Looming on my intellectual horizon, and thus on yours, unless, on reading this prophecy, you bail on me, is a vasty generalization — to which I am being enticed by John Pollack through the medium of his book The pun also rises, to wit: one casualty of the Restoration was blank verse. The main casualty, as far as this blog is concerned. When England emerged from its Taliban — or Caliban — interval, the Protectorate, following hard on the death of Cromwell; when, I say, the Stuarts were restored to the throne of Great Britain in the person of the Frenchified Charles II, England broke the mold of its greatest poetic achievement, blank verse.
Well, no. Milton broke it. And it wasn’t really a mold, it was more of a die, used to strike one perfect, highly polished, platinum coin: Paradise lost. Although many of you might regard that poem as not much more than a moldy tome, it represents, in the second edition, the pinnacle of epic poetry in English. Milton himself could not reproduce his success, though he tried, in Paradise regained, which is more of a heroic, than an epic, poem. He switched his means in Samson agonistes, reverting to his earlier dramatic milieu, but, as with Paradise lost, attempting a classical form in his polished classical English. And that’s the key, to me, to understanding Milton’s achievement: he approached his poems, his last, great poems in particular, as if his task were to create Classical English. He succeeded so well that the younger poets of the Restoration — Dryden, Marvell and Rochester foremost among them — could not have followed him, even had they wanted to.
Harold Love, in his introduction to The Penguin book of Restoration verse, says that they didn’t want to. They had seen the effects of “the big, intractable questions that had set the previous generation to apostolic blows and knocks.”[i] Love continues: “Those who, like Milton, insisted on keeping these questions open did so at the risk of neglect and ridicule. Even Marvell’s generous commendatory poem on Paradise lost does not altogether escape a patronizing note.”[ii] But they were of a different age as well as mindset, and this is where Pollack comes in with his enticement to generalization. It’s in a history of the coffeehouses that flourished between 1652 and 1742, when the pun was at its height, and therefore at the start of its decline.[iii] Dryden, Wycherly, Addison, Pope and Pepys all frequented the coffeehouses. And, argues Pollack, the coffeehouse culture that flourished for a century acted as social media do today: “as popular social hubs where people of different classes (and in a few documented cases, sexes) began to mix and exchange commercial news, political opinion, literary manuscripts, scientific ideas, palace gossip [— ] and humor, including puns.”[iv] In his assessment of Restoration verse, Love argues that “[t]he self-conscious formality of the Augustans and the intensity of feeling of Donne and his followers are both foreign to it, the second, naturally, more so. Its most fruitful moods are the companionable, the ironic, the denunciatory, the deliberative, the jocular, the grave and the lustful.”[v] And, in what now with incredible accuracy and foresight could as well describe the World-Wide Web, he continues: “Its subjects are not very different from those of the modern daily newspaper — sex, politics, people, places, drink, sport, death, and a little religion.”[vi]
The verse has changed, too: into a more “natural, lucid and vigorous” poetry, meaning that “the poets had to work much harder than is normally appreciated. Effortlessness was a quality of style, never a recipe for composition.”[vii] An example, in lyric mode, is in order, here supplied by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester:
Love a Woman! y’are an Ass, ‘Tis a most insipid Passion, To choose out for your happiness The silliest part of God’s Creation.
Let the Porter, and the Groome, Things design’d for dirty Slaves, Drudge in fair Aurelia’s Womb, To get supplies for Age and Graves.
Farewel Woman, I intend, Henceforth, ev’ry Night to sit, With my lewd well-natur’d Friend, Drinking, to engender Wit.
Then give me Health, Wealth, Mirth, and Wine, And if busie Love intrenches, There’s a sweet soft Page of mine, Does the trick of Forty Wenches.
The ironic tone contrasts strongly with Milton’s sincerity, and with the complexity of what Donne called satire. It is more savage than Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe, but only because Rochester hides his genuine feelings in order to sharpen his bite. So here, in the century of the four great Johns of English poetry, we begin to see Ajax converted to a jakes. Wordplay and punning begin to die as the long day of the Restoration wanes. For my purposes, it might be well to examine their first assassin, irony. The wit shows up in the pun on “page” in the fourth stanza, as well as in the second stanza, in the pun on “get” (which we might not recognize as short for “beget” thinking it to mean only “procure,” not the “engender” of the third stanza). Irony allows the poet some distance between his voice and his mind. He doesn’t have to mean what he says, however mean-spirited it is. The apparent misogyny of this poem might be an effect of the irony underlying its creation, and its main theme of pro-creation. It is merely witty, if Rochester is sincere; but if we can see a distance between the persona and the poet, we can recognize satire, sense a poet being ironic. And this is one of the dangers of irony, one Swift surely encountered with his Modest proposal — is this guy for real?
