Abolitionism in popular culture: “Am I not a man and a brother?”

History of religious abolitionism

“‘Am I not a man and a brother?’”

This legendary quote forms the inscription of a popular, eighteenth century anti-slavery medallion produced by the nonconformist lawyer Josiah Wedgewood. This relic delivers, together with the contemporary abolitionist literature, a testimony of the abolitionist movement during the eighteenth and nineteenth century within the world’s most dominant colonial power: Britain. This anti-slavery movement was instigated by economic, social, political and – remarkably – by religious incentives. During the abolitionist movement, various biblical arguments were used by abolitionists to illustrate that both slavery and the slave trade were immoral practices which could not be justified on Christian grounds. According to their religious discourse, Africans were made in the image of the Christian God, and were thus equal to any man on earth. Additionally, in their struggle against the slave trade they also pointed out that Africa could trade with Europe in products, instead of human beings. Nonetheless, we must also remark that, according to European colonizers and clergymen, specific interpretations of Biblical passages also justified the enslavement of African people.

Even before the peak of the abolitionist movement during the nineteenth century, the first anti-slavery voices could be heard loud and clear by a religious group known as the Quakers, in 1688. These seventeenth century Christian abolitionist Quakers were the first to denounce the use of African-American population as slaves, and this through the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery. This petition was drafted in Pennsylvania by Francis Daniel Pastorius and was subsequently signed by three fellow Quakers. Their opposition to slavery was founded by religious motives, as they perceived slavery as an unjust practice which did not align with their religious doctrine. Consequently, slave-trade was seen as an un-Christian practice too. Thus, it may be argued that, as slavery went against all the Quakers firmly believed in, their abolitionist opinions were founded by their religious beliefs. This stands in contrast to the Somerset Case (1772) for example, in which English slavery was argued to be illegal within England and Wales on judiciary grounds. Although the accused James Somerset eventually obtained his freedom through the court’s final verdict, the slavery practice would not be abolished. Moreover, it would take about thirty-five years before the slave trade was officially abolished within nineteenth century Britain. In 1807, a bill was officially passed in Parliament for the abolition of slave trade, the slave trafficking still continued until the British slaves ultimately obtained their freedom in 1838, due to the efforts of the anti-slavery society, which was established by William Wiberforce. It is interesting to note that Wiberforce believed that he had been called by the Christian God to put an end to the slave trade. In accordance with the Quakers, Wedgewood’s abolitionist views were also clearly grounded on Christian beliefs.

In this post, we will try to provide you with an overview on how abolitionist writers such as Hannah More and William Blake expressed themselves against the slave trade and slavery with the help of religious, and more specifically Christian arguments. Next to abolitionist poetry we are about to discuss, Wedgewood’s popular anti-slavery medallion, for as this attribute also contained a clear Christian message. In other words, this blog post will draw on the arguments of religious abolitionism against slavery and the slave trade in particular, embedded in literature and abolitionist symbols.

“Am I not a man and a brother?” (The British Museum)


This phrase is a well-known and at the time widely popular inscription on anti-slavery medallions. Slavery was a commonly accepted phenomenon during the eighteenth century. There was a growing awareness, however, of the violence which accompanied slave-trade and the treatment of slaves in general. Gradually, protest arose against the exploitation of slaves. Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson set up the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, supported by the Quaker movement and Josiah Wedgwood. The use of media was very important to reach as many people as possible. Clarkson used pamphlets to spread the word, he collected evidence from the brutality of slavery and the horrible violence the slaves were treated with and published this information in a pamphlet. Josiah Wedgewood published the medallion in the eighteenth century. The medallion was designed not only to spread the message to abolish slavery, but also to encourage people to share their ideals. The medal depicts a shackled slave, on his knees, with the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother”, and the reverse side with “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”. The Christian message of equality is clearly present here, as it resembles the passage Matthew 12:7 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” and Luke 6:31 “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. The medallions were immensely popular during the eighteenth century, in fact, they became a real fashion statement. Ladies would wear them in a bracelet, in a hair pin or some other sort of jewellery. The image was also printed on plates, boxes and other baubles. It became a fashion statement but even so, it promoted the cause of abolishing slavery and creating equal rights for enslaved people. The medium of jewellery is one you would perhaps not expect, but it was quite effective in its purpose of spreading the message. However, despite their best efforts, slavery in Britain was not abolished until 1833.

Hannah More’s “The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation”.

In the discussion of abolitionist poetry, we would like to begin with Hannah More’s “The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation”. It is a prime textual example of religious abolitionism. This poem was published in the Cheap Repository of Moral and Religious Tracts, a series of 114 texts which were aimed at the lower classes. (Damrosch 2002, 239) With this series, More wanted to “improve the habits, and raise the principles of the common people, at a time when their dangers and temptations, moral and political, were multiplied beyond the example of any former period” (More 2010, 6). Four of the Cheap Repository’s tracts promote the abolition of slavery from an Evangelical background. “The Sorrows of Yamba” is one of these four and very clearly tries to convey an Evangelical message next to an abolitionist one. For the purpose of this blog post, we will only deal with the Evangelical angle.
About halfway through the poem (the 21st stanza out of 47), the titular Yamba is on the verge of committing suicide when:

There I met upon the Strand
English Missionary Good;
He had Bible book in hand,
Which poor me no understood. (lines 81-84)

Before this meeting, Yamba had been abducted from her African homeland to serve as a slave for a cruel master in St. Lucia. During the voyage, she had been subjected to extremely degrading atrocities and her child had died of the harsh conditions. Unsurprisingly, she thought all white men were like this, and in such a world she did not want to live any longer. The missionary man was also white, however he saved her and “Soothed and pitied all my woe.” (94) He then taught Yamba how to endure this world, “Talk’d of state when life is o’er, / All from Bible good and true.” (91-92) Once she is converted, Yamba spreads the evangelical message herself:

O ye slaves whom Massas beat,
Ye are stained with guilt within;
As ye hope for Mercy sweet,
So forgive your Massas’ sin. (113-116)

With the help of her newfound religion, Yamba is able to forgive her master for his cruelty and thus finds the strength to live on.
As we have stated, “The Sorrows of Yamba” is an abolitionist poem. While the Evangelical angle may at first seem to defend slavery and teach slaves how to endure it, the last eight stanzas disprove this entirely. Yamba’s greatest wish is “that Afric might be free,” (160) which will only be achieved if the colonisers stop their exploitation:

Cease, ye British Sons of murder!
Cease from forging Afric’s chain:
Mock your Saviour’s name no further,
Cease your savage lust of gain. (161-164)

As Yamba has learned the Christian ways, she understands that the slave trade and exploitation of her homeland violate the rules of this religion. Thus, Christianity is used as an argument against slavery.

William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy”

William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” may also be perceived as an abolitionist poem, Richard M. Kain and Wylie Sypher most certainly did. They both only shortly mention the poem in its abolitionist context, but it is most certainly worth noting that Kain calls the poem “the finest poem of the abolitionist movement” (111) and Sypher mentions it in a list of the “few unquestionably beautiful poems [that] were written in the anti-slavery tradition” (157). Why is it that these authors regard “The Little Black Boy” as an abolitionist poem? Well, let us first look at the content of the poem. It tells the story of a black child, who struggles with his identity, in the first stanza he says that “I am black, but O! my soul is white;” (2), and “But I am black as if bereav’d of light” (4). This emphasizes that the little boy realises there is a difference between races, and that being black carries a negative connotation. He thinks he will only be loved once he is of the same skin colour as the white English boy, when he says “And be like him, and he will then love me” (28). The little boy feels he is not loved because of his being different. But the boy’s mother said to him that underneath God’s light, everyone and everything receives “comfort in morning, joy in the noonday” (12). Everyone is equal underneath His light, and He does consider those with a dark complexion any less than those with a white one. Skin colours “are but a cloud, and like a shady grove” (16). The poem continues with saying that, when the boys will go to heaven, the clouds will vanish and they will be alike. “When I from black, and he from white cloud free” (23) implies that, in heaven and with God, skin-colour is of no importance, the outside is of no importance and everyone will be alike.
When one looks at this text from an abolitionist point of view, one can say that Blake considers everyone to be alike and equal, in a typical Christian point of view. In that train of thought, one can argue that he consequently disapproves of the use of black slaves because they are not in any way inferior to others, thus may not be exploited as if they were inferior and savage. In the eyes of God, everyone is the same, and everyone should be thus treated. With neighbourly love, and respect.

In conclusion, we can state that Wedgewood’s popular anti-slavery medallion was designed not only to spread the message to abolish slavery, but also to encourage people to share their ideals in public. The inscriptions “Am I not a man and a brother” and “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” of this popular attribute clearly show that Wedgewood – in his fight against slavery and the slave trade – was inspired by the Christian ideal of equality. Similarly, Hannah More’s “The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation” also contains a religious abolitionist message, as the converted slave Yamba – who is the main character of this abolitionist poem – articulates the idea that both the slave trade and exploitation of her homeland actually violate the rules of the Christian religion. In accordance with More’s poem, there is also a strong suggestion that William Blake’s view within “The Little Black Boy” also aligned with that of contemporary abolitionists for he strongly supported the Christian ideal of equality amongst all human beings. Subsequently, Blake might thus have disapproved of the exploitation of African slaves on a Christian ground.


Bea Wauters
Kate Luysterborg
Tom Cornelis
An-Sophie Fontaine


We all had great pleasure participating in this course. By way of thanks for all the interesting lectures and the chance to share thoughts and discussions on eighteenth-century subjects, we would like to end on a humorous note:



AN. Bible Geocoding. Openbible.info. Web. Last accessed 15 December 2012. <www.openbible.info>

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Project Gutenberg. Web. Last accessed 12 December 2012 <http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1058254&pageno=1&gt;

Damrosch, David; Dettmar, Kevin J.H.; Henderson Heather; Baswell, Christopher.          Perspectives: the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. in: The Longman

Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2: Romantics to 20th Century, New York: Longman, 2002.

Kain, Richard M . The Problem of Civilization in English Abolition Literature, 1772-1808. in: Philological Quarterly 15 (1936), pp.103-25.

National Archives, The. Slavery Abolition Act 1833. The Official Home of revised enacted UK Legislation. Web. Last accessed 15 December 2012. <http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Will4/3-4/73&gt;

More, Hannah. The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain and Other Tales. Project Gutenberg. Web. Last accessed 7 December 2012. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31697/31697- h/31697 h.htm#the_shepherd_of_salisbury_plain>

Powers, E. The Newsworthy Somerset Case: Repercussions in Virginia. Research History.org. Web. Last accessed 13 December 2012. <http://research.history.org/Historical_Research/Research_Themes/ThemeEnslave/Somerset.cfm&gt;

Reddie, Richard. Atlantic slave trade and abolition. BBC.CO.UK. Web. Last accessed 14 December 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/history/slavery_1.shtml&gt;

Sypher, Wylie . Guinea’s Captive Kings: British Anti-Slavery Literature of the Eighteenth Century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1942.


