National Differences and National Autonomy

  • Alok Yadav


In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon distinguishes between the structure of the Roman Empire—forming “one great nation, united by language, manners, and civil institutions”—and the structure of the modern “republic” of Europe, as he styles it, which emerged from the European Christendom of the Middle Ages.1 The strength of this modern European formation was based, in Gibbon’s view, not on unity and homogeneity of “language, manners, and … institutions,” but on national diversity and competition: he comments that, “On the revival of letters, … national emulation, a new religion, new languages, and a new world, called forth the genius of Europe” (1:84). Gibbon’s understanding of the modern European republic of states, and the republic of letters that forms its cultural double, is consonant with the views of other writers discussed in chapter 2. As we saw in that chapter, the notion of the republic of letters, as part of its transnational orientation, constantly calls attention to the diversity of multiple national literary traditions and to the related dynamic of “national emulation.” For Gibbon, “the genius of Europe” emerges out of the competition of nations, religions, languages; and, likewise, the eighteenth-century republic of letters gains its coherence not from a shared culture but from a dynamic of national competition.


Eighteenth Century Literary History National Difference Literary Culture English Writer 
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  91. terms of Addison’s privileging of an aesthetics of “common sense” in the Spectator and in terms of Hogarth’s own aesthetic preference for “nature” or “life” over “the opera’s rendition of form” (76). The nationalistic emphasis of Hogarth’s engraving is noted by Paulson but is more pungently expressed in Nikolaus Pevsner’s summary comment that in this work Hogarth “castigate[s] Raphael and Michelangelo together with Italian opera for the neglect of home-made English art, represented by the works of Shakespeare, Jonson, Dryden, Congreve, and Otway carted away on a wheelbarrow as waste-paper” (The Englishness of English Art [1956; repr. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1964], 26).Google Scholar
  92. Addison’s influence on Hogarth is clear enough, but one might also point to a more proximate antecedent in Leonard Welsted’s “A Prologue occasioned by the Revival of a Play of Shakespeare” (1721), which specifically evokes a scene of Shakespeare (and English drama more generally) being ousted from public favor by “alien toys,” such as French tumblers and Italian opera singers:Google Scholar
  93. To low provincial Drolls, in crowds, you run, By foreign modes and foreign nonsense won; To see French Tumblers three long hours you sit, And Criticks judge of capers in the Pit. What art shall teach us to refine your joys, And wean your sickly taste from alien toys? For this we toil, and in our cause engage Th’immortal Writers of an earlier age: Fond labour! antient sense must quit the field, And Shakespear to the soft Bercelli yield: Whence is this change in nature! one would swear That Eunuchs were not form’d to lead the Fair. (lines 39–52)Google Scholar
  94. Welsted’s equation of foreign arts with castrated masculinity (“Things that are not Men” [line 56]), in contrast to traditional English “True Masculinity” (line 54), strikes a characteristic note of this discourse of cultural nationalism.Google Scholar
  95. 91.
    Richard Steele, The Tender Husband, ed. Calhoun Winton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967), 78.Google Scholar
  96. 92.
    Cf. Steele’s comment in a letter of October 7, 1708 to J. Keally: “The taste for Plays is expired. We are all Operas, performed by eunuchs every way impotent to please” (Correspondence of Richard Steele, ed. Rae Blanchard [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941], 25). This was a particularly common element in the critique of foreign arts (as inimical to English masculine virility), as we have already seen with Welsted’s “Prologue” of 1721. So, too, the author of To the FL_nble SirJB (1734), referring to “French Dancers and Harlequins,. Effeminate Eunuchs, and Sod[omitica]l Italians,” exclaims that English is “so debauch’d with Effeminacy and Italian airs. [that] we daily see our Male Children. dwindle almost into Women” (quoted in Kathleen Wilson, “The Good, the Bad, and the Impotent: Imperialism and the Politics of Identity in Georgian England,” in The Consumption of Culture, ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer [London: Routledge, 1995], 243). Similarly, the author of Satans Harvest Home (1749) associates the Italian opera’s “Corruption of the English stage” with other “corruptions” of aristocratic manners, such as the “Contagion” of men kissing each other and their degeneration into “enervated effeminate Animal[s]” given to “unnatural Vices” (quoted in Michael McKeon, “Historicizing Patriarchy:The Emergence of Gender Difference in England, 1660–1760,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 28 [1995]: 321, n. 68, 311).Google Scholar
  97. 93.
