MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 219-237
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News, Blues, and Cowper's Busy World
The scholarly standing of newspapers has risen dramatically as cultural studies and studies of print culture have converged. Newspapers represent a communicative economy fundamental to a nation's understanding of itself and of its relationship to other countries and peoples. Social theory, social history, and literary studies meet at the intersection of Benedict Anderson and the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP). 1 As a result, we know that newspapers were an important medium of British culture in the eighteenth century. As we sort out the dimensions of that culture, we need to gauge the relationship of newspapers to other media and genres, including literary ones. What good are newspapers to poets? What good are poets to newspapers?
By the late eighteenth century the news could be explicitly described as a catalyst for translating social variety into consumable art. William Cowper (1731-1800) was the earliest and most influential adapter of the newspaper to reflective poetry. Traumatically excluded from his early professional career in the family practice of law and parliamentary administration, he was unusually receptive to metropolitan affairs as refracted through the papers. Cowper therefore helped craft the sensibility that allows us to think about the news as a cultural system. Drawing on standard poetic strategies of the period--fancy, the prospect, [End Page 219] genre scenes--Cowper assimilated the public prints into The Task (1785). He was the first English poet to gentrify the press by means of a provincial aesthetic of retired masculinity. 2 But why should Cowper have been the agent for the aesthetic legitimation of the press?
"I Know Nothing But What I Learn from the General Evening"
Two major English poets were writing about newspapers in 1784: Cowper and George Crabbe. The timing was not accidental, for the news was on everyone's mind. The American war had ended in defeat, George III's use of the prerogative to dismiss the Fox-North ministry had led to party clashes, and Parliament was debating British policies in India and Ireland. The general election of April 1784 returned Pitt with a large Tory majority. "I read Johnson's prefaces every night [except] when the Newspaper calls me off," Cowper wrote in February 1784 to William Unwin, a sort of honorary nephew. "At a time [like the] present, what Author can stand in competition with a Newspaper?" 3
Crabbe had completed his poem The News-paper just before the election of 1784; it appeared in mid-March 1785. Crabbe understood [End Page 220] the popularity of the newspaper well enough to want to hitch his own to it. 4 But he was uneasy at the apparent randomness of newspaper material and frustrated by the difficulty of representing in verse the "dissociating articles . . . huddled together in our Daily Papers" (Poetical Works, 1:179). Crabbe fully appreciated the "charm" of the news for those "who, far from town, / Wait till the post-man brings the packet down" (Poetical Works, 1:189). But he could not dramatize the provincial reader or the scenes in which that reader hungrily consumed the paper's "dissociating" elements and turned them into an aesthetic rendering of the "busy life" of the world. 5 Of course, dissociation and the busy world are hallmarks of any number of eighteenth-century poems, and we can discover myriad connections between journalistic and poetic discourse before Cowper. The question is, what did it take for a poet fully to accept his or her place in the economy of the news?
The connection of the newspapers--"rival sheets of politics and prose"--with party contests was so strong that the need to sequester serious poetry from "daily, dirty scandal-scrapers" was paramount for Crabbe, as for most of his contemporaries (Poetical Works, 1:190). 6 In The Dunciad Alexander Pope had referred to the political newspaper as "the common Sink" of "low" and "illiterate" writers, and little had changed since then. 7 John Wolcot, writing as Peter Pindar...