The Eighteenth Century

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Alexander Pope was the next poet of note and fame. His The Rape of the Lock (1712) and "Windsor Forest" (1713) particularly have remained traditional school texts long past their respective expiry dates. His wit has not aged terribly well and his poetry is of predominantly historical and technical interest. Yet, he has had his followers in the 20th century in the form of Leavis and Empson who credit his poems with complexity and variation3. The 19th century view of his poetry as tedious, however, dwells. Back then, W L Bowles referred to Pope’s poetry as being akin to "a game of cards", and even this seems unduly generous.

The rise of the novel after 1740 as good as ended the tradition of epic poetry as espoused by Milton and Spenser. More than this, it diminished the number of writers choosing to write only or predominantly in verse. Dr Samuel Johnson’s "London" (1738) and sporadically written other poems in English and Latin are interesting but not as compelling as his prose. Until the later part of the 18th century, in fact, poets were people to write about, not to be. This was not least due to the fact that there was no money in writing poetry and certainly no patrons. This Johnson found out to his cost, living in poverty writing (very fine) hack journalism for magazines such as "The Idler" for much of his life. It is little surprise then that William Blake, writing at the end of the 18th century, published and illustrated his own poetry. Described as ‘mystical’, this was written in long lines of violently inspired verse and is quite unlike anything before or since. His personal mythology fills his Book of Thel, the more famous Songs of Innocence in 1789, and is present in his Songs of Experience (1794) that contains some of his more approachable verse. At the time, though, Blake did not find an audience for his work. It was only as the new vanguard of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth began to compare him favourably to Scott and Byron that his positive reputation started to take shape.

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