Sunday, February 7, 2010

our woolly treasures amply stored

I'm going to mention the New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse again because I want to say a few words about John Dyer. He's represented here by three full poems and an excerpt from his long georgic, The Fleece. Grongar Hill is the poem that has kept his name popping up intermittently in British anthologies since his death in 1758, but it's the Fleece that prompts me to write about him; I have an affection for the Fleece. I'll get to it in a moment. First, Grongar Hill. Wordsworth was so impressed by Grongar Hill that he wrote a sonnet in its honour. Johnson called it "pleasing." It was the high point of Dyer's career; he seems never to have written another poem as successful. The secret of Grongar Hill lies in its simplicity, its easygoing rhyming couplets, and the sympathy between the poet and the landscape.

The fountain's fall, the river's flow,
The woody valleys, warm and low;
The windy summit, wild and high

Serious ideas are introduced without Dyer straining for effect:

And see the rivers how they run
Through woods and meads; in shade and sun
Sometimes swift, sometimes slow
Wave succeeding wave, they go
A various journey to the deep,
Like human life, to endless sleep.

Unexpectedly minorly famous for sweet simplicity, he ruined it with over-ambitious, unsimple follow-ups like The Ruins of Rome, which starts like this:

Enough of Grongar, and the shady dales,
Of winding Towy, Merlin's fabled haunt,
I sung inglorious.

He was a man who couldn't trust his own talent. Eighteenth Century Verse doesn't have Ruins, but it does include a negligible thing called To Clio. From Rome and a less negligible thing called My Ox Duke. The day is burning hot, the ox named Duke runs towards the shade of a barn, but stops at "a ridge of snow-white little pigs" lying asleep across the entrance.

He stands tormented at the shadow's edge

He might have trampled the piglets. Instead he noses them until they wake and move out of his way.

And breathed upon them, nosed them, touched them soft;
With lovely fear to hurt their tender sides

"Breathed upon them, nosed them, touched them soft" is beautifully done -- the poet approaching the pigs briefly, gently, three different ways (without hard sounds or hard repetition or anything hard at all) to mirror the action of the ox with the action of the language describing it. Dyer is moved by the sight and draws lessons. God, a power that treasures even the squashable, is working through the ox, and we should follow his example. Acts of mercy are beautiful.

Be meek thou child of man:
Who gives thee life, gives every worm to live,
Thy kindred of the dust.

The poem is otherwise so uncluttered that the invocation of God is unnecessary. His point would have been clear without it. Dyer kept a farm for a time and My Ox Duke has the naturalness of an observed incident. The four-book Fleece is firmest and plainest in its first part, where he discusses the farming of sheep.

Here it would avail,
At a meet distance from the upland ridge,
To sink a trench, and on the hedge-long bank
Sow frequent sand, with lime and dark manure

In fact the Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests that "sheep tending" is the sole subject of the poem but this is not true. The poet moves from sheep to wool, from wool to the weaving of wool, and then to the export of wool cloth from Britain to the rest of the globe. The terminal fourth of the poem sees British ships shooting around the planet in triumph.

Now with our woolly treasures amply stored,
Glide the tall fleets into the widening main,
A floating forest, every sail, unfurled,
Swells to the wind …

While gaily o'er the waves the mounting prows
Dance, like a shoal of dolphins, and begin
To streak with various paths the hoary deep.

Then Dyer starts describing countries he hasn't seen. His language loses the precision it had when he was addressing farming. It becomes romantic. The Caribbean is a "sea-wrapt garden of the dulcet reed." "The serpent hisses," in northern Russia, "while in thickets nigh / Loud howls the hungry wolf." Offshore there are "monsters of the deep / Porpoise, or grampus, or the ravenous shark." In Guinea he finds …

… yellow dust of gold
Which, with her rivers, rolls adown the sides
Of unknown hills, where fiery-wingèd winds,
And sandy deserts roused by sudden storms,
All search forbid.

Hottentots murder their parents, Samoyeds live in freezing caves, and Ceylon "also deemed / The ancient Ophir" possesses exciting volcanoes. Hugh l'Anson Fausset argues that this fourth book is the floppiest part of the poem, and so it is, if you take it on its own. However it is necessary to the Fleece as a whole. The wave of extravagance flings the story open. It gives the Fleece the shape of a cornucopia, spilling lush fruit. The start was narrow, detailed and particular, he was talking about subjects he knew well: sheep, the sicknesses of sheep, lambkins, sheep, sheep, rain, sheep, and soil cultivation. Now at the end he has leapt into the realm of fantasy. He's off, he's away. His voice follows the progress of the wool, not only in fact, but in tone. Wool drives Britons out into the world where they spread goodness to every nation they touch. They are supermen.

'Tis her delight
To fold the world with harmony, and spread
Among the habitations of mankind
The various wealth of toil, and what her fleece
To clothe the naked, and her skilful looms,
Peculiar give.

The Fleece is shaped like life, impossible, eternal life. It starts in a small place with a tight focus, a baby-sized thing, then expands, grows, takes on more accomplishments, bursts out in triumph, flawless successes; and stops before death comes. In the last lines "Britain's happy trade" is still expanding

Wide as the Atlantic and Pacific seas
Or as air's vital fluid o'er the globe.

It stops there. The happiness that worked on a small scale in Grongar Hill is thinner when it's punched up like this, given a flag to wave, and stretched across the planet like a stocking over a basketball, but there's glitter in this thinness and excitement in this picture of a earthly heaven -- humanity saved, saved, and all by wool! -- in spite of its alien jingoism, its improbability -- oh the innocence of it, and the thrill he gets out of his imaginary foreign travels, and the little touches, as when he pictures shells from Madagascar brought home to sit on London mantelpieces. The seriousness of the first part provides a firm grounding for the flight of fancy's liftoff.

Lo, from the simple fleece, how much proceeds.

Of course all of this is lost in Eighteenth Century Verse, where we only have a few pages from book three. A pity.

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