This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
Let Us Mix Metaphysics and Short-Hand and Port and Other
Gary D. Willhardt MC'59
Tristram Shandy expresses a truth long understood by scholars and other inmates of the academical village: "By long journies and much friction, it so happens that the body of the rider is at length fill'd as full of HOBBY-HORSICAL matter as it can hold" (Sterne 1965:58). We are in the business of long journeys, mental if not physical, the results of which are frequently to create much heat, sometimes slowly like rust, sometimes irruptive like a blistering boil.
The commerce of scholarship often makes and remakes the past. We listen to the voices coming down to us, sometimes over long distances and through immense silences. Whether the "voice" is verbal, melodic, or made of more painterly stuff, we often hear what we want, making the voice over in our own image to suit our own view of reality. Literary, historical scholarship seems to me always to play a kind of revisionist game.
Eighteenth-century British culture has probably fared no better nor worse than other ages open to scholarly speculations. Every age seems to respond vigorously to the previous one. The Victorians were often unflinching in denigrating their immediate forebears. Thackeray, for example, saw Swift as a nasty story-teller, with emphasis on the nasty. He advised readers not to bother with the Fourth Book of Gulliver's Travels because it is "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene" (Thackeray 1912:35). The highest praise Lord Macaulay could muster for Alexander Pope was that he was one of the masters of our prose! The Victorians never quite got used to the idea that their Augustan grandfathers were primarily devoted to the proposition that "the proper study of mankind is man," in all of his permutations, whether hero or rake.
I have long been interested in this "remaking" capacity as well as the academic tendency to "fix" an age, to study it from every possible angle; indeed I have practiced the trade. Scholars have no doubt opened many doors to our understanding; it is just as certain that they often back us into corners we don't want to be in. In the following remarks I shall make a whimsical contribution to the remaking process, riding my hobby horse, hopefully, without attendant friction.
My title's concoction of metaphysics, short-hand and port suggests the mix of disparates. I can't take credit for the strange blend; it is, in fact, a line from a poem by John Byrom (1692-1763), a eighteenth-century hymnist, wit, and mystic, friend of William Law and the Wesleys. I like the line because the nouns suggest a typical eighteenth-century valuing of things and also they suggest that age's pursuit of the full life. In metaphysics we have the human capacity to seek origins and purposes; in short-hand we find the practical necessity of earning a living; and in port we feel the presence of clubable London, where dinner was the high point of the social day.
The English eighteenth century, for all of its apparent static qualities and emphasis upon right reason, good sense, good taste, and orderly progress, was like every other age, one filled with strange and wonderful oddments, both of individuals and of ideas. It was a time of splendid contradictions. Jonathan Swift (1738) could say with absolute certainty that "Nature has left every man a capacity for being agreeable." But in Gulliver's Travels his whole purpose is to show the basic disagreeableness of human nature. How paradoxical that the Age of Reason spent so much time satirizing the irrational in human beings. The satire illustrates the rich variety of form and subject, from the gross energy of Gulliver's adventures to the urbane, but spiteful world of Pope's Rape of the Lock (1714). Nor was satire limited to verbal arts; in painting, for example, Hogarth's visual narratives graphically portray the decline and fall of the rake and the harlot. Such works counter the social elegance of the portraits by Reynolds or Gainsborough. It was a century of great men and women who have profoundly changed our world, but it was also a time crowded with some of the most interesting eccentrics who ever lived, individuals who defined themselves and their relationship to their world with verve, imagination, and style, if not sometimes with cunning and loose living. Dr. Samuel Johnson, who belched his way through dinner and disapproved of parentheses, was known in his own time as "the great Cham of Literature." Alexander Pope, only four and one-half feet tall, was a giant of wit, satiric rage, and verbal craftsmanship. Adam Smith stirred his tea with his middle finger, but his moral and economic philosophies have stirred succeeding generations for over two centuries. William Blake, visionary poet and artist, regularly talked to John Milton in the rooms behind his shop--in spite of the fact that Milton had been dead for over one hundred years!
