Poetry with a Different Purpose: Resurrecting Britain’s Bard

In September 1792, on the day of the autumnal equinox, a Welshman named Iolo Morganwg met friends on Primrose Hill near what is now Regent’s Park in London.  There, they made a circle out of stones.  The largest stone was fashioned into an altar.  On this altar was placed an unsheathed sword.  Standing on these stones and dressed in wildly colored robes, the company recited Welsh history and poetry.

They were pretending to be ancient Welsh bards.

A meeting of bardic performers (called gorsedd) from Britanny in 1906. This Breton meeting provides a modern example of earlier Welsh models of the festival.

A meeting of bardic performers (called
gorsedd) from Britanny in 1906. This Breton meeting provides a modern example of earlier Welsh models of the festival.

The meeting might sound like a pagan ritual or a group of overzealous Lord of the Rings enthusiasts, but this performance was serious business.  The goal was to revive the customs of an almost forgotten Wales.  Morganwg, the organizer, called these performances gorsedd, which he translated as “voice convention.”  He imagined these meetings as communal poetic voices reasserting a unique Welsh culture, different from that of England or Scotland.  Morganwg kept these performances going for decades, and elements of these early meetings made their way into the Welsh National Eisteddfod, an annual poetry and folk singing festival that still goes on today.

I came across Morganwg and his merry band of guerilla poets while researching Sounding Imperial: Poetic Voice and the Politics of Empire, 1730-1820.  I wanted to offer an unorthodox history of English poetry that looks at the other side of the eighteenth century’s reputation for polite, dainty verse.  Instead, I sought out the century’s wild and bellicose figures, the majority of whom are now forgotten.

Many of them were like Morganwg, who fashioned himself into a national poet.  He wanted to write and perform poetry that was like heroic medieval epics.  This meant recreating ancient ceremonies, such as the one on Primrose Hill, but also composing poems that established intimate connections with readers that many worried had become distant because of mass-market publications.  For him, to be a bard meant to sing “native songs” of “Britons bold and free.”

We haven’t paid much attention to these rowdy vocal experiments because we’ve forgotten what poetry used to be like.  In the twenty-first century, we have two attitudes toward poetry, both of which come to us from the 1800s.  Those who adhere to the first attitude perceive poetry to be moody and introspective, written and read by people in touch with their emotions.  For them, poetry is revelatory; it’s something that changes your life.  Think William Wordsworth and Dead Poets Society.

The second attitude sees poetry as the domain of bad boys and rebel artists who fight against social norms and devote their life to art.  They are a version of Lord Byron, the dashing, drunken nineteenth-century poet who (may have) seduced his half-sister, fled Britain in disgrace, traveled through Europe and the Mediterranean, and was said to be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

But poetry wasn’t always this way.  Sounding Imperial captures what it was like in the decades before these modern attitudes toward poetry took shape.  The 1700s were a time when no one cared about how poets felt.  Poetry was supposed to be about politics, nation, empire, and history, not something as small and mundane as personal feelings.

That’s why my book moves from England to Wales to Scotland and India, seeking out authors who were culture warriors, nationalists, radicals and revolutionaries, and avid colonialists as well.  Their enthusiasm was electric, and their sense of poetry’s possibility was enormous.  For these eighteenth-century artists, composing poems meant communing with the dead, making ancient bards speak again, and preserving cultures that were going extinct.  It required gathering in the early morning light to stand on stones and recite poems in Welsh.  No moody introspection for these performers and no self-serving, brooding rebellion.  Instead, for them, poetry makes the nation sing, fulfilling a mission driven by the grand arc of history.

[This piece was originally published by James Mulholland on the Johns Hopkins University Press Blog:  www.jhupressblog.com]

Sounding Imperial

Collaborative Reading of Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and The Culture of Taste

gikandiThe Long 18th, a scholarly blog devoted to 18th-century literature, history, and culture, is conducting a week-long collaborative reading of Simon Gikandi’s award-winning Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton UP, 2011), from May 13-20, 2013. We have been reading approximately one chapter a day, with posts from a variety of eighteenth century literary scholars and historians. Please visit, and consider contributing to the discussion, at http://long18th.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/collaborative-reading-of-simon-gikandis-slavery-and-the-culture-of-taste-may-13th-19th-at-the-long-18th/.  For additional information, please email David Mazella.

