Writing to rule

Claude Rawson

  • Boileau and the Nature of Neo-Classicism by Gordon Pocock
    Cambridge, 215 pp, £12.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 521 22772 0
  • ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and its Illustrations 1714-1896 by Robert Halsband
    Oxford, 160 pp, £11.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 19 812098 2

Was there such a thing as ‘Neo-Classicism’, outside the special sense of the term which art historians apply to a later period than the one over which students of literature lose so much of their composure? It seems to have existed sufficiently strongly in French studies to have produced a body of revisionist denials. The term ‘Neo-Classic’ has largely dropped out of the corridors of Englitbiz, usually to be replaced by ‘Augustan’, though one of the most loudly ballyhooed non-events in recent English studies has been an attempt to dislodge ‘Augustan’ too, on the grounds that some 18th-century authors took a dim view of Augustus Caesar. This, as someone remarked, is a bit like dropping the word ‘candidate’ because such persons no longer wear a white toga.

Mr Pocock is untroubled by problems of nomenclature, ignoring (I suppose in the French as well as the English sense of ignoring) the existence of this particular non-problem. He uses ‘Augustan’ of English poets as readily as he uses ‘Neo-Classic’ of the French, though with a more refreshing air of prelapsarian innocence. For he knows that in France the value of the word, and even the existence of the thing, have been questioned, and he intends to assert both. Not for him, however, the convenient imprecision of approximate labels, which are serviceable largely because they identify a broadly recognised set of common features (as one might use ‘Augustan’ to refer to Swift, Pope or Fielding and not to Defoe, Richardson or Blake) without claiming to force every individual case into a tight and elaborate fit. For him ‘Neo-Classicism’ means the rules codified by Renaissance pedagogues, the Horatian injunction to instruct and to please, and a few other things which are either (like the former) so specific and limiting as to raise the question of how the system survived for more than five minutes among authors of intelligence and talent if they understood it as Mr Pocock does: or (like the latter) so unspecific as to be applicable in his hands to almost any text in almost any way. An endearingly bizarre example is this passage on the continuity between the Middle Ages and Neo-Classic times: ‘A well-known device of medieval poetry is allegory, by which moral truths can be taught delightfully. This doctrine also flourishes in neo-classicism.’

‘Doctrine’ is a favourite word, though the usage here is more than usually loose, and it seems curious that a volume devoted to the expounding and rehabilitation of Neo-Classicism should lay quite so much stress on the ‘doctrinal’ channels of transmission and very little on the imaginative ones. The two, in any live culture, are not easily separable. But the idea that the Classical tradition was more securely passed on from great poet to great poet than through the repetition of precepts might have seemed better calculated to win over the supposedly resistant modern reader, as well as being what Boileau or Pope tended to think anyway.

It is certainly how English Augustans often looked on Boileau himself. When Spence recorded Pope’s remarks on the subject, that was the visible emphasis: ‘Boileau the first poet of the French in the same manner as Virgil of all the Latin. Malherbe (longo inter-vallo) the second’. Malherbe was the one who introduced correctness, or Augustanised French verse, much as Waller and Denham were felt to have done for English. ‘Enfin Malherbe vint’ is Boileau’s celebration of his impact on the progress of French poetry in the Art Poétique. The correctness he brought was, in reality, no very Classical thing per se, in the sense that it had nothing much in common with the Greek or Latin poets. But it was felt, in an obscure but potent sense, to be an integral part of the ‘Neo-Classical’ enterprise: thus also ‘Augustanism’ often refers to those features in English writers which are least like the Roman poets (the couplet, for example, or ‘wit’ or the drawing-room ethos), yet insists by name on the Roman connection.

Boileau was something else. Dryden called him ‘a living Horace and a Juvenal’, and credited him with the perfecting of a new idiom, that of serious mock-heroic, the ‘most noble kind of satire’ in which ‘the majesty of the heroic’ is ‘finely mixed with the venom of the other’. Dryden is said to have thought he had invented this himself in Mac Flecknoe, and had to be reminded that he’d got it from Le Lutrin. Boileau’s mock-epic about a clerical squabble which also helped to make possible Pope’s Rape of the Lock. That is a literally neo-classical thing. It derived from and presupposed an awareness of ancient epic, but in a new ironic way – not as mere parody (there had always been plenty of that), but as a primary creative idiom, the edgy product of an age that revered epic but could neither write it straight nor leave it alone.

