Henry Fielding – “Joseph Andrews” (a fragment)

The fragment from Fielding’s novel Joseph Andrews opens the newly introduced section in the 9th edition of the NAEL “Low People and High People” (Prior’s “An Epitaph” was included there as well) and also provided the title for the section. The starting point it that Mrs Slipslop, a house manager to Lady Booby, by coincidence is in the same inn as her former colleague, servant Fanny, but pretends not to recognize her. In order to explain this behaviour, Fielding starts a digression about Low People and High People. The two classes don’t mix and don’t speak with each other in public: High People inhabit courts, operas, balls, while Low People inhabit bear gardens, fairs and revels. The only two places where the two classes meet are churches and playhouse, and even there they keep a strict division: in church, High People sit up in the gallery, while in the playhouse it is the other way round and they sit down in the pit and in the lower tiers of the gallery, while Low People have to sit in the upper tiers of the gallery, where seats are cheaper. So it’s small wonder that Mrs Slipslop pretends not to recognize Fanny, because the highest orders of the Low People and the lowest orders of the High People are often interchangeable, and lower people often imitate the manners of their superiors. And anyway, your position in social hierarchy is relative and is largely defined by when you have to get up. Fielding describes it in the manner which is a parody of “the great chain of being”: early in the morning the postillion (the youngest and lowest servant) has to wake up and clean the clothes of the upper servant, who then has to perform the service for the valet, who then performs the same service for the master. But the bucket doesn’t stop there, because then the master goes to visit a Lord, who then goes to visit a Favourite, who then goes to visit the King. So everybody is socially speaking equidistant from those directly higher and lower than him. This digression ends with Parson Adams, who is a kind-hearted and bumbling character, saying to Mrs Slipslop, “Look, this is Fanny you used to work with, don’t you recognize her?”. To which Mrs Slipslop, who often tries to use the words she doesn’t quite understand, answers, “I think I reflect something of her, but I can’t remember all the inferior servants in our family”.

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Matthew Prior – “A Better Answer”

It’s another light poem, marred quite severely by its patronizing tone. The subtitle of the poem is “To Cloe jealous” and it’s purpose is to explain to the poet’s lover, named conventionally Cloe, why she shouldn’t be. First of all, he chides her for spoiling her good looks with weeping and neglecting her curls, because her good looks were given to her by Venus “to inspire love and joy”, i.e. she owes it to him to look good always. Cloe is apparently jealous about a poem written in praise of another lady and the poet explains to her that what he says and what he writes are as different as nature and art. His poetic inspiration may roam elsewhere, but in real life he always returns to her, like the Sun always setting down to rest on the breast of the nereid Thetis. So Cloe should stop being jealous and make up with the poet, like the Roman poet Horace made up with his ex-lover Lydia, because she is as much smarter than she as Horace was as much better poet than him.

Matthew Prior – “An Epitaph”

I am going to do a bit of mash-up here, because at this point the 9th edition of the NAEL, which I have thanks to the courtesy of W. W. Norton, diverges from the 8th edition, cutting some poets and adding a section on high and low life in the eighteenth century, which looks rather interesting. So I’m going to read first the texts from the 8th edition, and then move to the 9th.

Matthew Prior was a high-ranking diplomat who wrote poetry in his free time. When after a change of government he lost his job and was the object of an investigation, the advertising campaign from his friends Pope and Swift helped his collection of poems to sell so well that it allowed him to live comfortably until the end of his life (which was just three years, but still it’s remarkable that anybody managed to earn a living just by writing poetry). “An Epitaph” is an arch poem, ostensibly on the grave of an upper-class married couple who never did anything bad – but neither did they do anything good. They just lived from one day to another, ate and slept, “and having buried children four/Would not take pains to try for more”, which is a rather chilling comment. They didn’t have any siblings, either. They neither chided nor praised their servants, so they worked as indifferently. They enjoyed big meals and gave the remnants to the poor just when about they “grew not fit to eat”. They paid church taxes and considered themselves to be entitled by that to sleep every Sunday in the best pew in the church. They were also completely indifferent to politics and (if I understand correctly) they sent drinks to all revellers, no matter if they celebrated a death or a birth, and firewood to all fires celebrating either a crowning or a deposition. The poem is written in rhyming tetrameters, a line a bit shorter than the traditional pentameter, suited for its rather light tone (even though the subject is rather serious).

Anne Finch – “A Nocturnal Reverie”

This poem, like the previous one, is written in elegant rhyming couplets. It describes the beauty of a warm summer night contrasted with the scorching day. It’s a long list of when-clauses, and it’s quite difficult to find out what is the main clause in this sentence, but I think it comes at the end.  The night is the time when the earth can breathe after a hot day. The glow-worms show “trivial beauties” how to shine for one hour, while Lady Salisbuty, Finch’s friend, is beautiful 24/7 (this compliment is kind of awkwardly inserted in the poem). The smells subdued by the heat can now develop (I thought heat increases smells, especially bad ones, but what do I know). In the gloom an ancient structure looks even more venerable. A horse left to graze at night scares us until we hear its munching and realize what it is. Some sheep nibble their food and cows chew their cud. Curlews and partridges cry. This is a jubilee of all creatures when “tyrant man” is asleep. In this calm landscape soul can really feel unified with nature. Finally we reach the main clause: the speaker wishes to remain out of doors on such a night until the break of day, with its cares and toils; if there are any pleasures, they are “seldom reached”.

