The Yard of Wit: Male Creativity and Sexuality, 1650-1750

The Yard of Wit: Male Creativity and Sexuality, 1650-1750

The Yard of Wit: Male Creativity and Sexuality, 1650-1750

The Yard of Wit: Male Creativity and Sexuality, 1650-1750

Synopsis

Literary composition is more than an intellectual affair. Poetry has long been said to spring from the heart, while aspiring writers are frequently encouraged to write "from the gut." Still another formulation likens the poetic imagination to the pregnant womb, in spite of the fact that most poets historically have been male. Offering a rather different set of arguments about the forces that shape creativity, Raymond Stephanson examines how male writers of the Enlightenment imagined the origins, nature, and structures of their own creative impulses as residing in their virility. For Stephanson, the links between male writing, the social contexts of masculinity, and the male body--particularly the genitalia--played a significant role in the self-fashioning of several generations of male authors.

Positioning sexuality as a volatile mechanism in the development of creative energy, The Yard of Wit explains why male writers associated their authorial work--both the internal site of creativity and its status in public--with their genitalia and reproductive and erotic acts, and how these gestures functioned in the new marketplace of letters. Using the figure and writings of Alexander Pope as a touchstone, Stephanson offers an inspired reading of an important historical convergence, a double commodification of male creativity and of masculinity as the sexualized male body.

In considering how literary discourses about male creativity are linked to larger cultural formations, this elegant, enlightening book offers new insight into sex and gender, maleness and masculinity, and the intricate relationship between the male body and mind.

Excerpt

Pope’s penis: to suggest that the yard of Alexander the Little reveals something important about the culture of eighteenth-century male creativity will doubtless strike some readers as a preposterous and needless prurience. Yet it is clear that the links between male writing and contexts of masculinity and the male body—particularly genitalia— played a significant role in the self-fashioning of several generations of male authors from ca. 1650–1750. This book is about the collective structures of male creativity for the period—particularly its somatic and sexual discourses—with Alexander Pope as primary example.

My project started out as a study of how Pope fashioned his own poetical sensibility as a man: Why were his comments about poetry and creativity so often associated with sexuality? What impact did his many friendships, especially with older men, have in shaping his sense of himself as a poet? Why did his self-conscious dramatizations of the poetic imagination gravitate toward the body (Belinda’s and Eloisa’s, for example, or his own twisted frame)? What methodology might explain his investment of eros in both his male friends and his poems? What was one to make of the fact that his enemies so often attacked his writing and personality through ritualistic castration gestures or scathing belittlement of his genitals, and why did modern scholarship largely ignore this side of the Pope quarry? What was one to make of his handling of sexualized female Muses which he often projected onto himself or male friends, and why did he use tropes of the creative brain as womb? What did it mean for this diminutive man to say that “he pleas’d by manly ways,” and what sort of phallic strut might inform his public self-portraiture? What were the cultural subtexts of Colley Cibber’s embarrassing anecdote in 1742 about Pope’s supposed visit to a whorehouse as a young man? I wanted a clearer sense of the connections between Pope’s creativity and his masculinity.

Before long it was clear that such questions were related to the larger literary culture of other writers, that how Pope fantasized the symbolic landscape of male writing in his most self-conscious moments—both the interior site of creativity as well as his public status within the literary . . .

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