RichardsonThis week we have reached Richardson’s novel Pamela, or virtue rewarded, the sole novel on this course’s reading list. For those who have not gone through the reading experience themselves, we will first introduce you shortly to the main narrative and the most important themes in this novel. A few key elements will be more elaborately discussed further and we hope we can convince every one of the novel’s highly dubious status concerning its moral.

The protagonist of Pamela, or virtue rewarded is Pamela, a fifteen year old servant who shares her life-story through letters and diary entries. The main narrative deals with Mr B who tries to seduce Pamela, but she shows determination to refuse him. The novel is correctional and Mr B evolves to finally propose marriage to Pamela, thus having gained an interest in both her mind and body, rather than merely her body. Pamela then attempts to adapt to high society and builds up a successful relationship with her husband. There are a number of themes we can distinguish in the novel, the most important ones are love, virtue, money, gender and class distinctions.

Different notions of love are distinguished in this ‘love story’.  Pamela engages in familial love towards her parents, in her letters and continuously throughout her writing. Sisterly love is found between Pamela and Mrs Jervis, who share a deep friendship. The false love of Mr B for Pamela  finally transforms into true love hereby granting a ‘fairy-tale-ending’.

Pamela is above all very much concerned with the preservation of her virtue, which she keeps on repeating constantly. While Mr B wants to fulfil his ‘needs’, Pamela continues to refuse any offers of money or goods in exchange for sexual pleasures, therefore keeping herself virtuous. The moral of the novel would be that this virtuous behaviour turns out to be rewarded, since Mr B loves Pamela all the more for her consistency in the end.

The notion of money in the novel is very ambiguous. We most certainly link this to Mr B who tries to persuade Pamela to give up her virtue in return for money, clothes and jewellery, and furthermore bribes and manipulates everyone else around him. However, Pamela’s attitude towards money and material objects in general is not always straightforward.

Pamela is continuously stressing how poor her parents are which supposedly prides her. This sharply distinguishes her from  her master, who is evidently better off. Between the two there is an enormous gap, since their class differences separate them. The gender difference complicates their relationship even further since Pamela is powerless in comparison to her master.

Preface: by the editor

The first two editions of Pamela were published anonymously. The title page stated Richardson to be the printer of the book – he was a successful printer and printed all his own novels – but the letters were supposedly found and edited by an anonymous editor. This contributed to the alleged authenticity of the letters as a “found manuscript”  and constituted the figure of Pamela as a soap opera-like character that people could really identify with. Since she was put forward  to be an example of good behaviour and virtue, it was necessary that as  many readers as possible could identify with her. When Pamela was first published, however, it not only evoked a wave of admiration and swooning amongst its esteemed readers, it also inspired a series of parodies and what were, according to Samuel Richardson, misreadings of the novel. Richardson was unpleased to learn that part of his audience doubted Pamela’s good intentions, her sincerity and even her virtue. Highly upset about these interpretations of his work, Richardson edited the next editions of Pamela. He continuously attempted to guide the reader through the novel and control the conclusions that he thought should be drawn after reading this work. He added a preface that stated which moral values the reader should read into Pamela. He also enclosed a summary of the letters that the book consists of, stressing the main issues they touch upon.Additionally, he altered the manner of speech of the protagonist, Pamela, after having received  comments that since she was to be an example for young ladies, she should speak and write in a way that was to be admired by everyone. All his attempts at controlling the readers’ interpretations were in vain: the interpretation of the novel remains a controversial topic today.


Pamela’s letters serve as a catalyst to reform both the character of Mr B and the reader of the novel, who is supposed to evolve with Mr B as he reads them. Within the novel, these letters provide Pamela with a means to pour out her heart and seek the much-needed guidance of her parents. She uses her letters as a platform to record her true feelings and her version of the encounters between herself and her master. To Mr B the letters are items of both frustration and admiration. He increasingly values Pamela, who wrote the letters, but is at the same time slightly tormented by the fact that he cannot control what she writes. When she is imprisoned, the letters evolve into diary entries. This symbolises how she increasingly loses freedom and is therefore forced to rely upon herself as an authoritative figure more and more.

 Pamela’s virtue revealed

 Pamela was intended to function as a communal code of conduct or, at least, provide guidelines in terms of letter-writing. There seem to be a number of problems in Pamela’s behaviour that indicate multiple possible interpretations of the novel’s moral, therefore many works have been written as a response to Richardson’s. Some of the works inspired by Pamela were probabilistic sequels, whereas others gave proof of a mocking undertone. A well-known work in this respect is An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews, written by Henry Fielding. Shamela was published less than a year after Richardson’s Pamela and offers a satirical version of the latter. It represents the self-proclaimed real account of the events which took place in the novel by Richardson. Shamela, which is Pamela’s so-called real name, is said to be the actual seducer instead of Squire Booby, who represents the character of Mr B, such as is illustrated in the next section:

(…) ‘thank your Honour for your good Opinion,’ says I and then he took me by the Hand, and I pretended to be shy: ‘Laud,’ says I, ‘Sir, I hope you don’t intend to be rude’; ‘no’, says he, ‘my Dear’, and then he kissed me, ’till he took away my breath—-and I pretended to be Angry (…) [Fielding, eBook]

By rewriting Richardson’s novel, Fielding reveals his frustrations with the hypocrisy of the main female character. Pamela is represented as the very essence of chastity and humility, but as becomes clear in Shamela, her behaviour is nothing but false pretence. She projects a virtuous image of herself in order to seduce Squire Booby and climb the social ladder. In the introduction to Shamela, Fielding explains what inspired him to write a satire:

An apology for the life of Mrs Shamela Andrews. In which, the many notorious falsehoods and misrepresentations of a book called ‘Pamela’ are exposed and refuted; and all the matchless arts of that young politician, set in a true and just light. [Fielding, eBook]

Pamela repeatedly feels the need to express her pride in respect to her parents’ poverty and her own virtuousness. According to her, poor living conditions are to be preferred above selling one’s virtue to the highest bidder. What is strange, however, is the frequency at which she repeats this matter over and over. She regularly inserts people’s words of praise for herself and at times this comes across as presumptuous such as the section below, which originates from one of Pamela’s letters, illustrates:

She told me I was a pretty wench, and that every body gave me a very good character, and loved me; and bid me take care to keep the fellows at a distance; and said, that I might do, and be more valued for it, even by themselves. [Richardson, 12]

Another example of Pamela’s need to justify her actions and acquire praise for them occurs at the moment when she is allowed to leave the house of her late mistress. With her future life in mind, she divides her belongings into three piles. One pile is consecrated to gifts of her former mistress, a second one consists of the luxurious presents her master offered her and the final pile contains her own personal belongings. Almost dramatically Pamela declares that she cannot take any objects from the first two piles with her and strongly emphasizes to be proud of her poor origins. Despite her affirmed pride, she does take a few gifts with her for so-called practical reasons. The reason why Pamela does not take more presents with her seems to be her concern for what other people might think: ‘(…) for poor folks are envious as well as rich (…)’ [Richardson, 63]. Pam 1VII: Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B. 1743-4 by Joseph Highmore 1692-1780Furthermore, Pamela proves to be very materialistic throughout the novel. She constantly stresses that here poor origins and low status are something to be proud of, IX: Pamela is Married 1743-4 by Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 it  appears as if she needs to convince herself of that exactly. Her materialistic attitude is apparent in her behaviour regarding clothes and appearance in general. On all occasions Pamela tries her very best to wear the nicest clothes she thinks suitable for the occasion. Not only nowadays do we consider her interestin fine clothing  to be not so virtuous and innocent at all, but Mr B implies that in those days her attitude was ambiguous too:

‘who is it you put your tricks upon? I was resolved never to honour you again with my notice; and so you must disguise yourself, to attract me, and yet pretend, like an [sic] hypocrite as you are-’ ‘I beseech you sir,’ said I, ‘do not impute disguise and hypocrisy to me. I have put on no disguise.’ ‘What a plague’ said he, for that was his word, ‘do you mean then by this dress?’ [Richardson, 90].

The main cause of Pamela’s virtuous behaviour is her Christian upbringing. God appears to be the only higher power to which she submits. Pamela claims that her main concern is to remain chaste, so that her soul would not be lost. She resolutely wards off Mr B.’s impure intentions, which ultimately results in him asking for her hand in marriage. However, as indicated there are some serious flaws in Pamela’s behaviour that clash with religious ideals.


The moral lesson to be deduced seems to be that chaste behaviour leads to a marriage with a wealthy man. Pamela’s virtue is rewarded, because her master realises the errors of his ways after reading her letters and starts developing romantic feelings for her instead of mere lust. Nevertheless, the implied guidelines are far from those in Christian faith. In Pamela the ultimate achievement seems to be a beneficial marriage, whereas, in terms of religion, it would be to obtain a place in heaven. Therefore it could be said that the intended morality of the story is somewhat overshadowed by a materialistic fairy-tale-style ending, like Cinderella but with a touch of Beauty and the Beast. Another anti-Christian element in Pamela is to be found in a not always subtle sexual undertone. The sole purpose of Mr B.’s flirtatious actions towards his servant is to lure her into profligate behaviour and despite the didactic purpose of inserting such behaviour, its presence would be disapproved of by religious standards. According to Christianity, the body is to be erased until marriage, after which sexuality should solely serve as a means to procreation. To make matters worse, Pamela seems to be highly concerned with wearing fine clothes in order to please her master, whom she still occasionally compliments despite his initial vile behaviour. In short, the intended morality in Pamela is at times ambiguous, because the authority of Pamela as an example for virtue is repeatedly undermined. The faith she invests in God is not represented in her strong wish to be accepted by members of the higher social classes, nor in her materialistic tendencies.


Fielding, Henry. An apology for the life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews: In which, the many notorious falsehoods and misrepresentations [sic] of a book called Pamela, are exposed and refuted; and all the matchless arts of that young politician, set in a true … light. …Oxford: Printed for A. Dodd, 1741. Print. digitalized: 3 Oct. 2007.

Hammerschmidt, Sören. “Week 11 The Media Event.” Ghent University. Auditorium M, Rozier. 5 Dec. 2012. Lecture.





Richardson, Samuel. Pamela, or virtue rewarded. New York: Penguin, 1980. Print.

William Blake, The Artist

As a nine year old, William Blake claimed he saw a “tree filled with angels”, moreover, he never outgrew or denounced these visions. His favourite artists were those unappreciated in their time, such as Michelangelo. So it is rather obvious that William Blake was not one likely to conform to the norm. William Blake was a true artistic rebel, commenting on contemporary society and placing himself deliberately outside of the literary scene. In the eighteenth century, most authors had very little control of their works as they were printed and sold. William Blake, however, decided to create his own illustrations and print his own works, as a result he kept full control.


The process of creation followed by production was very important to Blake, bearing in mind that he created a concept, for which there had to be a balance between writing and illustrations. The entire work had to be his, as he envisioned a concept and not a mere book. His name on the frontispiece functioned as a signature, similar to a painter signing his work. He was printer and author, thus explicitly stating he was sole creator of this work. William Blake produced his books as a form of art, very luxurious pieces, they were not intended for the book market.