Who Is a Terrorist? “Terrorism” in the Long 18th Century

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. jacques-Louis David, 1812.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. jacques-Louis David, 1812.  [Source]

Who is a terrorist?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston marathon bomber, will be tried as a civilian and not as an enemy combatant.  Tsarnaev is an American citizen, but he’s also a suspected terrorist – hence debate over the mode of trial, and a related controversy over his Miranda rights. We tend to reflexively identify terrorists as international operatives, despite instances of (and increasing anxiety over) “homegrown” terrorists.  But what we call homegrown terrorism – plotting within a target nation – is in fact somewhat closer to the original English use of the word, which dates from the eighteenth century, and which was coined to describe the (potentially violent) thwarting of political participation.

“Terrorist” first entered the English language in Edmund Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace, written and published throughout 1795 and 1796 –the politician and philosopher’s extended argument against England ending its war with France, and his last reaction to the French Revolution. It came directly from the French “terroriste” and “terrorisme,” both of which came into use in 1794, during the most violent phase of the Revolution. The French Constitution of 1795 had been widely opposed; riots were put down by a young Napoleon Bonaparte.  “Twenty thousand regular Troops garrison Paris,” wrote Burke. “Thus a complete Military Government is formed…To secure them further, they have a strong corps of irregulars, ready armed. Thousands of those Hell-hounds called Terrorists…are let loose on the people.” He concluded: “The whole of their Government, in its origination, in its continuance, in all its actions, and in all its resources, is force; and nothing but force.”

Terrorism here is associated with government coercion, with wielding illegitimate power – illegitimate because it had no consent from the people: “This year’s Constitution…is the only one which in its very formation has been generally resisted… It never had a popular choice even in show.”

Burke’s usage was echoed by Jeremy Bentham some twenty years later in his Plan of Parliamentary Reform. Bentham listed “the Terrorist” as a figure “by whom freedom of suffrage is destroyed…The terrorist is he who obtains his seat by the motive of fear…he who repels, quells, subdues, or excludes any competitor.” For Bentham, too, terrorism represented a perversion of the political process.

In this emphasis on the nature of unsanctioned power, however, we can see that the emotional resonance of the word was the same then as now: unpredictability, violence, and fear.

 

“The Mechanical Turk” and Automata of the 18th Century

The Mechanical Turk. Windisch, Karl Gottlieb. Inanimate Reason, 1784. Houghton Library, Harvard University. SG 3675.94.10 Source: John Overholt.

The Mechanical Turk.
Windisch, Karl Gottlieb. Inanimate Reason, 1784.
Houghton Library, Harvard University. SG 3675.94.10
Source: John Overholt.

In a recent article for the BBC News, Adam Gopnik reflects on the persistent allure of the Turk, a chess-playing automaton that fascinated eighteenth-century spectators across Europe and America.  The Turk was created by Viennese inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen and first appeared in the court of Empress Maria Theresa. Essentially an early type of robot, the contraption featured a large wooden cabinet with a chessboard on top behind which sat the torso of a mustached man dressed in oriental robes. Before every performance, in order to convince the audience that the Turk really was a machine, the operator, first Kempelen and then later Johann Maelzel, would go through an elaborate demonstration of opening the cabinet doors to reveal the complex, whirring jumble of wheels and cogs that powered the machine. Once the cabinet was closed, an audience member would be invited to challenge the Turk at a game of chess. Impressively, the Turk was able not only to move its own chess pieces but also to recognize if its opponent made an illegal move and even to win a large portion of the games it played. The automaton was a sensation. Before being destroyed by a fire in New York in the 1850s, it toured throughout Europe and North America and played against such opponents as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. Most impressive, though, is the secret that the Turk managed to keep for over 50 years: it was all a fraud.

In reality, the Turk’s impressive chess skills were the result not of elaborate, mechanical clockwork but of a human operator, usually a random chess-player from the town where it was currently performing, cleverly hidden in a secret compartment behind the display of clockwork parts. It is this ability to fool its eighteenth-century audience for so long, or rather the willingness of the eighteenth-century audience to be fooled by the automaton, that Gopnik focuses on in his article. Although there were several people who doubted the machine early on – Edgar Allen Poe, for example, discusses how it must be controlled by a hidden chess player in his essay “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” – the majority of spectators were happily convinced that it was just an impressive piece of machinery. Gopnik argues that the spectators who were so willing to believe the lie did so because they wanted what we still want to this day: a beautiful, elegant solution (an extraordinary automaton) rather than a cynical, ugly one (a hidden chess-player). Gopnik also points out that the real genius of the machine’s inventor was not fooling his audience but realizing and harnessing the mastery that is available in the modern world but that often goes unnoticed. The chess-players who ran the machine were not chess-masters, but they were good enough to beat the majority of people they played against.

