University of Sheffield

Department of English Literature



A portrait of the Earl of Rochester
John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester

In these notes on poetry from Marvell to Johnson I have avoided using the phrase 'Augustan poetry', partly for snobbish reasons (thinking I can avoid the clichés), partly because they did not use that expression often themselves. (It was notably used by Francis Atterbury in a Preface to the Poems of Edmund Waller, to be found in the library, an essay which does indeed vividly characterise the new, rhythmically subtle verse that came after John Donne and the metaphysicals.)

A highly traditional form, the couplet (aka distich, aka heroic couplet), was used in the Dryden-and-after period with powerful, glittering control and verbal interest, partly by use of 'the turn'. In my lecture I contrasted this type of verse with what I called 'soft art', my example being from Carol Ann Duffy: art in which the interest of the words depends on the emotions they arouse. They stir up the reader's feelings, facilely. You might call this feel-good poetry, because it makes you warm to some things being described and in indignant about others. The 'hard art' of Dryden and after makes you think, strings you along, and surprises you.

I did not mean there was only one type of art in that period. I said that there was a wealth of popular writing, street writing, and because writing had so many purposes it had many forms - which gives the lie to my plan to deal first with style, then with content. Because there was a ballad form, then ballad type things had to be said or could be said under compulsion. I mentioned that when Daniel Defoe went out of political favour with the accession of Queen Anne in 1712 and the 'dissenting' chapels and conventicles fell under attack from Tories. Dissenters were excluded from public office and ways of ridding the state of these contumacious characters were in demand. Defoe wrote a pamphlet called THE SHORTEST WAY WITH THE DISSENTERS saying that this shortest way was - to exterminate them. And it was taken seriously. When it was realized this was a hoax Defoe was found guilty of seditious libel and placed in jail, then put in the pillory outside. But even while there organised a pamphlet, HYMN TO THE PILLORY, to be distributed to the crowd while he was pelted with soft old tomatoes: the form gave him a content. (His joking poem that made him popular many years before was called THE TRUE-BORN ENGLISHMAN (there weren't any was his message) is in Demaria's anthology.

Literary modes made meaning, so Virgil on bee-keeping in the GEORGICS, was a way towards analysing an imaginary society as Virgil analysed the bees' society. (A snippet from GEORGICS is in my handout for that lecture.) I illustrated some of this popular art by quoting a ballad of 1646, 'The world is turned upside down.' Returning to the couplet form, I ventured the idea that rhyming verse, though artificial (rhyming all the time), is more like speech than many sorts of free or blank verse. If you hear a Plath poem or a Shakespeare speech, you know it's verse all right, whereas with rhymed verse . . .? This may be (if true) because in non-rhymed verse rhythm has to dominate. I may have said that if this verse is close to speech it is therefore suitable for ordinary subjects, as indeed it is.

Here is an example of what this sort of verse is good at, a passage by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, quoted interestingly by Germaine Greer in a review of a new edition of Rochester's poems in the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS (16 September 1999). I have divided the lines into blocks so they are easier to follow. The poet is thinking or murmuring to himself about his shyness with a loved one, one who is all too easily wooed by a rival who is not tongue-tied: he is hobbled, wrong-footed by the woman whom he can easily come on to because he is only doing so more or less for practice. Greer says it is a piece of writing of an 'oddly intense but tremulous character', so very unlike the familiar Rochester whom academics like to brashly quote the obscenities of.

Could I but make my wishes insolent
And force some image of a small content!
But they, like me, bashful and humble grown,
Hover at distance about beauty's throne.
There worship and admire and then they die,
Daring no more lay hold of her than I.
Reason to worth bears a submissive spirit,
But fools can be familiar with merit.
Who but that blundering blockhead Phaeton
Could e'er have thought to drive about the sun?
Just such another durst make love to you,
Whom not ambition led but dullness drew.
No amorous thought could his dull heart incline,
But he would have a passion for 'twas fine;
That, a new suit, and what he next must say,
Runs in his idle head the livelong day.
Hard-hearted saint, since 'tis your will to be
So unrelenting pitiless to me,
Regardless of a love so many years
Preserved 'twixt ling'ring hopes and awful fears
(Such fears in lover's breasts high value claims,
And such expiring martyrs feel in flames.)
My hopes yourself contrived with cruel care
Through gentle smiles to lead me to despair.
'Tis some relief in my extreme distress,
My rival is below your power to bless.

Speech of an oddly tremulous and intense character, says Greer: one tone that this verse can be made good at by such a poet as Rochester.

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