The fact that his books were not meant for the book market, is also made clear by how they were printed. The most economical method of printing at that time was typesetting, for which woodcuts were used. Ink was poured on top of the woodcuts, on the raised letters, then it was pressed on the paper. This form was mostly used by printers at that time. However, there was a different manner, which was more laborious. Copperplates were engraved with a design, poured over with ink and after the ink had been wiped off, it was pressed on paper. The indentations left their mark on the paper. Copperplate-printing enabled the printer to add a lot more detail.

blake_acidWilliam Blake even invented a new form of copperplate printing. He sought to improve the intaglio manner, in which the design was scratched onto a waxed surface before being engraved deeper or a needle was used to map it out into an acid-resistant coating before pouring acid onto the plate. Therefore, he came up with relief etching, whereby the design is painted onto the copperplate with acid-resistant varnish, leaving the unpainted surface to be eaten away and the rest in relief to be printed. Moreover, this had to be done in mirror image. So, it is clear that this was a very laborious process, which could not be done for mass production. Each page had to be etched separately into a copperplate, that lasted only for about 1000 copies. Therefore, Blake focused on producing  individual copies for individual and rich patrons.

Blake made the work even more laborious and time consuming by making extensive use of colours which had to be printed consecutively and separately. True to his nature of a media transcending artist mixing artist categories like painter, printer and poet (cf. supra), themes found within his poetic word sculpting in his poems also shine trough in each individually conceptualised and realised edition where the coloration is used as a supplementary tool to further the themes addressed by and in his works. Corroborating this is a comparison of differences between several editions of The songs of Innocence where coloration differences can be seen to signify the real world interplay between the major themes addressed within the work.

Where the French Revolution was first hailed by British poets, this quickly shifted after the rise of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins in France, where the so called Reign of Terror was responsible for the mass killings of thousands. A reflection of this can be seen in editions realised around that time where first, in line with the positive way the revolution was seen, bright colours overflowed the title page. But when times changed and the French Revolution totally became synonymous with the Age of the Guillotine and all ideals seemed to be unrealised, dark colours start taking over the title page.


As a true multidisciplinary Blake takes to heart a role frequently envisioned by poets and other artists alike; not solely portraying and representing but by their works alerting people to the world around them.

Importance of Blake’s illustrations for specific poems

The Clod and the Pebble

“The Clod and the Pebble”, a poem from Songs of Experience, is not part of an obvious pair of poems. Moreover, it seems to incorporate both innocence and experience, and demonstrates Blake’s typical contrasting values in one poem.

At first the poem seems to balance both points of view, as the clod and the pebble get an equal amount of lines to express their opinion. The word “but” in line 6 is the turning point from the Clod’s argument to that of the Pebble. The clod expresses an argument of innocence, while the pebble utters a more experienced view. The fact that Blake selects the latter to end the debate with may show his tendency to lean towards favoring that argument, but he may just as well be respecting the chronology (first innocence, then experience – within the different versions of these books, poems sometimes were moved around). However, as both concluding lines of the arguments seem rather balanced, he is as well forcing the reader to make up his own mind.

At the same time, Blake was not just giving textual clues, but visual clues as well. Since Blake was responsible for the engravings illuminating his poems, he could easily “guide” the reader to one opinion or another trough, for instance, meticulous selection of the colours used.


As for the imagery illustrating this poem, it is the environment in which the clod and the pebble find themselves which is depicted here, the clod nor the pebble can be found. The fact that neither of them are shown could imply that they are merely representing abstract ideas.

Blake shows us quite a peaceful scenery, the cattle drinking, and the frogs playing in the brook. Even though the pebble utters quite pessimistic thoughts, there is no explicit visual show of a thread whatsoever.

In other versions, the colours change, this is shown most explicitely in a 1795 version:


Only by changing towards more dark colours, the poem gets a much more gloomy feel to it, leaving the reader with the idea that, even though the stanzas are balanced, the pebble’s judgement is the one favoured by the author (in contrast to the 1794 version shown above, with its more lively and light colours, which seems to emphasize the clod’s opinion of love.)

Later versions, such as a 1825 version:


Once again show a more peaceful and balanced imagery. Blake constantly played around with the colours of his images, switching from light to dark and back, and as such adding more possible interpretations every time he finished another edition.

The Chimney Sweeper

In The Chimney Sweeper, Blake talks about little children –they were the only ones small enough- that had to sweep out chimneys. This sort of child labor was actually very common in 18th and 19th century England. The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence (1789) has a first person narration, the viewpoint is that of a little child sweeper. The ‘weep! weep! weep! weep!’ of the third line evokes a very strong sympathetic feeling with the narrator. “But just because the misery is so concretely realized, the affirmation of visionary joy is more triumphant than in any other poem of the series.” (E.D. Hirsch: 1964)


Blake is definitely a man of contrasts (already indicated in the subtitle: “Shewing the two contrary states of the human soul”) and his mastership in making them ‘work’ becomes apparent in this poem. The poem derives its Songs of Innocence copy B, 1789, 1794 (British Museum): genius and strength from the contrast between the woeful, horrible job in real life and the joyful bliss in the dream. It is the latter part that Blake focused on when he made the illustration that accompanies The Chimney Sweeper. Underneath the actual words one can see the ‘Angel’ figure (line 13) that is pulling a boy (probably ‘Tom Dacre’: line 5) from the earth (or ‘coffin’: line 14) and thus setting him free to go ‘down a green plain, leaping, laughing’. It is this dreamlike setting that fills the young boy with warmth when he has to get up in the morning. Although the child sweeper has a pitiful existence (his mother is dead and he has a horrible job), the poem is eventually one of hope; this feeling is definitely enhanced by the illustration.

The Chimney Sweeper from The Songs of Experience (1794) seems less hopeful. Here the narrator asks the sweep to tell him his story. So, again, most of the poem is told from the child’s point of view. Unlike in the previous poem, the mother here is still alive. Still, the child is all alone in the snow, because its parents “are up to the church to pray” (line 4). This scene of loneliness is brilliantly evoked by Blake’s illustration: one can see “A little black thing among the snow” (line 1) and apart from the snow and the houses, there’s no one else, the streets are completely deserted. The child, then, is all alone “to sing the notes of woe” (line 8).

songsie.b.p45-37.300This poem is, in our opinion, directed against the rigid hierarchy of the Anglican church: “God & his priest & King”(line 11) “make up a heaven of our misery”. The authoritative figures tell the less fortunate they have to grateful for the life God has given them, moreover, they ‘soothe’ the poor by explaining that they will achieve heaven if they work hard enough. The sweeper is, in fact, happy, but not because of the comforting lies the churchmen tells it: “what makes the sweep happy in his misery is not that sinister delusion, Heaven, but the strength of life that is in him.” (E.D. Hirsch: 1964). This is explained in the second stanza.

Again, the illustration of the dirty, gritty sweeper full of soot with is mouth open, seemingly crying “weep, weep” (line 2) is an enhancement of the ideas formulated in the poem itself.

Hence, it is clear that “[t]o read a Blake poem without the pictures is to miss something important: Blake places words and images in a relationship that is sometimes mutually enlightening and sometimes turbulent, and that relationship is an aspect of the poem’s argument.” (Norton Anthology)


Eaves, M. & Essick, R.N. & Viscomi, J. (2012) Works in the William Blake Archive. Viewed on 29/11/2012, http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/indexworks.htm?java=yes

Greenblatt, S. (2006) The Norton Anthology: English Literature Volume D. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Hagstrum, J.H. (1964). William Blake Poet and Painter. London: William Clowes and Sons.

Hirsch, E.D. (1964). Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Clinton: The Colonial Press

Illustrations and The Seasons by James Thomson


James Thomson

Thomson, James (1700–1748), poet, was born on 11 September 1700 in the village of Ednam, Roxburghshire, the son of Thomas Thomson (c.1666–1716), a Presbyterian minister, and Beatrix Trotter (d. 1725), who was distantly related to the noble house of Hume. James was the fourth child of Thomas and Beatrix, in a family of four boys and five girls. Eight weeks after his birth his father was admitted minister of Southdean, close to the English–Scottish border. Here the future poet of The Seasons received his first impressions of nature.

In Scotland

Thomson perhaps attended the parish school in Southdean before being sent, about 1712, to the ancient grammar school that was housed in a transept of the abbey church at Jedburgh. He was a mediocre scholar, but began to write poetry under the encouragement of two men—the scholar, poet, farmer, and Presbyterian minister Robert Riccaltoun (1691–1769), and Sir William Bennet (d. 1729), a whig laird who was also a patron of Allan Ramsay (1686–1758). In autumn 1715 Thomson entered the College of Edinburgh. He completed his arts course at Edinburgh (Latin, Greek, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and natural science) by 1719, but did not choose to graduate. He entered Divinity Hall, Edinburgh, as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, supported by bursaries from the Jedburgh presbytery from 1720 to 1724. Thomson’s first published poems appeared in the Edinburgh Miscellany (January 1720); one of them, ‘Of a Country Life’, a short georgic distantly modelled on John Gay’s Rural Sports, anticipates in little The Seasons.

To London: Winter, Summer

Thomson went to London almost certainly with literary ambitions, thinking of English ordination only as a last resort, but his first employment was as tutor to the four-year-old son of the poet Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning (1697–1732. He soon made the acquaintance of English poets, including Richard Savage, Aaron Hill, John Dyer, and Alexander Pope, and influential expatriate Scots. The most notable works from his first year in England were early versions of a ‘Hymn on Solitude’ and Winter, a blank-verse poem of nature description with devotional overtones

Winter was published in April 1726 by John Millan, who, it was said, paid 3 guineas for the copy; it was dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton, speaker of the House of Commons, who tardily gave the author a present of 20 guineas. In June a second, revised and enlarged edition appeared, with a preface in which Thomson disparages satire and advocates sublime verse on lofty themes. By then he was writing Summer and had left Lord Binning’s household in order to act as tutor to a young gentleman at Watts’s academy in Little Tower Street. Summer was published in February 1727 and was dedicated to George Bubb Dodington—like Compton, a prominent whig politician, but a far more generous and enduring patron.

Shortly afterwards Thomson left Watts’s academy, hoping to live by his pen. He acquired more patrons, notably Frances Seymour, countess of Hertford, and Thomas Rundle, future bishop of Derry, who introduced him to Charles Talbot (1685–1737), solicitor-general. From 1727 Thomson was a regular summer guest at the country seats of Dodington, Talbot, and Lord and Lady Hertford. On his first visit to Eastbury, Dodington’s mansion in Dorset, he met Voltaire, who later wrote of Thomson, ‘I discovered in him a great genius and a great Simplicity, I liked in him the poet and the true philosopher, I mean the Lover of Mankind’ (McKillop, 212).

Spring and The Seasons

In January 1728 Thomson issued proposals to publish The Seasons by subscription. This did not prevent him from publishing Spring, dedicated to Lady Hertford, on his own account in June 1728, apparently with little success, because in January 1729 the bookseller Andrew Millar bought up remainder copies and reissued them over his own imprint.

