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Poetry And The Mode Post by :gm1234 Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :2734

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Poetry And The Mode

A good friend of mine, poet and scholar, was recently approached by the President, or other kind of head of a Working Men's Association, for a paper. A party of them was to visit Oxford, where, after an inspection, there should be a feast, and after the feast, it was hoped, a paper from my friend--upon Addison. The occasion was not to be denied: I don't doubt that he was equal to it. I wish that I had heard him; I wish also that I had seen him; for he had determined on a happy way of illustrating and pointing his discourse. He had the notion of providing himself with a full-bottomed wig, a Ramillies; at the right moment he was to clothe the head of the President with it; and--Bless thee, Bottom, how art thou translated! In that woolly panoply, if one could not allow for Cato and the balanced antitheses of the grand manner, or condone rhetoric infinitely remote from life past, present or to come--well, one would never understand Addison, or forgive him. This, for instance:--

CATO (loq.): Thus am I doubly arm'd; my death and life,
My bane and antidote are both before me:
This in a moment brings me to an end;
But this informs me I shall never die.
The soul, secured in her existence, smiles
At the drawn dagger....

Ten pages more sententious and leisurely comment; then:

Oh! (dies).

There is much to be said for it, in a Ramillies wig. It is stately, it is dignified, it is perhaps noble. If, as I say, it is not very much like life, neither are you who enact it. But be sure that out of sight or remembrance of the wig such a tragedy were not to be endured.

That is very well. The wig serves its turn, inspiring what without it would be intolerable. I am sure my friend had no trouble in accounting for Addison in full dress and his learned sock. Nor need he have had with Addison the urbane, Addison of the Spectator condescending to Sir Roger de Coverley and Will Honeycomb. There is in that, the very best gentlemanly humour our literature possesses, nothing inconsistent with the full-bottomed wig and an elbow-chair. But when the right honourable gentleman set himself to compose Rosamond: an Opera, and disported himself thus:

Behold on yonder rising ground
The bower, that wanders
In meanders
Ever bending,
Never ending,
Glades on glades,
Shades in shades,
Running an eternal round.

In such an endless maze I rove,
Lost in the labyrinths of love,
My breast with hoarded vengeance burns,
While fear and rage
With hope engage,
And rule my wav'ring soul by turns--

then I do not see how the wig can have been useful. I feel that Addison must have left it on the bedpost and tied up his bald pate in a tricky bandana after the fashion of Mr. Prior or Mr. Gay, one of whom, if I remember rightly, did not disdain to sit for his picture in that frolic guise. The wig, which adds age and ensures dignity, would have been out of place there; nor is it possible that The Beggar's Opera owes anything to it. To explain the Addison of Rosamond or The Drummer, my friend would have had to shave the head of his victim and clap a nightcap upon it.

The device was ingenious and happy. You yoke one art to serve another. It can be extended in either direction, working backwards from the Ramillies, or forwards, as I propose to show. Skip for a moment the Restoration and the perruque, skip the cropped polls of the Roundheads; with this you are in full Charles I.

Go, lovely Rose!
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.

What vision of what singer does that evoke? What other than that of a young gallant in a lace collar, with lovelocks over his shoulders, pointed Vandyke fingers, possibly a peaked chin-beard? There is accomplishment enough, beauty enough, God knows; but there is impertinence too; it is de haut en bas--

Tell her that wastes her time and me!

Lovelocks and pointed fingers all over it. It is witty, but does not bite. If you bite you are serious, if you bite you are in love; but that is elegant make-believe. He will take himself off next minute, and encountering a friend, hear himself rallied:

Quit, quit, for shame I This will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can her make:
The D----l take her!

Laughter and a shrug are the end of it. With the Carolines it was not music that was the food of love, but love that was a staple food of music. A man who lets his hair down over his shoulders may be as sentimental as you please, or as impudent. He cannot nourish both a passion and a head of hair. He won't have time.

