"Aesthetics" and the Rise of Lyric in the Eighteenth Century
Patey, Douglas Lane, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
In the literary theory of the eighteenth century we habitually confront two opposed views of poetry and in particular of what a succession of critics identifies as the oldest and most "poetical" kind of poetry: lyric. Both are views that an older literary history taught us to associate more with the nineteenth century than the eighteenth, or at best only with--to use the term popularized in the 1920s--the "preromantic" strain in later eighteenth-century literature. On the one hand, the eighteenth century celebrates itself as the great age of lyric, an age that has revived and even managed to improve upon lyric forms seldom practiced since antiquity. On the other, it argues that as a form of verbal activity poetry--and lyric in particular--has become culturally outmoded, displaced by more advanced, "philosophical" uses of mind. It is this conflict I wish to examine: to say something about its historical roots, and in particular about the ways in which eighteenth-century British critics themselves used and misused their awareness of the conflict, especially in relation to the lyric, to rewrite the literary history of their own period. And I will argue that if we are to make sense of the revisionary literary history practiced in mid-century Britain by such writers as Joseph Warton, Richard Hurd, and Thomas Gray, we need to look precisely where they would suggest the poet not look either for poetic models or poetic theory: to France, and in particular to the debates over poetry initiated in France by the so-called Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns. Finally, I would like to show some of these theoretical quarrels at work in changes in British lyric practice from mid-century onward.
First, the eighteenth century's own view of itself as the lyric age. From the time of Cowley, Augustan poets had understood the "greater ode" to be one of the great inventions of the age; Dryden himself thought Alexander's Feast his greatest poem, and recommended to a young John Dennis that he "cultivate this kind of Ode," which "looks like a vast Tract of Land newly discover'd" (one whose many new settlers are pioneers).(1) It is possible to see the irregular Pindaric, with its succession of diverse stanzas, as the Restoration's answer to the Renaissance sonnet sequence; in any case, by 1700 "ode" had come to mean "Pindaric ode," and Cowley is ranked with Shakespeare as a poetic "inventor."(2) His and others' practice of both greater and lesser odes--of those "Lyric Poems" which, Joseph Trapp wrote in 1713, are "of all Kinds of Poetry, the most Poetical"(3)--initiated that outpouring of musical odes, birthday odes, biographical odes, and satirical odes which we now remember best for its failures and excesses--for poems like John Hughes's 1702 "The House of Nassau. A Pindaric Ode," with its appalling invocation:
Here pause my Muse! and wind up higher The strings of my Pindaric lyre.
And we should note for future reference that, as Charles Gildon testified in 1718, "the Lyric" was "a Poem in which . . . the Ladies have excell'd": not just in the lesser ode, but also the greater, as practiced by Lady Mary Chudleigh, Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, and Anne Finch.(4)
It was only in the 1740s, long after Congreve's essay correcting notions of the irregularity of Pindar's lyric measures and after irregular odes had become so tiresome that some poets rewrote their Pindarics into couplets (as John Dyer did his Grongar Hill in 1726), that we begin to hear in England general complaints about the condition of lyric, a view most famously voiced by Joseph Warton in his 1756 Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope. Warton frames the complaint in terms of the debate between Ancients and Moderns: "The moderns have, perhaps, practised no species of poetry with so little success, and with such indisputable inferiority to the ancients, as the ODE."(5) I shall return to Warton's arguments, and in particular to his most influential of all eighteenth-century identifications of lyric as the truest poetry. …