Thomas Love Peacock

'Marriage may often be a stormy lake, but celibacy is almost always a muddy horse pond.' 

As Thomas Love Peacock's prose and poems attest, satire became the mode and tradition of the 18th century.

Peacock's schooling finished when he was only thirteen, but through his avid interest in reading he educated himself to become an accomplished scholar, even to the degree of becoming a master of French and Italian classical literature.

He enjoyed an executive position at East India House, which gave him enough time to write essays, fiction, poems and translations, as one of his little poems indicates:

From ten to eleven, have breakfast for seven;
 From eleven to noon, think you've come too soon;
From twelve to one, think what's to be done;
From one to two, find nothing to do; 
From two to three, think it will be
A very great bore to stay till four.

He knew many writers, especially Shelley for whose will he was appointed executor.
Mary Ellen, Peacock's eldest daughter, married the poet and novelist George Meredith, but the marriage was not a happy one, and was the subject of Meredith's Modern Love sequence.

Peacock, (1785-1866) died at the age of eighty-one. It's probable that he would have lived to an even more venerable age had he not suffered the sad consequences of a house fire. Even though he had always had a phobia about fires, he refused to abandon his precious library- "By the immortal gods, I will not move!" Although he was finally persuaded to (move), it was all too much for him, and he collapsed.

His greatest satirical achievements are Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817), Nightmare Abbey (1818), and Crotchet Castle (1831). Nightmare Abbey satirises the major poets of the time, (Byron, Coleridge and even Shelley). Apparently none of them ever took offence.

The same applies to Peacock's The Four Ages of Poetry published in Charles Ollier's Literary Miscellany (1820). It's known as a satirical response to Shelley's Defence of Poetry. It's a brilliant comment on what he regarded as overly pretentious doctrines of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth.
His idea was based on a constant decline of poetry from the original 'golden age' to 'silver' then 'bronze' then 'iron.' He, however, starts with 'iron' as the original solid foundation of original poetry. According to Peacock, the poet continues to be 'a semi-barbarian in a civilized community.'

Peacock's style is surprisingly modern. To some extent it's reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's prose, obviously regarding the irony, if not the wit. Wilde however, cannot easily be equalled in the use of paradoxes.

Below is a selected extract from The Four Ages of Poetry, followed by his poem- The War Song of Dinas Vawr, a parody of brutal, gung-ho balads that used to glorify the horrors of war.

From The Four Ages of Poetry
Qui inter haec nutriuntur nonmagis sapere possunt, quam bene olere qui in culina habitant. ('Those who are nourished among these things are no more able to taste than those who live in a kitchen are able to smell.' (Petronius Satyricon 2)

The descriptive poetry of the present day has been called by its cultivators a return to nature. Nothing is more impertinent than this pretension. Poetry cannot travel out of the regions of its birth, the uncultivated lands of semi-civilized men. Mr. Wordsworth, the great leader of the returners to nature, cannot describe a scene under his own eyes without putting into it the shadow of a Danish boy or the living ghost of Lucy Gray, or some similar phantastical parturition of the moods of his mind.°
In the origin and perfection of poetry, all the associations of life were composed of poetical materials. With us it is decidedly the reverse. We know too that there are no Dryads in Hyde-Park nor Naiads in the Regent's canal. But barbaric manners and supernatural interventions are essential to poetry. Either in the scene, or in the time, or in both, it must be remote from our ordinary perceptions. While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age. Mr. Scott digs up the poachers and cattle-stealers of the ancient border. Lord Byron cruises for thieves and pirates on the shores of the Morea and amomg the Greek islands. Mr. Southey wades through ponderous volumes of travels and old chronicles, from which he carefully selects all that is false, useless, and absurd, as being essentially poetical; and when he has a commonplace book full of monstrosities, strings them into an epic. Mr. Wordsworth picks up village legends from old women and sextons, and Mr. Coleridge, to the valuable information acquired from similar sources, superadds the dreams of crazy theologians and the mysticisms of German metaphysics, and favours the world with visions in verse, in which the quadruple elements of sexton, old women, Jeremy Taylor, and Emanual Kant, are harmonized into a delicious poetical compound. Mr. Moore presents us with a Persian, and Mr. Campbell with a Pennsylvanian tale, both formed on the same principle as Mr. Southey's epics, by extracting from perfunctory and desultory perusal of a collection of voyages and travels, all that useful investigation would not seek for and that common sense would reject.¹
These disjointed relics of tradition and fragments of second-hand observation, being woven into a tissue of verse, constructed on what Mr. Coleridge calls a new principle² (that is, no principle at all), compose a modern-antique compound of frippery and barbarism, in which the puling sentimentality of the present time is grafted on the misrepresented ruggedness of the past into a heterogeneous congeries of unamalgamating manners, sufficient to impose on the common readers of poetry, over whose understandings the poet of this class possesses that commanding advantage, which, in all circumstances and conditions of life, a man who knows something, however little, always possesses over one who knows nothing. (...)'

° The Danish Boy and Lucy Gray are poems by Wordsworth. The allusion is to Moods of My Own Mind, the heading to a section of Wordsworth's Poems in Two Volumes (1807).
¹ Allusions to Sir Walter Scott's verse romances eg. The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Byron's narrative verses such as The Giaour or The Bride of Abydos. Southey's epics, eg.Thalaba and Roderick: The Last of the Goths. Wordsworth's The Excursion, etc. Coleridge's super natural poems- The ancient Mariner and Christabel.
Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh. Thomas Cambell's Gertrude of Wyoming.
² Coleridge refers to a meter in the Preface of Christabel 'founded on a new principle... of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables.'

The War Song of Dinas Vawr

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
 And killed the men who held it.

On Dyfed's richest valley,
Where herds of kine were browsing,
We made a mighty sally,
To furnish our carousing.
Fierce warriors rushed to meet us;
We met them, and o'erthrew them:
They struggled hard to beat us;
 But we conquered them, and slew them.

As we drove our prize at leisure,
The king marched forth to greet us:
He rage surpassed all measure,
But his people could not match us.
He fled to his hall pillars;
And, ere our force we led off,
Some sacked his house and cellars,
While others cut his head off.

We there, in strife bewild'ring,
Spilt blood enough to swim in:
We orphaned many children,
And widowed many women.
The eagles and the ravens
We glutted with our foemen;
The heroes and the cravens,
The spearmen and the bowmen.

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
 His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.
'If ifs and ands were pots and pans there'd be no work for tinkers.'

Intro text and caricature of Peacock © Mirino (PW). Sources include The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 2. With thanks. June, 2012

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