Thursday, December 21, 2006

Switching to Beta

Hello, all. Another technical note:

I am in the process of switching the blog over to the Beta version. I do not like Beta, as it requires us to create Google accounts, which I think is not good. Part of me would rather just switch this whole caboodle over to Wordpress.com, which I have done (and will make to look pretty, I promise) here. If we decide to move there, this blog will still be up, at least as an archive for the old comments.

The one drawback of Wordpress is that it will not accept Haloscan. I like their comment-function better than Haloscan, and it is spam-regulated. We can still link to the old discussions here, and I will try to import recent comments and those from the Parker discussion, to keep it live.

The decision we need to make as a community is between the following options:

1. Do we want to stay on Blogger and make everyone get Google accounts to transfer to Beta?
2. Do we want to move to Wordpress, where everyone will still have to create new accounts, but they won't mess with your email?

UPDATE: I have decided, we are not all going to get Google accounts and switch to Beta. It is too much of a hassle. We are all going to Wordpress and creating accounts there. Once you have a Wordpress account, email me and let me know what email address you used and I will invite you to join the Long Eighteenth.

WHY DO I LIKE IT BETTER? Just look. The Collaborative Readings information is in an obvious bar across the header, and it has embedded Category links in the sidebar, too. You can navigate easily from post to post and the front page is always quickly accessible. If I'm not mistaken, the pages even load faster, which is a big deal for us dinosaurs still on dial-up.

Once you join, I'll set you all to "administrators" so you can edit comments (like if, for example, you see you've made a typo), check the blog stats yourself (so it's not all a mystery in my hands how many hits we get) and enjoy all the WP extras. I think this will be far better than the patched-together nature of our Blogspot blog.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thanks for voting!

I emerge briefly from the lightless pit of exam grading to thank any of you who may have voted for me for the MLA Delegate Assembly. I will be representing the graduate students of New York State from 2007-2010. May I not actually be a graduate student that long!

As we've mentioned in comments, this blog may be taking an unplanned mini-hiatus while we all do some deep-breathing exercises. I will probably need some advice about evaluating what are some truly baffling exam results. I only gave the exam, you'll remember, because I was concerned that all the opportunities for getting a grade in my class were based on extremely rigorous at-home and in-class writing, so I thought I'd make at least half of the exam easy, non-analytical questions one can actually study for.

As is par for my class, the students who were already doing well (about a third) studied very hard and got high A's, even a few perfect scores. The students who were not doing so great at the analytical exercises did not study at all (or freaked out, or something) and failed the exam mightily, misidentifying even the protagonists of the three novels we read, naming Samuel Johnson as "A Victorian poet," and answering the gimme question "Who is your favorite writer we read this semester and why?" with "William Burroughs" and no explanation. (Needless to say, we did not study William Burroughs in Brit Lit Survey.) I know my students probably know the answers to these questions—they're all pretty obvious and I have made sure in other ways that they read the material—so I'm guessing it's some kind of intense exam-phobia.

I can't ignore the final results; obviously many of my students deserve to have their grade raised by their excellent performance. But I also feel terrible dropping some of what are already barely-passing grades because of totally botched exams. Sure, these results are probably an effect of poor reading skills, and it is a reading class, so those skills are being tested, but testing someone on how well they understand my questions, as a text, is less important than whether they understand the literature itself.

So this is why I've been away from the blog. Thinking about it makes me want to bang my head against the wall, and though I would rather be thinking about interesting C18 scholarship, my head is otherwise occupied.

I am hoping Parker is able to join the conversation once the CUNY semester is out, which is this week.

Is anyone else coming to MLA? Should we have lunch one day?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Triumph of Grading Hell?

