The Epistolary Moment: The Poetics of the Eighteenth-Century Verse Epistle

The Epistolary Moment: The Poetics of the Eighteenth-Century Verse Epistle

by William C. Dowling


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ISBN-13: 9780691608655
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1207
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Epistolary Moment

The Poetics of the Eighteenth-Century Verse Epistle

By William C. Dowling


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06891-6



Even to glance through the standard literary histories of England is to gain some sense of the eighteenth century as a literary moment dominated by epistolarity, for even the simplest of inductive surveys is compelled to look past Pamela and Clarissa and Humphry Clinker to the hundreds of minor epistolary novels produced during the period, past Locke's Letters Concerning Toleration or Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance or Chesterfield's Letters to his Son to the hundreds of works of philosophy, theology, aesthetics, political theory, controversy, conduct, and travel whose titles give no hint that they, too, are written in the form of letters or epistles. Indeed, it is the way in which the epistolarity of so many works lies hidden beneath their tides that sometimes leads us to overlook its enormous literary importance in the eighteenth century. Bolingbroke's Letters on the Study and Use of History come to mind readily enough, but it takes an effort to recall that The Idea of a Patriot King is also epistolary in form. Everyone remembers that Goldsmith's Citizen of the World is written in the mode of Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes, but not everyone recalls that Goldsmith also composed a History of England as a series of letters from a nobleman to his son. And whole studies have been written of a work as major as the Reflections on the Revolution in France that give no hint that it is in the form of an extended letter from Burke to a young Frenchman.

Viewed against this background, the emergence of the verse epistle as the dominant form in eighteenth-century poetry might be seen as inevitable. Yet no merely inductive survey is able to explain the movement through which the verse epistle gravitates steadily during the later seventeenth century from its marginal position in the work of such poets as Wyatt and Donne and Jonson toward the literary center previously occupied by lyric, until at the moment of high Augustanism marked by Pope's Horatian poems it has become the major form in English poetry. To explain this, one must begin to think of epistolarity in terms more dynamic than any mere inventory of works or titles can suggest, to conceive of epistolarity in poetry, as have such critics as Janet Altman and Christina Gillis so well in writing about the eighteenth-century novel, as any "use of the letter's formal properties to create meaning" (Altman 4). For it is only an awareness of such meaning that then allows one to understand the eighteenth-century verse epistle as a response to an underlying epistemological dilemma, and ultimately, I want to argue, as an attempt to solve in literary terms the philosophical problem of solipsism.

The manner in which solipsism arose as an unintended consequence of Lockean empiricism belongs not to literary history but to the story of eighteenth-century philosophy, where it is already wholly implied in Hume's declaration that "it is impossible for us so much as to conceive or form an idea specifically different from ideas and impressions": "Let us chase our imaginations to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the universe; we never can really advance a step beyond ourselves" (67). Yet even the most neutral assertions of the empirical argument, even those of Hume himself in those moments when his usual mood of robust skepticism deserts him—that other Hume who once describes himself as "affrighted and confounded with that forlorn solitude in which I am placed in my philosophy" (264)—seem haunted by a sense of barely repressed anxiety or dread, and at such moments certain literary problems leap into a new focus. For the deepest relations between literature and philosophy in the eighteenth century derive from their uneasy awareness of the epistemological dilemma that arose together with Locke's philosophy—"the troubling possibility," in John Richetti's phrase, "of a complete rupture between language and a shadowy order of things" (15), which then subsequently emerges as the specter of a solipsism threatening to transform the world and other people into mere delusive figments of the solitary mind.

Whenever the purely logical arguments for solipsism seem unwittingly to have summoned up this particular anxiety, we find ourselves in a region common at once to philosophy and literature. It is the specter of utter meaninglessness, of human beings shivering out their lives in a cold and oblivious universe, that will move Pater in the nineteenth century to revive Hume's argument in a more grimly existential register:

And if we continue to dwell in thought on this world, not of objects, ... but of impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which bum and are extinguished with our consciousness of them, ... the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind.... Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of the world. (187–88)

In the same way, F. H. Bradley will develop, as the nineteenth century gives way to the twentieth, an argument intended simply as a contribution in philosophy—"My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings.... In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul" (qtd. in Spacks 94)—which then nonetheless goes on to gain wide currency among students of literature because it is incorporated into the notes to The Wasteland, taken by Eliot as a bleak epigraph to his own modem landscape of meaninglessness and despair.