Fascination for the Turk isn’t limited to the eighteenth century, though. Several scholars in both the humanities and the sciences have studied and written about the Turk and other popular automata of the eighteenth century, including Gerald Levitt’s book The Turk, Chess Automaton, that gives detailed analysis of the machine’s hidden operation as well as the literature written about it. Likewise, Julie Park discusses the connection between general automata and the novel in the eighteenth century as part of a consumer-driven desire for novelty and self-representation in her book The Self and It: Novel Objects in Eighteenth Century England. In his book The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, Tom Standage discusses how this mysterious machine played an important role not only in the development of the power loom and the computer but even in current debates about machine and artificial intelligence. The fact that it was fairly recently reconstructed by John Gaughan, though it no longer requires a hidden human operator, speaks to its lasting appeal to and effect on modern society. Interestingly, and as if to support Gopnik’s argument for realizing the world’s untapped potential for mastery, Amazon has launched an online crowdsourcing service that helps computer programmers connect and collaborate in order to accomplish a variety of tasks that computers still can’t do. They named the service, which they categorize as “artificial artificial intelligence,” The Mechanical Turk, after the eighteenth-century fraud automaton that was actually man-powered.

Pride & Prejudice at 200

Pride and Prejudice, First Edition. Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University

Pride and Prejudice, First Edition. Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.

Jane Austen scholars are currently marking the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.  Here are just a few of the many commemorations from around the web:

Megan Mulder, Special Collections Librarian at Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University, describes the novel’s long path to publication, its reception by critics, and the larger context of Austen’s publishing career in a post for the Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections Blog.  Her informative post includes several photographs of Wake Forest’s first editions of Austen’s work, as well as those of her predecessor Frances Burney.

Devoney Looser, in an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, reviews two recent scholarly books that attempt to make sense of Austen’s enduring appeal:

The permeable boundaries between the popular and sometimes absurd Austen and the scholarly Austen surely matter in ways that will be long in unraveling. Recent Austen scholarship has capitalized on this high-low traffic, mirroring the marketing of “I [Heart] Darcy” bumper stickers more than we might like to admit — and I don’t exempt myself from the charge of opportunism. I am an English professor who has the good fortune to teach Jane Austen by day. By night, I skate on the local roller derby team as my alter ego, Stone Cold Jane Austen. As a result, I regularly field such farcical questions as “What would Jane Austen think of tattoos?” and, from my son, “Mommy, who is Jane Austen? Are you Jane Austen?” So I do not speak here from on high. The shrines to Jane Austen in my life involve sweat-stained wrist guards, not 19th-century editions of her works. But even I find myself asking on occasion, “What is the point of our sifting through and documenting all of today’s Austen-infused dreck?” It is especially heartening, then, to find emerging work on Austen and popular culture that moves beyond recounting how she has been mashed up with zombies, vampires, or porn. The best new work asks not only the multivalent, unanswerable question, “Why Austen? Why Now?” It also carefully charts “How did we get here?”

Both Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures and Janine Barchas’s Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity are exemplars of this more sophisticated work on Austen and popular culture. Johnson’s book makes sense, directly and indirectly, of the factual-fiction impulse behind novels like Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life, telling the fascinating story of how the mystique of Austen was gradually created, maintained, and spun out in unpredictable ways in the years after her death in 1817. Johnson unearths both the many-sided truths and the wide-ranging implications of our false fantasies of Austen, drawing conclusions from evidence ranging from portraits and memorials to fairy tales and relics. By contrast, Barchas makes a compelling case for our acknowledging some of the real-life 18th- and 19th-century people who may stand behind Austen’s fictional characters, in order to reveal long occluded ways of seeing Austen’s relationship with history and celebrity culture.

Elsewhere in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Susan Greenfield and Audrey Bilger offer an engaging account of the fate of Pride and Prejudice over the past 200 years, and Ted Scheinman reviews a new biography of Austen.