Is the discussion of The Triumph of Augustan Poetics over, or have we just unofficially adjourned until final grades for the fall semester are done? The latter, I hope!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Johnson and Fideism

Although the previous chapter was titled, “The Fideist Reaction,” there were several earlier hints of a “Protestant reaction” extending forward into the nineteenth century. That complete history does not appear in this chapter, as Parker analyzes Samuel Johnson’s works as part of the initial return of fideist art. Although the concept of a divided Samuel Johnson is not new, Parker provides us with new terms for that split in naming the two halves of Johnson’s literary nature—one part is Humanist curiosity about the world (and literature in particular), and one part is fideist skepticism about the value of earthly activities (literature among all others). This latter impulse is seen most strongly in The Vanity of Human Wishes and Rasselas, in which diverse human activity leads to the same sense of futility and exhaustion (with Solomon the representative, non-classical figure of spiritual weariness). This chapter really should be read with the previous chapter for full appreciation of the fideist motifs that Parker identifies in Johnson’s work. Among other motifs, Johnson’s work emphasizes futility, meditation, and stasis. This fideist element extended to Johnson’s perception of his own activities; his literary output stimulated and amused him, but could achieve for him no higher value: “For Johnson poetry (and every art) is a diversion, a toy…and a bauble” (238). Likewise, for Johnson private devotions, though a necessary and sober duty, could provide no sense of certainty, no knowledge of divine intentions. Parker argues that Johnson’s relationship to God, and hence to God’s works, is fideist in a specific and limited: “the form of imagination in which the divine is understood is infinitely remote from sensation, analogy, and all discursive knowledge” (231 n. 3). To seek, or rather linger patiently, is pious, but to expect certainty outside of the promises of the Bible is foolish.

This image of a fideist and un-analogical Johnson affirms the thesis of the book, which is that analogical representations of God became impossible after the Augustans had done their work. The contrast between Johnson in this chapter and the account of Edward Young in the previous chapter is meant to be instructive: one incorporates modes of inquiry despite pessimism about its relevance, and the other is meditative to the point of total absence/departure. The other part of this argument is that Johnson, by systematically (dialectically?) opposing his Humanist influences to his fideist beliefs, was in fact two—creating and sustaining a paradox, to the point that “Johnson was not a man of his time” (248).

This last assertion should be closely pondered for its historical implications. If Johnson combines all of these Augustan, Humanist and fideist influences, yet is not of his time, then how does he come to appear at the end of this book? It seems strange to conclude a historically situated reading with this kind of flourish, which shows respect for Johnson as a thinker and writer but leaves us in an odd place. We are told that “Johnson solved the problem that divided the literary culture of his day”—that is, the problem of reinstating religious expression in art—“by dividing himself” (249). The last time we saw such a division was in the account of Abraham Cowley, of whom it was said “He was one of the first to feel the failure of analogy. …one of the first to reckon with the problem of a necessary revision of consciousness” but also one who “left behind an indecipherable legacy” (78-9). If Johnson represents a solution to the problems created by the Augustans, where should we look for a continuation of that solution? If he is not of his time, what is his relevance? To put it another way, is Johnson a transitional figure like Cowley, a representative figure like Pope, or a revolutionary figure like Butler? This account seems in some ways to lean towards a transitional definition: Johnson looks back to Humanist authors “now obscure” and presides over the revival of “fideist art,” albeit without being able to fully occupy the fideist mode in the manner of Edward Young. I find myself wondering what might be the relationship of this final figure to subsequent fideism in Parker’s account.

Finally, I’d like to add on to Kirsten Wilcox’s final question in the previous post by asking frankly what our own assessment might be of the relative readability of Night Thoughts and The Vanity of Human Wishes. Wilcox asks whether Johnson and Young are “united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project”—if they are/if they are not, how might readability (or familiarity—the degree to which either is read these days) affect our ability to judge the similarity or difference of the impulses behind the two poems? And what then would be the relevance of such a comparison?

The Fideist Reaction

Like Bill Levine, I come to “my” chapter late and with less of a first-hand engagement with the rest of Parker’s book than I would like. That said, I’ve been finding the conversation deeply absorbing. This is a book that I will be coming back to, and I’m grateful to this blog for getting me engaged with it at a point in the semester when the demands of teaching exert a relentless pull.

