restricted access Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past, 1660–1781 by Richard Terry (review)
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173 RICHARD TERRY. Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past, 1660–1781. Oxford: Oxford, 2001. Pp. vii ⫹ 354. $72. By virtue of its broad learning, sober argument, and lucid style, Mr. Terry’s book is a helpful account of ‘‘how cultured people in the seventeenth and eighteenthcenturies understood their ‘literary past.’’’ Much of it is more judiciously synthetic than pathbreaking , but informed circumspection may be welcome. Against assertions that literature was abruptly ‘‘invented’’ in the middle of the eighteenth century, Mr. Terry urges skepticism: ‘‘English studies is now a beleaguered discipline, its state of beleaguerment being evident from nothing so much as the feeling entertained by its practitioners that unless an intellectual case can be made in the most sensationalistic terms, it can hardly be worth making at all.’’ Unsensationally, Mr. Terry argues that we will find something close to our concept of literature considerably earlier than the 1740s ‘‘not in the word ‘literature’ but in a jostle of other, collocating terms’’; we need to look beyond anthologies of what we too easily assume were agreed-upon ‘‘standard’’ authors. For him, it is important not to tie the emergence of literature as a concept to the emergence of aesthetics. Terry Eagleton’s view that the acceptance of literature depends on the rising ‘‘ideology’’of aesthetic impracticality is, Mr. Terry believes, one of the recent ‘‘rogue narratives,’’as is Trevor Ross’s The Making of the English Literary Canon; both overlook the emphasis on utility in eighteenth-century rationales for literary study. Mr. Terry looks for evidence of tradition- and canon-making well beyond the major late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century collections to sources such as poems about poets and poetry, authorial dictionaries, speculations in what he calls‘‘poetic anthropology’’(beginning with William Temple), school texts, and gatherings of works of women writers. In a chapter on ‘‘Teaching English Literature,’’ Mr. Terry argues persuasively that the ‘‘cultural fortification of English literature’’ through educational practices begins early in the eighteenth century, not in the Scottish Enlightenment or after. This chapter could have advanced the conversation further by making deeper use of Ian Michael’s encyclopedic The Teaching of English from the Sixteenth Century to 1870 (1987). Mr. Terry concludes that the increasing emphasis on literary education does not depend on literature’s aestheticization or ‘‘autonomization’’(the latter Trevor Ross’s term) because its larger place in school curricula ‘‘was premised explicitly on an understanding that literature was indeed useful, thatconversancywithitcouldqualify a person for a more successful absorption into public life and commercial society.’’ Even if these two positions are logically contradictory, there is no reason to believe them mutually exclusive: we still profess, if sometimes uneasily, that literary study is bothvaluable‘‘initself’’andforlearninghowtothink,speak,andwritemoreeffectively. Mr. Terry’s wide-ranging scholarship is occasionally cavalier. Dryden’s Fables appeared in 1700, not 1685. The number of editions of Blair’s Lecture on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres between 1784 and 1900 may be too large to ascertain exactly, but better estimates than ‘‘umpteen’’must be possible. In a discussion of literacy rates, Mr. Terry claims that ‘‘illiterate’’ was used by Johnson to mean lacking the ability to write; in fact, the remark quoted—Gulliver’s Travels was read by both ‘‘the learned and illit- 174 erate’’—indicates that he used the word to mean unlearned, the only meaning given for the word in Johnson’s Dictionary. But most of the book is more carefully supported and crafted. Mr. Terry knows the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century anthologies, ‘‘lives,’’ critical works, and magazines very well, and he digests masses of information into highly readable chapters. In his provocative ‘‘Making the Female Canon,’’ he argues that while none of the four great collections of poets—John Bell’s (1776–1782), Johnson’s (1779–1781), Robert Anderson’s (1792–1795), Alexander Chalmers’s (1810)—contained poetry by a woman, the eighteenth century did not exclude women writers from the canon or ‘‘suppress’’ female literary voices. The latter point has been borne out by the recovery work of the last 25 years; the former depends more on one’s definitions. Mr. Terry beginshisbook with theacknowledgmentthatheintendstouse‘‘canon’’inits‘‘blandest sense as simply a list of books...