Another bad to terrible idea* from Wuthering Expectations: a week or so writing about Thomas Love Peacock, friend of Percy Shelley, author of satirical novels, poems, and whatsits. Not a forgotten author – I have evidence to the contrary – but one who is sliding in that direction. I read three of his novels recently, Nightmare Abbey (1818), Crotchet Castle (1831), and Gryll Grange (1860) and enjoyed them all quite a lot, but I have some doubts about the, what shall I call it, universality of their appeal.
Fortunately, I can point to a brief exception, a well-prepared, clove-encrusted taste of Peacock, his 1829 poem “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.
“The War Song” continues for four more stanzas; Peacock wisely wrote short. In some sense, the poem is topically satirical, parodying the crude but sanitized blood-thirstiness of the flood of fake Border ballads and “historical” poems inspired by the success of Walter Scott and Thomas Moore and so on. Peacock’s satire has outlived the poems it mocks, and I hope the reason is clear enough. Contemporary writers and readers have switched to prose, but we have plenty of equivalents.
Anna Saikin, a PhD student specializing in British Romanticism, has kindly posted her Comprehensive Exam reading list. Among a long list of books and I have read and books I hope I never read, Peacock is present, not under Fiction or Poetry, but rather as the author of “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820), another sly piece of mockery, this time hitting the Romantic poets right where they live, which is not in the Golden or Silver or even the Bronze Age of poetry, but in the Age of Brass, a time of cheap knockoffs, tinny sentiments, and muddled thinking:
A poet in our time is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.
Peacock, I should point out, loved Romantic poetry and was a Romantic poet himself. Mockery can be an expression of love.
Why, I wonder, is Nightmare Abbey not on Anna’s list? It is a short little thing, just ninety pages. Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge are actually characters in the novel, not even thinly disguised. It features Shelley communing with owls and drinking Madeira from a human skull. My doubt about much of Peacock’s work is that its virtues might be too obscure for a reader not immersed in Peacock’s time. For the reader who is immersed, the reader who has prowled around that British Romanticism reading list, Peacock is a relief, and a reward.
The entirety of “The War Song of Dinas Vawr” and “The Four Ages of Poetry,” as well as a fine little introduction to Peacock can be found here (PDF). That’s Peacock’s section of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2; I will bet you eight dollars that the intro is written by the great Robert M. Adams.
* In the sense that obscure writer = skimmed and skipped posts. Maybe I am wrong about that.