It is in these senses that Boileau was, for Dryden as for Pope, ‘a living Horace and a Juvenal’, as well as the first of the French in the manner in which Virgil was ‘of all the Latin’. What Le Lutrin did to link the serious epic with the satires of a later day the Art Poétique achieved more directly for the line of poems about poetry which runs from Horace’s Ars Poetica to Pope’s Essay on Criticism. Part of his impact was as a poetic model, but he was of course also regarded as an authority, and it is in the nature of arts of poetry to hand down precepts. Pope values (and practises) this too, but the praise of Boileau on this point in the Essay on Criticism is notoriously double-edged:

But Critic Learning flourish’d most in France.
The Rules, a Nation born to serve, obeys
And Boileau still in Right of Horace sways.

Pope’s main sarcasm is at the expense of traditional British complacencies about the servility of the French and means that the vaunted English freedom is really an anarchic barbarism, ‘unconquer’d, and unciviliz’d’. But the compliment is elaborately backhanded. Empson’s famous gloss that ‘while Pope despises the English for breaking the rules he contrives still more firmly to despise the French for keeping them’ may sound a little bald, but a sarcasm about a sarcasm doesn’t comfortably cancel out into wholehearted approval.

If Pope welcomed Boileau’s authority, and even ‘the Critick’s Law’ it partly rested on, he was more insistent and more eloquent than most in his reminders that the ‘rules’ were distilled from poems and not invented for them (‘discover’d, not devis’d’), that they had a creative and ordering rather than a restricting relation to ‘Nature’, that they were means and not ends and should be interpreted humanely. There is about his writing on the subject something of that immediacy of practical concern of a writer for his craft which we sense in Ben Jonson when he says that a writer might find in Aristotle ‘not only ... the way not to err, but the short way we should take not to err’. The idea was common, and Jonson is in fact translating from the Latin of the Dutchman Heinsius. The Latin lacks the fervour of practicality which Jonson made largely his own, but that fervour is even further removed from Chapelain’s version of the commonplace that the rules were short-cuts to composition, which Mr Pocock cites, and which speaks of invariable precepts and dogmas eternally true removing the need for recherches douteuses and teaching us in a moment what no single man could arrive at by himself in less than several centuries. The level of abstraction at which the idea of the short-cuts is contemplated is even more striking than the insistence on the préceptes invariables and the dogmes d’éternelle vérité. Those centuries which a man might take without the rules removes the contemplation of the rules themselves to a domain of remote hyperbole, a long way away in practice from ‘the short way we should take not to err’. The one thing which is left out of sight on this plane of rhetorical fantasy is any vivid sense of a real author on the ground considering the practicalities of his craft, though the short-cuts in question purport to be for his use more than anybody’s.

Mr Pocock speaks of Chapelain’s awkward prose stumbling into life at this point, but if there is any life it is that of a self-intoxicating pedantry rehearsing the ghoulish pleasures of a mental closed system. It is against this kind of thing that the half-concealed anti-Gallicanism which Empson identified in Pope’s lines about critic learning flourishing most in France was mainly directed. ‘Neo-Classicism’, in this uglier form, is neither of one time nor of one place. The type is always with us, with its fondness for formalist methodologies, the comforts of systematic procedure, the self-validations of centralising precept, and other assorted mechanical operations of the spirit. There may be something in the view that France is where this ‘flourishes most’. Its classroom descendant of yesterday is the explication de texte, and a glossier reincarnation wears smart Parisian clothes in the deconstructive carnivals of the international conference circuit. But who shall ’scape whipping? The thing is indeed international, and so was its older version, and it would be hard to claim that all Frenchmen were in its grip, whether then or now. The ‘Neo-Classicism’ which Mr Pocock attributes to Boileau comes near to this older version, although he would doubtless have us think otherwise. Pope knew that Boileau himself bore little resemblance to that atrophy of Classicism which sturdy Britons were quick to attribute to the slavish French. Boileau is not really being blamed for this in Pope’s lines on the subject, but the disturbing thing is that he is being praised for it by Mr Pocock.

A little fable about Virgil in the Essay on Criticism illustrates a different Neo-Classicism. Virgil is first imagined as a young poet, scorning ‘the Critick’s Law’ and drawing only ‘from Nature’s Fountains’. But later, says the next couplet,

            when t’examine ev’ry Part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.

