Friday, May 17, 2013

The Four Ages of Poetry

 "The Four Ages of Poetry," by Thomas Love Peacock

I am becoming fond of Thomas Love Peacock.  Besides his unbeatable name, he was a lot of fun.  Peacock was a minor literary figure of the early 19th century; he tried his hand at poetry but mainly succeeded in satire.  I read his short novel Nightmare Abbey last year, but at the time I didn't know that the young hero of the story, Scythrop, was modeled on Peacock's good friend Percy Shelley.  He and Shelley were quite close and Peacock was the executor of Shelley's will.

Thomas Love Peacock
Percy Bysshe Shelley














"The Four Ages of Poetry," a tongue-in-cheek essay on the history and development of poetry, was published in 1820 in a new magazine called Literary Miscellany, which promptly died.  It would probably have been completely obscure and unknown--it nearly is anyway--but for Shelley.  Peacock sent a copy to his friend, who I guess didn't really have much of a sense of humor, because he really got annoyed and promptly sat down to write a rebuttal: the famous "Defense of Poetry."

The essay uses the ancient belief in historical ages, and Peacock spends some time setting up his system all serious-like, just waiting for the payoff at the end.  So: Homer would have said that the oldest ages were the best ones and whatever age we are in now is clearly pretty bad, and Peacock re-orders that for poetry:
POETRY, like the world, may be said to have four ages, but in a different order: the first age of poetry being the age of iron; the second, of gold; the third, of silver; and the fourth, of brass.
The Iron Age of poetry would be that of a pre-literate society, "in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs." It's all about how many enemies have been slaughtered and how many cows stolen.  But soon this poetry develops into a Golden Age: from Homer down to Euripides, poetry has "attained perfection" and seeks out new forms.  

As these are exhausted, so begins the Silver Age, "or the poetry of civilized life. ... The imitative consists in recasting, and giving an exquisite polish to, the poetry of the age of gold: of this Virgil is the most obvious and striking example. The original is chiefly comic, didactic, or satiric: as in Menander, Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal. The poetry of this age is characterized by an exquisite and fastidious selection of words, and a laboured and somewhat monotonous harmony of expression..."  As reason progresses, however, so poetry regresses and loses originality.  A Brass Age starts.

There's a lot more, as Peacock analyzes English poetry according to the four ages.  Medieval poetry is iron (but flavored with classical days), Shakespeare is golden, Pope is silver, and then we get into the serious skewering: Wordsworth, the Lake Poets, and all moderns are definitely Brass.
While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age. Mr. Scott digs up the poachers and cattle-stealers of the ancient border. Lord Byron cruizes for thieves and pirates on the shores of the Morea and among the Greek Islands. Mr. Southey wades through ponderous volumes of travels and old chronicles, from which he carefully selects all that is false, useless, and absurd, as being essentially poetical; and when he has a commonplace book full of monstrosities, strings them into an epic. Mr. Wordsworth picks up village legends from old women and sextons; and Mr. Coleridge, to the valuable information acquired from similar sources, superadds the dreams of crazy theologians and the mysticisms of German metaphysics, and favours the world with visions in verse, in which the quadruple elements of sexton, old woman, Jeremy Taylor, and Emanuel Kant, are harmonized into a delicious poetical compound. 
By this time Peacock is gleefully stabbing every poetical ideal of the Romantic era.  (It's pretty fun to read, so do follow my link and take a look.)  He goes on to say that poetry-readers are anti-intellectual degenerates more interested in sensation than in learning, and that since poets have to make the readers happy,
...the poetical audience will not only continually diminish in the proportion of its number to that of the rest of the reading public, but will also sink lower and lower in the comparison of intellectual acquirement: when we consider that the poet must still please his audience, and must therefore continue to sink to their level, while the rest of the community is rising above it...
 And then, as a final touch, he claims that modern man has ascended far above Parnassus, and that politicians and political economists are at the top of the great new civilization that no longer needs new poetry.  No wonder Shelley got a bit hot under the collar.


(Of course, Peacock didn't think much of political economists, and he did write poetry.)

This was a very cool addition to my essay pile for this year.  I hadn't actually heard of it before; I found it by looking for essays by Shelley online.  When I was in college, for some reason the professor who taught the class I took on 18th and 19th century literature favored prose pieces.  We read Shelley's "To a Skylark" and "Mont Blanc," but his favorite thing was to assign us "On the Necessity of Atheism."  Likewise, practically the only thing we read by Coleridge was parts of the "Biographia Literaria."  And so on.  I thought I might go back and revisit some of those essays, and instead I ran into the Peacock satire.  Which was way more fun anyway, though I still plan to read those as well.

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