Tuesday, February 2, 2010

floating on the fragrant wave

Some books stand on a shelf for months or years, meaning nothing, blanks, might as well be bricks, then in an instant they become the one thing in the world that has to be read -- that book -- that one there and no other -- read me, cries the spine firmly: this is my time, my hour: now. Following Persuasion, and after some time spent typing titles into LibraryThing, I poked around in the shelf near M.'s computer for a book to read and -- ha -- there was the New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse and it presented itself as the book that had to be read.

I wouldn't have picked it up if it hadn't been for one of my favourite anthologies, Chatto and Windus' Seventeenth Century Poetry. I had forgotten the century. "I like eighteenth century poetry," I told M. showing him Verse, then I paused, no, wait, did I mean eighteenth or seventeenth? The Milton one. Edited by John Hayward. A different century. But the new book was already off the shelf, and it had a number and teenth on the cover, so, close enough, and the people were dead, centuries dead, and being so profoundly dead confers a sort of importance -- think: all the millions of dead in the world, and here they are, these happy few, chosen for an anthology. There is an Iris Murdoch character in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine who feels tender toward the dead --

It was so important to think quiet loving thoughts about people in idle moments, especially perhaps about the dead, who, being substanceless so desperately need our thoughts.

Everyone walks all over her. This Eighteenth Century Verse was put together in accordance with a principle of inclusion that I came across for the first time in the New Oxford Book of Australian Verse edited by Les Murray. The idea is that the editor should look for unknown names as well as famous ones, that different points of view should be represented, that demotic-slang should be given a place next to culture-slang (this being your thees and thous and references to Greek and Roman myth, which is the style of the Hayward). So the Australian anthology incorporates not only Kenneth Slessor's Five Bells, which is an obligatory inclusion for every collection of Australian poems, but also children' rhymes, translations of song cycles from several different Aboriginal languages, and a number of anonymous colonial pieces, one of which, when I think of the baked yellow grass outside, seems pertinent:

O this weather! this weather!
It's more than a mortal can bear;
I fear we shall all melt together,
So dreadfully hot is the air.

Presumably this inclusiveness is a reaction to modern social movements: feminism rediscovering neglected women, people pointing out that the colonised had their histories too (several of the poems in Eighteenth Century Verse address slavery, Native Americans, the British in India) and a general feeling that history is (as Eliot said and Dickens suggested) about more than a few eminent names teetering grandly on pedestals -- that there is a larger, more generous picture -- life, life, life swarming around these names, which the names reflected partly but not fully. Relativity, suggests W.G. Sebald in a set of class notes published recently in Five Dials magazine: "suddenly [in twentieth century literature] there were other views. In the natural sciences the [twentieth] century saw the disproving of Newton and the introduction of the notion of relativity."

It is about being polite and curious, excited and not-lazy: willing to explore. Here, then -- among your usual Popes, your Goldsmiths, Johnson, Cowper regarding with fine dignity a dying oak -- here in Eighteenth Century there are poems about hot air ballooning, golf, the financial hardships inflicted on sailors and soldiers and soldiers' widows, there are poems by lights who, though lesser, had their moments -- there is a series of poems by Jonathan Richardson on the subject of My Late Dear Wife, all dated, all together showing a sensibility weakening over time, growing more consciously poetic as the death of his wife falls into the past. The first is the simplest and strongest and it is dated Jan 18, 1726.

Adieu, dear life! here I am left alone
The world is strangely changed since thou art gone,
Compose thyself to rest, all will be well;
I'll come to bed 'as fast as possible.'

The second, written several months later, is longer and less to the point:

Slumb'ring disturbed, appeared the well-known face,
Lovely, engaging, as she ever was;
I kissed and caught the phantom in my arms,
I knew it such, but such a shade has charms!
Devout, I thanked kind heaven …

And so on for twelve more lines, lacking the rushed personal touch of the first poem's speech, 'as fast as possible,' and the detail of the couple going to bed, which was moving because it was ordinary. The poet is no longer addressing the dead wife. Now he's turning towards a living audience. He is looking away. The third part of the series is longer still. There are other curiosities in the book, other things to notice. Alexander Pennecuik's A Marriage Betwixt Scrape, Monarch of the Maunders, and Blobberlips, Queen of the Gypsies is written partly in Polari --

The doxies turn up their keels and spelder,
Wapping till a kinch twang in the kelder

One anonymous poem is narrated by a ship's chaplain asking his on-board superiors for a better place to shit:

Say then, when pease, within the belly pent,
Roar at the port and struggle for a vent,
Say, shall I squat on dung remissly down,
And with unseemly ordure stain the gown?