Parker concludes the previous chapter (“Four Poles of the Christian Imagination”) with the recognition that the model he uses to describe the domain of pre-Augustan Christian poetry is not “a kind of simplistic nomenclature to round off the ragged edges and complexities of Christian poetics.” As Carrie pointed out in her post, these categories may be more supple and permeable than the model suggests, when applied to individual works and writers. Nevertheless, “fideism” emerges in the next chapter (“The Fideist Reaction”) as the inevitable solution to “acute” crisis in “the Christian poetic imagination.” The abandonment of analogism and the rise of empiricism, Parker argues, limits the religiously expressive power of poetry up to the 1740s. This transitional late-Augustan poetry (my term, not Parker’s) can range anywhere from the “dismally pedestrian” (Pope’s versions of the Psalms), to the “unassuming, pious, and prosaic” (Watts’ hymns), and the “dubious and contrived” (Hill’s nature poetry).

I wondered about this assertion of “the Christian poetic imagination” and the claim that “the period from 1670 to 1740 did not produce one really important Christian poem aside from hymns” (199). There seems to be a narrowing here of what counts as “poetic imagination.” It’s my impression that devotional poetry proliferates during this period (particularly by women writers), along with hymns (over 500 by Watts alone, as Parker notes). Might this sheer quantity (along with the kind of repetition and imitation it entails) suggest that “the Christian poetic imagination” in the period may have turned away from certain kinds of poetic virtuousity yet still be expressing itself in poetic social practices that sneak under the radar of close readings of aesthetically significant poems? But that’s me beating the new historicist drum, and thinking about the book I would write rather than responding the book Parker wrote.

For Parker, Matthew Prior’s Alma marks the transition to something new: Augustan in “tone and design” it nonetheless “repudiates a good deal of Augustan thinking.” Parker identifies that repudiation with his distinction between “Davidic” and “Solomonic” forms of poetic and religious imagination. The Psalms bear “a naturalistic plenitude like that of a good deal of Baroque English poetry.” After 1700, however, poets were drawn away from the Davidic Psalms to a different poetic vision, that of Ecclesiastes and Job, “a wisdom…based on…the testing in experience of the objects of creation and finding them unequal to man’s spiritual thirst” (218). This “Solomonic” way of viewing the relationship between humans and God was particularly amenable to the fideists who identified “neither image nor analogy, neither reason nor perception, in the endless journey to a God who remains distant and unknowable, except as an object of promise and hope” (215).

The chapter ends with a reading of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which Parker describes as “the supreme…emptying out of the Augustan field of natural objects, and also of the tensions inherent in the heroic couplet…done on behalf of a kind of morbid and protracted wisdom literature, the most peculiar in English” (221). One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Parker’s discussion of Night Thoughts was his effort, as in conveying the novelty of the Augustans, to get across just how new and unusual the poetry he’s writing about was to its contemporary audience. The reading of Night Thoughts is riddled with pithy assessments that simultaneously repel and entice—perverse book-jacket blurbs: “a work…of both incomprehensible novelty and proverbial truth,” “Night Thoughts in turn mesmerizes, irritates and stultifies,” “mixture of witty apothegm and ponderous meditation,” “the supreme dalliance in the field of fideist meditation.” I too have been mesmerized and irritated by Night Thoughts–and perplexed by its invisibility. Fairer and Gerrard did not include it in the Blackwell anthology Eighteenth-Century Poetry (as far as I know the only eighteenth-century poetry-only anthology in print at the moment), and the widely taught Longman anthology of restoration and eighteenth-century literature only includes the first third of Night the First.