There, then, again, is a clear congruity established between your versifying and your clothes; they will both be in the mode, and the mode the same. One feels about the Cavalier fashion that it was not serious either one way or the other. It had not the Elizabethan swagger; it had not the Restoration cynicism; it had not the Augustan urbanity. Go back now to the Elizabethan, and avoiding Shakespeare as a law unto himself, which is the right of genius--for the sonnets have wit as well as passion (but a mordant wit), everything that real love-poetry must have, and much that no poetry but Shakespeare's could possibly survive--avoiding Shakespeare, I say, take two snatches in order. Take first--

Thou art not fair, for all thy red and white,
For all those rosy ornaments in thee,--
Thou art not sweet, though made of mere delight,
Nor fair nor sweet--unless thou pity me!

That first; and then this:

Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain--

and consider them for what they are: unapproachably beautiful, passionate, serious, on the edge of cynicism, but never over it. There you have the love of a young age of the world, when young men, hard hit, could be sharp-tongued, bitter, and often (though not in those two) too much in earnest not to be shameless. Agree with me, and see the men who sang and the women they sang of in preposterous stuffed and starched clothes which made them unapproachable except at the finger-tips, and yet burning so for each other that by words alone and the music in them they could rend all the buckram and whalebone and make such armour vain! You may see in Elizabethan dress a return to Art, as in Elizabethan poetry you see a return to Learning; but neither was designed to prevent a return to Nature; rather indeed to stimulate it. And so you come back to this:

Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf of noise and blind of light,
A rosy garland and a weary head ...

which is the perfectly-clothed utterance of an Elizabethan longing to be rid of his clothes.

I don't propose to linger over the perruque. The Restoration was a time of carnival when, if the men were overdressed, the ladies were underdressed; and the perruque was a part of the masquerade. In such a figurehead you could be as licentious as you chose--and you were; you could only be serious in satire. The perruque accounts for Dryden and his learned pomp, for Rochester and Sedley, and for Congreve, who told Voltaire that he desired to be considered as a gentleman rather than poet, and was with a shrug accepted on that valuation: it accounts for Timotheus crying Revenge, and not meaning it, or anything else except display; it accounts for Pepys thinking King Lear ridiculous. Let me go on rather to the day of the tie-wig, of Pope's Achilles and Diomede in powder; of Gray awaking the purple year; of Kitty beautiful and young, of Sir Plume and his clouded cane; of Mason and Horace Walpole. When ladies were painted, and their lovers in powder, poetry would be painted too. It would be either for the boudoir or the alcove. I don't call to mind a single genuine love-song in all that century among those who dressed _à la mode. There were, however, some who did not so dress.

Gray was not one. Whether in the country churchyard, or by the grave of Horace Walpole's favourite cat, he never lost hold of himself, never let heart take whip and reins, never drowned the scholar in the poet, never, in fact, showed himself in his shirtsleeves. But before he was dead the hearts of men began to cry again. Forty years before Gray died Cowper was born; fourteen years before he died, Blake was born; twelve years before he died, Burns. It is strange to contrast the Elegy with The Poplar Field:

My fugitive years are all wasting away,
And I must ere long be as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head,
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

Put beside that melodious jingle the ordered diction and ordered sentiment of one of the best-known and most elegant poems in our tongue. They were written within fifteen years of each other. Within the same space of time, or near about it, there came this spontaneous utterance of simplicity, tragedy and hopeless sorrow:

Young Jamie lo'ed me weel, and sought me for his bride;
But saving a croun he had naething else beside:
To make the croun a pund young Jamie gaed to sea;
And the croun and the pund they were baith for me.

The authoress of that was born twenty-one years before Gray died. I speak, perhaps, only for myself when I say that reading that, or the like of that in Burns or in Blake, my heart becomes as water, and I feel that I would lose, if necessary, all of Milton, all of Shakespeare but a song or two, much of Dante and some of Homer, to be secured in them for ever. My friend (of the Ramillies) and I were disputing about a phrase I had applied to lyric poetry as the infallible test of its merit. I asked for "the lyric cry," and he scorned me. I could find a better phrase with time; but the quatrain just quoted makes it unmistakable, as I think. Anyhow, it will be conceded that there was some putting off of the tie-wig, the hoop and the red-heeled shoe about 1770.