In 2006 Linda V. Troost published an analysis of three film interpretations of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley in Eighteenth-Century Fiction.  You can read the entire article without charge here.

Want to celebrate?  Pride & Prejudice 200 collects listings of commemorative events worldwide.

An 18th-Century Argument Against the Death Penalty

Murder in the Carriage (Probably a Design for The Tyburn Chronicle) by Samuel Wale, 1721-1786, British

Murder in the Carriage (Probably a Design for The Tyburn Chronicle) by Samuel Wale, 1721-1786, British. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), Enlightenment philosopher and Italian jurist, is back in the news. Lawyers for convicted murderer Jody Lee Miles in Maryland have used his argument against the death penalty.

Beccaria thought punishment was effective when it was certain and swift, but not necessarily when it was violent. “If I can demonstrate that it is neither necessary nor useful,” he wrote, “I shall have gained the cause of humanity.” The emotional appeal may be compelling, but it actually hinges on an important argument about rights and power: Beccaria didn’t think the state had the right to punish by death. No individual had the right to take another’s life, and if the state derived its authority from the people, capital punishment amounted to “a war of the whole nation against one citizen.” You can read the whole thing – along with his exception for treason, which provided the loophole in the Maryland constitution – in his Essay on Crimes and Punishments. (It’s interesting to note how his reasoning on the subject of government power also leads him to side with the gun rights lobby.)

Beccaria’s was very much an Enlightenment project – an attempt to remake corrupt institutions by explaining and justifying the limits of their power. It was Beccaria who first explored the concept of “utility,” later codified in Utilitarianism. He was a major influence on English philosopher and liberal Jeremy Bentham, who gave us the Panopticon. If you’re interested in exploring the eighteenth-century justice system first hand, at least in the English context, check out London Lives. It documents the crime and social policy that Beccaria and Bentham were concerned with.

Daniel Defoe Around the Web

Twelve Illustrations of Robinson Crusoe

Twelve Illustrations of Robinson Crusoe by Carington Bowles, 1724-1793, British. Yale Center for British Art, Yale University Art Gallery Collection.

Here are some recent internet gleanings for enthusiasts of Daniel Defoe to explore:

Happy (Recent) Birthday, Jane Austen!

Autograph note concerning the "Profits of my Novels, over and above the £600 in the Navy Fives" ca. March 1817

Detail of Jane Austen’s autograph note concerning the “Profits of my Novels, over and above the £600 in the Navy Fives” ca. March 1817. The Morgan Library and Museum.

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and we want to highlight a few items around the web marking the occasion:

  • At Ms. Magazine Audrey Bilger (Professor of Literature, Claremont McKenna College) notes that on the occasion of Austen’s birth “Most likely much of the attention will focus on Austen as a writer of romances. Each of the novels concludes in marriage, after all, and the marriage of Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy is a particularly happy ending. We should also pay tribute, however, to Austen’s early adoption of feminist ideals and her insistence that women’s voices and experiences be taken seriously.”  Read her account of “Five Feminist Footnotes” to Jane Austen’s work here.
  • At the British Newspaper Archive, Ed King highlights the advertisements and newspaper notices for some first editions of Austen’s novels in the early nineteenth century.  The post includes images of the original newspapers (which are normally available only to subscribers).
  • The Morgan Library maintains an online version of its 2010 exhibit “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy” which includes images of Austen manuscripts owned by the Morgan, video of luminaries such as Cornel West, Fran Leibowitz, Colm Tóibín, and others describing what Austen means to them, and more.

Dogs of the 18th Century

Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel Date, 1778.  By George Stubbs (1724-1806, British).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel Date, 1778. By George Stubbs (1724-1806, British). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Scholars date both the beginnings of modern pet-keeping and modern discourses of animal rights to the eighteenth century.  Here is just a small sampling of recent scholarly work on dogs in eighteenth-century life.

Laura Brown‘s book Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes (Cornell University Press, 2010) shows

how the literary works of the eighteenth century use animal-kind to bring abstract philosophical, ontological, and metaphysical questions into the realm of everyday experience, affording a uniquely flexible perspective on difference, hierarchy, intimacy, diversity, and transcendence. Writers of this first age of the rise of the animal in the modern literary imagination used their nonhuman characters—from the lapdogs of Alexander Pope and his contemporaries to the ill-mannered monkey of Frances Burney’s Evelina or the ape-like Yahoos of Jonathan Swift—to explore questions of human identity and self-definition, human love and the experience of intimacy, and human diversity and the boundaries of convention.