Although Parker uses Young’s poem to fully flesh out what “the fideist reaction” is and how it appealed to contemporary audiences, it is here that I begin to wonder if a concept that achieves its supreme expression in such a bewildering poem is really a concept that can usefully unite the range of poetry that Young applies it to. Parker repeatedly speaks of Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes as the “companion piece” to Night Thoughts, yet while both poems present a similar theology of God’s inaccessibility and the crucial leap of faith, these themes play out very differently in the two poems. Young’s poem repeatedly reaches for God over a series of nights in a state framed by “sleep and languorous dream” (as Parker puts it) and rings every possible change on that search. In Johnson’s Vanity the possibility of seeking God (as a futile but perhaps psychologically useful last resort) is raised only at the end of a poem that for the most part focuses on thick descriptions of earthly life. Are these two writers united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project—or are they turning that project in new directions (in Young’s case, turning Thomson’s “anxious eye” inward to watch and learn from the fluctuations of the soul)?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Four poles of the Christian imagination

The placement of this chapter immediately struck me as curious--we don't hear about the "perennial Christian tradition" until Ch. 5 (pg. 174). BP offers the following explanation: "With the examples of Butler, Cowley, Pope and Thomson already fleshed out, it will be easier to summarize the conflicts between Augustan and Baroque imagination" (175). It's interesting to see him go back to the material that the Augustans were responding to, and then to move on to fideism in post-Augustan writers.

BP remarks early in this chapter that the Augustan "is the strand which has formed in different ways the prejudices and habits of thought for the class of enlightened elites which encompasses both capitalists and radical intellectuals" (175). I would propose this remark as something we might discuss further in the comments below. I would have thought, for example, that dissent and fideism were more fruitful philosophical veins for some radical thinkers--or even for capitalism in very traditional accounts of the Protestant work ethic via Weber.

BP presents four modes: the logist (which imagines "a faith perfected by knowledge . . . a faith presenting a distinct object to the intellect"); the analogical ("rather than verbal formulation and equivalence, it seeks in the image of the creature an intelligible or imaginative trace of God"); the mystical ("it attempts a severe discipline to find the unmeditated person of God") and the fideist (it "exists whenever God is perceived as an absence").

The delineation of these modes gives scholars of Christian writing a number of effective tools, allowing for precise descriptions of how a Christian author understands and represents God, and how a Christian author might represent or attain knowledge. Like any delineation, however, the boundaries between "modes" might be investigated. In fact, BP allows for some overlap between the modes within individual works, within the Bible as a whole, and within the careers of individual authors. He notes "the special relations of the two symbolic and the two ontological modes" as well. I would have liked to see more commentary on how some authors combine multiple modes and whether these modes can also be held as distinct categories of Christian symbolism and ontology.

For example, Bunyan is placed as a fideist writer on the chart of 194-5. This makes sense, for Bunyan does indeed seem to be alone in a world vacated by God, and often terrified of having been abandoned by God. As well, he works within classic genres of fideism--the confessional biography and the allegorical spiritual journey narratives. I am wondering, however, whether there is an element of the logist in Bunyan's writing which contradicts the fideist elements. Bunyan, of course, is a very different logist from, say, Eleanor Davies, but he does seem interested in verbal puzzles and in the revealing power of the Book. After all, there is an "Interpreter" figure in The Pilgrim's Progress--and Scripture and Biblical text seems to take on an extremely active role in Grace Abounding as well. And does not the great writer of allegory see God in the "creature" as well? Is there no capacity in Bunyan for the experience of a "figure-making God?" [Donne's words, quite by BP].

My final impression of the "four poles" is that each "pole" is a fruitful interpretative tool to approach Christian writers--but that individual Christian writers might have more of a mixture of each mode than BP allows here.

I would be interested in talking about the emphasis in fideist Christian cultures of "fellowship" or even congregational unity. After reading BP's account of fideism, I wonder if the Lutheran and anabaptist and/or independent emphasis on fellowship is not a direct response to the hollow feeling of an absent God (the second half of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress might exhibit this kind of fellowship, as Christiana is accompanied by a vast company of fellow believers.)