In the time of Reform, say from 1795 to 1830, you could do much as you pleased, and dress according to your fancy. You could smother your neck in a stock, wear a high-waisted swallow-tail coat, kerseymere continuations and silk stockings. So sat Southey for his portrait, and so did Rogers continually. Or you could wear a curly toupé with Tom Moore and the Prince Regent, be as rough as a dalesman with Wordsworth or as sleek as a dissenting minister with Coleridge, an open-throated pirate with Byron, or a seraph with Shelley. If the rules lingered, they were relaxed. I think there were none. Individuality was in the air; schools were closing down. For the first time since the spacious days men sang as they pleased, and some sang as they felt and were, but with this difference added that you would no longer identify the age with the utterance. There were many survivals: most of Coleridge, all of Rogers, much of Byron, some of Wordsworth (Laodamia) is eighteenth century; and then, for the first time, you could archaicize or walk in Wardour Street--Macpherson had taught us that, and Bishop Percy. But all of Shelley and Keats, the best of Coleridge and Wordsworth belong to no age.

The pale stars are gone!
For the sun, their swift shepherd,
To their folds them compelling,
In the depths of the dawn,
Hastes in meteor-eclipsing array and they flee
Beyond his blue dwelling,
As fawns flee the leopard.
But where are ye?

That is like nothing on earth: music and diction are stark new. And that was the way of it for a forty years of freedom.

Then came a reaction. With Queen Victoria we all went to church again in our Sunday clothes. You cannot date Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth by the fashions; but you can date Tennyson assuredly. He belongs to the top-hat and the crinoline; to Friends in Council and "nice feelings." True, there was nothing dressy about Tennyson himself. I doubt if he ever wore a top-hat. But is not The Gardener's Daughter in ringlets? Did not Aunt Elizabeth and Sister Lilia wear crinolines? And as for Maud--

Look, a horse at the door,
And little King Charley snarling:
Go back, my lord, across the moor,
You are not her darling.

That settles it. "Little King Charley's" name would have been Gyp. I yield to no man in my admiration of In Memoriam; but when one compares it with Adonais it is impossible not to allocate the one and salute the other as for all time and place:

When in the down I sink my head
Sleep, Death's twin-brother, times my breath;
Sleep, Death's twin-brother, knows not Death,
Nor can I dream of thee as dead.

And then:

He lives, he wakes--'tis Death is dead, not he;
Mourn not for Adonais. Thou young Dawn,
Turn all thy dew to splendour, for from thee
The spirit thou lamentest is not gone.

No: In Memoriam is a beautiful poem, and technically a much better one than Adonais. But the spirit is different; narrower, more circumscribed; in a word, it dates, like the top-hat and the crinoline.

In our day, clothes have lost touch with mankind, they cover the body but do not express the soul. With the vogue of the short coat, short skirt, slouch hat, and brown boots, style has gone out and ease come in; and with ease, it would seem, easy, not to say free-and-easy, manners. I speak not of the "nineties" when a young degenerate could lightly say,

I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion,

and be praised for it, but rather of the Georgians, of whom a golden lad, who happily lived long enough to do better, wrote thus of a lady of his love:

And I shall find some girl, perhaps,
And a better one than you,
With eyes as wise, but kindlier,
And lips as soft, but true.
And I daresay she will do.

If that is not slouch-hat and brown boots, I don't know what to call it. For that golden lad I think The Shropshire Lad must answer, who perhaps brought corduroys into the drawing-room. And if that is to be the way of it, we should do well to go back to Lovelace or Waller, and make believe with a difference. I shall find myself watching the sunny side of Bond Street for a revival--because while one does not ask for passion, or even object to the tart flavours of satiety, I feel that there is a standard somewhere, and a line to be drawn. Taste draws it. I trouble myself very little with the morals of the matter, yet must think manners very nearly half of the conduct of life. And the manners which are expressed in clothes are those which are instilled in art. They are symptomatic alike and correlated. There is nothing surprising about it, or even curious. It would be so, and it is so. If Milton had not on a prim white collar and a doctor's gown I misread Paradise Lost and Lycidas too.

(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Poetry And The Mode

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