The queen headed a glittering list of subscribers to The Seasons in June 1730. The subscription quarto edition, which was also sold to the public through the trade, was printed by Thomson’s friend Samuel Richardson and illustrated by engravings after William Kent. The poem now included ‘Autumn’, dedicated to Arthur Onslow, Compton’s successor as speaker, and a concluding ‘Hymn’, as well as revised, enlarged texts of the three previously published ‘Seasons’. The general tendency of the revisions, despite the addition of a pantheistic ‘Hymn’, is to make the poem more secular; it is more excursive, patriotic, and overtly whiggish than the earlier texts.

By the middle of 1730, five years after leaving Scotland, Thomson had achieved a measure of fame and fortune. He had received royal notice as playwright and poet, he enjoyed the friendship and respect of men of wit, and the support of some discriminating patrons; his Seasons had attracted 457 subscriptions at 1 guinea or more each.

Last years

Having overheated himself walking one summer evening from central London to Hammersmith, he took a boat for the rest of the journey to Kew and caught a chill, from which he had not fully recovered before he exposed himself once more to the evening dews. This brought on a tertian fever and then a malignant nervous fever, from which he died on 27 August 1748, at his house in Kew Foot Lane. Thomson’s remains were buried under a plain stone in the north-west corner of St Mary’s Church, Richmond, on 29 August.

The Seasons is considered by many to be Thomson’s masterpiece, it was hugely popular both back in 1730 and even still today. The Seasons celebrates the magnificence and harmony of nature as a manifestation of the Supreme Being. It embodies literary, philosophical, and theological ideas characteristic of the eighteenth century, yet it also prefigures the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, particularly in its depictions of storms and wilderness. It enjoyed extraordinary popularity and influence in both centuries, and its impressive, picturesque landscapes made it a favorite text for illustration.The most popular illustration perhaps is the scene of Amelia’s death in Thonson’s ‘Summer’. This image has been produced time and time again, it is full of raw emotion, Celadon has just had his love struck down by thunder.

During the eighteenth century there was a move away from context and toward the texts that accompanied the a literary piece. Book covers could be read as a text in themselves, the book trade really took off in the eighteenth century. It was at this time booksellers began to collaborate so that they could publish better illustrated books and more impressive covers. Why did booksellers collaborate? To put it simply, money, they wanted to make more unique copies so they could sell more and charge more.


Celadon and Amelia: H. Fuseli, W.Bromley – 1801

Picture A,

This is the kind of illustration you would find in the earlier publishing’s that would accompany the texts. This was a very costly process, the correct kind plate must be purchased, it must be brought to a specialist engraver, the brought to a printer, and could only be printed so many times before the plate would break. The whole process would cost about six hundred pounds today.


Celadon and Amelia: W.Woollett and R.Wilson – 1766

Picture B,

Some illustrations would be produced independent of the text. This picture for example is bigger than an A1 page. Far to big to be put with the text even though it still represents the Amelia’s death. A painting like this could cost upward of ten thousand pounds today.

Sixty years after The Seasons was published it was still incredibly popular and it was still being reproduced, republished illustrations still being made, but now color had been produced and this opened a whole new range of colored illustrations to accompany the texts. These were extremely expensive, an illustrated copy could cost anywhere in the region of twenty five thousand pounds. The Seasons had a massive influence on the consumer market at the time, pocket watches, dresses, hats, even cups would have the illustrations from The Seasons on them. There were ballets, recitals and even instrumentals dedicated to the Thomson’s work.


  • “The Seasons.” Masterplots, Fourth Edition. Ed. Laurence W. Mazzeno. Salem Press, Inc., 2010. eNotes.com. 21 Nov, 2012 http://www.enotes.com/seasons-salem/
  • Chapman, T. “”The Seasons: By James Thomson; with His Life, an Index, and Glossary. . and Notes to The .” Archive.org. Ed. T Chapman. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://archive.org/stream/seasonsbyjamest00thomgoog/seasonsbyjamest00thomgoog_djvu.txt&gt;.
  • Hilbert H. Campbell, James Thomson (1700-1748): An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Editions and the Important Criticism (New York: Garland, 1976).
  • McKillop, The Background of Thomson’s “Seasons” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1942).
  • Cohen, The Unfolding of “The Seasons” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970).
  • http://www.grosvenorprints.com

The Representation of Nature in 18th century British Arts

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey captured the attention of multiple artists in the eighteenth century. It is a ruined church which can be found on the bank of the river Wye in Monmouthshire. Wordsworth rendered Tintern Abbey famously in his poem, but the picturesque qualities of the Wye Valley also lead to paintings by Gilpin and Turner. Some centuries later, the abbey still manages to attract artists: the American poet Allen Ginsberg wrote his poem Wales Visitation at Tintern Abbey, after dropping some acid. The Wye Valley, and the pure, unspoiled nature in general, caused a great influence on artists. In different arts, going from poetry till the art of painting, nature is one of the most important themes in the eighteenth century. First of all, the role nature will be discussed, and more precisely that of the Wye Valley, in the writings of the Wordsworths. Following that, we will find out how nature is represented in some famous eighteenth century paintings, focusing on the painter John Constable.

 “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798”

William Wordsworth

 In his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798” Wordsworth returns after five years with his sister, Dorothy, from a trip remembering his previous excursions to this area that meant so much to him. He reflects back on the emotional feelings he experienced during that first time and how he enjoyed the landscape. However, during this last visit, he realizes he has matured and cannot go back to that moment in the past. That is why he makes a mirror image of his younger sister Dorothy, as he teaches her how to look at nature the way he used to look at it. In doing so, he provides himself with those past joyous feelings as he fondly remembers them now, while thanking his sister for bringing him to his former place of residence and student years once more.

 Tintern Abbey is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems. The poem can be seen as a record of the different stages in his poetic career. In the poem, the speaker sees Tintern Abbey and the surrounding valley from a hill. The reader is confronted with a sense of overview. The conception of nature and the composition of the landscape in it, can be compared with that of Constable, a contemporary painter, who will be discussed a bit further. In the poem, Wordsworth connects the human world with the divine world through the world of Nature. He finds the unity of the universe in the Wye valley. In this stage of Wordsworth’s life, he conceptualises nature as some sort of religion, and ‘the universal human malady in mind and heart could be cured only by Nature’s “holy plan”’. This higher power attributed to nature is clearly visible in the following lines (l. 107-110):

Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

 In the poem, there are only traces of people, but not people itself. That lack of figures is part of the motive of representing the landscape as wild, untouched and desolate. The traces (hedge-rows, farms, smoke) are visible in the next few lines (l. 11-19):

These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

 Wordsworth also mentions the Hermit. The Hermit can be regarded as a symbol for solitude and the integration of the human presence in the landscape (l. 22-23):

Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

Wordsworth’s influences

Wordsworth writings clearly reflect his love for nature and his relation with her. Most often his writings notify the beauty of nature as opposed to the horror of nature, in a few of his writings. The poet seems to have a particular affection towards nature and therefore presumable uses many adjectives to vividly describe all his perceptions of nature.

It is pleasurable to read Wordsworth’s poetry as the poet acquaints the reader with the beauty of nature. Wordsworth considered nature to be more than a collection of trees, bushes, hills, streams […] to him nature has personality, almost similar to humans with a power to poetically inspire those who love her. He considers nature as a friend, teacher and guide and claims that he could feel the presence of spirituality in nature like no other poet could.

 P.B. Shelley, in his poem To Wordsworth, calls Wordsworth ‘Poet of Nature,’ as William Hazlitt calls him poet of the mountains, and both these appellations are very appropriate for Wordsworth, because Wordsworth both got his poetic inspiration and materials for his poems from nature. Right from the poems which he wrote in his early years, we find that his poems are suffused with the beauty and descriptions of nature, as if nature followed him like a shadow. (Sarker, 2003: 300)

However, as William spent most of his life living with his sister, Dorothy, it might be reasonable to acknowledge she might have had a considerable influence on his life and writings. Her love and passion for nature is similarly reflected in her writings and as Coleridge puts a strain on her as “her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature”. Both Wordsworth family members seem to find peace and understanding in nature as Dorothy mentions “It was a sight that I could call to mind at any time it was so distinct.” referring to nature in which she could be herself. As William Wordsworth took nature to be his truest friend, so did Dorothy too.

 Nature in Constable’s paintings

 As Wordsworth describes and admires nature in all its glory and aspects in his poem, so has it also been done in the art of painting. John Constable (1776-1837) was one of the first English painters who started painting in the countryside, always trying to capture the landscape of his native region in that one moment. He was not very successful in his own country, but in France he had some following. One of his most known paintings The Hay Wain has had quite an influence on French artists. It has inspired painters such as Eugène Delacroix. Together with William Turner (1775-1851), Constable is acknowledged for his innovation in painting landscapes.

Branch Hill Pond – 1825

Constable is particularly known for his depiction of clouds that symbolize the sublime in his paintings. Wordsworth connects to the divine world through his verbal descriptions of nature, while Constable does this by painting the clouds and pastoral nature that surrounds him. Such as in Branch Hill Pond he presents an everyday image of the Hampstead Heath in which the landscape looks rustic and picturesque. The human entities such as the farm and the cart with the labourers are nestled into the landscape. There is a symbiotic relationship present between nature and humanity. Later on he focused more and more on the ever-changing weather, shown in his extensive collection of cloud studies and landscapes.In Chain Pier for example, Constable makes the weather more dynamic and expressive. It is as if it is possible to feel the wind and rain coming out of the painting. Often there are humans present in Constable’s paintings, or at least traces of human existence, yet nature and landscape are always the biggest entity in the paintings. The humans presence adds to the landscape but never overpowers/controls it.

The Chain Pier – 1827

Dedham Vale – 1828


Wordsworth’s poetry reflects the thematic characteristics of the Romantic period perfectly. Following Rousseau’s conviction that in nature ‘the essential passions of the heart’ could be found in their purest form, his poems show the same interest in nature and escaping to it. However, his poetry is more than just describing nature. He places himself in the landscapes he describes and talks about his own observations and emotions. His poetry is both spontaneous and controlled, comparable with nature itself. Wordsworth believed that the naturalistic state of a person is tranquility and should not be overwhelmed by society. Therefore, nature could be an escape for him.


