20 September, 2010

Old Poetry can be Fun

A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry

James Sutherland

One of the most enjoyable books i’ve read in a long time, which is not what one would expect at all from the title. I think we got this book in Hay-on-Wye several years ago; as i recall it was one i bought simply because it was an Oxford University Press book, it had a bit of water damage, and i was sad seeing it outside, left to deteriorate further. Perhaps also the fact that i had to study Pope for A level English may have played into it, though certainly not any enjoyment of him, because i found his poetry very difficult to enjoy ~ indeed, i remember complaining about it to DCLS after we’d written the relevant exam, as presumably i figured it couldn’t matter any more what a teacher thought about what i thought! Reading Sutherland now, though, was a real pleasure, makes me want to get hold of some Pope, Dryden, Johnson, and others.

The primary message Sutherland is offering is one i certainly don’t remember from Loretto, though possibly it was and i failed to pick it up; he says that the poetry of each age is different, and current expectations are not necessarily met by a previous age’s literature. In particular, the Eighteenth Century was very different, and today we will struggle to read its writings if we do not take into account the differences in their expectations and demands, especially as our reading of literature is still affected by the Romantic movement, which is heavily to be understood as reaction to the Eighteenth Century: A double whammy. So, then, what are these differences, these demands? Boils down to an expectation of formalism, of appropriate style and content, of taking poetry seriously both in the writing and the reading which we seem to no longer have in the Twentyfirst Century. The writers of the Augustan Age generally wrote for classically educated men who could recognise and appreciate allusions and style and serious thoughts. This makes it all sound rather unappealing, yet as i mentioned above, Sutherland has made me want to read some again; he is clearly a skilful and challenging writer who loves his subject and is able to carry that love over to his readers. Enjoyable.