Reading Parker’s chapter on Pope was both difficult and interesting for me. Difficult because I have not done much work in the beginning of the century for years now, and interesting because the Augustan poets created my early love affair with the eighteenth century. The first class I took for my masters degree, nearly 10 years ago at the tender age of 21, straight out of my bachelors program, was Augustan Satire, Parody, and Burlesque. The course followed the same rough outline that Parker takes in his book: we began with Butler’s Hudibras and continued on with Swift’s scatalogical poetry, which fascinated and mystified me, and moved on to Pope and Gay. As Dave wrote, there were numerous sections in Parker’s book that pulled together a lot of things about the individual writers I had previously thought but not in an organized way. Parker’s book is so dense and his analysis so layered that I have found it enormously difficult to be critical–I feel like my three year-old daughter must feel when she looks at the selection of princess dolls at the Disney store and all she can say is, “Wow.” There were so many different ideas that really intrigued me that I am having a hard time picking just a few to discuss.
There are aspects of the chapter that are brilliant. Parker’s analysis of the meaning of the sylphs in The Rape of the Lock is one such aspect. Rejecting previous interpretations of the sylphs and their role within the poem, Parker suggests rather that the sylphs have no real function in the poem, and that this is Pope’s point in including them. They are not real; they do not exist. Parker writes, “The imagination alone can add them. They are beautiful traces of cultural memory. Their elaboration only enforces the strict realization of their metaphysical impossibility” (106). The non-existence of the sylphs works, according to Parker, to emphasize to the reader Belinda’s “autonomy–and through Belinda the autonomy of the man or woman of sentiment. By collapsing the heavenly and the demonic spheres, the binarism of Renaissance spirituality becomes purely psychological” (106).
Another intriguing aspect of Parker’ s argument in this chapter is his notion that Pope’s inclusion of the sylphs helps make the satire in the poem seem gentler and thus “masks” the Hudibrastic elements of the poem: “The sylphs, the sphere of the angelic and the fatal, lack the real force and weight of the personified ‘Discord’ of Boileau, the ‘Ignorance’ of Butler, the ‘Absurdity’ of Hobbes, or Dryden’s ‘Dullness.’ All these are substantial elements in the moral landscape of the Augustan world. Their role is to anatomize the vices of the vain and ignorant and to clear a space for the Lockeian sensus communis. Such a withering critique retains the normative power of traditional satire. In this difference lies the particular power and charm of Pope’s poem. For the modern reader, Butler and Swift may appear to bludgeon mankind. Their satire is often violent, sometimes repellant. The Rape of the Lock, while performing the cultural work of Augustan satire–that is, clearing away the rubble of the past, and making a space for the imperturbable observer–does it with such grace and elan that it goes unnoticed” (107). In all, Parker’s discussion of The Rape of the Lock and particularly of the role of the sylphs within the poem made me wish, as I think Carrie and Dave have also, that I had read this book before now.
What most intrigues me is Parker’s larger point about the scope of the Augustan “project,” if such it can be called, and the ways in which he suggests poetics dictates similar shifts in other fields. I am really interested in his notion that imaginative shifts create philosophical ones, rather than the other way around. There was one particular section that struck me in this regard: “Although the low Augustan, the Hudibrastic, has an obvious counterpart in the practice of Hogarth, and the higher in Gainsborough and Wilson, these connections point to an underlying departure from emblem and icon. Landscape and history painting invoke the classical as literal” (122). This passage encapsulates a primary point of Parker’s third chapter: the classicism in Pope is transformed from analogical to literal through Pope’s use of what Parker calls “the method of the empirical within poetry” (122). However, the passage also points to the broadness of Augustanism in the early 18th century and reinforces his previous hints about the connections between Augustan poetics and novelistic writing. These hints were tantalizing to me, almost in an agonizing way, because they were just hints–I wanted more in-depth discussion of the connections between Augustan poetics and the novel, though I recognize that such a discussion lies outside of Parker’s purpose in this work.
There were so many of these types of hints that made me stop reading and just think for a while–one or two sentences in which, as I said above, random thoughts I’d had about the writers coalesced into more distinct shapes–and the more I try to write about them, the less satisfied I become with this post. So I will stop here and hope to continue the discussion in the comments area.