of orthodox beliefs, they consist of vague disquisitions on the benevolence of God or the greatness of England, thickly larded with moral platitudes. That shallow but triumphant refutation of heresy, Young's Night Thoughts (which began to appear in 1742), was among the earliest of these works, and in its rambling, rhetorical treatment of serious subjects is typical of many of them. Pope's Essay on Man, the supreme example of the type, though it is rimed and is unique in the compact brilliance of its expression, resembles the rest in its lack of sustained thought. As a rule these versified reflections are
not even amusing, much less novel or stimulating, and the obviousness of their thought is unrelieved by any poetic beauty or power. In general they are like old sermons, and quite as tiresome, for the authors have mistaken their cacoëthes scribendi for a message.
What may perhaps be called the earliest of these poems in blank verse, although of course not really philosophical, are Thomson's To the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton and Britannia, both written in 1727. More typical of the later works of the class, and not much better than they, is his long, dull, inflated Liberty (1734–6), which says little that is worth the saying.
The death of Newton also called forth nearly five hundred lines of tumid blank verse from “Leonidas” Glover, then only sixteen years old. This effusion Glover followed with one that is no better,' in which he sought to rouse the nation against the Spanish and in favor of a large army, - London, or the Progress of Commerce (1739). In another poem entitled Commerce (1751), Cornelius Arnold devotes two hundred and eighty-seven lines of pompous Miltonic blank verse to a rambling panegyric on trade. One of its few oases is this delightfully mixed figure:
When thro' your Western Tour, with lib'ral Hand,
And serv'd it round - All was tumultuous Joy!? The year before, Arnold had brought out some eight pages of unrimed couplets aptly entitled Distress, which is filled with platitudes about benevolence and the sufferings caused by loss of money.
. Just as the Night Thoughts was beginning to appear, a little-known clergyman in a small Scottish parish, Robert Blair, was putting the final touches on an unrimed poem similar to Young's in its gloomy subject matter, its exclamations and rhetorical questions, and its general style, as well as in the popularity it was destined to achieve. Prosodically The Grave is far closer to Paradise Lost than is Young's work, but otherwise it bears little resemblance to the epic. It contains, to be sure, a number of compound epithets, as “blackplaster'd," "smooth-complexion'd," "high-fed," "heavy-halting,” “lawn-rob’d," "hell-scap'd,” “big-swoln”;4 occasional adjectives used as adverbs, as in “sudden! he starts,” “frolick ... unapprehensive," "stalk'd off reluctant," "smil'd so sweet," " expire so soft”; 5
1 Yet Fielding praised it extravagantly in the Champion, Nov. 24, 1739. 2 Lines 266-8.
• Published in 1743, it reached a sixteenth edition in 1786, and was reprinted alone or in collections at least thirteen times more before 1800, besides being turned into rime in 1790.
• Lines 36, 235, 246, 316, 513, 590, 610. s Lines 63, 476–7, 587, 706, 715.
and some verbal borrowings, as “low-brow'd," "spectres ... Grin horrible," and
The fierce Volcano, from his burning Entrails
Involv'd in pitchy Clouds of Smoke and Stench."
The big-swoln Inundation,
THE SON OF GOD thee foil'd. Him in thy Pow'r
On the other hand, there are plenty of matter-of-fact lines:
Sure! 'tis a serious Thing to Die! My Soul!
Inasmuch as The Grave is often reminiscent of Shakespeare and seldom recalls Milton or his followers, it may present one of the very few instances of an eighteenth-century unrimed poem that derived its style, diction, and prosody (for it has many hypermetrical lines) from the drama. At any rate, its influence—which in subjectmatter at least was considerable since it had much to do with the epidemic of graveyard literature — was away from the excessive Miltonisms of the period. Yet its vigorous but often homely diction, and its style, which at times is strangely conversational, were not likely to be copied often at a time when poets were haunted by the fear of being prosaic. Nor would it have been a safe model. If Blair, a writer of some ability and power who elaborated very slowly his work of less than eight hundred lines, is himself often tame and flat, most of his contemporaries, had they followed his example, would probably have produced only colorless, commonplace prose. The English literary public was not yet ready to write or to appreciate Michael, and, until it was, Milton, Thomson, and later Cowper were the safest guides for writers of blank verse.
1 Lines 17 (cf. Allegro, 8), 40-41 (cf. P. L., ii. 845-6), 606-8 (cf. P. L., i. 233-7). 2 Lines 610–11, 669–70. · Lines 369–71, 373, 440-1, 472-4.