Throughout the century, we find elegant wit countered by raging bawdiness; order with disorderliness almost beyond imagining; rational thought with slanderous invective; tasteful verbal, visual, and decorative arts with abominable bad taste and oozing sentimentality. Hume, among others, frequently noted that the world seemed to be divided into two groups: those who saw man as a "human demigod," and those who saw him as "nothing, except vanity." Swift acknowledged this curious mix, "What is Man but a topsy-turvy Creature" (A Meditation upon a Broom-Stick, 1703). If social man were the measure of all things, humanity remained its own worst enemy, a bewildering muddle, driven too often by unreasoning pride, a creature, said Pope (1734:I,36), "So weak, so little, and so blind."
In its effort to define taste and good sense, and to place men and women into the eternal scheme of things, eighteenth-century literature frequently created keen-edged satire, and in doing so, produced some of the most endurable of that so-often still-born mode: there are the grotesque personifications of Hogarth and Swift, Fielding's delightful Lady Booby, Squire Westren or those unctuous prudes Rev. Thwackum and Mr. Square. If Swift is remembered for nothing else, he will be forever inspired, or infamous, for having defined our true nature: the yahoo. In what other time could we find an "Essay on Nothing" proving without doubt that it exists, and that it thrives "in the greatest and noblest place on this earth, viz., the human brain" (Fielding 1754:17 ). The satire never lets us forget our arrogance and pride, our intellectual foolishness:
The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head.
Let it be etched over every scholar's chamber door.
But the age did more than carp and natter. We have long benefited from the intellectual and artistic opulence of the eighteenth century. These legacies do much to define our culture: the power of Handel's Messiah, the fulfilling values and style of The Declaration of Independence, the painterly landscapes and portraits of Gainsborough, Reynolds, West, and Stuart; the decorative style of Chippendale, Sheridan, and Hepplewhite; and the pastelled warmth of Robert Adams or Josiah Wedgewood's neoclassicism. The eighteenth century is with us in very real, palpable ways. The building I sit in as I write these words is styled in the Palladianism of the American colonial period, with its balanced facade, center door-way, cupola, and harmonious design. Such styles were imported by Jefferson and others who modified them to suit the new country's needs, but such architecture remains a visible reminder of our attachment to other times, places, and traditions.
By mid-century Edinburgh had become the "Athens of the North," one of the creative intellectual centers of Europe. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), dismal science or no, began the modern era of political economy. His good friend David Hume helped define his age and our understanding of ourselves and of order in the universe. Eighteenth-century Scottish influence seems nearly endless if we include the beginnings of modern science, modern machines, the factory system, international trade and business. Such moments, events, and individuals define the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the modern, industrial world. When Jamie Boswell went to Birmingham to visit Matthew Boulton's factory (employing 700 people), Boswell (1953:704) asked him what he did. "I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have--POWER."
Studying any point in the history of our culture should always impress us with the complexity of values, of the literature, of life itself. Conventional scholarly wisdom has long labelled the eighteenth century with convenient, but stereotypical tags, like The Age of Reason, or The Enlightenment, or The Age of Satire (with sub-labels such as Augustan, Heroic, Sentimental, etc). Or, the definitions are limited to "one-man" views, so the century becomes the Age of Swift, or of Pope, or Johnson, Fielding or whomever; thus, always leaving us with the impression that all can be reduced to a few celebrities. Neoclassicism (which was largely an English reinvention of selected Roman values) in its various shapes was a powerful influence, but so were native forces, increasingly so as the century progressed. The battle of the books between ancients and moderns is only one dimension of such intellectual dynamics.