The grim specter of solipsism that haunts Eliot's modem wasteland, Patricia Spacks has persuasively argued, is the same as that haunting Pope's Augustan landscape, with the crucial difference that the "solipsism which is assumed by such later poets as Eliot to be a necessary condition of life seems to Pope a symbol of ultimate evil" (94). Indeed, the very landscape of eighteenth-century poetry as a whole comes into a certain comprehensible focus as soon as we think of Augustanism as the enterprise of resisting the evil of solipsism through the powers of literary expression, and of non-Augustan poetry as what occurs when those powers of resistance have Med. It is some such perspective, at any rate, that allows us to gaze through the religious despair of Cowper's The Castaway to a despair even more bottomless—

No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone;
But I, beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

—or that gives us the speaker of a poem such as Gray's Eton ode as Stephen Cox describes him, as the very image of "the isolated self, reflecting bitterly on its inability to accomplish anything of significance in either thought or action" (91). This, the specter of solipsism not simply as isolation but as spiritual paralysis, is the ultimate evil against which the verse epistle enters into symbolic combat.

The same perspective accounts, too, for the dynamics through which the verse epistle takes over the center earlier occupied by lyric, which, though itself always harboring a certain threat of solipsism, had so for been able to banish that threat through its promise of consummation in the world of the body. For lyric by the later seventeenth century is no longer able to deny the reality of desire as something that reaches out to other minds in the same way, as Lacan has taught us to see, that language reaches out to a world outside itself. "It is quite simply ... as desire of the Other," says Lacan, "that man's desire finds form" (311); "what I seek in speech is the response of the other. What constitutes me as a subject is my question" (86). And Anike Lemaire's remark that such Lacanian pronouncements always turn on the notion of absence or lack may be taken incidentally—or not so incidentally, given that Renaissance lyric is nothing other than the convergent moment of language and desire—as a revelation of the hidden drama always playing itself out behind the lyric speaker's protestations of personal misery: "lack is the void, the zero, that which lies before the instinct.... Lack implies the idea of the lived drama of an irreversible incompleteness rather than that of some erotic appeal" (162). The triumph of the lyric from Petrarch to the late Renaissance would thus have been to contain this drama within the limits of a conventional vocabulary of sexual frustration.

This is why Marvell's To His Coy Mistress stands in relation to the verse epistles of the later seventeenth century as the last lyric, a great valedictory attempt to posit sexual consummation not simply as a reenactment on the physical level of spiritual communion but also as a guarantee that the lady and the world exist separate from the mind of the speaker. For the lady that one convinces through speech or argument may be a figment of one's discourse, but the woman one then touches is indubitably real. We have always known that lyric promises a consummation in which are dissolved all distinctions between mind and body, the spiritual and the physical; what matters now is to see the sense in which that consummation is simultaneously a triumph over the void or absence at the heart of human consciousness. Yet lyric, doomed to remain an endless gesture in the direction of this triumph, remains forever unable to describe it, which is doubtless why such description occurs only when the lyric moment is past, in the passionate remembrance of Pope's Eloisa:

Oh happy state! when souls each other draw,
When love is liberty, and nature, law:
All then is full, possessing, and possest,
No craving void left aching in the breast:
Ev'n thought meets thought ere from the lips it part,
And each warm wish springs mutual from the heart.

This is the context in which Lockean epistemology, with its dissolution of the physical world into private or mental impressions, dissolves the premise of lyric as well. For the Renaissance lyric had always known that even in sexual consummation one is embracing only one's idea of the other person—this is, after all, the moment in Shakespearean romance when the husband sleeps with his own wife thinking she is another woman—but only after Locke does this appear as the possibility of what might be called Berkelian intercourse, in which the lady of a poem such as To His Coy Mistress dissolves into a mere assemblage of tactile sensations. This is why, no doubt, the eighteenth-century verse epistle will so often dwell on sexual consummation as union with a figment of the mind, as in those epistles from Ratisbon in which Etherege imagines English ladies while having sex with German women—"True to my country-woman's charms; / While kissed or pressed in foreign arms" (A Second Letter)—or the Ovidian epistle by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in which young sparks rush urgently to a brothel after paying a call on a married lady—"There pleas'd with fancy'd quality and charms, / Enjoy your beauties in a strumpet's arms" (Arthur Grey)—or the remarkable epistle in which Earl Nugent instructs a married woman to imagine at the moment of sexual climax that her lumpish husband is Nugent himself: "Ah! be those joys for me design'd, / And let me rush upon thy mind! ... / For me unlock the nectar'd store, / Then sigh, and dream the transport o'er!" (To Clarissa).

The implosion of traditional lyric occurs when the notion of human existence as an irreversible drama of incompleteness, the mind reaching ceaselessly out to the Other and finding nothing there, begins in a new climate of Cartesian doubt and Lockean empiricism to appear in the guise of a naked solipsism. For lyric in such a climate will appear at best as the strategem of an exploded metaphysics, and at worst, as in a mid-eighteenth-century jeu d'esprit like Robert Lloyd's Familiar Letter of Rhymes to a lady, as a sort of literary joke:

The poet can, with little pain,
Create a mistress in his brain,
Heap each attraction, every grace
That should adorn the mind or face,
On Delia, Phyllis, with a score
Of Phyllises and Delias more.

