The Age of Imitation

By Digby, Joan | Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring-Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Age of Imitation


Digby, Joan, Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council


In recent years I've been somewhat perplexed to discover that my honors freshman literature classes are far more receptive to Pope's "Essay on Man" than Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." Through most of my teaching career, the reverse was the norm, but a number of changes in popular taste have led students away from Romantic originality and led me to these reflections on contemporary culture which may, I hope, have some wider implications with respect to current issues in teaching and learning.

In the original spirit of the "essay," I would like to try out these ideas and invite response. In essence, I have come to believe that individualism and creativity have lost their currency and that we are in a new Age of Imitation. If this seems to you like the eighteenth century revisited, then you may already be on the same wavelength. If not, then I ask you to indulge me in a little background to set the stage for my reflections.

In 1774 Mark Akenside published a poem entitled "The Pleasures of Imagination," which put forward some radical ideas about poetry and originality. For most of his century, poetry had been the offspring of conscious imitation. Aspiring poets were thought of as apprentices trained to read the greats in Greek and Latin, study their rhetoric, cut their teeth on epic and imitate Homer and Virgil. No one expressed this better than Alexander Pope, the reigning master of Enlightenment poetry. Attempting to train critics to proper judgment, he wrote:

   You then whose judgment the right course would steer
   Know well each ANCIENT'S proper character;
   His Fable, Subject, scope in every page;
   Religion, Country, genius of his Age ...
   Be Homer's works your study and delight,
   Read them by day, and meditate by night.

--"Essay on Criticism," I, 117-20; 124-25

All this comes at the end of instructions about how to "follow Nature." Pope's conclusion was that Nature and Homer were the same, so it was wise to copy after Homer. As a poet, he took his own advice, rendering Homeric epic into closed couplets, taking up a subscription and earning enough money to be recognized as the first Englishman to make his living from writing poetry. For Pope and his contemporaries, the great body of literature that came before them was a wellspring of learning that issued from a bedrock of natural laws; he refers to this in one of his most frequently cited couplets: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; /Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring" (EC, II, 215-16). By methodic, rational imitation of the ancients, writers could acquire sound judgment, or "true Wit." This was frequently seen in opposition to undisciplined flights of self-indulgent "Fancy," which implied false judgment, embarrassing personal expression, mere ornamental wit and, worst of all, bad taste.

Akenside, though still admiring of the ancients, unchained "Indulgent Fancy" (I, 10) from this negative spin and gave it a good name. He cited Shakespeare as its greatest proponent and argued that fanciful poetry is a source of unconstrained delight. Undoubtedly his generation had grown bored with pedestrian imitation, which he called "dull obedience" (I, 34) and needed both freedom and inspiration. So he called on Nature's "kindling breath" to "fire the chosen genius ... string his nerves ... imp his eagle wings" (I, 38-40) and let him soar. In a sense, Akenside's poem liberated both Prometheus and the ravening eagle. It called for rebellion and originality. Within twenty years of its publication, William Blake had completed the metaphor that gave flight to the Romantic imagination. His "Proverbs of Hell" are open rejections of everything Pope stood for. Blake's devilish self declared, "The Eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow"; "No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings," and finally "When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head." (Marriage of Heaven and Hell 1790). …

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