Rather than tar the age with one brush, it seems more useful, and realistic, to find another metaphor. My hobby-horse suggests an image relating to weaving or braiding. The tradition of eighteenth-century literary and cultural studies frequently shows us a variety of forces at tension with eath other: classic-romantic, rational-sentimental, Tory-Whig, town-country, art-nature, high church-low church, just to name a few. These have long been banded together to "prove" a point, or to fashion an argument, not to mention make many a scholar's career. Of course, my horse, Houyhnhnms-like in its perspicacity, more accurately reflects the currents and cross-currents which meander down the decades. Sometimes one force is ascendant, sometimes another, but the dynamic of tension is always there.
One of the more curious aspects of the century and of its heritage resides in the definitions, and sometimes labyrinthian polemics, resulting from the age's response to spiritual questions. While everyone seems to have talked about religion, it is not always clear that daily attendance to religious matters was equally popular. Religious postures and points of view are richly mixed; so much so that they provide a full spectrum of religious thought: atheism, Deism, High Church politics, the left-wing Anglicanism of the Wesleys, and a variety of other sectaries.
It is easy to forget, in the midst of Swiftian, Popean, or Johnsonian rhetoric, one of the abiding wonders of the age: divine song. Religious lyricism begins with Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and Joseph Addison early in the century, rising to the poetic avalanche of the brothers Wesley. Their style utilized the basic English quatrain (long the staple of the popular ballad), simple rime, and abundant scriptural diction; it was all wrapped together in songs whose primary goal was always the ultimate matter of practical divinity: salvation. Today, every Sunday in practically every Christian church around the world, eighteenth-century words, tunes and messages live still. The hymn represents yet another strand in the fabric: a thread of mystical lyricism full of symbols of continuity, immensity, and grace. However, the higher criticism of the time did not accept the hymn with much critical enthusiasm, for such verses were only "pieces of poetry composed by pious but not inspired authors" (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1771:II, 821).
Throughout the century religion remained an abiding and demanding topic. While many of the clergy, like the Wesleys, had clarion voices who still ring down the years, many contemporaries suggest the intellectual and persuasive power of the church was not very high. Fielding's satire, like most satire, uses exaggeration to make its points, but even in over-statement, there resides the margin of truth: in A Modern Glossary (1751) he reflects upon religion as a "word with no meaning, but which serves as a bugbear to frighten children with." One measure of the religious milieu is suggested by the mighty flow of materials from the presses: essays, treatises, explications, sermons, poems, arguments and counter arguments. The Wesleys themselves produced over 12,000 songs and hymns, not to mention assorted sermons, essays, and journals.
Until the advent of imaginative fiction, the eighteenth century produced very little purely secular literature (discounting drama). And even the novel has a strongly "moral" tone, relating over and over issues of right and wrong, social conduct, and ethics. The century produced very little writing that did not engage with questions of value, if not mankind's relationship to God. Still, there is much evidence that parish churches were frequently little attended. Such stalwarts who did, did so for mostly social reasons. Nor does the clergy find itself portrayed with particular kindness and affection. Journals, diaries, and letters describe the paucity of spiritual leadership in the pulpit, and the spiritual shallowness of the parishioners. With the advent of the novel, there appears to have been open season on the illiterate, self-serving, bumbling clergy--those often called, but failing in brains or spirit to serve.
The practice of religion, like everything else in eighteenth-century culture, cannot be separated from the beau monde. Whatever the men and women of this time thought, speculated about, created, or brutalized was done within a social context. No one would disagree with Sir William Blackstone (1765-1769:2) that "man was formed for society."
While metaphysics might be a subject for conversational speculation over port, the daily management of corporate religion itself was an establishment matter characterized by patronage, position, and power--the three conditions that also defined much of the social reality of the eighteenth century. A man elevated to a bishopric took his seat in the House of Lords, to argue, define, and ultimately manage the affairs of the corporate church. Here were no retiring hermits, no other-worldly monastics, but men of affairs who moved and had their being in a highly dynamic social atmosphere.
