Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Byron and the Scottish Spenserians

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Byron and the Scottish Spenserians

Article excerpt

Poems in Series

"I SING THE SOFA," BEGINS THE TASK. COWPER WAS ASSIGNED THIS TOPIC by a lady fond of blank verse: "He obeyed; and having much leisure, connected another subject with it; and pursuing the train of thought, to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair--a volume" (2:113). (1) Childe Harold, which likewise "makes no pretension to regularity," also begins its meandering course in burlesque (2: 4). (2) These opening frames, Miltonic and Spenserian, set the pitch for the digressive songs to follow. Their peculiar resonance may fail faint on ears more familiar with Milton and Spenser than with minor poetry. Cowper evokes an obscure series of burlesque odes imitating John Philips' The Splendid Shilling, Byron a series of poems on progress developed out of James Thornson's Castle of Indolence. A survey of the Thomson series will elucidate Byron's skills as a reader and emulator as he used insights gleaned from Thomson's Scottish imitators to vault to attention by challenging national confidence in the wake of the Peninsular War. The irregularity of Childe Harold was not without a plan.

Imitations seldom come as singles; they appear in sixes, dozens, scores, or in the case of Milton's "Il Penseroso" and Gray's Elegy, hundreds. Most were ephemeral things, though some became objects of imitation in their own fight. When poets responded to later poems in a series the result would be a sequence of poems developing a common topic or set of issues. Examples include a series of imitations of Collins' "Ode on the Passions" concerned with the fine arts, and a series imitating Gray's Elegy concerned with criminals and the law. When Cowper selected "the sofa" as a topic he contributed to a series of burlesque odes with titles like "The Goose Quill" (1737), "The Razor" (1743), "The Jordan" (1750), "The Blanket" (1757), "Meditations on a Sheet of Writing Paper" (1759), "The Easy Chair" (1760), "A Poem on a Pin" (1762), "On a Pipe of Tobacco" (1762), "The Country Barber's Shop" (1762), "The Wedding Ring" (1763), The Elbow-Chair: a Rhapsody (1765), "The Old Shoe" (1770), "The Needle" (1773), "Tea: a Poem" (1773), and "The Thread-Bare Coat" (1777). (3) There was a parallel series of Philips poems on the subject of liquor, and another on starving poets. The series on common domestic objects was very familiar to readers of The Task in 1785, though it would have been less so a generation later, after Cowper's celebrated poem had eclipsed its rivals and changed the way poets wrote about domestic themes in blank verse.

The situation is analogous with Byron and The Castle of Indolence: Childe Harold overshadowed more ephemeral Thomson imitations and gave a new turn to descriptive verse in Spenserian stanzas. Different series behaved in different ways; there was an inverse relation between the length of the poems and the size of the series, for instance. Full-dress Spenserian burlesques were laborious to compose and are therefore scarcer than odes and elegies. The topic under discussion likewise seems to have had an effect on the way a series would develop: imitations of Gray's Elegy evoked memory by ringing changes on a familiar dirge; the busy Philips imitations, making much of little, took small, trivial objects as subjects for small, trivial poems. The Thomson series, with its theme of indolence, proceeded fitfully, as if retarded by indecision. While Thomson was universally popular, the number of extended imitations of The Castle of Indolence was small and dominated by Scots concerned about the effects of progress and "luxury" on traditional morality. Not the least clever thing about Childe Harold is the way in which Byron makes programmatic use of the (non)progress of the series, turning a liability into an asset: he recapitulates the series' doubts about progress in his opening burlesque and amplifies them throughout Childe Harold. …

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