One has St. Anthony talking to a pig.

O my pretty piggy-wiggy
More sweet than is the figgy
That grows on yonder twiggy
Or sugar candy;
My love for thee surpasses
All that which pretty lasses
Have for their looking-glasses,
Or Tristram Shandy.

Hannah More's The Riot: or, Half a Loaf is better than No Bread. In a Dialogue between Jack Anvil and Tom Hod, "supposedly," according to the Notes at the back of the book, "stopped a riot by colliers near Bristol" in 1795.

"What a whimsy to think thus our bellies to fill,
For we stop all the grinding by breaking the mill!
What a whimsy to think we shall get more to eat
By abusing the butchers who get us the meat!
What a whimsy to think we shall mend our spare diet
By breeding disturbance, by murder and riot!"

George Farewell celebrates the mussel.

Hail, happy shell! from heart-ache ever free!

In On the Great Fog in London, December 1762, James Eyre Weeks, classified elsewhere as one of the eighteenth century's "labouring-class poets," finds different ways to describe the blindness conferred by the fog, most beautifully and simply:

... from our ears we see

Like Turner he picks impressions out of murk.

... great St. Paul,
With his huge dome, and cupola, appears
A craggy precipice, rude, unformed;
Or like the ruin of an ancient fort
Upon a hill

The sun is "Like a red beacon on a foggy coast." The sunbeams

Like birds in storms, are dubious where to fly,
And waste their radiance on the tawny air.

The book is like that poem, touching eighteenth century Britain here and there, leaving an impression of largeness, of society swelling and murmuring around behind the words on the page. The New Oxford shows us the fort on the hill; somewhere below we might sense the building, and builders, and people inside, and the city around the building, hidden by time as by fog, but there, there, and the book is pointing to it -- there.

Hetty Wright despises wedlock.

Thou scorpion with a double face,
Thou lawful plague of human race

John Wolcot is sorry for a fly "taken out of a bowl of punch."

Ah! poor intoxicated little knave
Now senseless, floating on the fragrant wave

I chased a fly into a spiderweb earlier today. Now I discover I can't read the Wolcot without feeling guilty.

Go, join thy brothers on yon sunny board,
And rapture to thy family afford --
There wilt thou meet a mistress, or a wife,
That saw thee, drunk, drop senseless in the stream;
Who gave, perhaps, the wide-resounding scream,

(I feel terrible.)

And now sits groaning for thy precious life.

(Oh fly I am sorry.)

Yes, go and carry comfort to thy friends,
And wisely tell them thy imprudence ends.

It's at about the point where Wolcot eulogises its "little nose" that the guilt really starts to kick in.

And now thy little drunken eyes unclose
And now thou feelest for thy little nose

(Dear god, you'd think it was a kitten.)


  1. And what can I add to that except thanks for brightening the end of my day (even if the poor fly's wasn't quite so good).

  2. The fly is now a sucked-out husk on the windowsill of the toilet. I have to face it every time I go in (or else clean the windowsill, I suppose, but guilt can only push me so far). I haven't killed a fly since I typed that. There was one on our indoor basil-plant this morning, easy to hit, but this vision of a little puppy-fly rubbing its tiny nose came into my head and I couldn't do it.

  3. It's all well and good to make people feel sorry for a fly, which is a pretty tough ask, but would old Wolcot himself have been any fun at dinner? 'Look at this fly, would you?'

  4. Even less fun: he gives the fly a warning about the dangers of alcohol. ("Thus Death, as well as Pleasure, dwells with Punch") So he'd not only be sympathising with every insect and insect-sized thing in sight ("See! On your lettuce! Oh, it's a dear tiny slug, lying on its tummy and looking at us!"), he'd be peering into everybody's wine glass, murmuring, "You do know that's bad for you, don't you? Are you sure you should be drinking that? I knew this fly once ..."