The twenty-first of September, 2011: poor intoxicated little knave

Apologies to poetryphobes and/or misGeorgianists. Again the Clutterbuck returns to English poetry, and to the eighteenth century.

One of the most attractive features of the period is the feeling, apparently widespread among poets and writers, that there is literally nothing that you can’t write a poem about. The taste of the 18th-century poets where muses are concerned is eclectic verging on deranged.

It’s an approach that feels rather modern. It’s a vivifying reminder that old poetry isn’t in fact a soppy agglomeration of flowers, maidens, wars and skylarks (that all came later: blame the Romantics). In fact, I was recently leafing through The New Oxford Book Of Eighteenth-century Verse, R. Lonsdale ed. (OUP, 2009) in search of an ardent love poem (for research purposes) – and I couldn’t find one!

What it all recalls to me is the strapline adopted by the Harry Smith anthologies of American folk musicback when music was weird. This was a time when poetry was weird; just as weird as life.

I’m not going to quote. I don’t need to. The titles are enough. How about To A Young Woman With Some Lampreys (John Gay)? Or Written For My Son, At His First Putting On Breeches (Mary Barber)? Or There’s Life In A Mussel: A Meditation (George Farewell)?

Thomas Gray is best-known for his Elegy In A Country Churchyard, but personally I’m more fond of his Ode On The Death Of A Favourite Cat, Drowned In A Tub of Gold Fishes (‘The slipp’ry verge her feet beguiled,/She tumbled headlong in’).

Then there’s On Losing My Pocket Milton At Luss (Robert Andrews). Or An Elegy On The Death of Dobbin, the Butterwoman’s Horse (Francis Fawkes). Or Lines Written Upon A Window-shutter at Weston (William Cowper).

I think my favourite might be John Wolcot’s To A Fly, Taken Out Of A Bowl Of Punch (‘Ah! poor intoxicated little knave…’). This, of course, is the milieu that also gave us Burns, with his addresses to lice and mice and haggises and so on.

Even if it sometimes recalls William Topaz McGonagall (‘But during my short stay, and while wandering there,/Mr Spurgeon was the only man I heard speaking proper English I do declare.’) and sometimes Vogon poetry (‘Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning’), it’s all just so damn’ invigorating.

The heedless intermixing of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, of the ‘profound’ and the ‘trivial’, would – like a great deal of eighteenth-century literature – have to be called post-modern, if only it weren’t all so decidedly pre-modern.


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