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The Cambridge Introduction to Eighteenth-Century Poetry by John Sitter (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 233-235 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0000

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James Sutherland’s A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry appeared in 1948 and was reissued in 1975. Since then there have been important histories of eighteenth-century poetry, anthologies, Companions, and of course numerous books, articles, and dissertations. This often splendid work reflects well upon the eighteenth-century muses’ extraordinary offsprings. Most such studies include significant advances upon Sutherland’s then orthodox notion that the eighteenth-century poet’s world was one “of temperate delights and rational pleasures” (1975). Both the “peace of the Augustans” and the “Augustanism” behind such a view largely are dead, but one of Sutherland’s other practical concerns remains too alive. He prefaces his Preface by quoting Lyrical Ballads’ self-promoting plea that readers shift their expectations from what Wordsworth misrepresents as eighteenth-century poetry, and towards his own versions of poetic “codes of decision.” Sutherland hoped to “remove some of the obstacles which impede the modern reader’s enjoyment of eighteenth-century poetry”—obstacles placed in their way by Wordsworth and his successors’ triumphs. Mr. Sitter had the same problem in 2011. He wanted readers to “overcome the barriers—ranging from Romantic and Modern myth, to inexperience—that often dull our senses to eighteenth-century poetry.” Obstacles and barriers seem only to have grown more formidable over some six decades, though in my own experience they are easily overcome by an instructor’s enthusiasm, clear reading and, I shall later suggest, clear placing of the texts within their contexts.

Mr. Sitter himself overcomes those barriers for poetry written between about 1700 and 1785. The book is resolutely formalist by a subtle and tactful critic. He perhaps wisely judges that his readers need more education in how to read poems as poems rather than as expressions of ideas also available in other genres. Accordingly, the five chapters in Part I focus on voice, on how poems sound, on the variations in the heroic couplet, on the specific ways in which Pope’s Essay on Criticism can best be read aloud and therefore best appreciated, how tetrameter couplets offer different “codes of decision” than its sibling pentameter couplets, and how these in turn differ from the many blank verse and stanzaic poems. The three chapters in Part II’s “Poetic Consciousness” consider satiric poetry, Pope as metapoet, and metapoetry beyond Pope. Part III’s five chapters are ordered around “Vision”—how poems make us see, how personification works, how prophecy and prospects encourage a social world, how the eighteenth century anticipates modern ecological concerns and, in a coda, a sensible observation that though there are indeed continuities between, say, Pope’s world and our own, there also are differences that are not always favorable to the moderns. Pope’s practice can be “restorative and clarifying.” Mr. Sitter’s book largely is pedagogical and empirical, but also urges the special values of eighteenth-century poetry for twenty-first century readers. Bravo.

Handsomely written and blessedly jargon free, this Introduction includes a fine discussion of an Essay on Criticism. He deftly defends Pope’s definition of wit “That gives us back the Image of our Mind.” This embodies a sense of “deep recognition and compelling conviction” that is both perceptive in its own right, and anticipates putative Romantic conceptions of the imagination. Discussions of Thomson as an ecological poet and Smart as a religious and prophetic poet are persuasive. The comparison and contrast of Wordsworth’s 1802 Composed upon Westminster Bridge and Elizabeth Tollet’s 1750 On the Prospect from Westminster Bridge is a model of criticism that encapsulates generational change: “For Tollet, the interesting timescale is vastly historical, millenial, not biographical” as Wordsworth’s so clearly is. I am less keen on the discussion of Pope as a “metapoet,” which I think confuses the large part with the smaller whole. Pope’s discussions of the poet generally reflect the poet’s role in society and society’s role in the poet. His operative satiric conceit, as in the second dialogue of One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Eight, is that his “sacred Weapon” defends female Truth and Virtue. In Roman mythology these indeed are mother and daughter.

Mr. Sitter’s Introduction often is instructive, always readable, and...

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