First Follow Nature: Primitivism in English Poetry, 1725-1750

First Follow Nature: Primitivism in English Poetry, 1725-1750

First Follow Nature: Primitivism in English Poetry, 1725-1750

First Follow Nature: Primitivism in English Poetry, 1725-1750

Excerpt

First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standards, which are still the same.

ALEXANDER POPE offered that advice to critics as a guide to the framing of their literary judgments, but his contemporaries, and he himself (in other contexts) appealed to the authority of Nature for guidance in matters more weighty than the turn of a phrase or the composition of an epic. To Pope's generation "first follow Nature" was a rule, not merely of literature, but of life itself.

Part of the fascination which Nature held for men of the early eighteenth century expressed itself in their repeated desire to go "back to nature," or to live "according to nature." The phrase "back to nature" suggests at once that strain in human speculation which modern writers have named "primitivism." But whether the reader pictures eighteenth-century dreamers looking back towards a lost age of gold (chronological primitivism), or searching in contemporary life for a lost age of innocence (cultural primitivism), he should remember that such dreamers felt they were trying to recapture a more "natural" mode of existence. The ideal "back to nature" cannot be summed up merely in terms of regrets for Arcadia or of dreams of idyllic retirement. The problem remains of what constitutes the Nature to which the idealists are retreating. Is such a Nature synonymous with order, restraint and temperance, or with variety, freedom and profusion? Faced with the evergrowing complexity of this problem of primitivism, the reader is in a mood to appreciate Professor Lovejoy's reminder that "the history of primitivism is in great part a phase of a larger historical tendency . . . the use of the term 'nature' to express the standard of human values, the identity of good with that which is 'natural' or 'according to nature.' . . ."

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