- English Georgic and British Nationhood
In the spring of 1788, the manufacturers of Bury burnt Arthur Young in effigy in response to his opposition to the Wool Bill, a position which supported landowners against the interests of trade. One of Young’s admirers responded with a letter in which he proposed
doing you honour in effigy in order to make up to you in some measure the disgrace you have undergone (as is creditably reported about town) of being burnt in effigy by the wool manufacturers at Bury. My brother is for procuring your effigy, and after having crowned it with a wreath composed of turnip roots, cabbage leaves, potato-apples, wheat-ears, oats, straws, &c., and tied with a band of wool thinks it ought to be placed upon its pedestal (being the volume of Virgil’s “Georgics”) to be worshipped by the real patriots. 1
This “very lively letter” (in Young’s words) suggests an idealized link between Old England and Great Britain, between traditional husbandry and the new commercialism, between the poetry of the earth and the science of agriculture. The composition of produce heaps the crops of time immemorial—wheat, oats, straw, and cabbages—with the radical crops of the present: turnips and potatoes. Pitting the pastoral world of English sheep-herding against the self-interested world of commerce, it undergirds the whole with Virgil’s great green poem, “the best poem,” in Dryden’s words, “of the best poet.” 2 And it links all to the politics of patriotism and the land. Progressive, Whig, and literary, the effigy centers fruits of the soil popularized in the eighteenth century in a tradition both founded by and superseding Virgil’s Georgics, and is a monument to a failed farmer paradoxically acknowledged from Russia to Italy as the greatest agricultural expert of his era. 3
This effigy thus wittily suggests ways in which British agriculture was popularly imagined in the eighteenth century. Clever as the effigy is, however, it cannot articulate the interconnections among the literary form of English georgic, its civic approval, practices of reading, and cultural authority in the eighteenth century. For instance, in appealing to a patriotic spirit, the effigy does not reveal the essential Britishness of the agricultural project; by depicting Virgil, it idealizes the prosiness of the project so properly exemplified by the agricultural essayist to whom [End Page 123] it is dedicated; and while extolling the land, it occludes the most potent and contested landed prospect for Britons in the eighteenth century—the idea of America. These subjects are central to this essay, which examines the peculiar circumstances which first fed and then undermined the phenomenon which we describe as “English georgic.”
I assume, in this paper, Anthony Low’s working definition of georgic poetry: “that georgic is a mode that stresses the value of intensive and persistent labor against hardships and difficulties; that it differs from pastoral because it emphasizes work instead of ease; that it differs from epic because it emphasizes planting and building instead of killing and destruction; and that it is preeminently the mode suited to the establishment of civilization and the founding of nations.” 4 To this I would add Annabelle Patterson’s more culturally specific query concerning “the rather subtle contributions to the counter-revolutionary programs of the British government, promoting a conservative ideology based on the ‘georgic’ values of hard work (in others), land-ownership as a proof of worth . . ., and above all the premise that hardship is to be countered by personal ‘Resolution and Independence’ rather than social meliorism.” 5 My argument is premised on the notion that English georgic poetry did not, as is commonly supposed, disappear after the publication of Richard Jago’s Edge-Hill in 1767. Rather, I suggest that it is more accurate to characterize the historically specific phenomenon of English georgic as an essentializing of georgic’s more characteristic manifestation, that of mode. In response to georgic’s potential for giving shape to new and indispensable notions of national productivity, the eight or so poems generally included in the group of “true” georgics achieved the authority of genre between 1708 and 1767. 6 If this is the...