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.

Anne Bradstreet: a true pioneer

Hello everyone,

We, four female bloggers, have the distinct pleasure of presenting to you this week’s blog post. You might not realize it just yet but the fact that we women are permitted to write this is quite extraordinary. The number of female writers during the eighteenth century was fairly low considering the fact that society was mainly dominated by men. Consequently, men (of the upper classes) were also the ones who had access to education. However, Anne Bradstreet can be considered as one of the few females that transgress our general conception of eighteenth century society. Contrary to popular opinion about women writers of that era, Mrs Bradstreet could count on the support of her father, husband and brother-in-law in her literary career. Firstly, she enjoyed the encouragement of her father. He was the steward of the Earl of Lincoln and therefore both Anne and her father had access to the Earl’s extensive library. Accordingly, Anne had thorough knowledge of both classical and contemporary works. Moreover, given the fact that her father was a poet as well, his oeuvre might have stimulated Bradstreet’s own writing. Secondly, one can argue that her work must have had the support of her husband, since her poems circulated freely among family and friends. Thirdly, her brother-in-law was responsible for the publication of her work in Britain. In brief, Bradstreet was able to aspire a literary career with the approval of her family and friends, contrarily to other eighteenth century women.

Possibly as a result of her free access to the Earl’s library, she developed an admiration for Queen Elizabeth I, which she demonstrates in her poem “Elegy on Queen Elizabeth”. Elizabeth I was known for surrounding herself with wise men and good counsel. Interestingly, Bradstreet herself also had an inner circle of strong men to guide her (see above). Even though Elizabeth I proved herself amongst her contemporaries as a capable female monarch, male opinion in Bradstreet’s era seems to have forgotten that she was a woman, as exemplified in the following excerpt:

Nay Masculines, you have thus tax’d us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know ’tis a slander now, but once was treason.

The “masculines” in the citation are reminded by Bradstreet that it was once treason to consider a woman “void of reason”. She accuses her male contemporaries of treating females as a laughing-stock, while this would have been seen as high treason during Elizabeth’s reign. Consequently, one could argue that Bradstreet did not appreciate this male disdain during her lifetime.

Bradstreet seems determined to prove her worthiness (and the worthiness of all women by extension). On the one hand, as mentioned above, she uses Elizabeth as a role model. On the other hand, seeing that the genre of this poem is the epic, we can reason that Bradstreet inscribes herself in the male tradition of writing epics among great names as Milton and Spenser thus proving that women can also write epic and that they are not inferior to men.

Nevertheless, Bradstreet not only excelled at writing epic but demonstrated her competence in local and personal poetry as well. One of her poems we especially like is “To my Dear and Loving Husband”, which we have included here for your enjoyment.

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye woman, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the east doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor aught but love from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so perservere
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

In this poem, Bradstreet expresses her personal feelings of love for her husband while including a significant aspect of the Puritan religion as well; the afterlife. In the poem she hopes her husband will be rewarded for his love in heaven. Even though the Puritan religion states that its followers will be rewarded in heaven for the adversities they had to suffer on earth, Bradstreet herself does not experience this life as an adversity. According to Puritan belief our existence is a transitional period until we can join Jesus in heaven. However, Bradstreet struggles with the need to balance these ideas and her own happy domestic life. As we can see in this poem, she is happy in her life and genuinely loves her husband. Therefore she wants to “persevere” in her love, she wants to enjoy the here and the now together. And, when death then finally comes, she wants it to be an extension of her earthly happiness.

This need to balance Puritan beliefs and her own personal life is also present in our next poem, “The Author to Her Book”, where another dimension is added to her inner conflict, namely how to balance her writing with the social expectations of her age.

Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos’d to public view,

Bradstreet became a published author, which went against the ruling conventions of her age. The excerpt above demonstrates that she was writing her poems to be circulated among her circle of friends, and when her brother-in-law “snatcht” her work in order to have it published in Britain, she did not consider it a wise choice initially.

She was suddenly a famous author, but the printed work differed from what she envisioned. She was disappointed with the sloppiness of the printed publication: sometimes the meter was off, which Bradstreet laments in the following excerpt:

I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet .

