Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Defences of Poetry part four. Peacock's 'The Four Ages of Poetry'


Shelley’s Defence was an explicit response to Peacock’s The Four Ages of Poetry. Which should be better known,  if only because the way it is treated reveals so much about Poetry World.

There are full texts of Peacock on line:



The introduction to the Poetry Foundation’s version states: Peacock is unsparing in his literary critique, but also difficult to take seriously, given the wide swath and humorous tone of his criticism. As Peacock notes, “The marvellous too is very much like a snowball: it grows as it rolls downward, till the little nucleus of truth which began its descent from the summit is hidden in the accumulation of superinduced hyperbole.”

Such an attitude is not uncommon. One should not rattle the cage. 

As one of Shelley’s modern editors wrote:  It’s not too much to say that but for Shelley’s Vigorous Defence Peacock’s essay would have been dead and forgotten long since. If it lives, it does so in the shade of Shelley’s inspired reply. For either from a literary or from a critical point of view Peacock’s essay is of little importance. 

Yet it’s difficult to see exactly what is hyperbolic about some of Peacock’s statements, or why his criticism is difficult to take seriously.   

One of Peacock’s editors can state:  To take it as a serious attack on poetry would be absurd (p.x).  However, Peacock did not write: That he is the wisest, the happiest, and the best, inasmuch as he is a poet, is equally incontrovertible: the greatest poets have been men of the most spotless virtue, of the most consummate prudence, and, if we would look into the interior of their lives, the most fortunate of men. Shelley did.  No one argues that Shelley’s is a comic masterpiece. 

We can see Foucault’s ‘Author Function’ at work here. Shelley’s Defence is a fantasy of bad history, dubious linguistics, self-aggrandisement  and outlandish claims which is only preserved because of who wrote it and because it allows a certain type of critic to go into raptures. If biographers thought Shelley had a sense of humour then the Defence would be regarded as a good joke in response to Peacock’s The Four Ages. 

Peacock is funny, and blunt, and his history is probably much more accurate than either Sidney’s or Shelley’s. In Peacock’s version there is nothing romantic or ethereal about the early days of poetry: 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” (Peacock p4). Such a history,  however,  sits uncomfortably with the refined and delicate souls who find Joy, Truth and Beauty wandering in Shelley’s effusions.  As one editor wrote,  and you should try saying this out loud: So if we are to believe Peacock, the first poet was nothing but a hireling and a drunken one! 

Poet’s drank and wanted to be paid? How shocking. The Gentleman may not have read the Anglo-Saxon poem,  Deor.

Peacock’s argument was that ‘Poetry’ had made a double movement: the traditional history of the ages: Gold, Silver Iron Brass altered: to Iron, Gold, Silver Brass, in the ancient world, with a second post dark age movement with the same progression, as Poetry in his own time was entering a lesser age as the best minds moved to other fields.

The conclusion to his long final paragraph sounds as true today as it was then, although some of the proper nouns he used need updating. The paragraph is far too long to quote but he identifies poetry’s shrinking audience as readers turn to other sources of writing for either entertainment or information, and he moves towards his  climax with:

  …intellectual power and intellectual acquisition have turned themselves into other and better channels and have abandoned the cultivation and the fate of poetry to the degenerate fry of modern rhymsters and their Olympic judges , the magazine critics, who continue to debate and promulgate oracles about poetry as if it were still what it was in the Homeric age, the all-in-all of intellectual progression, and as if there were no such things in existence as mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, moralists, metaphysicans, historians, politicians, and political economists  who have built into the upper air of intelligence a pyramid, from the summit of which they see the modern Parnassus far beneath them, and, knowing how small a place it occupies in the comprehensiveness of their prospect, smile at the little ambition and the circumscribed perceptions with which the drivellers and mountebanks upon it are contending for the poetical palm and the critical chair.

Editors and critics may have dismissed Peacock,  but he’s probably closer to the reality of his time than they are, or Shelley was. While it’s easy to think of the Romantic Period as a time when everyone was crazy for poetry, a quick glance at the sales figures for books in that period is an essential context for Shelley.  Which is for the next post. And then Shelley.

 CE: As with the other posts in this sequence proper referencing has been removed. You are welcome to use any of these posts as long as you acknowledge the source. The absence of proper references should make plagiarism difficult. Leave a request in the comments and I'll happily supply them. 

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