The contrast between Rochester’s irony and Blake’s savage but sincere attack on the London of his day is instructive in this regard:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street Near where the charter’d Thames does flow And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man, In every Infant’s cry of fear, In every voice, in every ban, The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry Every black’ning Church appalls; And the hapless Soldier’s sigh Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlot’s curse Blasts the new born Infant’s tear, And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.[viii]
The poems share some thematic material in Blake’s last stanza, but nothing of tone. Harold Love argues that
…the Restoration set out with immense energy and inventiveness to replace the medieval civilization shattered by the Puritans with one that would be both sounder, because conceived in full awareness of human needs, and truer, because tested at every stage by the infallible rule of common sense.[ix]
Among the improvements made in this revolution were Newton’s physics, Locke’s psychology, tonality in music, and in poetry, “the antithetical rhetoric of the closed couplet,” borrowed from the dim and distant past, from Chaucer (and thus a classic in its own right), but updated, “discriminating between notion and notion, word and word, with the exactness of a chemist’s balance.”[x] For most of you, Alexander Pope will be the supreme example of that Augustan rhetoric. For Dryden, it was a vehicle for drama, heroic action, political commentary, and satire. He could no more leave out satire than Rochester, although I doubt he ever tried. These major strands weave together in Mac Flecknoe, which Love calls “the one major poem that Dryden seems to have written for no other purpose than his own pleasure.”[xi] Let’s see how this works:
All humane things are subject to decay, And, when Fate summons, Monarchs must obey: This Fleckno found, who, like Augustus, young Was call’d to Empire and had govern’d long: In Prose and Verse was own’d, without dispute Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute. This aged Prince now flourishing in Peace, And blest with issue of a large increase, Worn out with business, did at length debate To settle the Succession of the State; And pond’ring which of all his Sons was fit To Reign, and wage immortal War with Wit; Cry’d, ’tis resolv’d; for Nature pleads that He Should onely rule, who most resembles me: Sh— alone my perfect image bears, Mature in dullness from his tender years; Sh— alone of all my Sons is he Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity. The rest to some faint meaning make pretence, But Sh— never deviates into sense. …. Now Empress Fame had publisht the Renown Of Sh—’s Coronation through the Town. Rows’d by report of Fame, the Nations meet, From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling-street. No Persian Carpets spread th’ imperial way, But scatter’d Limbs of mangled Poets lay; From dusty shops neglected Authors come, Martyrs of Pies and Reliques of the Bum. Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby there lay, But loads of Sh— almost choakt the way.[xii]
See what I mean about the Johns? Rochester writes more “in praise of love, wit and wine, this being his most effective way of asserting the claims of the personal life against those of the corporate.”[xiii] Here Dryden mocks the personal and the corporate, in the person of Thomas Shadwell, his contemporary, by portraying him as the legitimate heir of Richard Flecknoe instead of Ben Jonson — whom Shadwell fancied himself the legitimate successor to. Since you’ve probably never heard of either Shadwell or Flecknoe,[xiv] and my time here is short, I leave it to you to visit Wikipedia in search of them. But I should point out that Dryden deliberately prints Shadwell’s name as Sh—, leaving open the meaning of the word, allowing us to drop into the space any syllable we might like. I should also point out that “Martyrs of Pies and Reliques of the Bum” refers to the fate of the “scatter’d Limbs of mangled Poets” here: the pages of books were often used in pie tins, or in the john, and sometimes pulped in a mangle to make new cotton paper, much more durable than the acid-reduced wood-pulp we are accustomed to — but still far softer, for the bum, than any Sears catalogue.
But hold on, I hear you say; do we have suffer through the wind of your looming pontification on Pope before we can get to Blake and his long line? Really?
[i] The Penguin book of Restoration verse / edited with an introduction by Harold Love. – Baltimore : Penguin, 1968, p. 26. Love has produced the definitive edition of Rochester’s poems, which sells on Amazon for $332.50; the present text cost $1.65.
[iii] The pun also rises : how the humble pun revolutionized language, changed history, and made wordplay more than some antics / John Pollack. New York : Gotham, 2011; pp. 71-85.
[iv] Ibid., 71-72. Sorry, but for this to read as I want it to, it wants punctuation. So I supplied it.
[v] Op. cit., p. 22.
[vii] Ibid., p. 23
[viii] Complete writings, with variant readings / Blake. — Oxford standard authors edition / edited by Geoffrey Keynes. — London ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1969; p. 216. The punctuation has been regularized from that shown in my facsimile edition of Songs of innocence & of experience / William Blake. — [Folio Society ed.] / introduction by Richard Holmes. — London : the Society, 1992 (and is the better for it). And, yes, I did just use this poem in my last post.
[ix] Op. cit., p. 24.
[x] Ibid., p. 25.
[xi] Ibid., p. 26.
[xii] The poems and fables of John Dryden. – Oxford Standard Authors ed. / edited by James Kinsley. – London : Oxford University Press, 1962. Quoted are lines 1-20 and 94-103, from pp. 238 and 240 respectively.
[xiii] Love, Op. cit., p. 24.
[xiv] For Flecknoe, I had to look in Wikipedia, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacFlecknoe; Shadwell I knew well — well, knew by reputation — his reputation in this poem, actually.