“An Analysis of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey”. Freehelpstoenglishliterature. Web. 15 November 2012. <http://freehelpstoenglishliterature.blogspot.be/2008/12/analysis-of-wordsworths-tintern-abbey.html&gt;
Barker, Elizabeth E. “John Constable”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 15 November 2012. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jcns/hd_jcns.htm>
Clucas, Thomas. “Ars Gratia Artis”. Exposition. Oxford University, 2010. Web. 15 November 2012. < http://expositionmagazine.com/?p=411&gt;
Constable, John. Branch Hill Pond. 1825. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Constable, John. Dedham Vale. 1828. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Constable John. The Chain Pier. 1827. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Greenblatt, S., et al. The Northon Anthology English Literature: Volume D. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2005. Print.
Heughebaert, H., et al. Artistieke Opvoeding. Wommelgem: Uitgeverij Den Gulden Engel, 1988. Print.
Sarker, Sunil Kumar. A companion to Wordsworth. Delhi: Nice Printing Press. 300-302. 2003. Print.
Teifidancer. “Allen Ginsberg’s – Wales Visitation”. Teifidancerblog. Web. 15 November 2012. <http://teifidancer-teifidancer.blogspot.be/2010/01/allen-ginsbergs-wales-visitation.html&gt;
“Tintern Abbey”. Photograph. The Tintern Village Website. Web. 15 November 2012. <http://www.tintern.org.uk/abbey2.htm&gt;

Alexander Pope and the eighteenth-century garden

The Citadelpark, Ghent’s most well-known public garden, is a perfect combination of ‘natural’ and cultural elements. On a stroll through, you can find statues, Roman-inspired buildings, columns, and a kiosk, but also waterfalls, a lake, trees, ancient ruins and a grotto. The latter may seem natural, but are in fact carefully designed, artificially made, with a watchful eye for detail and variety. The park is a great nineteenth century example of the popular English garden that has its origins in the eighteenth century. However, where the Citadelpark today mostly provides a pleasurable stroll, the gardens in the eighteenth century were much more than that.

Citadelpark, Ghent (youropi.com)

The eighteenth-century garden

At that time, Great Britain was already one of the world’s most influential powers. Most of its revenue came from the colonies with materials such as mining resources, cotton and gold. In the eighteenth century, the British aristocracy started to invest in trading, and consequently gained more money. With these profits they felt an urge to rebuild their estates. To reflect Britain’s new role as a powerful empire, they looked back to ancient Rome and Greece, therefore implying that Britain was the new Rome (Beulens and Claes, 2012). The English garden became true landscapes, with breathtaking open vistas with triumphal arches and winding roads with pleasant shades and small rivers.

The first to successfully mix the Roman style with the contemporary tastes was Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect. He based his work on the Vitruvian principle that architecture should be solid, useful and beautiful. His design is characterized by classical elements such as frontons, columns, symmetry, and friezes, with emphasis on simplicity and geometrical patterns. This type of architecture became known as the Palladian style and was dominant in Europe for the next two centuries. Inigo Jones was the pioneer in England to use Palladio’s design in his architecture and stage designs. The same principles were used to rebuild several cities such as Edinburgh and the City of London (designed by Christopher Wren when the City burned down in 1666).

Villa Foscari La Malcontenta, design by Andrea Palladio (wikipedia.org)

Stowe Garden, Vista (merve-references.blogspot.be)

Stowe Garden, Palladian Bridge (merve-references.blogspot.be)

Harewood House, Garden Terrace, Leeds (guardian.co.uk)

When the British aristocracy started to redesign their estates, they were also inspired by the Palladian style.  Many of them were friends of Alexander Pope, who was not only a poet but also a source of inspiration for landscape designers, being a fervent gardener himself.  Pope, being a Catholic, was not allowed to own property in London, so he bought an estate, Twickenham, just outside the city along the river Thames. His garden was famous and greatly admired. Many people asked him for advice and wanted to contribute to his garden by sending in stones, fossils and minerals from all over Britain. After his death, these things were often stolen by visitors and were kept as souvenirs. Hence, not much of the actual splendour of the garden remains; the only thing left is the Grotto, which is also a pale image of what it used to be. (The exciting news is, however, that the Grotto will soon receive much-needed restoration work and likely be opened to the public eventually.)

Pope’s Grotto (thelondonphile.com)

Pope’s opinion on gardening

Pope is the perfect representative of Augustan poetry, and he uses the same principles when it comes to landscape gardening. The Augustan style takes its inspiration from ancient Rome and Greece, emphasizing elegance, harmony, balance, formal strictness, simplicity and being capable of using Sense (thinking rationally and keeping your emotions under control) (Beulens and Claes, 2012). In his poem Epistle to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, he explains these principles to describe what a perfect garden should be like. He illustrates this by contrasting it with a bad example: the garden of Timon.

“At Timon’s Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out, ‘What sums are thrown away!’
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.” (l. 99-102)

There are three main things that bother Pope about his garden. First of all, a garden should be balanced, which means that people should treat a garden like a “modest fair, nor over-dress, nor leave her wholly bare” (l. 51-52). This means that there should be an equal amount of the ‘natural’ and the cultural. However, the natural is mostly artificial since it is manipulated to make it seem as if it was not man-made. A good designer respects the materials he is working with, and his goal is to improve what is already there. Secondly, a garden needs variety; behind every corner you should find something new that keeps you stimulated. Too much of the same can overwhelm or  bore you:

“On ev’ry side you look, behold the Wall!
No pleasing Intricacies intervene,
No artful wilderness to perplex the scene;
Grove nods at grove, each Alley has a brother,
And half the platform just reflects the other.” (l. 114-118)

Thirdly, a walk through the garden should be a pleasant experience, something which Timon did not achieve, due to a lack of variety. There are, for example, too many slopes, too few places to rest, too little shade, too many open vistas, and too many Roman ornaments:

“The suff’ring eye inverted Nature sees,
Trees cut to Statues, Statues thick as trees,
With here a Fountain, never to be play’d,
And there a Summer-house, that knows no shade.” (l. 119-122)

In short, Timon failed to respect the original natural scenery. His garden is dominated by cultural objects, and too many of the same patterns and decorations. In all of this, he has forgotten to include the natural, which results in a pompous and ostentatious impression.

Function of the garden

As mentioned in the introduction, the garden in the 18th century was aesthetic, but also functional. A walk in a garden was more than just a walk; it was a true experience. Visitors actively participated in the garden, smelling, touching, hearing and watching the scenery change as they walked along the paths. People read poetry to each other, music was played, and fruits or vegetables were cultivated (Bell 1990).

In Windsor Forest, Pope describes another important aspect of garden design. The garden reflects the abilities of its owner; if it is well-proportioned, it means that the owner is capable of Sense. This person knows how to take the golden middle-path: he is rational and balanced in his designs. Windsor Forest is a royal estate and therefore the king or queen should be as balanced and reasonable as his garden. A good land owner makes a good governor.

The poem celebrates the beauty of Windsor Forest, which is a reflection of the golden reign of Queen Anne. With each new king or queen, the garden changed according to his or her political abilities. In times of political disturbance, the garden was imbalanced and chaotic. Queen Anne’s reign, however, was peaceful, balanced, moderate and prosperous.

“Rich Industry sits smiling on the plains,
and Peace and Plenty tell a STUART Reigns. “ (l. 41-42)

Because Queen Anne is moderate and balanced, Windsor Forest has all the qualities of the perfect garden as Pope describes it. Moderation is key to running things the right way, not only in the garden but also in the nation.

“Here earth and water seem to strive again,
Not chaos like together crushed and bruised,
But as the world, harmoniously confused:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, though all things differ, all agree.” (l. 12-16)

Hunting was an important activity in Windsor Forest, which was exclusively practiced by the royal family. This might be interpreted as a reflection of British colonialism, as Pope cautiously suggests in lines 105-110:

“Thus (if small things we may with great compare)
When Albion sends her eager sons to war,
Some thoughtless town, with ease and plenty blessed,
Near, and more near, the closing lines invest;
Sudden they seize th’amazed, defenseless prize
And high in air Britannia’s standard flies” (l. 105-110)

Colonialism was associated with bringing civilization and improvement to the world. Being able to improve your garden is transferred to improving an entire country. However, the colonizer is associated with a hunter here, and there is a certain aspect of violence in Pope’s description of the hunt. Pope may have questioned colonial violence, but we cannot be completely sure of this.

“See! From the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings;
Short is his joy! He feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.” (l. 111-114)

In this quote, it does seem like Pope makes a strong association between the native Americans, the victims of the British colonization, and the pheasant, the victim of the hunt, by mentioning the colourful feathers and even moving to the metallic colour of gold, which was mined in Peru for example.

“Ah! What avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold;
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?” (l. 115-118)

However, this could also mean that he actually approves of the colonization. The native Americans have a lot of luxurious things, but do not seem to make use of them. According to Pope, a good land owner makes full use of the land’s resources.

In short, the poem describes how a good monarch should try to improve his or her nation, like he or she improves his garden. Queen Anne is a good land owner and therefore a good ruler. However, the hunting extract does raise some interesting questions about Pope’s opinion on colonialism.


We can conclude that, in the eighteenth century, gardening involved much more than just the aesthetic aspect, since the structure of the garden was interpreted as a direct reflection of the owner’s morality. On a larger scale, however, the new garden-structures represented the politics of that time. The renewed balance and harmony between nature and culture in the garden illustrated the restored peace and the glorious reign of Queen Anne after a long period of war and chaos. Alexander Pope was one of the leading figures to express this renewed peace and harmony, not only through his poems, but also literally through the structure of his garden and his ideas about garden landscaping.


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Pope, Alexander. “Windsor Forest.” 1713.

Pope’s Grotto. Thelondonphile. Web. 8 November 2012. (http://thelondonphile.com/2012/06/27/twickenhams-grottoes/)

Stowe House. Grafting Landscapes / Inspirations: Stowe Garden. Web. 8 November 2012. (http://merve-references.blogspot.be/2010/01/stowe-garden.html)

Eighteenth century popular ballads

In this week’s blog we will discuss eighteenth century popular ballads. When someone says ‘ballad’, we automatically think of love songs, such as the classical “Everything I do, I do it for you,”. In the twenty-first century we conceptualise ballads as prototypical romantic, often involving and accompanied by glorified romantic scenery. Yet, if we look at ballads in the 18th century, this is not very much so.


The ballad, which has its origins in the late Middle Ages, ‘is a song that tells a story in popular style, which traditionally, relied on oral tradition for transmission. In the middle ages, ballads were generally composed to accompany a dance’. (Broadview Anthology of British Literature, 610) Mostly they were sung by minstrels, who moved from town to castle to sing. The function of the ballad could have been on the one hand pure amusement, singing and dancing, with the stress on the musical. On the other hand, its function could have been narrative, with the focus on the storytelling. Though the ballad became highly formulaic later on, the early ballads were very loose in terms of meter, theme and song.  Love as the most important theme in ballads is only a recent development, which dates from the twentieth century. Literary ballads developed at the end of the eighteenth century (think of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge). Under the influence of Romanticism, ballads became an international phenomenon.

In the eighteenth century ballads, especially broadsheet ballads, were very popular. Often these broadsheets were used as wallpapers and decoration. As a part of a musical piece, they were mostly sung while sold. In general, these ballads deal with a whole range of topics within the romantic and the traditional. The function of the ballad was to recollect pieces of a decaying past; authors trying to conserve a social heritage. These fading popular traditions of a forlorn past were captured within these ballads. The revival of these traditions in everyday life was very popular in 18th century Scotland and consequently popular broadsheet ballads (which were quite cheap) were sold like hotcakes. Nonetheless, a great number of ballads do have social and political implications. These ballads are of course the ones that matter up to today, and consequently the ones we will discuss. In this blog, we will henceforth try to describe the difference in the reception of these ballads.