On a separate but related note re. the baroque and shifts of cultural priorities, think of Alex Ross's remarks in The New Yorker about the resurgence of interest in Handel (of course, some of us never left him). Ross writes: "it’s a bit of a mystery why Handel has become so crucial for early-twenty-first-century listeners. The prior century made a cult of Bach, whose music takes the form of an endless contrapuntal quest. Perhaps, in an age of information overload and ambient fear, we have more need for Handel’s gentler, steadier art." Of course Ross also adds that Handel grants us not only gentleness and steadiness but also "high-class melodrama and psychological theater."

Here's the link:
http://www.newyorker.com/critics/content/articles/060508crmu_music

I enjoyed this chapter a great deal.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Thomson and the Problems of the "Literal"

Excuse the belatedness of this post, as I’m still returning to normalcy after finishing up my last classes yesterday. I also wish that my comments could be better informed by a careful study of Parker’s entire work, but at the very least I’ll indirectly address some of the engaging blogging on the earlier chapters.

The highlight of this chapter is a shrewd reading of Thomson’s Summer as the most daunting experiment in the expansion of Augustan “literalism,” including a widened range of subject matter and an associative and accretive (or perhaps one could substitute “metonymic”) basis for the juxtaposition of its positivistic scenes. Parker applies his thesis quite deliberately to Summer, the one book of Thomson’s poem that is most free of moralistic, religious, or generically-encoded overtones and can thus serve as a test case for the limits of a purely empirical poetics. The metaphysical and analogical traces in the book of nature have been emptied out, along with the significations of classical literary tradition. Milton, whose influence is also challenged, is said to be competing with Newton for priority in Thomson’s representations of the summer sun, a poetic source of both “a neutral, mechanistic view and a traditional dramatic one” that emphasizes the fallen nature of the heterocosm. Thomson has already benefited from the satirical assaults on the Baroque aesthetic and its theological residue; thus the ground is cleared for what is by far the most naturalistic mode of poetic representation at this point in history and arguably the forerunner of modern conceptions of nature poetry--a bold move to make at this point after the dominance of Wordsworth—whom I’ll return to later—in this dimension of lit history, and the related dominance of Romantic aesthetics in defining modern critical formations of nature poetry.

At the same time, the application of the book’s larger thesis to Thomson strikes me as a somewhat insular, not only in eliding new historicism, as others have remarked, but also in the way that it engages with the critical practices one might associate with Earl Wasserman, an interweaving of close reading with what was then called the history of ideas, the way a single work is a synecdoche for a governing epistemological formation. Granted, we now recognize elements of continuity and change in formations consisting of works that overlap with and distance themselves from earlier norms. Perhaps, as Marshall Brown put it in Preromanticism, we may also sense that a such works are “on their way” to an emergent formation, remaining in a halfway house between the neoclassical and the Romantic, while still cohering as a viable epistemological construct with its own identity.

In response to earlier blog discussion, this chapter leaves me with no doubt that scientific and intellectual developments had to precede the literary innovation. For instance, one of Parker’s most incisive remark on the impossibility of a Lockeian poetry of pure sensation (160) enters his discussion as part of an elaborate concession to the various forms of abstraction inherent in the nature of language and in Thomson’s moralizing or other generalizing tendencies that may obscure the visual power, immediacy, and “physical verisimilitude” of the poetry. As Parker admits, he’s “running counter” to the major critics on Thomson who have focused on his “moral generalization, classical abstraction, and Christian theodicy” when he asserts that these are the “least important and the least representative qualities in Thomson” (159) and chooses to emphasize the poet’s extensive array of “neutral description” as his most genuinely innovative development. It may be of value to bracket this quality of Thomson, but Parker’s choice foregrounds the problems of selection, exclusion, prioritization, and driving home an overarching thesis in any literary history that attempts to define a “period.” When Wordsworth enters the discussion in rather flat ways that suggest a “resymbolization” and moral elevation of the literally descriptive poetry he had read in his youth but refused to acknowledge in his 1798 Preface, he and the other Romantics are reduced to the equivalent of contrasting boundary-markers; nor do we need to trot out Geoffrey Hartman to prove that Wordsworth and the other Romantics did not simply fall back on “intervening abstractions” to “color and direct” what would otherwise be the more purely empirical “concentrated description” of Pope and Thomson. Even given the concession above, what happens to the problem of poetic diction or the ways that nature turns into an ontology of poetic form and composition? It was Donald Davie who said that one finds Miltonic diction in Thomson, not Milton.