The Grave was extravagantly praised as late as the nineteenth century, and in expression it is frequently effective, even impressive; but a greater master than Blair was needed to give vitality to its obvious, gloomy moralizings. To-day no one reads it voluntarily or desires to reread it; if it is known at all except by name, it is through Blake's remarkable illustrations. To me its most attractive lines are these, at the close:
'Tis but a Night, a long and moonless Night,
Cow'rs down, and dozes till the Dawn of Day.
gentle Edmund, hight Spenser! the sweetest of the tuneful throng,
Or recent, or of eld." Thompson diversified his long poem, Sickness (1745), with an extended account of the palace of Disease, in imitation of the palace of Pride and the procession of the seven deadly sins in the Faerie Queene. Yet this passage has nothing of the style, the language (except in the lines quoted above), or the peculiar charm of Spenser, but is stiff with Miltonisms and patched with phrases from Paradise Lost. Even in his figurative visits to Spenser's tomb Thompson employs the expression “with reverent Steps and slow."'It was so with most poets. The tangible influence of the Faerie Queene was practically restricted to pieces in the Spenserian stanza and to occasional borrowings of words and subject-matter. Even writers who would have liked to take more found - or believed that, whereas they
— could adapt Milton for every occasion, the gorgeous Elizabethan allegory offered little they could use in most of their verse.
If their adaptations of the style of Paradise Lost were not often happy, they seemed so to many eighteenth-century readers. It is not unlikely, for example, that Thompson's flamboyant descriptions of various diseases and his account of the patients' sufferings (written after his own recovery from small-pox) were at the time they were composed thought vivid and impressive and his turgid style not far
· See his Sickness, i. 276–8. Unless otherwise designated, the references are to the first edition, the only one with numbered lines. In the second edition (Poems on Several Occasions, Oxford, 1751, ii. 195-317) there are marked changes, for two of which see below, p. 642, n. 2.
? Second ed., v. 2; cf. P. L., xii. 648. Instead of this phrase, the first edition (iii. 407) has “who knows not Spenser's tomb?" (cf. Comus, 50).
from the sublime. A reading of the entire twenty-one hundred lines (and a rereading of many of them) leaves me, however, with the conviction that Sickness, though better than many of its contemporaries, is uninteresting and uninspired. The influence of Milton (whom Thompson 'preferred to Virgil himself’l) is unmistakable, as these lines, descriptive of the Spenserian palace of Disease, will show:
In sad magnificence the palace rears
Embowel'd.? Aside from the Essay on Man and the Night Thoughts, the greatest and most admired philosophical poem of the century was Mark Akenside's Pleasures of Imagination, which, published in 1744, when its author was just entering upon his twenty-third year, reached a thirteenth edition in 1795. Akenside was the Landor of his day, sensitive and passionate, widely read, enthusiastic over Greek and Latin literature, and sedulous to catch its fine restraint in his highlyfinished verses. Yet both the man and his poems show a taint of neo-classicism from which Landor was free. He had, for example, “a pomp and stiffness of manner. .. . He looked as if he never could be undressed ... and the laboured primness of a powdered wig in stiff curl, made his appearance altogether unpromising, if not grotesque.” 3 There was a good deal of “the laboured primness of a powdered wig in stiff curl" about his Pleasures of Imagination, a poem in which “there is so much to admire ... and so little to enjoy,'
,” which has height without lift and splendor without warmth, and which, though it may be studied, can no longer be read. An
· Note to i. 405. Other references to Milton or to his work occur in i. 266 n., 359-68 and n., 531 n.; ii. 253-4; iii. 109-111, 275 n., 514-16. Two lines from Paradise Lost are prefixed to book ii in the second edition; two more are quoted in i. 335-6 of the first edition, and there are a number of phrases borrowed from the epic and the minor poems, — "the spicy beds Of Araby the blest” (i. 313-14, cf. P. L., iv. 162–3), “irreconcil'd in ruinous design” (i. 332, cf. P. R., iv. 413), the strife of “hot, and cold, and moist, and dry” (i. 341, cf. P. L., ii. 898), "a low-brow'd cave" (i. 434, cf. Allegro, 8), “at their visual entrance quite shut out” (ii. 229, cf. P. L., iii. 50), “white-handed Hope" (ü. 636, cf. Comus, 213), "a dewy-skirted cloud Fleecy with gold" (iii. 122–3, cf. P. L., v. 187), "Powry-footed May Leads on the jocund hours” (iii. 125-6, cf. P. L., iv. 267–8), "cedar allies" (iii. 158, cf. Comus, 990, of fragrance in each case). Thompson is fond of parentheses and appositives, and of such words as “horizon'd,” “ignipotent,” "inundant," "stonied," "flammivomous," "detrude," "effulging" and "effusing” (i. 6, 175, 179, 437; ii. 284, 638; i. 546; iii. 127). The paraphrase of Job mentioned on page 112 above is by another William Thompson.
? i. 324-7. : George Hardinge to John Nichols, June 19, 1813, in Nichols's Literary Anecdotes,
· Saintsbury, English Prosody, ii. 491.