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Mapping a Century of British Poetry and Reassessing Two of Its Poets
Clement Hawes, ed. Christopher Smart and the Enlightenment (New York: St. Martin's, 1999). Pp. 308. $55.00 cloth.
John Sitter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Pp. xx + 298. $54.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Richard Terry, ed. James Thomson: Essays for the Tercentenary(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000). Pp. 279. $54.95 cloth.
What does it mean to be a "companion" to a literary period? And what can the first collections of essays on two arguably minor poets accomplish? Eighteenth-century British poetry is typically overlooked in undergraduate survey courses, except perhaps for a few samples of Pope, and such poets as Thomson and Smart are represented in major anthologies only by a few snippets of much longer [End Page 115] poems. An ideal "companion" would be a Baedeker or vade mecum for advanced students who are continuing to learn what makes a literary period cohere, that would still appeal to academics who need an overview of its recent, ongoing critical interests. A collection of essays by several hands on a single author should provide sufficient rationale for the attention it bestows, typically the reconsideration of the author's status, or new critical, methodological, and theoretical insights. Given these criteria, all three books under review possess great merits, and several essays stand out as models of historically based overviews, literary analysis, or contextualization. On the other hand, it is worth examining each book as a whole to determine whether it meets its aims. While the Cambridge Companion raises unanswered questions about the designation of "the eighteenth century" as a coherent historical period, the two collections of essays are often most convincing when making a case for their authors' broader significance—their cultural influence on later writers or their involvement in historical crises of authorship—rather than the aesthetic value of their works per se.
The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry consists of thirteen essays that promise "fresh approaches" (9) to English poetry written from 1700 to 1790, yet its topics will seem familiar to anyone who has followed critical developments of the past twenty years or so. Among these topics are the representations of nature and the city, the functions of the period's dominant verse form, the rhyming couplet, the achievements of women writers, the conditions of publishing and the print industry, the influences of Spenser and Milton, the emergence of "Sensibility" and "pre-Romanticism," the shifting categorizations and valuations of lyric verse forms, and the "poetry of absence," David Morris's term for verse that is propelled by the irrational forces of desire, death, and dreams that have been increasingly seen to be in dialogue with, if not to constitute, the governance of "Reason" in the eighteenth century. These topics openly avoid an author-centered approach that would reduce this period to an age of Pope and Johnson.
The better contributions to this volume could indeed trigger highly caffeinated commons-room conversations on Pope's couplets between faculty and advanced undergraduates or graduate students, an increasingly small number of whom have had prior experience reading and parsing eighteenth-century verse forms. In this light, J. Paul Hunter's essay, "Couplets and Conversation," is exemplary in interrelating the ordering functions of this most representative eighteenth-century poetic form with the coffee-house culture, or "penny universities" (16) that produced it. Other essays achieve varying success in meeting the demands of a "companion" essay, which must balance the needs of mapping out its territory—its representative account of a genre, theme, or contextual framework—and providing a concise argument about its significance. The better contributions not only imply or openly recount a narrative trail that governs their discussion, but also recognize the provisional nature of any periodization and the permeability of its boundaries, a problem in this volume insofar as the numerical logic of taking a (near-) century as a period appears increasingly arbitrary under...