Even "retiring to the country" was part of the social season, or it was a mode one put on, like a morning wig, to go down into the country and its civilizing reality. Here was a world of "nature methodized," of villas and carefully designed country houses filled with fine art and pleasant rooms, settled on grounds upon which as much money was spent on creating a tasteful panorama as was spent on the house itself.
Happy the man whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Pope, Ode on Solitude, 1717
But the country and designed pastoralism were only part of the social scene. The center of the universe was always London, the new Augusta. "Sir," pronounced Dr. Johnson, "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford" (Boswell 1953:859). Being "in society" was the principal condition of eighteenth-century life. A view, by the way, which the novel has cherished for over two and a half centuries, whether it be the country-house world of Tom Jones, the rarefied village society of Jane Austen, or the urban, claustrophobic density of Dickens.
We need to see these tensions less as opposing conditions or contradictions and more as elements of the multidimensional nature of the age and its personalities. Words, visual records, private homes, and public buildings all have their social necessity. Whether it is The Beggar's Opera or The Messiah, the sensuous line of a Wedgewood urn or the elegant jewel-box quality of Lord Burlington's Chiswick House, each was part of the social instinct. For the beau monde, everything was a matter of taste; everything was designed with its grace, social appeal, and agreeableness in mind.
Along with most of his contemporaries, Pope (1734:I.6) was sure of balance and harmony in creation; the world might be "a mighty maze! but not without a plan." Throughout The Essay on Man he uses the conventional chain of being metaphor because it neatly places human kind squarely in the middle, between God above and insentient creatures below. We are on the "isthmus of a middle state" (Pope 1734:II.3).
But as the century progressed the rational apprehension of order began to give way to new perceptions and understandings. William Blake, for example, would see with the mystic's eye:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Auguries of Innocence, 1803, 1-4
During the middle third of the century, we begin to hear a variety of voices who still value the Augustan modes, but who also respond to the world with a new, ultimately romantic sensibility. Such vision is reflected in Thomson's Seasons, Young's Night Thoughts, Goldsmith's Deserted Village, Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, and much of the hymn literature.
In such imaginings the force of sentiment is undeniable; indeed, it becomes the defining characteristic of such works. Augustan critical values and tastes could not easily accept these "new" emotional centers in such poetry. With typical arrogance, Lord Chesterfield lumped all poets and novel writers together, with all other "sentiment mongers" (Letters, 1892:I. 75). The single most curious and fascinating genius of artistic vision in all of English literature must be the figure of William Blake: artist, poet, visionary. We cannot take up his cause here, but we need at least to remind ourselves that he too is part of the rich mix of eighteenth-century culture.
In the course of time, classical influences were nudged aside by native ones--a renewed interest in medieval literature and history, in Welsh and Scottish myth and legend. Popular fiction and poetry turned more and more to these for their inspiration. The novel itself would forever change our perception of story-telling. Narrative fiction would ultimately test the long reign of poetry as the chief goddess of literature; so much so, that by the twentieth century, the novel has become the most popular, if not the most powerful, literary genre.
Those first novels emerging at mid-century were the creations of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. They gave us new methods, new literary manners, for representing life; their stories were detailed, dramatic--whether comic or tragic--passionate and probing. Although somewhat tentative and derivative in their beginnings, they soon found both their voice and their audience, and they did so with increasing originality.
Certainly, no one can ever accuse Tristram Shandy of being like any other novel ever written. Within twenty years of these beginnings, the novel was expanding its range and focus: gothic thrillers, philosophical narratives, social treatises encased in slight fictive coatings, historical tales.
But the century expanded the narrative modes even beyond the inspiration of fiction. Two examples will suffice. No one will probably achieve the grandeur of historical narrative and spectacle which Edward Gibbon created in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vols, 1776-88). Its magnificance of concept and style is almost beyond conceiving. The other, perhaps more modest, but nonetheless fulfilling, is the personal essay. Once set in motion, largely by The Tatler and The Spectator (1709-12), the constant flow of pictorial, elegant, personal prose has never stopped. Perhaps it would take a Gibbon to narrate fully the range and brilliance of the personal essay.