There is a tacit transition in the narrative from critic’s law to Homeric poem, as though they, too, were much the same. The rules were Nature too: ‘To copy Nature is to copy Them.’ The sliding, whether cunning or instinctive, is typical of Pope’s easy sense of the closeness of ‘just Precepts’ and ‘great Examples’ to one another. But they are not substitutes. Their relationship is a working one, as in Jonson’s ‘short way we should take not to err’. The ‘great Examples’ come first and last, and in the line about Nature and Homer he knows exactly where he wants his final emphasis to rest. The energy of the passage comes mainly from that last line. It has little to do with the truth or plausibility of the account of Virgil, or with any status or immediacy it may have as a piece of transferred autobiography on the part of a self-idealising Pope. The sentiment, paraphrased, might seem banal, and the compliment to Homer would be a mere paradoxical turn or elegancy if it were not for the glow of excited recognition, the spare finality as of an old truth suddenly become vivid. The declared pieties of Neo-Classical doctrine, the roll-call of revered masters, the sketch of Virgil’s career act as a mere catalyst for the real point, which is that of an exhilarated personal recapturing of the whole Classical tradition.

Such moments of fervour, where the penny suddenly drops, irradiating all the assertions of loyalty with an urgency of freshly re-experienced conviction, may be found in most of the great Neo-Classic poets, in Milton and in Dryden and of course in Boileau. In particular, Pope’s line about Nature and Homer compares in force and resonance with that other memorable declaration of European Neo-Classicism, Boileau’s ‘Enfin Malherbe vint.’ Boileau was here celebrating a modern end-product of Classicism, Pope its origin and earliest full-fledged triumph. But both passages achieve their distinction by transcending the bits of literary history which they are ostensibly offering. The merits of Malherbe, or the accuracy of Boileau’s account of the progress of French poetry, are secondary to the sense of excited appropriation of a tradition whose liberating vitality has become manifest. Mr Pocock is right that Ronsard and Malherbe, like Horace and other Classical authors named in Boileau’s poem, ‘appear as representatives of particular positions rather than as historical figures’. He seems to mean this in a somewhat deadening ‘allegorical’ sense, and certainly not one which directs our attention away from the ‘historical’ Malherbe to Boileau’s felt sense of the liberation of poetry in the new correctness, in just cadence and the power of the well-placed word (Mr Pocock, whose translations from Boileau are frequently inelegant and occasionally inexact in phrasing or tone, seems oddly to think that ‘D’un mot mis en sa place enseigna le pouvoir’ means that Malherbe is being ‘associated with power’).

The Art Poétique is an ‘imitation’ of Horace’s Ars Poetica, which stands behind Boileau’s poem as both stand behind Pope’s: as richly pervasive presences even more than as repositories of precepts, which they of course also are. The later poem in each case includes a signposted awareness and a sense of the active survival of its predecessors. What Boileau would call the ‘commerce’ between them enacts a chain of ‘imitation’ which is itself one of the great pathways of the Classical tradition.

Mr Pocock has little to say about ‘imitation’, and in a discussion of the Art Poétique which takes up more than a third of his book, Horace is mentioned only on a handful of perfunctory occasions, and at best only as a local ‘source’ in a strictly limited sense. His pathway to Boileau runs from the prefaces of Chapelain rather than from the poems of Horace. This may explain why he finds it so difficult to get past the ‘doctrine’. He claims at one point to transcend this by reading the Art Poétique as a ‘dramatic event’, but this turns out to mean mainly that the poem was partly designed to be read aloud. There is despite some perfunctory notions no serious intention to come to terms with the question of whether the greatness of the Art Poétique (or the Ars Poetica or Essay on Criticism) can fully be accounted for by the precepts which they enunciate, or whether they observe these precepts, or formulate them in ways which ask in particular places if not in all to be taken at other than face value. And there is little awareness that the Neo-Classic system, if it existed as a live system, must have done so even more as a habit of mind, a set of velleities and aspirations, of loyalties and spiritual kinships, of questionings and hesitancies and contradictions, than as an elaborate and conformist structure of formal belief.