Jacobite Uprisings in ballad: Lady Nairne

Eighteenth-century writers engaged political issues in their ballads and songs. Many writers of the 18th century aimed at conveying sympathy and support for a political cause through their ballads. In other words, their songs and ballads stirred up feelings of shared pride by commemorating and lamenting, for instance, acts of bravery during a past upheaval. As mentioned in class, many of these ballads were part of ‘fan writing.’ Furthermore, it seems that, over time, these political ballads served different functions. In what follows, we compare how the Jacobite Uprisings are commemorated in two different ballads. The first ballad, “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland” retells the 1719 Uprising whereas the second song, “The 100 Pipers” retells part of the history of the 1745 Uprising. You can take a look at the website of the BBC for a brief history of the Jacobite Uprisings:


In 1719, the Uprising was a very serious issue. As a result, the ballads written immediately after this riot differ in tone compared to ballads which recount parts of the history a century later. One of the Broadside ballads written in this period is “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland,” which recounts the Jacobite Uprising at Glen Shiel. Take a look at the transcription of this ballad:


This song is the English reaction to the Glenn Shiel battle and mocks the Scottish and Spanish Jacobite army who claimed that all of the men escape from the hands of the government alive. The ballad contrasts this claim by describing the violence during this battle that lasted for hours:

Because none of their men were slew / And, which our reason most has shaken / Not one poor single Rebel taken: / Three hours beaten and none die / Yet no man knows the reason why / Tis very strange tween you and I

Even though the ballad is quite similar to “The 100 Pipers” in its laudatory aspects, the mocking tone and the vivid description of the battle differentiates it from the latter. “The Hundred Pipers” is probably one of the best known ballads of the 18th century that depicts part of the history of the last big Uprising of 1745. The song was written by the Scottish Lady Nairne, about 50 years after the ’45 Rebellion.

Lady Nairne Lady Nairne (1799 – 1845)

It retells how, in the early days of the Uprising, Bonnie Prince Charlie entered the defeated city of Carlisle with a hundred pipers leading the way. You can listen to the recording here:


By the time Lady Nairne wrote “The hundred Pipers,” the riots were not as big of an issue anymore. Therefore, the undertone of this ballad is much more nostalgic than “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland.” In the lines ‘the Esk was swollen sae red and sae deep / But shouther to shouther the brave lads keep[…],’ it is clear that the song praises the bravery of the Scottish soldiers, yet in contrast to “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland,” the song remains very subtle about the blood-shedding that preceded this victorious moment. Thus, we see that, even though these ballads narrate parts of the same history, they differ in perspective and function: “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland” gives an English perspective of the facts and, following the immediate events, it is more mocking in its tone than “The hundred Pipers” which is a nostalgic recounting of Scottish bravery.

Scottish for literary purpose: Allan Ramsay

In 1603, after the death of Elizabeth I of England, the Crowns of Scotland, England and Ireland were united under the reign of King James VI of Scotland, who from that point onwards is referred to as King James I of England. Scotland did not just lose its crown and separate parliament, but the unification also had a negative impact on Scottish culture as a whole. Cultural life became more and more centralized and Scots a as literary language was sidelined in favour of English. Although Scots was their native tongue, Scottish writers were now obliged to write in English in order to acquire some literary significance. Scots obtained a dialectal status and became a less valued form of language for literary purposes.

In the 18th century, in response to this situation, several Scottish writers, including Allan Ramsay, made use of the literary ballad form to discuss their concerns regarding the loss of their native tongue as a literary language. From a regional/nationalistic perspective they proved that it was still possible to write (elevated) poetry in the Scottish vernacular. By drawing upon a sense of national culture, they excavate old traditions and reshape them. Their ballads picture a bygone time, used by the poet to collect the country’s cultural heritage.


Allan Ramsay’s (1686-1758) poetry is closely linked to the oral tradition. The inferior status of the Scots language in the 18th century made it quite difficult to write in Scots, in particular because the language had been neglected for almost a century and predominantly possessed an oral status.  In Give Me a Lass With a Lump of Grass, Ramsay constantly switches back and forth between Scots and Standard English. One may think that Ramsay in a way adheres to the dominant tradition of writing Standard English, but seemingly “normal” lines or phrases are can be made Scots by vocalizing them in a Scots pronunciation. In this way, Ramsay revives old Lowland Scots and makes reference to the heyday of Scottish literature in bygone times, before the unification with England. He wants his readers to have a look at Scottish literary heritage as a source of inspiration. Ramsay turns very local interests into elevated poetry, simply because he believed that these local interests were important enough to be expressed. Ramsay’s Up in the Air for example represents a drinking song, written for his contemporaries to use during their regular everyday actions. Other poetry like Give Me a Lass With a Lump of Grass and Polwart on the Green are written to celebrate specific social events (e.g. a wedding), producing a very practical kind of culture that perfectly reflects the poet’s intentions: re-establish Scots as a literary language (for poetical expression).

Scots nationalism: Robert Burns

As this week’s blog deals with popular romantic poetry of the 18th century, in particular ballads, one cannot omit the very famous Robert Burns, who has only recently been nominated as The Greatest Scot of all time according to STV:

‘The Greatest Scot of all time is Robert Burns. STV viewers and online users around the world voted in their thousands for the Ayrshire Ploughman who narrowly outscored William Wallace, the great independence campaigner. The winner was announced on STV on St Andrew’s night’. (http://scotland.stv.tv/greatest-scot/)

The reason why Robert Burns has been elected, is immediately linked to our view on popular ballads in the 18th century. The Heaven-taught Ploughman did not always write prototypical ballads, instead most of his poetry dwells within Scots nationalism. His poetry is marked by a return to earlier oral traditions of the folklore and the traditional Scots poetry, written in the Scots dialect of England. His poetry and his ballads are therefore not old fashioned and traditional without social and political significance. No, he was inspired by the democratic and ‘an outspoken admirer of the republic revolutions in America and France.’ (Norton Anthology 130). His nationalism and patriotism are exemplified by his literary activities in his last years. Burns was the editor of various collections of Scottish folks, and he devoted ‘all his free time to collecting, editing, restoring, and imitating traditions songs’ (130).


In his time, Robert Burns was hailed as a natural genius. His poetry and ballads sought to evoke traditions of a bygone past. These traditions are linked with the Scots nationalism. Through the conservation of old traditions, the Scots clung to their own past, to something they could call theirs. In that time, the Scottish nation itself lost its crown, but tried to hold on to their traditions to maintain a sense of difference with the English. In that sense, these ballads have a national and political significance.

Up until this day, Burn is still seen as a ‘container’ of Scots nationalism. The reason he has been nominated as The Great Scot is exemplary. The way in which Burns has entered Scottish culture nowadays is exemplary as well for the modern reception of Burns and his ballads. Even now the Scottish try to maintain a sense of self by looking at old traditions and putting them back into practice: Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, Burns night on 25th of January.


Black, F., et.al. (2006). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Volume 3. P. 610, 855, 872, 873, 893. United Kingdom: Broadview Press.

Greenblatt, S., et.al. (2006). The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2: The Romantic Period through the Twentieth Century. P 129-131. New York: ww Norton & Company.

Odes to St. Cecilia

In this blog we will firstly talk about festivals taking place in gardens in the 18th century and secondly we will discuss three poems in honor of St. Cecilia: A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day  and Alexander’s Feast by John Dryden and Ode for Musick. On St. Cecilia’s Day by Alexander Pope.

In the 18th century, gardens were an important asset to daily social life. They were public pleasure grounds which provided the visitors with a wide range of facilities, in exchange for a small entrance fee. The ones who could not afford a shilling to enter the gardens, were refused access. The ones who could, had to stay true to their social standing. You could not publicly misbehave, since you were constantly watched by others and constantly reminded that moral behavior was of great importance.

It started out as just a garden, where people had their Sunday picnics, afternoon walks and musical entertainment. But it was also the perfect way for socializing between the sexes, to practice the rules from the moral behavior books.


Of these gardens, Vauxhall Gardens grew out to become the most popular one. This all thanks to Jonathan Tyers. Under his management and his relations, these gardens gained exclusivity, with visits from the Prince of Wales, Dukes and many others.  Located near the Thames, the audience got the opportunity to entertain themselves with boat rides, romantic walks, listen to the Vauxhall orchestra, play card games, blind man’s bluff, etc… Entertainment for all ages.

One of the most important aspects of Vauxhall Gardens, were the music events. Jonathan Tyers had great admiration for Händel, which is why he honored him with a statue in this garden.  Many famous singers performed in these gardens. But it was also a place to develop for composers, such as Thomas Augustine Arne. Of great importance was the Vauxhall orchestra, soon to overtake all the music events.


In these gardens Saint Cecilia, the patroness of music, was of great importance. To her was dedicated St. Cecilia’s Day, a holiday full of festivities, joy and music. As Händel wrote a musical piece to John Dryden’s  A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast, so did Alexander Pope. He wrote an ode to St. Cecilia’s Day in her honor called Ode for Musick. On St. Cecilia’s Day.  We will now discuss these three poems.

A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day – John Dryden


As we saw in class, eighteenth century poetry was very much linked with the oral aspect of public presentation. It did not yet have the self-expressive and dramatic aspects it would acquire during Romanticism. In this sense, John Dryden can be considered an archetypical example of an eighteenth century poet, because “[f]rom the beginning to the end of his literary career, Dryden’s nondramatic poems are most typically occasional poems, which commemorate particular events of a public character – a coronation, a military victory, a death, or a political crisis.” Moreover, “[s]uch poems are social and often ceremonial, written not for the self but for the nation” (The Norton Anthology Volume C 2083). Therefore, it cannot be considered a coincidence that in 1668 he was to become poet laureate, a position in which he was frequently asked to write poetry for public occasions. Because of this his poetry was naturally musical and very much fit to be performed in front of audiences.

In A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, written by John Dryden, the inextricable link between eighteenth century poetry and the medium of musical performance becomes clear. Not only was this poem written as an ode to the goddess of music, but it was also composed to be musically performed on the 22nd November of 1687 for the annual feast of a society that celebrated the power of music. The Italian composer, G.B. Draghi, was the one to write the first musical arrangement for the poem in 1687. Around forty years later this poem would be set to music by Georg Friedrich Händel, a very important German-born British composer.  This ode was also the basis for a new poem by Nicolas Brady which was set to music by Henry Purcell.

This poem discusses the emotive power of music, which can already be clearly seen when looking at the title: St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and Dryden writes a song for her, which can be regarded as an ode. The major theme of this poem is music’s ability to play on human emotions: humans can be overwhelmed by various kinds of music.

If we take a look at the first stanza, we can see that the poem starts with a description of the process of the creation of the universe. It restages Genesis from a musical point of view: music is represented as an incarnation of divinity.  It is music itself, or as described by Dryden in line 6: ‘the tuneful voice’, that initiates this genesis. We cannot only draw a link with the bible, but also with Pythagorean doctrine, as we can already see in line 1. The poet repeats the word harmony six times in this stanza, and according to Pythagoras, the universe was a manifestation of heavenly harmony that held contrary things together. In the third line of this stanza, Dryden mentions ‘nature’, here it represents the musical scale, which the poet compares to the chain of being. In the last line of the first stanza, mankind is mentioned, here man portrays the note that completes the scale. The fact that mankind is mentioned at the last line of this stanza is not a coincidence, man was made on the last day of creation, and likewise man is now mentioned on the last line of the stanza.