It’s a testimony to the book’s power and erudition that the Thomson chapter left me with several questions I feel rather uneasy in answering without further investigation. One is whether there really is such a thing as “purely literal” poetry. Can the literary historian clear an empirical space untarnished by metaphysical presence between the Baroque and the Romantic? It would also be a curious exercise—perhaps I’ll suggest it to a theoretically inclined grad student--to reflect on the elements of Bate’s Burden of the Past that trickle down into both Harold Bloom and Parker, and the polarized ways that they see poetic influence and originality panning out.

While Parker abundantly provides Arnoldian touchstones that contrast analogical Renaissance depictions of nature with the empirical literalism of Thomson’s, I find it hard to abstract even a few lines from any book of The Seasons that are not already infiltrated by some anterior form of discourse that secures moralistic, classical, secularized-theodical holism, or, alternatively, inductive-scientific closure of the sort that confers systematic meaning upon any individualized natural object as part of a metonymic chain of signifiers. Admittedly, the system of signification has drastically altered by the c18, as the taxonomic plenitude suggested by, for instance, Thomson’s “naturalistic” catalog of morning birds and their calls proceeds by a kind of overdetermined inductive process to signify the providential abundance of the world; it “shows” rather than “tells” as a more traditional hymn would do via openly allegorical “correspondence,” and it’s underwritten more by scientific certainty than by the implied or openly declared presence of a god. Indeed, as Parker clearly argues, the abundance of description threatens to overwhelm the elements of moral closure, but this observation may belong more to the reception aesthetic of the poem (the article on Thomson’s uses of contradiction that John Barrell and Harriet Guest contributed to the New Eighteenth Century collection, e.g.) than a historically-sensitive reconstruction of Thomson’s plan or poetic tendencies. As much as I appreciate Parker’s identification of “downward metaphors of modern positivism” (172) in The Seasons that suggest the affinities between humanity and a natural world denuded of analogical traces, I would ask whether the inductive leaps of science and empirical philosophy serve as the a posteriori God-term in this poetry of Newtonian discovery. Does a new, secularized sign-system (nature as a mechanistic process, e.g.) ever completely supplant its metaphysical predecessor or does it still depend on rewriting or re-allegorizing a continuous cultural heritage preserved in classical and Judeo-Christian texts, albeit approached “scientifically”?

One segment of Parker’s nuanced reading raised doubts about the “literal” that he made generous concessions to without quite establishing or modifying his main argument. Thomson depended on anthropological writings and natural histories in order to envision both edenic and chaotic scenes of life in Africa (165-67), and I agree that he deserves credit for his “studied prospect of minute detail,” even if this prospect relies on literary mediation and its allusive, mostly Miltonic bedrock, as well as elements of fantasy that supplement his factual sources. Yet even if we grant such descriptions the same “literal” status as the images of flora and fauna that his reputedly nearsighted vision could directly detect, the extensive descriptions of African nature indirectly underwrite a teleology of Whiggish progress, latch georgic cultivation (a mode that Parker had earlier discounted as a means of organizing sight and space in Summer [159]), onto the “Progressive Truth” of scientific inquiry, and justify imperial domination.

Finally, to quibble with one example from what I generally find to be his illuminating analogies to the history of painting at this time: How can West’s Death of Wolfe be said to treat its subject in a way that “yields no figurative depth” (156) when there’s an obvious attempt to parallel this hero of secular, modern imperial history with those of the past? It’s not necessary to compare Wolfe with Jesus to see that it’s more than a “merely structural” pose that is indebted to a “mechanical” tradition of history painting that had been emptied of its analogical or typological force. One problem here is that “structural” cannot be equated with “literal”; another is that the moral dimension of this scene has to come from somewhere: is it only “modern” British history or is some level of analogy with classical and biblical culture inevitable, however much their “absence” is now supplanted by the presence of the present. And does even the most “mechanical” of traditions (which gives short shrift to West’s innovations) carry with it some overtones of prior figurations; let’s call it intertextuality if we don’t like the evaluative assumptions inherent in the word “depth.”

