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  • Minstrelsy Goes to Market:Prize Poems, Minstrel Contests, and Romantic Poetry
  • Erik Simpson

The natural desire of every man to engross to himself as much power and property as he can acquire by any of the means which might makes right, is accompanied by the no less natural desire of making known to as many people as possible the extent to which he has been a winner in this universal game. The successful warrior becomes a chief; the successful chief becomes a king: his next want is an organ to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent of his possessions; and this organ he finds in a bard, who is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor. This is the origin of poetry, which, like all other trades, takes its rise in the demand for the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the extent of the market.

—Thomas Love Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry (1820)

Poetry, and the principle of the Self, of which Money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley in response to Peacock, A Defence of Poetry (1821)

In his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786), Joseph Cooper Walker equivocates as he speculates on the existence of ancient contests of bards or minstrels: "We have good reason to believe, that the ancient Irish had MUSICAL CONTESTS; but, as we want the authority of history to support us, we will not venture to assert that they had."1 Walker has more "authority" to support a description of a modern contest, however, and he allows himself a long footnote on that subject. The note begins,

Walker then reveals that the contest had been sponsored by a nationally-minded expatriate, a Mr. Dungan from Granard who had moved to Denmark. Dungan's motive—to employ his fortune "in charities to the country which gave him birth"—stems from Irish cultural nationalism, but his immediate inspiration is Scottish:

About two years since, he observed in an English paper, an account of a prize having been offered in Scotland to the best Player on the Highland Bagpipe. He was pleased with the idea, and immediately wrote to a friend in Ireland, empowering him to offer the parties specified in the above Advertisement, to the best performers on the Irish Harp.—The contest was held at the appointed time. The company was large and brilliant; but the performers were only mediocre, and the music common, and ill selected.3

Perhaps because news of previous "mediocre" performances had not reached him, Walker seems unaware that this was not the first Dungan-sponsored contest. The first had taken place in 1781, four years earlier.4

Walker, that is, saw one of a series of contests leading up to the more famous Belfast Harper's Festival of 1792, held in July to coincide with the anniversary of Bastille Day. Despite occasional hints of nationalism in his own project—"Nothing," he says in a note, "can argue a greater insensibility to pure melody in the English, than their disrelish for Irish music"—Walker's account of the Granard contest presents its international roots and specific economic incentives, both elements that would seem out of place in explicitly patriotic projects such as the later Belfast festival.5 As a result, Walker unwittingly lets us glimpse the potential of bard and minstrel contests to become a vehicle by which writers could point to tensions within nationalist and Romantic models of poetry's function, both of which [End Page 692] downplayed or rejected the model of living poets competing for money. That is to say, Walker's account suggests but leaves untapped the potential for competing bards and minstrels to act as a figure for a competitive literary marketplace, something like Peacock's conception of poetic production rather than Shelley's in the passages quoted above. Later writers would follow Walker in discussing contests of bards and minstrels, but they would explore further the implications of the contest as a metaphor for modern writing.

I. Marketing Disinterest: The University Prizes

At roughly the same time the Scottish...


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