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Benedict, Barbara M. “The Moral in the Material: Numismatics and Identity in Evelyn, Addison, and Pope,” Queen Anne and the Arts, ed. Cedric D. Reverand II. Lanham, MD: Bucknell, 2015. Pp. 65–83.
Collecting ancient medals—coins, that is, not military rewards (largely a nineteenth-century development)—had been an elite hobby in the Renaissance. By the early eighteenth century, the acquisition of numismatic specimens had become “a widespread practice among the gentry and the middle class,” although one that still required a classical education for a full understanding of images and inscriptions. This, however, was not always seen as a harmless, gentlemanly pastime: viewed more negatively, collecting was a foolish “antiquarian obsession” or the activity of arrivistes eager to ape their aristocratic betters. “Virtuoso” was a loaded term.
Ms. Benedict explores these cultural conflicts as revealed by Evelyn, Addison, and Pope’s response to Addison. Evelyn’s Numismata (1697), she observes, “represents [for him] not only the preservation of culture, but the opportunity for the individual understanding of history” through specific examples, a “compendium of material, text, portrait, and morality” that completes the self-definition of the learned amateur.
By the time Addison wrote his Dialogues Upon the Usefulness of Ancient Medals (1702), coin-collecting was criticized as a childish delusion, a paratactic and unscientific chase that favored accumulation over taste and selection. Addison sets up a dialogue between Cynthio, a detractor who sees numismatics as a waste of time and resources, and Philander, who recognizes the power of medals to “illuminate nonmercantile beauty and true social values.” Addison is with Philander, defending numismatics on not only aesthetic but also moral grounds. Coins “display not metal but mettle: character and heroism,” illustrating a vanished past that is nevertheless relevant for the present. The gentleman numismatist makes classical culture part of contemporary reality, which is the most effective refutation of the charge that collecting is “antisocial, obsessive, useless, and megalomaniacal.” The strength of medals lies in their materiality, their “defeat of time.” [End Page 1]
“On Metals” (1713), Pope’s response to the Dialogues, which he received in manuscript from their author, is more complicated. On the one hand, Pope engages sympathetically with “the numismatic enterprise,” which can actually lead the collector away from minute observation of the material to “a philosophical perspective on time and mortality.” Less positively, numismatics can be another example of “mad Scriblerian systematizing.” If one adopts the gaze of the poet, drawing back from the material and the particular, however, it is possible to see both the march of human folly and “the instability of mere material” that fades and rusts, leaving emptiness. For Pope, the material is ultimately inferior to poetry, as is “past virtue” to “current merit.” The study of the relics of the past is valuable to the extent it teaches us about loss and transience—“thoughts that supersede materiality.” As for Addison, the cabinet of medals affords Pope an opportunity for “self-fashioning,” but one that “recasts the poet as imaginative collector.”
Ms. Benedict skillfully traces the shift from a “cultural conception” of collecting as an “antiquarian entertainment” to an “internalized conception of it as memory and identity.” Her discussion of Pope is particularly useful.
Błaszkiewicz, Maria. “Addison’s Milton—The Augustan Apology for the Tertiary Epic,” From Queen Anne to Queen Victoria: Readings in 18th and 19th Century British Literature and Culture, volume 4, ed. Graźyna Bystydzieńska and Emma Harris. Warsaw: University of Warsaw, 2014. Pp. 67–72.
Addison got a bad rap, Ms. Błaszkiewicz argues, for his commentaries in the Spectator on Paradise Lost. While his remarks contributed to “the increase of actual knowledge of Milton’s work,” as literary criticism they tended to be dismissed as too “general and indeterminate” (Richard Hurd called them “frivolous”) to be of much value.
Taking what she calls “a fresh approach,” Ms. Błaszkiewicz argues that Addison wished not only to illustrate the artistic beauties of Paradise Lost but also its relationship to classical epic form—which Addison, unlike others, did not see as incompatible with a postclassical “divine poem.” Milton’s verse is both heroic (in the Homeric and Virgilian sense...