When The Dunciad in Four Books hit the stands in the autumn of 1743, making The New Dunciad old hat after barely eighteen months, Samuel Richardson grumbled in a letter to his friend and sometime client of his printing house, the poet and cultural factotum Aaron Hill, that ‘I have bought Mr Pope over so often, and his Dunciad so lately before his last new-vampt one, that I am tir’d of the Extravagance; and wonder every Body else is not.’ Richardson especially resented the poem’s editorial apparatus, sprawling ever deeper into the reader’s domain of interpretation:
Mr Pope in the Height of his Fame, tho’ he had made himself, by Arts only He (as a Man of Genius) could stoop to, the Fashion, could not trust his Works with the Vulgar without Notes longer than the Work, and Self-praises, to tell them what he meant, and that he had a Meaning, in this or that Place. And thus every-one was taught to read with his Eyes.
The image of Georgian England that still prevails today, some commentators argue, is Georgian England as Pope saw it. The beliefs that inform Pope’s works, and The Dunciad in particular – that the advent of a literary marketplace was ushering in a philistine age; that scientific progress would prove either nugatory or dangerous; that the proliferation of paper credit was eroding public virtue – continue to be taken in many quarters as disinterested statements of fact. Demonstrating that they were, on the contrary, components of an ideology – variously labelled ‘Augustan’ or ‘Scriblerian’ – calculated to serve specific socio-political interests has become a thriving academic trade of late. Cultural practices, reputations and voices that Pope reviled have been revalued.
Christine Gerrard’s combative new biography of Aaron Hill is arguably the most boldly revisionist of the bunch. For rehabilitating Hill is, truly, an uphill task. He appears only briefly in The Dunciad, during the sewer-diving contest in Book Two, and Pope doesn’t plunge him far into the shit:
Then H–– essay’d; scarce vanish’d out of sight,
He buoys up instant, and returns to light:
He bears no token of the sabler streams,
And mounts far off among the Swans of Thames.
He’s only half a half-wit, a demi-dunce. But that modicum of mud stuck fast, helped by Pope’s Victorian editors, Elwin and Courthope (whose hatchet job on Hill has, Gerrard notes, lingered in ‘the collective scholarly memory’), and also to some extent by Hill himself. Almost alone among the butts of The Dunciad, he tried to reason a volte-face out of Pope; and if to the minds of some readers, notably Macaulay, Hill bested his tormentor in the resulting exchange of letters, for others his stolid decency under Pope’s dazzling fire merely sank him deeper into duncedom. Leslie Stephen’s entry on Hill in the first edition of the DNB dismissed him as ‘a bore of the first water’, and subsequent commentators have shared Stephen’s contempt. Only one full-length study of Hill has been published before Gerrard’s, Aaron Hill: Poet, Dramatist, Projector (1913) by Dorothy Brewster, who feared readers would judge it ‘a criminal attempt to increase the present sum of boredom’. For her part, Gerrard records in her introduction that two colleagues ‘wondered how I could be interested in such a “bore” and “creep”’.
So how could she? Not because of the poems, it would seem. Gerrard discusses them only sparingly and quotes even less. Wisely so: Hill composed examples of almost every sort of poem current in Britain between the early years of the 17th century and the middle of the 18th, but few do more than repeat what had oft been thought and elsewhere better expressed. His erotic lyrics and insect poems make a reader long for Donne or Herrick; his Pindaric odes for Cowley or Dryden; his gothic meditation ‘The Dream’ for Il Penseroso or Parnell’s ‘A Night-piece on Death’; his mock diatribe ‘To a Lady who put herself into a bad way, by taking Spirit of Nitre, by Spoonfuls, instead of a few Drops’ for Gay or Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; and ‘The Motto on Pug’s Collar’, ‘On Sir Isaac Newton’ (‘O’er nature’s laws, God cast the veil of night,/Out blaz’d a Newton’s soul – and all was light’) and even ‘To Mr Pope’ (‘The glow-worm scribblers of a feeble age,/Pale twinklers of an hour, provoke my rage’) for Pope himself. Gerrard follows Howard Weinbrot and David Fairer in championing Hill’s biblical odes The Creation (1720) and The Judgment Day (1721) as significant expositions of the sublime in an age addicted to correctness; but the argument isn’t likely to persuade readers confronted by lines as poor as the ones she quotes in support of her case:
Worlds against Worlds, with clashing Horror driv’n,
Dash their broad Ruins to the Throne of Heav’n!