    On the logic of the mean in “neoclassical” literary culture see Edward Pechter, Drydens Classical Theory of Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975) and Joshua Scodel, Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  98. 94.
    The editors of The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 4, The Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), H. B. Nisbet and Claude Rawson, acknowledge the inadequacy of the traditional “classic to romantic” narrative but their response is to eschew categorizing labels altogether rather than to offer a counter-narrative (“The present volume has in general sought to avoid categorisations, whether of the traditional or revisionist varieties” [xv]—the reference being to Northrop Frye’s replacement of “preromanticism” with the notion of an “age of sensibility”). But as I argued at the start of this chapter, such attempts to bury well-established narratives under a mound of silence are bound to fail. If one wants to prevent the constant return of the dead, one needs to drive a stake through its heart by offering an account that could take its place as an explanatory narrative of literary historical change across the period in question.Google Scholar
  99. 95.
    Douglas Lane Patey, “The Institution of Criticism in the Eighteenth Century,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 4, The Eighteenth Century, 22 (see previous note). In another essay in this volume, Patey does acknowledge that French “cultural nationalism” had already reached a kind of climax in the 1670s and 1680s (“Ancients and Moderns,” 36).Google Scholar
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    William Collins, “Oriental Eclogues,” in The Works of William Collins, ed. Richard Wendorf and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 2–3 (italics reversed).Google Scholar
  101. 97.
    One might compare Collins’s remarks with Aphra Behn’s comment in her “epistle dedicatory” to Oronooko (1688): “If there be any thing that seems Romantick, I beseech your Lordship to consider, these Countries do, in all things, so far differ from ours, that they produce unconceivable Wonders; at least, they appear so to us, because New and Strange” (The Works of Aphra Behn, vol. 3, The Fair Jilt and Other Short Stories, ed. Janet Todd [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1995], 56 [original in italics]).Google Scholar
  102. 98.
    Hugh Blair, “Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian,” in The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988), 345. Subsequent references to this work will be provided in the text.Google Scholar
  103. 99.
    In his History of English Poetry (1781),Thomas Warton is able to quote with approval Hobbes’s dictum that, “In a good poem both judgment and fancy are required; but the fancy must be more eminent, because they please for the EXTRAVAGANCY, but ought not to displease by INDISCRETION” (quoted in Earl Wasserman, Elizabethan Poetry in the Eighteenth Century [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1947], 231).Google Scholar
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    Richard Hurd, Letters on Chivalry and Romance, intro. Hoyt Trowbridge (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1963), 63. Subsequent references to this work will be provided in the text.Google Scholar
  105. 101.
    Gerrard, The Patriot Opposition to Walpole, 121 (see n. 9). See, e. g. , such important works as Walter Jackson Bate’s From Classic to Romantic: Premises ofTaste in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), Norman Maclean’s “From Action to Image: Theories of the Lyric in the Eighteenth Century,” in Critics and Criticism:Ancient and Modem, ed. R. S. Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), and Rene Wellek’s A History of Modern Criticism 1750–1950, vol. 1, The Later Eighteenth Century (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1955). But the narrative logic I am discussing is so pervasive as to be found almost anywhere.Google Scholar
  106. 102.