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea – “The Introduction”

Anne Finch, as you can guess from her title, was an aristocrat who lived most of her life far away from the court and wrote elegant poetry. “The Introduction”, despite its title, was never published in her lifetime (even though she did publish some of her poetry). In this poem she meditates upon the challenges every woman writer had to (has to) cope with: their texts are going to be called insipid and doubt, some wits who attained this name just by being critical of everything are going to say that they lack wit, and everyone is going to say, “Of course it looks like written by a woman”. Women are repeatedly told that they are only good for dressing well, dancing, playing an instrument and running the house. But it was not always so, and Finch quotes examples from the Bible. She imagines the choirs of the virgins who greeted the Ark as the oldest poets. She emphasizes that when they greeted David, Saul shook on his throne, because he realized at least the female half of the nation was already supporting David. She also names the prophetess Deborah as a poet of Israel. But now we are fallen and women are “education’s, more than nature’s fools”: by their limited education they are barred from more creative pursuits. Thus Finch cautions her Muse to retire into shadowy groves, where she can sing to her own sorrows and to a few select friends.

Daniel Defoe – “Roxana” (the end)

Roxana’s lover answers her that she must have moved in some very terrible circles to have such negative experiences, but most marriages are not like that. Anyway, he has enough money to provide both of them with comfortable life anywhere they want to live, and if she is not fine with giving him the control over her money, he is fine with giving her control over his. So they are going to be in the same ship together and she is going to be behind the steering wheel. Roxana retorts that she knows that at ships it is often the pilot who is in charge and the ship boy behind the steering wheel must do only what the pilot tells him to, but he says, no no, you are going to be both the helmswoman and the pilot. Roxana says, it’s not you, but the laws of matrimony: you may be personally a very nice man and you say you will be happy to give me the management of our joint estates, but the law is on your side, not mine. Roxana’s lover then resorts to social and religious arguments: marriage is an estate established by God to produce legally recognized offspring. Roxana says, I grant you that, I shouldn’t have had sex with you without marriage, but I couldn’t overcome my repulsion towards marriage and I couldn’t resist you. But there is a solution for my predicament, that is repentance for what I have done and not repeating the offence in the future. Her lover says, it’s not what I meant, but Roxana argues that marrying your former lover is actually exacerbating the problem, not solving it. When a man and a woman hook up together, they can go their separate ways after that, keep it a secret, and never return to this sin of the past. But marrying the man you’ve had illicit sex with is like “to befoul oneself, and live always in the smell of it” (in plainer English, shitting and then never washing yourself). The man is going to upbraid the woman sooner or later, her children are going to know as well, and if they are virtuous, they are going to hate their mother, and if they are sinful, they are going to cite her as an example. Her lover says that most women are not really capable of governing their estates and they are happy to relieve themselves of this trouble by putting it in the hands of their husbands, but Roxana retorts that maybe they should be less afraid of the trouble and more afraid for their money. Her lover says, sorry to bother you, I meant only well, I’m sure I would never upbraid you about your premarital sex and I am sure you know I am better than that. But to save you trouble, I am going to follow your advice, that is go back to Paris and as you suggest, we can go our separate ways and forget about what happened. And then Defoe unexpectedly backpedals and has Roxana comment in a later excerpt that thus, because of her vanity, she lost the only opportunity to secure her fortune. I guess Defoe got scared about how effective his arguments were. The whole dispute is a bit chaotic, and I think Defoe would have greatly benefitted from having a word processor: then he would be able to move easily the argument about women being mostly bad with money several paragraphs earlier, after Roxana’s argument about law being on the side of men. As it stands, I am afraid Defoe just didn’t feel like re-writing it. (He produced HUGE amounts of copy, all with a quill and ink.) But on the other hands, most real-life discussions are a bit chaotic and not like exercises from a handbook of rhetorics, so maybe he was right, after all.

Daniel Defoe – “Roxana” (ctd.)

Roxana is dumbstruck because her lover hit the nail on the head: she in fact doesn’t want to marry him because she is going to lose the control over her money. But she is ashamed to admit that it’s easier for her to give a man her virtue than her money. And also, she thinks that marrying him under the conditions he offered, i.e. not giving him her money, would be “Gothic” and would eventually lead to discord. So she has to think about other arguments, even if she doesn’t quite believe them – but they are quite good. In the present legal conditions, she says, a married woman is no better than a slave. He admits she has a point, but answers that men have to worry about supporting their families, while women can just have fun. And even in poorer families, where they can’t afford servants and wives have to be their own housekeepers, it is still a much easier job than any working outside the home (Oh, really?) She answers that while a woman is single, she is fully in control of her life and destiny. Women are as capable of governing themselves as men, so the best option for them is to never marry, keep their money and if they need, take lovers just like men take mistresses. He really can’t find an answer to that, just says that in most marriages the loss of liberty is made up for by affection. And this is the worst thing, says Roxana, because the promise of affection entices women into marriage, where they are completely dependent on their husbands. And when their husbands go bankrupt, women lose everything, including their jointure, have to follow them into hiding from debtors and see their children starve. He doesn’t know that she speaks from experience, having been abandoned by her first husband. These are good arguments but all of them still revolve around Roxana being unwilling to give up her money. But maybe Roxana’s point is that in the 18th century the idea of separate property in marriage didn’t exist and wife had to pay her husband’s debts, no matter what they wrote in their pre-nups.