If we look at the second stanza, we can see the poet’s opinion about the purpose of music, it “raises passion”, music was often seen  a power that evokes emotion. In the second line of the second stanza Dryden refers to Jubal, who was seen as the father of music in ancient Jewish literature and was believed to have created the lyre, which Dryden imagines to have been made of a tortoise shell. Lines 6 and 7 of this stanza indicate that music can force mankind towards divinity: ‘To worship that celestial sound’ and ‘Less than a god they thought there could not dwell’.
From the second to the sixth stanza Dryden describes how music generates awakening religious awe, warlike courage, sorrow for the unrequited love, jealousy and fury and the impulse to worship God.

In the third stanza we get indications that music can also evoke anger and courage, the poet gives us a description of the clangor of a trumpet which encourages the feelings of anger and braveness in the hearts of the human beings.  Dryden describes the sound of the drums that motivates man to fight against his enemies. So this is clearly a description of what kind of power music has on human beings: it stirs them to be courageous and face their enemies.

As we have already stated, Dryden describes how music activates sorrow for the unrequited love, which we can see in stanza 4. The poet here depicts how the ‘complaining flute in dying notes discovers the woes of hopeless lovers’, in other words, music understands and can reflect the most refined feelings of hopeless lovers.

Music not only evokes religious awe, anger, courage and not only understands the woes of hopeless lovers, it can also induce jealousy, which is portrayed in stanza 5 by the use of a violin.

In stanza 6 we have a last comparison between a musical instrument and the power of music, here Dryden makes use of the organ to show us that music can also be used as a form of praise or worship.  The author makes a comparison between the divine qualities of the organ and the human voice, as we can see in line 2 and 3 of this stanza: ‘What human voice can reach, the sacred organ’s praise?’. The organ here is used to represent holy love, it is the instrument that is used in church, thus it is also used to convey Christianity.

Dryden has not only referred to different musical instruments to describe the capacity of music, but he also selected different rhythms in describing these different instruments, this way he has shown us their various kinds of impact.

In the seventh stanza Dryden mentions a mythical figure, he refers to Orpheus who had convinced the god of the underworld to bring back his Eurydice just by playing a song on his lyre. The poet then makes another reference to the organ and its divine association, he does this to introduce the central figure of the poem: St. Cecilia. What Dryden is trying to say here is that according to him, St. Cecilia was much braver and had performed a much greater miracle by attracting an angel who mistook earth for heaven by listening to her music. She is in fact greater and more amazing than Orpheus because she incites us to Christianity.

The last stanza of the poem is referred to as the “Grand chorus”, in which Dryden makes a prophecy. The celestial bodies or spheres have been put into motion by the harmony that ordered the universe, so the universe was created from the power of this musical harmony. Likewise, the universe will cease to exist when the harmony also ceases to exist. The Grand Chorus describes the Apocalypse, with St. Cecilia’s music something completely new comes in, now antiquity doesn’t matter anymore and is lost to Christianity.

In summary, this poem is an ode to music, it celebrates the power of music and how it can play on human’s emotions.

Alexander’s feast – John Dryden


This is Dryden’s second ode that honors Saint Cecilia. Dryden was asked to write both this ode and the previous one by the London Musical Society. Whereas  A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day celebrates both the harmony music brings and the power of music to influence human passions, Alexander’s Feast focuses entirely on the second theme.

I this ode Dryden presents the characters of Alexander the Great, his mistress Thaïs, and his musician Timotheus and chooses the fire of Persepolis as the scene of the poem. This makes the ode more elaborated than A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day. The ode is based on a famous episode in the life of Alexander the Great. After the vanquishing of the Persian king Darius and the fall of the Persian Capital Persepolis Alexander held a great feast for his officers. Thaïs, his mistress, persuaded him to set the city of Persepolis on fire. In reality, Alexander was moved by love and wine, but Dryden attributes the burning of the city to Alexander’s musician Timotheus, because of the influence his lyre-playing had on the king. He makes Alexander think has become a god, which makes him vain and arrogant. Alexander thinks he can be this amazing hero, but it is actually the music that steers him to these varying moods and makes him act upon them.

With this poem Dryden wants to show  the considerable influence poets can have on actual political events. It actually is a treasonous argument that a non-political person can have such a power. Dryden himself did not have this privilege any longer, being no longer the poet-laureate because of his Catholic faith. One might assume that in 1697 he was making a bald statement about Nahum Tate, who was the poet laureate at that exact moment in time. This, however, seems rather improbable since Dryden and Tate had already collaborated more than once, for example on an epic poem, called Absalom and Achitopel in 1682.

We can draw several comparisons between to A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast. Both of the poems emphasize the power of music to move emotions and portray Saint Cecilia as a greater legendary figure in comparison to Timotheus and Orpheus.

Like Dryden’s first ode to Saint Cecilia, this poem was also accompanied by music. The original music was written by Jeremiah Clarke but his score has been lost in the course of time. However, Händel composed a choral work with the same title, which he based on Dryden’s ode. ‘Alexander’s feast went in premiere in the Covent Garden Theatre in London on February 19th 1736. Händel reworked the music for performances in 1739, 1742 and 1751. His adaptations do not only remain vivid for admirers of classical music but also find their way into the popular media of the 21st century; a part of Alexander’s Feast – the soprano ariaWar, he sung, is toil and trouble – was utilized in a very recent Hollywood film by Alfonso Cuaron, featuring Clive Owen, called ‘Children of Men’.

Have at a look at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-isGMSRWoo

Ode for Musick. On St. Cecilia’s Day – Alexander Pope


It is interesting to note that Alexander Pope, who was a great admirer of Dryden, also wrote an ode to St. Cecilia.
In contrast to the previous two poems where music invokes great passion, this poem suggests that music brings a person towards a moderate temperament. This can be seen in lines 22 – 23 where Pope states: “By Musick, Minds, an equal Temper know, / Nor swell too high, nor sink too low”. Music can calm you down, can charm fiercest grief and can soften your pain.
However, similarly to both odes written by Dryden, music can inspire warriors to fight for their country. Thus, it evokes patriotic feelings: they want to seek glory on behalf of their native country.
If we take a look at the last stanza St. Cecilia is mentioned, in line 131 Pope describes how “Angels lean from Heav’n to hear”. This can be compared to Dryden’s A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast, where Dryden says that St. Cecilia is much greater than Orpheus because she “drew an angel down” (as mentioned in the last line of Alexander’s Feast).

To conclude, we can say that St. Cecilia was portrayed in poetry as being greater than any other legendary figure since she attracted an angel who mistook earth for heaven by listening to her music. Therefore poets wrote odes in honor to her and each year she is celebrated on November 22 in Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic church.

*n.p. Carlo Saraceni – Saint Cecilia and the Angel. n.d, web. 25 october 2012. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Carlo_Saraceni_-_Saint_Cecilia_and_the_Angel_-_WGA20829.jpg.
*Barbara. Early American Gardens. n.d. web. 25 october 2012. http://americangardenhistory.blogspot.be/2009/07/blog-post_30.html
*David Coke. Vauxhall Gardens. 2005. web. 25 october 2012. http://www.vauxhallgardens.com/
*n.p.Vauxhall Gardens. n.d. web. 25 october 2012.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vauxhall_Gardens
*n.p. John Dryden- A song for St. Cecilia’s Day. November 24th 2011. web.October 25th 2012.http://impracticalcriticism.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/john-dryden-a-song-for-st-cecilias-day/
*n.p. Text, Summary, Interpretation and Analysis of Dryden’s Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day. October 29th 2008. web. October 25th 2012. http://freehelpstoenglishliterature.blogspot.be/2008/10/text-summary-interpretation-and.html

Song and Poetry: On Poets and Nightingales

Welcome to the third student post on 18th Century Literature and media. After last week’s dramatic reproduction of an 18th century theatre experience, we shall now descend into the realm of Song and Poetry.

Ode to a Nightingale – John Keats

The nightingale’s song served as an inspiration for many poets

The romantic poet John Keats wrote his Ode to a Nightingale  in 1819 after enjoying a nightingale’s song in his garden. This event lead him to compose this ode in the spirit of the romantic era. In order to fully understand the poem, one needs to know two things. Firstly, as Keats had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, he resorted to opiates as a method to alleviate his pain. This biographical fact echoes in the poem, where his numbness caused by opium and alcohol is reflected in the initial stanzas. Secondly, the nightingale is not “just” a bird. Keats, as well as the other poets that will be discussed here, allude to Greek mythology in which Philomela – a princess of Athens – transforms into a nightingale to escape the anger of Tereus.

( In book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philomela’s tragic story is outlined. King Tereus, who was married to Philomela’s sister Procne, showed too much interest in his sister-in-law. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts her tongue out and hides her in a shed on top of a mountain. One year later, Philomela’s sister Procne, presuming Philomela has been dead all this time, receives a fabric that confirms Philomela is still alive and also contains a representation of all the harm that has been done to her sister. Procne releases her sister without Tereus knowing, both determined to punish Tereus. They kill the son Procne had with Tereus and fed his corps to the king.  When Tereus founds out the deceit, he tries to pursue the two sisters, unable to catch either one of them given that, while they are running from him, they transform into a nightingale and a swallow. Ovid mentions at the end that both birds will be forever marked with the murder they committed by having their breast covered with bloodstained feathers.)

In Ode to a Nightingale he links the story of Philomela with the bird by describing the nightingale as a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. Later on in the poem, the reader will see the resemblance between Philomela’s tragic story and Keats’ perpetual pains. Further on in the first stanza, Keats compares his personal drug abuse with the effect of poetry in general. His poetic hallucinations initially rhyme with his personal drug experiences. The flush that drugs or drinking provides level with Keats’ empirical understanding of what a poem should accomplish.

John Keats (1795-1821)

With admiration for the extensive happiness and freedom of the nightingale in the opening stanza of the poem, the mind of the poet slips into a kind of identical happy state. At first sight he appears to reach this mental state by means of alcohol, only he does not. Verse 19 clearly stipulates “that I might drink, and leave the world unseen.” The state he is in is comparable to the effect of drinking too much or taking drugs for that matter, which he alludes to in verse 2 and 3: “as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains”. Notwithstanding the fact that he clearly knows what these drugs can do, for Keats, his poetry is an alternative way to “leave the world unseen”, and therefore a means to forget his personal issues.

The third stanza indicates his desire to escape reality for a while by embarking on an imaginary journey with the nightingale. He wishes to forget the disadvantages of the human condition in this world, like disease, fading beauty and death.

In the next stanza, he directly points out that he has completed his journey by means of poesy instead of reaching for sedatives. Keats makes this clear by rejecting the image of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, whose chariot is drawn by leopards. Turning away from drugs and alcohol, poetry becomes his only beacon in the darkness of human suffering.