The eighteenth century was not always comfortable with the power of the imagination. In Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (1759), Imlac warns against the danger of an over-active imagination. He sees it as a "disorder of intellect," that can tyrannize reason; "all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity" (Chapter 44). When this happens, "fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish." Thus, the sad fate of the imaginative poet, the novelist, and enthusiast of whatever stripe.
We always need to remind ourselves that our literary sensitivies and our valuing of imagination as a creative force are fundamentally romantic ones. If we imagine Romanticism as a mountain, we are on one side, the eighteenth century is on the other: we are in the shadow of romanticism. By the end of the century literature was becoming increasingly lyrical; satire, heroic couplets, and many of the perceived verities of the early century were gone or passing away. There was a new literary vibrancy abroad in the land. The lyric instinct--not one mastered by the neoclassical sensibility--existed throughout the century only in the hymnic undercurrent. Compared to the balanced verse of Swift, Pope or Johnson, the poetry at the end of the century seems breathless, full of wild abandon. Of course, it isn't. The romantic mode has been with us since the beginnings of medieval poetry, and as the neoclassical instinct descends to an undercurrent, the romantic ascends.
However defined, and created by whatever forces, much of the artistic, social and spiritual energy at the end of the century is emotion-driven, full of sentiment. As a universal condition, remanticism manifested itself in a variety of ways, some subtle, some violent: the American revolution, the French revolution, Blake's religious mythology, Wordsworth's vision of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquillity" (Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, 1800), Coleridge's thrilling Ancient Mariner, or Lamb's gentle reflectiveness. They would tend to take the world more seriously than the eighteenth-century perhaps as they turned their thoughts to those issues which they found most profound. Perhaps eighteenth-century gusto was supplanted by romantic passion. They would ride their own hobby horses, as they endeavored to create new answers to their questions.
In the end, the last days of the eighteenth century illustrate as much whimsy, and uncertainty, as the beginning. Romanticism would not solve the great problems of human existence nor design necessarily better ways of creating a fuller life, but it would give us new ways of seeing--although with less of the witty humor of the eighteenth century. We are what we are, suggests Pope, and we must understand the paradoxes of existence:
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
Pope 1734:II, 17-18)
So our hobby-horsical moment is over:
Lord, said my mother, what is all this story about?
A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick--and one of the
best of its kind, I ever heard.
Tristram Shandy, 496
Blackstone, Sir William. 1765-1769. Commentaries on the Laws of England. London.
Blake, William. 1789-94. The Songs of Innocence and Experience, edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boswell, James. 1953. Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Byrom, John. 1849. The Collected Works. 3 vols. London.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1771. 3 vols. London.
Fielding, Henry. 1754. "On Nothing." London.
__________. 1751. A Modern Glossary. London.
Hume, David. 1741-1742. Essays Moral and Political. Vol. 1 (1741). Vol. 2 (1742). London.
Johnson, Samuel. 1759. Rasselas, edited by Bertrand H. Bronson. New York. 1958.
Pope, 1714. Essay on Criticism. In The Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt. London. 1963.
__________. 1717. "Ode to Solitude." In The Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt. London. 1963.
__________. 1734. The Essay on Man. In The Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt. London. 1963.
Smith, Adam. 1776. Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan. Chicago. 1976.
Stanhope, Phillip Dormer, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. 1747. The Letters of Phillip Dormer Stanyope. 2 vols. London. 1892.
Sterne, Laurence. 1760-1767. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 9 vols. London. [1760-67]. Reprint. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Swift, Jonathan. 1726. Gulliver's Travels.. Reprint. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
__________. 1738. Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation.
__________. 1701. Meditation upon a Broom-Stick. Reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Thackeray, William M. 1912. The English Humorists. London.
Wordsworth, William. 1802. "Preface to The Lyrical Ballads." In The Poetical Works of Wordsworth, edited by Ernest de Salincourt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.
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