Thro’ flaming Regions of the burning Air,
Down rain distilling Suns, in liquid Rills,
Mix’d with red Mountains of unmelted Fire!
Hissing, perplex’d, with Show’rs of Icy Hills,
And Cat’ract Seas, that roar, from Worlds still higher;
Mingled, like driving Hail, they pour along.
You could hardly do better than this for a textbook example of the verbosity (‘flaming Regions of the burning Air’), meaninglessness (‘unmelted Fire’), bombast (‘with clashing Horror driv’n,/Dash their broad Ruins’) and bathos (those pastoral ‘Rills’) which not only Pope in Peri Bathous but also Hill himself, annotating Edward Young’s Paraphrase on the Book of Job (1719), identified as the stylistic traps lying in wait for prospective exponents of the sublime. Neither The Creation nor The Judgment Day (or, for that matter, any other poem by Hill) features in the excellent anthology of 18th-century verse which Gerrard recently edited with Fairer, even though a number of other voices unfamiliar to general readers, in particular those of women poets and labourer poets, are judiciously included.
What, then, if not the poems? The management of Hill’s posthumous reputation suggests what his contemporaries considered most interesting about him. First onto the market after his death was A Collection of Letters (1751); and when The Works of Aaron Hill, Esq; in Four Volumes, Consisting of Letters on Various Subjects and Original Poems, Moral and Facetious appeared two years later, the Letters got pride of place in volumes one and two. It’s easy to see why. Hill knew pretty much everyone in the London literary circles of his day. His poetic notebooks might have made fairly dull reading, but his address book would have been unputdownable. He corresponded extensively with Pope and Richardson. He gave John Gay a job on his periodical The British Apollo when the future Scriblerian was newly arrived in London from Devon, and was an early and influential advocate of the Scottish poets Mallett and Thomson (the bardic conception of the poet’s role elaborated in Thomson’s preface to the second edition of Winter derives in part from Hill’s critical writings). He also knew the critic John Dennis, John Dyer (the author of the loco-descriptive smash-hit Grongar Hill), Richard Savage, Nahum Tate (the Poet Laureate) and Edward Young (Night Thoughts). For a while, early in his career, Hill acted as secretary to Lord Peterborough, the future honorary Scriblerian; he was also later distantly linked with Bolingbroke, to whom he addressed star-struck letters as a foot-soldier in the ‘patriot’ opposition to Walpole.
Hill’s connections provided Brewster with an alibi for her potentially ‘criminal’ interest in him; her book is built around two long chapters on his dealings with Pope and Richardson. Gerrard, too, is interested in Hill as much for who he knew as for what he knew, but she trawls rather more widely across his acquaintance than Brewster, and for less defensive reasons. She carefully pays in the lines which linked Hill not only to the big fish of Georgian culture but also to smaller fry whom commentators of Brewster’s generation, taking their cue from The Dunciad, might have tossed back into critical oblivion with barely a second glance: the courtier MP William Collier and the theatrical impresario Christopher Rich, for instance, whose battle for control of Drury Lane Hill briefly blundered into in 1711; or the women writers such as Eliza Haywood and Martha Fowke, alias ‘Clio’, who were part of the literary circle that formed around Hill in the early 1720s, and for whom ‘Hillarius’ (Haywood’s romance-name for him) served as patron, agent and object of desire. For Gerrard, Hill’s talent for making such broad and varied contacts is the key to his identity. Gerrard’s Hill is what would nowadays be known as a facilitator, an enabler, or, in her own calculated anachronism, a ‘networker’.
