Decorum and the rural poor in English and Scots poetry, 1770-1812
This study depends on the premise that rural poetry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries provides more reliable evidence of contemporary assumptions about poetry than of contemporary knowledge of the rural poor. According to the concept of neoclassical decorum, poetry was expected to achieve a balance between the probable and the morally admirable. As the ideals of poetry's major audience became more urban and middle-class (if the reviewers may be taken as representative), what was regarded as probable by the poet and recognized as admirable by the reader began to diverge. Consequently the poet's role, as dramatized in his poetry by his persona, began to change, from commentator to mediator to seeker after uncertain values. Early nineteenth-century reviewers tended to interpret poetry in such a way as to confirm their sense of the centrality of the urban middle classes. They would approve poetry which presented their milieu as the repository of values, the pivot of consensus, and were less responsive to poetry which defined their interests as peripheral, requiring mediation with other sets of values. Decorum began to be interpreted as a harmony not of social relations but of more private and less holistic moral values. Correspondingly it became less common for poetry to refer, by means of abstractions (the 'poetic diction' rejected by Wordsworth), to the implicit context of consensual beliefs provided by decorum. The increasing emphasis on sentiment and particularity of description in poetry suggests a weakening of decorum. It indicates a growing effort to determine the response of the reader by means of a context created by the individual poem alone. Moreover, the experimental techniques of the major poets discussed in this study point to a dissatisfaction with conventional notions of decorum. Their experiments stemmed, in part, from their concern with the rural poor and their consequent detachment from the increasingly assertive urban literary milieu. Goldsmith, for instance, attempted to amalgamate the older kind of poetry of social relations with the newer kind of poetry of individual sensibility in order to advocate a social order based on values which were less mercantile and more familial. Crabbe emphasized the irregularity and discord of contemporary society in order to expose the unreality of the ideals of harmony and uniformity basic to decorum. Similarly Cowper concentrated on apparently insignificant details in order to challenge accepted proprieties. Burns made use of the ironic and dramatic qualities of the Scots vernacular tradition to present a moral and social relativity which threatened the hierarchical assumptions of his readers. Wordsworth's poetry embodies the most thoroughgoing rejection of the implicit contract of decorum connecting the proprieties of the poem with social proprieties -r he attempted to recreate a consensus on the basis of unmediated individual experience. Although the risk of isolating idiosyncrasies led to compromises in the work of all of these poets, it was their common effort to forge a new consensus between poet and reader (rather than the celebration of the individual sensibility more commonly associated with Romanticism) which enabled them to escape the divisions which rend the poetry of Clare.