Lynn Festa‘s article on the English Dog Tax debate of 1796 was published in the journal Eighteenth-Century Life in 2009.  The abstract describes it thus (full text of the essay is available here):

Drawing on Parliamentary debates, print polemics, and satirical prints, this essay traces the rhetorical erosion of seemingly categorical distinctions between human and animal, animate and inanimate, person and thing, in the controversy that arose around the 1796 imposition of a tax on dogs. The passage of this seemingly slight piece of legislation created impassioned debates about the nature and welfare of animals, about the rights of individuals to possess or keep property, and about the way the kinship felt for animals tampers with the seemingly self-evident borders of kind. At a moment in which sentimental humanitarian concern with the rights and interests of animals had reached new heights, the taxation of dogs seemed to reclassify the animal as a thing and to draw into question the relation between humans and their ostensible best friends. Although proponents of the bill endeavor to proceed as if dogs can be considered on the same terms as other kinds of taxable luxuries (devouring resources that might better be devoted to humans), opponents of the tax focus on the bonds of mutual dependency and reciprocal obligation that tie humans and animals together, arguing that the right to keep a beloved entity such as a dog expresses a distinctively human need to keep something beyond mere, bare, necessity. Inasmuch as humanity is expressed and inheres in the relation people take to other creatures, the seeming superfluity of the dog embodies the essence of what allows, or enables, people to act as humans.

Chi-ming Yang, in “Culture in Miniature:  Toy Dogs and Object Life” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction examines porcelain dog figurines (particularly of the pug and King Charles spaniel, breeds imported from Asia and domesticated in England) produced in China and sold in England in the eighteenth century.  She argues:

The toy dog, a small but far from trivial commodity, mediated relations of racial, sexual, and species difference and helped establish a luxury market for the pet as a racialized fetish object that continues to this day.

The Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, published by the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, produced a Special Issue on “Animals in the Eighteenth Century” in December 2010.  While the full contents are only available to members and institutional subscribers, anyone can read abstracts of the articles at the link above.

Bernadette Paton of the Oxford English Dictionary charts the changing uses of dog-related vocabulary over time and notes that the eighteenth-century is an important turning point:

Until the eighteenth century small dogs kept as pets were regarded with some disdain (hence the negative connotations of lap-dog) but they enjoyed luxuries their outdoor counterparts could only dream of. But from the mid-1700s compounds attesting to the dog as a favoured and nurtured pet begin to appear, and they multiply and flourish throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. They include comforts like dog baskets (earliest in 1768 Catal. Household Furniture, ‘A dog-basket and cushion’), dog biscuits (specialized dog treats, from 1823), dog food, dog doctors (first recorded in 1771 Tobias Smollett’s novel Humphry Clinker, ‘A famous dog-doctor was sent for’), dog hospitals (from 1829), and dog soap (first use 1869). The first reference to the dog as ‘man’s best friend’ appears in 1841, at a time when dogs began to be sentimentalized, and to be seen as having, if not souls, then at least personalities and feelings (perhaps because the industrialized city no longer needed them as outdoor working or guard animals, while the rabies vaccination developed in the 1880s reduced the threat they posed).

Two articles in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal describe the dog’s life in the eighteenth century for a non-academic readership: “The Eighteenth Century Goes to the Dogs” (including a quiz matching eighteenth-century dogs to their famous owners) and “Personable Pooches.”

And someone has collected a vast array of eighteenth-century portraits of pets (many of them dogs) and their owners on Pinterest.

Eric G. Wilson on Keats & Weirdness

Benjamin Robert Haydon, “John Keats” (c. 1846). Pen and brown ink on wove paper. 9 1/8 x 7 3/8in. (23.2 x 18.7cm). Signed, dated and inscribed, in pen and brown ink, LC: John Keats 1816/ copied by B.R. Haydon from his/ original sketch. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. B1977.14.4160.

Friends and followers of The 18th-Century Common will likely want to read Professor Eric G. Wilson’s recent essay, entitled “Poetry Makes You Weird,” published earlier this week on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Wilson’s piece reminds us of what happens with the convergence of poetry and nature and especially the “weird” but wonderful ways in which poetry (with all of its cherished oddities) possesses a unique ability to unlock the familiar and make it uncannily alive and rich and strange.