Paul Davis

  • Aaron Hill: The Muses’ Projector 1685-1750 by Christine Gerrard
    Oxford, 267 pp, £50.00, August 2003, ISBN 0 19 818388 7

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”’.

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[*] Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology (Blackwell, 561 pp., £19.99, January 2004, 1 405 11319 7).