The fifth stanza shows us a glimpse of Keats’ imaginative power to create new worlds through words. These impressions of nature seem so truthful that we can imagine that specific portrait of nature, but being ill and not being able to go outdoors, this description is purely imaginary. Keats could only “guess”(verse 43) at the empirical experience of being physically in nature itself.

Returning in the following stanza to the scene of Keats listening to the nightingale singing its song in its natural habitat, he expresses his desires to die while enjoying the nightingale’s song; he is ready to leave this world in this moment of perfect happiness.

The penultimate stanza is the classical example of an ode. The poet praises the universal and immortal character of the nightingale’s song , which can be interpreted as a metaphor for poetry . However, poesy does not carry the same meaning to everyone. Rather, it is open to multiple interpretations, while retaining its beauty.  According to Keats, poetry creates new and better worlds.

The fantastic journey he started by giving himself over to the imaginative power of the nightingale’s song in the third stanza, ends abruptly at the beginning of the last stanza. Keats is torn away from the nightingale’s song by stumbling over his own expression of thoughts. By ending the previous stanza with the word forlorn, his thoughts are pulled back to his current writing activity. In the process of this event, the nightingale flies away and will inspire someone else with its song.

Finch and Cowper

Anne Finch (1661-1720)

Apart from Keats, there have been other poets who have been inspired by the nightingale’s song. One of these is Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, who was a maid of honour at the court of king James II when she first developed an interest in poetry. Finch’s view on the nightingale differs greatly from Keats’, which has been discussed above. Firstly, the bird needs its freedom in order to sing, just as poets cannot be hampered by formal restrictions. Secondly, both poets and nightingales produce their best song when burdened by some form of pain. This belief originates in the myth of Philomela (explained above), whose plumage at her breast is as red as blood. The myth does not say anything about the bird pressing its breast against a thorn while singing its song, but this tragic image of the nightingale hurting itself enforces the idea that Philomela will have to live with the harm that was done to her. The nightingale relives Philomela’s pain by paining itself to be able to sing her pain. In his work The Semiotics of Rape in Renaissance English Literature, Lee A. Ritscher tells us that:

[W]hen Sidney describes the narrator’s pain of unrequited love in “The Nightingale,”(c. 157-1581) he contemplates the rape of Philomela and her post-rape fate. Sidney’s narrator tells of the return of nightingales to the English countryside and focuses attention upon the myth that the nightingale presses her breast against a thorn as a reminder of Philomela’s pain.”

In the same way, Finch underlines that a poet needs some form of pain in order to be able to write to his fullest potential. An interesting note here is that, according to Ritscher, the pressing of the breast against a thorn was not included in Ovid’s version of the myth, but was added at a later date and serves as a way to remind Philomela that the pain of being raped was not so bad after all. As a group of aspiring literature students, we seem to disagree with Ritscher’s interpretation. Rather than reprimanding herself and showing herself the true meaning of pain as opposed to the pain of being raped, we believe that Philomela uses the thorn as a way to voice her pain, much like a romantic poet, or as Wordsworth put it, through “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility”.

In Finch’s poem, there is an interesting interaction between song and poetry. First of all, Finch tries to merge the two concepts. She is asking the Muse for help in order to produce poetry that is fitting to the nightingale’s song. However, she soon realizes that she cannot achieve perfect harmony. She tries to solve this problem by turning to division, which is a musical technique of dividing each note of a melody into shorter, fast-moving notes. Coincidentally, the nightingale is the master of this technique, often using it in its song, and Finch is once again outstripped. This results in a jealous outburst and even a self-reflective moment of doubt on the part of the poet. The lines “Cease then, prithee, cease thy Tune; / Trifler, wilt thou sing till June?” can be interpreted in different ways. Finch is either asking the nightingale to stop singing because she can never achieve such perfection with her poetry, or she is referring to herself and doubting her own qualities as a poet. If we take this into account, we can conclude that the nightingale does not have the same soothing effect on Finch as it has on Keats.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

In Cowper’s poem, the nightingale again undertakes the role of a soothing measure, but on a different level than in Keats’s poem. Since William Cowper was a fervent evangelical Christian, the nightingale becomes a messenger from a divine being, maybe even God himself. It brings the promise of better days during a time of hardship. If we apply this on the poet, this could mean that the nightingale’s song brings inspiration to a poet who may be stuck in a writer’s block. The divine being in question could then become one of the muses.

The nighingale’s song has inspired many a poet. Its tradition in myth associates the song with unutterable pain yet at the same time, provides comfort in the promise of better days.

The 18th-century theatre experience: Henry Fielding’s The Author’s Farce

What was English theatre like in the eighteenth century? How did it feel to be there – either on stage or as a member of the audience?

We, as a class, took the test and performed parts of Henry Fielding’s The Author’s Farce, just to get acquainted with the style, habits, and livelihood of a stage comedy.

Fielding & The Author’s Farce

Let us begin by introducing the playwright. Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was born at Sharpham Park, Somerset, and belonged to a wealthy and respected family. Though not an aristocrat himself, he was related to the Earl of Denbigh, and his mother belonged to a powerful family of lawyers. Fielding’s father sent him off to the prestigious Eton College, where he learned to appreciate the classics. In 1728, he went to Leiden, in the Netherlands, to study law and the classics. When he came back, he devoted himself to writing for the stage. His first two plays were performed at Drury Lane, one of London’s leading theatres at that time. Fielding wrote mostly comedies, some of which were very critical of the political and literary establishment. In particular the contemporary government of Sir Robert Walpole was the aim of a great deal of Fielding’s satire.

The year 1730 was of great success for Fielding. That year, he had four plays produced, among which we find The Author’s Farce, a farce “with a puppet-show, call’d the Pleasures of the Town.” Arguably, this play was Fielding’s first great success in the London theatres. That same year, another now famous work was staged: Tom Thumb. It is perhaps best known in the 1731 expanded version entitled The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great.

The front page of the printed version of The Author’s Farce
(as found on http://archive.org/details/authorsfarcewith00fiel)

Criticizing and laughing with the political establishment, of course, could not go on forever. The Walpole administration initiated the infamous Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, probably in response to (primarily) Henry Fielding’s plays. Also John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is often mentioned in this context. The play that triggered the act, however, was – we believe – not written by Fielding. The Golden Rump, as it was called, could even have been commissioned by Walpole himself, to give him a valid reason to institute censorship. Although we shall probably never know what happened, we know for certain that Fielding’s critical plays had set the tone. After the Act had been passed, all plays were censured and adapted (though implicit satirical messages were sometimes overlooked) before they could be staged in one of the only two ‘licensed’ playhouses, Drury Lane Theatre or Covent Garden Theatre (both called Theatre Royal later).

For a while, the playwright retired from the theatre and began working as a barrister. However, he never stopped writing satirical pieces for newspapers and in letters. Nowadays, Henry Fielding is also well known for his novels. The first of these, Shamela, was triggered by Samuel Richardson’s scandalously popular novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Both were written in the epistolary form, but Shamela was of course harshly satirical in nature. The novel was then followed by Joseph Andrews (1742) and several other novels. Fielding’s number-one success was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), a foundling’s tale discovered on the property of a very wealthy, benevolent landowner.

Not only was Fielding a successful author and playwright, he also had a notable career in law and order. Thanks to a political appointment, he became Chief Magistrate for London. He also founded the ‘Bow Street Runners’, London’s first professional police force.

Eighteenth-Century Theatre

When we read a printed play dating from the eighteenth century, it is hard to imagine how the actual performance may have looked like. From written sources dealing with the theatre at the time, we know that performing or watching a play was certainly very different from what we are used to nowadays. To get an idea of just how different it was, we travelled back in time to the old era in our “English literature: literary texts of the eighteenth century” class. In our lecture theatre, we staged the first few scenes of Henry Fielding’s The Author’s Farce (viewable here) in an attempt to reconstruct an eighteenth-century performance as a whole, certain characteristics of which would bewilder most twenty-first-century theatre-goers.

As for going to the theatre in the eighteenth century, the most crucial difference is that this, as opposed to nowadays, was primarily a social event. Therefore, audience members were not quietly sitting in a chair in a dark theatre, attentively watching the play. The actors had to fight to captivate the noisy audience. Illustrative is the fact that the whole theatre was equally lit, signalling that there was no rigid boundary between actors and audience, and that both were considered equally important.

A performance of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera; here, it can be seen
that wealthier people could buy their seats on the stage itself.
(as found on http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/0-9/18th-century-theatre/)

Spectators were  walking around during the play, chatting with friends or even talking to the actors. Wealthy audience members could sit on stage and display their status by giving clever remarks, talking with actors or actresses, and showing off their nice clothing. As became clear during our class performance, the ‘interactive audience‘ situation could easily culminate in anarchy, especially if the play was not appreciated. Audience members would shout critique or insults, or even throw things at the actors. Actor Edward Cape Everard draws the line at potatoes: “Our situation on the stage, from being often rendered unpleasant, was sometimes dangerous; apples and oranges we got pretty well used to from their frequency of appearing; but when our unthinking spectators would sometimes salute us with a potatoe, or even a pint or quart bottle, it was above a joke.” (Memoirs of an unfortunate son of Thespis, Edinburgh 1818, p. 104).

There was also always more than just a play on these social nights. Other forms of entertainment were offered on the side. The play would be preceded by a musical performance and there was generally an interlude during which a great variety of entertainment could be offered, from songs to dog tricks. Finally, the night would be closed by a musical performance. Audience members also ate and drank during the play, hence the flying apples and pint bottles. So-called orange wenches – a role played by our very own professor Hammerschmidt during the class performance – walked through the theatre and provided the audience with fruit, and often also other services (‘orange wench’ soon became a euphemism for prostitute).

Theatre-going might have been a very different experience in the eighteenth century, other theatre-related phenomena which started around that time seem much more familiar to twenty-first-century audiences. Like with our contemporary Hollywood films, the entertainment did not stop at the theatre walls. Next to the actual theatre performance, which was accessible for a very wide range of people, there were of course also printed versions of the play, mainly bought by richer people. These scripts were usually bought as a collection of loose sheets, but these could be bound as well.

A new phenomenon at that time was that certain actors became stars. They were not only helping to promote a play, but they also gave rise to merchandising: fans could buy porcelain statues, portraits, engravings and other products. One of the most popular stars of the eighteenth-century theatre was David Garrick, who was among the first to adopt a less affected, more natural acting style. Furthermore, costumes were introduced in Garrick’s days; previously, actors wore contemporary (i.e. eighteenth-century) clothing.

A tea caddy featuring David Garrick
(as found on http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/0-9/18th-century-theatre/)

To conclude this post on eighteenth-century theatre, we can only advise you to watch the video made in class, as it will hopefully enable you to understand how the staging of a play in playhouse actually may have been like. Most of the elements summed up above are included in this performance (or, in any case, an attempt was made to do so), and all of these make the video worth watching, especially in combination with the actual staging of Fielding’s The Author’s Farce: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.