restricted access Reading Eighteenth-Century Poetry (review)
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Reviewed by
Patricia Meyer Spacks. Reading Eighteenth-Century Poetry. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell, 2009. Pp. vi-viii + 289. $31.95 (paper).

Ms. Spacks’s most recent book is neither an anthology of poetry nor a study of major poets and their periods. As the title indicates, it is rather a guide to reading the entire century’s poetry—a tutorial survey of the riches of eighteenth-century verse. A cursory examination of chapters yields references to over fifty poets, many canonical favorites as well as some lesser-known writers (John Pomfret and Sarah Fyge Egerton). But this book is not merely a survey of the century’s best poetry; it is also, and more importantly, an energetic attempt to bring pleasure back to the study of poetry, a pleasure that Ms. Spacks believes is inaccessible to most readers today, unless through the help of this sort of [End Page 62] handbook. Her book, according to Blackwell’s press release, makes up one part of a Blackwell series (Reading Poetry) “motivated by an increasing reluctance to study poetry amongst undergraduate students, born out of feelings of alienation from the genre, and even intimidation.” If it is possible for any one book to introduce today’s students to the pleasures of reading intellectually demanding verse, surely Reading Eighteenth-Century Poetry is it.

The book’s elaborate structure is difficult to describe. It is divided into three periods (1700–1730s, 1730s–1760s, 1760s–1790s), a choice dictated by the simple fact that “[d]ominant literary practices changed in the course of a hundred years, and segmenting the century makes it easier to focus on the changes.” While Ms. Spacks calls her tripartite divisions “arbitrary,” they loosely correlate to the traditional “Augustan,” “midcentury,” and “Sensibility” periods. Her eighteenth century is not the long eighteenth century, however, which means that Restoration poets (Dryden, Butler, and Rochester) are slighted. The book is otherwise thorough, carefully balanced, and ingeniously organized.

Each of the three main divisions is subdivided into five smaller analytical studies of recurring themes and practices. In each of the divisions there is a first section devoted to the question of “How to Live,” followed by a section on “Matters of Feeling.” Third sections consider the changing role of description, or the varying uses made of genres like the ode or techniques of narration. Fourth sections deal with issues of language—experiments with diction, practices of imitation or occasions of fraud. (There is an excellent discussion of the Ossian poems.) The final section in each of the three divisions provides a close analysis of a pair of poets (one male and one female) whose work is especially characteristic of the period: Pope and Wortley-Montagu, Leapor and Smart, Robinson and Cowper. This recursive structure has the advantage of showing poets “in relationships of dialogue with each other” and of guaranteeing that “individual poets will make their appearance in more than one chapter.” Pope, for example, receives discussion in six out of fifteen chapters, sometimes on his own behalf and sometimes as a predecessor with whom later poets are grappling.

A close-up look at Chapters Two and Six demonstrates Ms. Spacks’s engaging approach. Chapter Two (“Matters of Feeling: Poetry of Emotion”) addresses the social function of poetic emotion. It explores why early century poets tend to “displace” emotion in their poems, making it a “background” rather than a more obvious phenomenon. She describes this displacement as a function of the larger convention of generalization, explaining that early-century poetry (her example, a hymn by Watts) does not try “to convey the speaker’s feeling for its own sake, but to entice the reader toward emotions that will lead to the faith that resolves the hymn.” The difficulty for inexperienced readers, she observes, is one of “detection.” They cannot find any emotion in the poem because they associate emotion with unique and immediate personal experience rather than with an experience that has to be achieved through shared beliefs and aspirations. Ms. Spacks understands that this question of emotion is a primary stumbling block facing inexperienced readers.

Chapter Six (“How to Live: the Place of Work”) sets up a provocative contrast between two...