    Thus, e. g. , regarding Henry Mackenzie’s description of Robert Burns as a “Heaven-taught ploughman” in his famous review of the latter’s poems in 1786, Robert Crawford notes: “his discussion of natural literary genius is of a piece with the view of genius put forward by [Hugh] Blair and other eighteenth-century teachers of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, and dates back at least to the seventeenth-century Reflexions sur la Poetique dAristote (1674) by Rene Rapin, who writes of a poet’s ‘elevation of Soul that depends not on Art or Study, and which is purely a Gift of Heaven, and must be sustain’d by a lively Sence andVivacity’ ” (“Robert Fergusson’s Robert Burns,” in Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, ed. Robert Crawford [1996; repr. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997], 2). (One might, indeed, trace this view back to Bede’s description of Caedmon.) Likewise, regarding the twin principles of “historical” criticism—that in interpreting a work we must place it within the cultural context of its own age, and that in evaluating it we must attend to the literary conventions and expectations that prevailed when it was written—Hoyt Trowbridge remarks that neither of these ideas “was at all novel” in the hands of the Wartons and others in the late eighteenth century: “Wellek,Wasserman, and Wimsatt and Brooks [have shown] that similar statements were made by sixteenth-century Italian defenders ofAriosto, by Chapelain and Dryden in the seventeenth century, and by Hughes, Upton, and other commentators on Shakespeare, Spenser, and Ben Jonson in the eighteenth century. The same slogans were applied to Hebrew poetry by Lowth, to Homer by Blackwell and Wood, and to the Greeks and Romans generally by Gibbon, but the finest statement of these ideas, as well as their most impressive exemplification in practice, was probably the preface and notes of Dr. Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare (1765)” (Hurd, Letters on Chivalry and Romance, intro. Trowbridge, iv-v [see n. 100]).Google Scholar
  107. 103.
    See, e. g. , the important work of Edward Pechter on Dryden’s criticism (n. 93), and Emerson R. Marks’s studies of neoclassical criticism, Relativist andAbsolutist:The Early Neoclassical Debate in England (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955) and The Poetics of Reason: English Neoclassical Criticism (New York: Random House, 1968).Google Scholar
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    With regard to this point, and the more general issue at stake in this section of the chapter, see Ralph Cohen, “Some Thoughts on the Problems of Literary Change 1750–1800,” Dispositio 4 (1979): 145–62; A. D. Harvey, “Neo-classicism and Romanticism in Historical Context,” in his Literature into History (NewYork: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 125–70; Clifford Siskin, The Historicity of Romantic Discourse (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1988); Robert J. Griffin, “The Eighteenth-Century Construction of Romanticism: Thomas Warton and the Pleasures of Melancholy,” ELH 59 (1992): 799–815; Griffin, Wordsworths Pope: A Study of Literary Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); David Fairer, “Historical Criticism and the English Canon: A Spenserian Dispute of the 1750s,” Eighteenth-Century Life 24 (2000): 43–64; andTerry, “Classicists and Gothicists:The Division of the Estate,” in Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past 1660–1781, 286–323 (see chap. 1, n. 18). As Griffin states in his 1992 essay, what we need to understand is “not how mirror became lamp, but how this particular episode of literary history came to be constructed in that way” (802).Google Scholar
  109. 105.
    John Keats, “Sleep and Poetry,” in The Oxford Authors: John Keats, ed. Eleanor Cook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), line 181.Google Scholar
  110. 106.
    Wasserman, Elizabethan Poetry in the Eighteenth Century, 35 (see n. 99). Subsequent references to this work will be provided in the text. (More recently, Margaret Anne Doody’s The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985] implicitly develops certain continuities between Elizabethan and Augustan poetry by reexamining the characteristics of the latter poetic mode.)Google Scholar
  111. 107.
    R. S. Crane has sought to preserve some of this sense of things in his essays on the history of criticism in the eighteenth century. He refers to “a more or less common framework of characteristic fundamental terms and distinctions which critics throughout the period, for all their disagreements on points of doctrine or appreciation, found it natural to utilize in the statement of their questions and the justification of their answers” (“On Writing the History of Criticism in England 1650–1800,” in The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays, 2 vols. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967], 2:167). Crane’s account of “neoclassical” criticism is an important contribution to my own understanding of “critical pluralism,” but his larger narrative of a shift from this “neoclassical” criticism to “romantic” aesthetics reinstalls the traditional narrative of a linear shift from one set of critical concerns to another new one. We are left with the familiar narrative of a movement from classic to romantic, even though Crane has usefully reinterpreted what the basic characteristics of this “classic” critical mode were.Google Scholar

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