Hill’s networking skills served him well in various of his literary endeavours: assembling teams of writers for his grub-street encyclopedias The British Apollo and The Plain Dealer, promoting his protégés, agitating for the foundation of ‘an academical Theatre, for improving the taste of the stage, and training up young actors and actresses’ (in the more naturalistic mode eventually introduced by Garrick). But they found their most natural outlet in Exchange Alley, the hub of the economic adventurism which had taken hold in the capital around the turn of the 18th century. Here entrepreneurs, or ‘projectors’, brokered contacts between those with scientific innovations to market, or trading expeditions to fund, and members of the newly prosperous middle classes who might once have invested their spare cash in land but were now chasing the higher returns promised by the joint-stock companies which had mushroomed in the ‘enterprise culture’ kick-started by the establishment of the Bank of England and the creation of the national debt. Projectors were then, as they are now, a hyperactive breed, but Hill was more so than most. His plan to make England self-sufficient in oil production by compressing the mast of the nation’s beech forests came to him as he chewed a beechnut on the slopes of Vesuvius while still in his teens. In his prime he was unstoppable, floating, in one two-month period, ideas for repairing the breach in the Thames at Dagenham by dropping perforated bricks into the river from pontoons, manufacturing chinaware out of recycled clay tobacco pipes, making paper out of wood-chippings instead of rags, drying wool using home-grown woad, and milking cows with pipes leading to a mechanical butter churn turned by a treadmill. And he was still at it in his later years when, having sold his plush residence in Petty France and moved out to Plaistow, instead of going gently into the sort of Epicurean retirement recommended in countless 18th-century imitations of Horace, he sank ‘near a hundred thousand French vines’ into the marshy Essex soil in the expectation of becoming ‘master of much the largest vineyard in England’.
One might have thought that it was the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720 that gave projectors a bad name, or Swift’s devastating portrait in Gulliver’s Travels of the crack-brained inmates of the academy of Lagado trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and make spiders spin webs of silk. But ‘projector’ had always been something of a dirty word. Hill never dared apply it to himself. Indeed, he went to great lengths to distinguish his ‘discoveries’ or ‘inventions’ from ‘projects’, defined as early as 1697 by Defoe as ‘a sort of Deceptio Visus or Legerdemain’ – either way, non-indigenous – ‘to bring People to run needless and unusual hazards’. The English were predisposed to regard entrepreneurs as no better than charlatans or mountebanks. Ultimately, Gerrard contends, it is this predisposition which bars us from giving Hill a fair hearing. Only if we can rid ourselves of what she twice refers to as ‘the traditional British disease of self-doubt and cynicism’ can we begin to see 18th-century Britain through Hill’s eyes – as a self-confident, progressive, can-do nation; a land of opportunity; in short, a Britain which looks more like America. (Hill was an enthusiastic proponent of Sir Robert Montgomery’s scheme to establish a colony, ‘Azilia’, in South Carolina, on whose ‘sweet plains where all delights are sure’, in the words of his poem ‘The Western Paradise’, ‘Men can, by turns, be ev’ry thing, but poor.’)
This view is less controversial, and more familiar, than it used to be. Gerrard sometimes sexes up the revisionist credentials of her narrative, however, by coarsening the received view of the period, occasionally giving the impression that Hill’s career was played out against the backdrop of a Manichean struggle between the forces of conservatism and the advocates of reform, gloomy Tory fatalists and indomitable Whiggish idealists. Pope in particular becomes an aunt sally, his self-image as the last bastion of traditionalist literary, social and economic mores accepted at face value in spite of recent research questioning its reliability. Evidence of the enormous effort and skill with which Pope managed his interventions in the commercial literary market, for instance, or of the complexity of his literary and social relations with women, is not permitted to blur the distinctions Gerrard wishes to draw between him and Hill on these scores; while among the scholarship overridden by her claim that Hill had a ‘real desire to liberate the visionary potential of poetry from shallow neo-classical convention’ as promulgated by Pope is the account of the visionary power of Pope’s later satires which Gerrard herself provided in her previous book, The Patriot Opposition to Walpole (1994).