Yet the lyric moment is long past when such lines as these come to be written. Already, in Ambrose Philips's demurring epistle to a friend who had demanded a poem on the death of King William—"To blooming Phyllis I a song compose, / And, for a rhyme, compare her to the rose"—we see lyric being demoted to the sort of consciously "minor" poetry that will then survive in the diminished poetic world of Lloyd and his circle. And even after the rebirth of lyric as a Romantic mode, a memory of its eighteenth-century eclipse will linger in something like Paul Valery's description of poetry as (in René Girard's paraphrase) "a purely solipsistic activity practiced by the more able solely out of love for art, while the less able persist in the belief that they are actually communicating with someone" (6–7).

In the later seventeenth century, then, with lyric fading into insubstantiality, the verse epistle grows steadily more visible as though in a sort of metaphysical counterpoint. Nor is it imprecise to speak of metaphysics or visibility here, for in this new epistemological context it is precisely the materiality or autonomy of written language, the verse epistle's formal insistence on its own status as written discourse, that explains its rise to literary dominance. For the curious and important fact is that the same relentlessly empirical impulse that moved Locke to dissolve the world of tables and chairs and trees and mountains into mere mental impressions brought him simultaneously to a compensatory sense of written discourse as something possessing autonomous powers. I write, says Locke wonderingly, "nor when those characters are once made on the paper, can I choose afterwards but see them as they are.... Whence it is manifest, that they are not barely the sport and play of my own imagination, when I find that the characters that were made at the pleasure of my own thoughts, do not obey them" (Essay 634:).

The reason why language assumes for Locke an enormous importance as a surety against the solipsistic implications of his own empiricism has been well explored by Rosalie Colie1 and, more recently, John Richetti. The point here is that, as an emphasis on writing as language in its permanent or autonomous aspect, the same notion becomes a commonplace of eighteenth-century poetics. "Alone," says Richardson the painter, explaining why he writes poems as well as paints, "I think, ... and what I think I write": "The naked thought, an unsubstantial shade, / Embody'd thus, a living creature's made (qtd. in Guilhamet 158). And this, in turn, raises to visibility something always implicit in epistolarity: the sense in which a letter, sent forth into the world, becomes a voice independent of its author. Thus epistolary poetry must always involve, as Barbara Ewell puts it, "the transformation of self into artifact," as when in Englands Heroicall Epistles a letter written by one of Drayton's Ovidian lovers assumes its own defiant voice:

This cannot blush, although you do refuse it,
Nor will reply, however you shall use it;
All's one to this, though you should bid despair,
This still entreats you, this still speaks you fair.
(Ewell 237)

"I make account that this writing of letters," said Donne, thinking of the same phenomenon, "... is a kind of extasie, and a departure and secession and suspension of the soul, which doth then communicate itself to two bodies" (10).

The epistle as written discourse thus has a power, in the phrase of Richardson the novelist, to make "distance, presence; and ... makes even presence but body, while absence becomes the soul," and in this begins its direct confrontation with a specter of solipsism lying at the heart of the epistolary situation, the letter-writer's isolation in time and space. A friendly letter, said Dr. Johnson in the "Life of Pope," is a performance "in the cool of leisure, in the stillness of solitude": a letter is read in a world different from the one in which it was written, and at a time different from that in which it was composed. This is no doubt why the eighteenth-century verse epistle dwells so often on an epistolary space separating writer from addressee, as in William Julius Mickle's Almada Hill, an epistle from Lisbon to a friend at home in England—

While you, my friend, from low'ring wintry plains,
Now pale with snows, now black with drizzling rains,
From leafless woodlands, and dishonour'd bowers
Manded by gloomy mists ...

Pleas'd from the threat'ning tempest to retire,
And join the circle round the social fire;
In other climes through sun-bask'd scenes I stray.

—with an obvious implication: distance, separation, and absence are figures of the mind's aloneness in the world, and an epistolarity that so unperplexedly overcomes them already represents an evident resource for meeting and vanquishing solipsism on its own ground.


Excerpted from The Epistolary Moment by William C. Dowling. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • ONE. Lyric and Epistle, pg. 21
  • FOUR. The Commonwealth of Letters, pg. 112
  • FIVE. The Empire of Chaos, pg. 144
  • NOTES, pg. 177
  • POEMS CITED, pg. 193
  • WORKS CITED, pg. 201
  • INDEX, pg. 211

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