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Alex Seltzer on "Scientific Verse" up to about 1730

Alex Seltzer has sent in a guest post in response to Parker's Chapter 4, which is as follows:

In chapter 4 on "Thomson and the invention of the literal," Parker discusses the new objects of poetry: "By 1720 poetry was no longer a basically religious or even courtly manner. It was for the first time the art of everything. It was the vehicle of the fully literal, the realization of the physical and detached nature of things." [p. 137] He then cited Margaret Doody: "Nothing is so common, so bizarre, so unclean -or so grand -that it can't be appreciated and consumed by the poetic process." Doody, The Daring Muse, p. 9].

I have been delving into the "scientific verse" of poets such as Blackmore (Creation), Prior (Solomon), Baker (Universe), Collins (Nature Display'd), Brooke (Universal Beauty). To these I add Thomson's Season's which impresses me as being on a much higher plane and less concerned with the argument by design which was the common theme. My goal has been to extract "arguments by design" based strictly on biological models. The purpose is to draw a parallel between the imagery of these poets and the illustrations of the contemporary naturalist, Mark Catesby. His illustrations of new world flora and fauna have been labeled as the "graphic equivalent of poems." (David Wilson, In the Presence of Nature, 1978, p. 147).

Turning to the natural theological verse of the above poets, we find the bedrock of such poetry consists of example after example of "proofs" of the divine creator's existence as reflected in "the book of nature." More often than not, the poet points out the obvious and conveys it in bombastic terminology. To cite one of my favorite examples, here is Brooke on the architectural skills of bees (a pet topic of these poets) from his Universal Beauty:

Swift for the tasks the ready builders part,
Each band assigned to each peculiar art;
A troop of chymists scout the neighboring field,
While servile tribes the cull'd materials wield,
With tempering feet the labored cement tread,
And ductile now its waxen foliage spread.
The geometricians judge the deep design,
Direct the compass, and extend the line;
The sum their numbers provident of space,
And suit each edifice with answering grace.
Now first appears the rough proportion'd frame,
Rough in draught, but perfect in the scheme;
When lo! Each little Archimedes nigh,
Mates every angle with judicious eye;
Adjusts the center cones with skill profound
And forms the curious hexagon around.
[book 6, lines 191-206]


To repeat, was such poetry consumed, if not by a broad public, then by an influential elite? Are these just faint echoes of John Ray's Wisdom of God? or powerful amplifications that brought "the argument by design" into the mainstream? The very fact that poets were tackling a variety of new subjects suggests that the audience was broadening but that is supposition on my part.

Secondly, is it fair to regard this now as "bad poetry?" Blackmore's Creation was defended by Johnson (Lives of the Poets) but he condemned Prior's Solomon as tedious. I don't know about the others. (Swift's famous ditty about flea's hosting smaller parasites may have been directed towards Baker). I find much of this poetry (to my delight) comparable to the howlers of William McGonagal's Victorian-era "poetic gems" ("Greenland's Icy Mountains"), but he had the defense of being uneducated, whereas Collins' "Little Archimedes" screams that he had a classical education. In fact, there seems to be a conspicuous "show-off" element, each poet trying to out-do the next, much as Swift's "Flea" suggests. Was this sort of poetry exceptionally bad, or merely run-of-the-mill bad? Maybe such a discussion is irrelevant in an academic context?

I've found little on these biologically-oriented poems other than Bonamy Dobree's English Literature in the Early 18th Century. Suggestions on further reading are welcome -both on the poems and the broader context. (Perhaps other pre-1730 poems could be included?)

Sincerely, Alex Seltzer (art historian unfamiliar with poetry) Philadelphia