I may be a cynic, but the passages of Aaron Hill: The Muses’ Projector that most appeal to me are those showing that Hill was not all go-getterish self-confidence, brazen Bransonism; that a streak of self-doubt was also part of his make-up; that he was prone to bouts of Scriblerian gloom. The Dunciad’s scenario of cultural decline, repudiated by some of the poem’s victims as regressive or nostalgic, Jacobite sour grapes, struck a chord in Hill. He had to some extent anticipated it, fulminating against Italian opera, Colley Cibber and the ‘birthday odes’ of the poet laureate Laurence Eusden in the pages of The Plain Dealer (1724-25). And, as Gerrard demonstrates in a nuanced discussion, Hill’s response to being attacked in The Dunciad was not to foreswear its apocalyptic idiom in favour of a more optimistic Whiggish narrative, but to turn that idiom against its author. The Progress of Wit: A Caveat; For the Use of an Eminent Writer (1730), addresses Pope as ‘Prince of Fly-Catchers’ and identifies the great poet’s decision to squander his powers on squashing ‘Insect Witlings’ instead of undertaking a nobler poetic task, such as a translation of the Psalms or a patriotic epic, as proof that English culture had indeed bent its knee to the Queen of Dulness. In later years, Pope’s way of looking at things became second nature to Hill: ‘Had you not shot us out a Star or Two, of the first Magnitude, to gild the Horror of our literary Midnight,’ he wrote to Richardson in 1749, irresistibly gravitating towards the last lines of The Dunciad in Four Books, ‘we had been, as we deserve to be, sunk, out of Danger, from the Notice of Posterity, in one covering Void, of Universal Darkness.’ By then, too, Hill’s convictions of the ignobility and inconsequence of the age had increasingly come to centre on himself. Out in the sticks at Plaistow and forced off the entrepreneurial treadmill by ill health, he looked around him and wondered what the point of all his projecting had been. Had his real life’s project been putting off the time when he would be forced to confront that question? He came close to admitting as much to Richardson: ‘I had rather be active without consequence,’ Hill wrote, ‘than idle without aim.’
Glossing that last remark, Gerrard is moved to suggest that Hill was a manic-depressive. She repeats the suggestion at several points in the book, but seems uncomfortable with it, hedging it each time with a disclaimer: Hill was, for example, prone to ‘swings of mood which modern medicine might now diagnose as signs of a manic-depressive personality’. There are sound reasons for such cautiousness; but ‘manic-depressive’ might well be the right word for the Pindaric odes which commentators have long considered most typical of Hill’s imaginative temperament, with their peculiar combination of hyperactivity and contentlessness. What is more, thinking of Hill as ‘manic-depressive’ reveals him as, in a sense, exemplary of the spirit of his age: the age of Samuel Johnson, burying himself under mountainous literary tasks such as editing Shakespeare and compiling a dictionary in order to stave off the terrible prospect of ‘vacancy’; of Hogarth, whose frenetically busy engravings ‘fill up the void in the mind’, in the words of William Hazlitt, who shared Hogarth’s fear of that void; and of The Dunciad itself, a poem at once as maniacally energetic and catatonically depressed as any in the English tradition. Hill’s literary-historical importance may inhere in his suspicion that, for all its entrepreneurial sound and fury, his life had signified nothing. He may be worth remembering because he feared he wasn’t worth remembering. That Hill recognised this melancholy paradox himself is suggested by one of the final acts in his long and difficult relationship with Pope, a relationship which had often turned on matters of merit and memory. In The Progress of Wit, ‘Alexis’ (Pope) sets sail for the Isles of Fame, but is fatally blown off course by his insatiable appetite for the cultural ephemera he encounters en route. The ‘Insect Witlings’ he cannot resist trying to catch are one class of such ephemera; the ‘shells, and stones’ that Alexis delightedly snatches up from the seabed are another. On 7 November 1733, Hill sent Pope some little shells for his grotto, at that time decked out as a ‘marine temple’, with a view to ‘being, sometimes, remember’d’ by the great poet: wedged into ‘the Hollows, between those large shells, which compose it’, they would, Hill hoped, ‘catch a distant eye’.