Mr Pocock is clearly better read in the works of the 17th-century critics than in those of Classical or Renaissance poets. He can register every turn and counterturn in the debate over the dramatic unities, every hint of a blend of low and lofty styles, every reassertion of the old prescription about mixing pleasure and instruction, and every occasion when Boileau’s poems achieve this mixture or either component of it. But he shows a pronounced tendency to interpret as particular to Boileau attitudes or stylistic features which are recognised commonplaces of Classical and Neo-Classic satire. He says of a passage denouncing Alexander the Great as a conquering madman that ‘this seems to represent Boileau’s personal view, as it recurs in other works and is not a 17th-century commonplace’, although attacks on Alexander as a type of the folly and immorality of conquest were common from Classical times (Lucan, Juvenal) through the Renaissance (Rabelais) to the English Augustans (Pope, Young, Fielding).

A larger case involves a set of early satires in which Boileau portrays himself as comically besieged by the discomforts and nuisances of the town, unable to sleep for these and other irritations, and driven compulsively to write his angry satires in spite of worldly advice to the contrary from a temporising inner voice or a prudent friend. This set of predicaments is a common routine of self-portraiture in the satires of Horace and Juvenal, as well as in later satirists from Régnier to Pope and beyond, who write with a richly conscious and allusive sense of being engaged in a recognisably traditional enterprise. The last item, involving a debate between the righteous satirist and some kind of moderating adversary, was standard in satiric self-apologies, a fact not only evident in the poets but much discussed by later (including recent) scholarship. But Mr Pocock takes it all as a matter of anguished self-division, personal to Boileau.

The case of the satirist’s self-portraiture is a small example of how a literary tradition perpetuates itself through signposted commonplaces, scenes or attitudes or situations which acquire a kind of standardised significance, expected in advance or instantly recognised when encountered. They come charged with past history, and signal their relation to it with whatever allusive flavour of witty surprise or tacit familiarity. This hardly rules out a personal dimension, though to see only the personal dimension is to falsify even that.

Such commonplaces, where they are part of a live tradition, tend to establish themselves as ‘classic’ in more than the specifically Graeco-Roman sense. They become norms of utterance, things one says and ways of saying them which are called for or generated by certain occasions. They may be absorbed unconsciously and even turned to ugly or inhumane uses. Readers of Céline will not instinctively think of him as belonging to a tradition which includes Horace and Boileau. He would have abhorred this, and it him (although the notion that he assumes some of the accents of Juvenalian denunciation and some ancient postures of righteous madness need not, I think, cause surprise). But several of his works, including Mort à Crédit and the notorious series of anti-semitic ‘pamphlets’ beginning with Bagatelles pour un massacre, set up the traditional kind of half-comic self-mythologising portrait of the besieged satirist, surrounded by noisy nuisances and sycophants, unable to sleep for all the noise and wickedness, protesting his beleaguered virtue, incapable of not writing his angry denunciations or of softening his attacks on the powerful, though urged to do so by a prudent and temporising friend, an adversarius in the mould of Horace’s Trebatius or Pope’s Fortescue. That ‘friend’ is Gustin in Mort à Crédit and also in Bagatelles where he later turns into Gutman the Jew. The temporising friend, the noisy nuisances, the powerful establishment whom Céline has the integrity to attack, and the other traditional targets of the older satirists, all become Jews in Bagatelles – a somewhat specialised narrowing of the customary satiric spectrum as Céline’s one-track obsessiveness is a narrowing and a curdling of the large humanity of the satiric masters. But the forms and the detailed particularities of self-mythologising are the Classic ones, though this is hardly the most agreeable example of the transmission of the Classical tradition through poems or poetic moments, rather than through precepts. Perhaps its very availability to unexpected, perverse and evil uses is itself a sign of the potency of its survival. Or perhaps, in this as in its more formalistic aspects, Neo-Classicism is, or was not long ago, alive and sick and living in Paris.

Boileau is, oddly, also the hero of the other book under review, Robert Halsband’s study of the illustrations to Pope’s Rape of the Lock. This is not just because Le Lutrin is a major source of Pope’s poem, but because the Rape of the Lock was unusual among 18th-century poems in the number of illustrations in its first edition (1714), and because that was anticipated two years earlier in the second edition of the English translation of Boileau’s poem by Ozell. Two other mock-Classical poems also got illustrations in the same year and from the same artist as the Rape: Gay’s Shepherd’s Week and an edition of Garth’s Dispensary. From that point on, Pope’s poem has a rich history among painters and illustrators, including Fuseli and culminating in Beardsley. I found Professor Halsband’s book engrossing to read and beautiful to look at. He will forgive me for pointing out that Thomas Parnell cannot have paid tribute to Pope’s genius in 1722, for he died in 1718.