As a result, Bradstreet did not seem impressed with the printed version, but given the fact that it was already printed, no alteration could be made. Possibly Bradstreet herself was not opposed to publication itself, but she would have preferred her work to be published on her own terms. As you have probably already deduced from this poem, Bradstreet was concerned about being a public author. On the other hand, one can also note a preoccupation with the local and personal in the previous poem (“To my Dear and Loving Husband”). This juxtaposition between her private life and her ‘work’ is one we can also find nowadays. Women of the 21st century consider it ordinary to combine a fulfilling career with a satisfying domestic life. However, it is important to realize that this was not always the case and women like Mrs Bradstreet built the foundations of a healthy combination between managing your household and pursuing a profession. Reading her poems for this course has reminded us of the importance of pioneers like her in history.

(All quotes are derived from: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/bradstreet/bradstreet.html)

Eighteenth-Century Media Landscapes

So since this is the first post on this blog, it should attempt to lay out some of the ideas that motivate this whole venture, right? Well, here goes:

It was this amazing eighteenth-century design for a fan that first caught my attention:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

It is always special when something as brittle and delicate as a fan has survived for that long, but I was really struck by the design on this particular fan for the variety of media it displays: printed texts, engravings, and sheet music; hand-written scrolls and musical scores; letters and wall paper; a pencil; a painted miniature portrait; and even another fan design! This “medley” made me wonder how people in eighteenth-century Britain dealt with the media that surrounded them and suffused their world, not just with printed books or even with writing more generally, but with the whole breadth of media forms that were available to them. That is what this blog (and the seminar to which it is attached) will be all about, so the idea is that little by little, individual posts will explore different facets of the wonderfully varied world of eighteenth-century media.

For the rest of this post, though, I will focus on the world of print in which eighteenth-century Britons found themselves. There were, of course, books of all kinds: expensive, large-format volumes that only the wealthier sectors of society would purchase; books also aimed at and priced for the middling ranks; and books intended for a broad audience that often could not afford to spend much on such items.

But the vast majority of printed material was actually in forms other than books: handbills and proclamations; trade cards and funeral tickets; portrait prints and satires; and broadsheets, single pages containing ballads, songs, poems, or other public announcements that were so cheap they could reach the vast majority of people, either because they could themselves afford it or because someone in their vicinity could and then would make it available for reading in groups.

Maybe it is no wonder, then, that many of the eighteenth-century “print medleys” you find refer more frequently to those more ephemeral, non-book forms of print than to books. Just take a look at the trade card of the engraver George Bickham the Elder:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Similar to the fan design, the card displays what looks like a pile of engravings, all to advertise the range of engravings Bickham can produce (everything from portraits to playing cards and woodcuts on ballads to elaborately engraved text) and the high quality of his productions, not least because now the various kinds of engravings are all combined within one single engraving that Bickham has also produced. Print here refers to itself and to the ways in which it is produced (in this card, above all through the process of engraving). This tendency of print to refer to itself, and the deep immersion of eighteenth-century Britons in print culture that that implies, also appears in a medley satirizing the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, a stock market crash in 1720:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The main target here is a contemporary event with extensive, in many cases devastating economic and political consequences. But in order to make its point, the print medley presumes that those who will consume it will already be familiar, not only with the outlines and events of the market crash itself, but also with many of the satires on stock jobbers, politicians, and stock holders that are reproduced within it. Finally, it also includes a sort of advertisement in the form of the print seller’s address at whose shop this very medley can be purchased; it is product placement on the product itself!

It is with another fan design, though, that I want to end this little excursion:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

As with the first design, this fan displays a print medley as its main design feature, this time an apparently carelessly arranged heap of prints engraved after paintings (some hand-colored, some left in gray-shade); and as with the first design, too, we need to remind ourselves that this heap of prints is actually not really a heap of print objects but an image of a heap of print objects (in this case, the fan design is itself actually a print, whereas the first fan was drawn by hand with pen and ink). So again, print here refers to itself and to the visual worlds it makes possible. But here’s where this particular fan becomes really fascinating to me: what looks like a background of delicate lace onto which the heap of prints has been overlaid is also part of the printed fan design! This fan not only re-presents print objects within another print object, it actually re-mediates a completely different medium – a textile, lace – by combining two other media – print (which in itself is a complex medium because it requires not only paper and ink but also a copperplate to be engraved and the tools to engrave it) and paint – to achieve an almost tactile, textural effect. It is this complex playfulness with a broad range of media that for me characterizes the eighteenth century, and the aim of this blog will be to showcase the broad variety of ways in which eighteenth-century media users engaged with and created their media environments as well as to ask what we might learn from them for our own, highly and complexly mediated times.