Monday, 17 June 2013

Funeral crashing

As the launch of the Digital Miscellanies Index draws nearer, we are busying ourselves with checking the data already entered into the database – ironing out inconsistencies in proper names, correcting typos, checking that the correct links have been made between miscellanies and poems, or shoring up the authority of attributions that have been made in the database. It’s important work, but it also means that we are working mainly with old and familiar material. So it was a particular delight last week when I discovered a poem I hadn’t seen before – a poem which will not, in fact, appear in the database, for reasons that I shall go on to explain.


I was checking a volume of poems entitled Verses on the Death of Queen Caroline (London, 1738), a title which very aptly describes the contents: 3 poems on the death of George II’s queen, who in November 1737 had suffered a long and painful death caused by complications relating to a mistreated umbilical hernia. Queen Caroline is remembered by historians partly for her intellectual interests (she was the intermediary for the correspondence on Newton and free-will between Liebniz and Samuel Clarke around 1717), partly for her literary tastes (famously granting a pension to the ‘thresher poet’ Stephen Duck), but chiefly for her political influence. None of these things – but especially her proximity to and influence over Robert Walpole – endeared her to the opposition to Walpole’s government.

Verses on the Death of Queen Caroline is a slim folio volume, running to 10 pages. The title page bears an Horatian epigraph, from his lament for Quintilius (Odes, I.24). According to ESTC the volume is ‘sometimes attributed to Thomas Tickell’ but evidence on the attribution of the poems is very hard to find. So far, so unremarkable. Proceeding onwards to the poetry does not alleviate matters much. The first two – ‘Verses on the Death of Her Majesty Queen Caroline’ and ‘To the King’ – are quite flatly conventional. This is certainly no Marvell on Cromwell (it’s not even Tickell on Addison). The following couplet, for instance, doesn’t quite attain the dignity it is grasping for,

See there, extended on the Bed of State,
All that remains----of once so Good and Great! (p. 3)

especially as Caroline’s bodily ‘extent’ is, along with the overpowering mellifluousness of her name, one of the things Swift so uncharitably focusses on in ‘Directions for a Birth-Day Song’ (1729). He imagines difficulties faced by her future undertaker:

May Caroline continue long,
For ever fair and young! –in song.
What though the royal carcass must,
Squeezed in a coffin, turn to dust;
Those elements her name compose,
Like atoms, are exempt from blows.

The third poem, ‘An Epitaph on the Queen,’ is a little more sprightly, taking the Queen’s posthumous critics to task and focussing on aspects of her personality – mentioning her support of Locke and Clarke and Hoadley, as well as her steadfastness in facing a painful death. There is a reason for this increased focus and attention, and that reason lies over the page (even though this poem finishes on the last page of the miscellany). The reader of the copy at British Library shelfmark 603.k.28.(5) is treated to a continuation, handwritten in pen and ink. It is this continuation that brightened my day. Brilliantly, google have seen fit to digitise this very copy, so the manuscript portion is available for all to see (and is embedded above).

The continuation takes the shape of a barbed lampoon, the title of which explains its relation to the poem ending on p.10: ‘A LAMPOON To which The foregoing Epitaph Was drawn up as an ANSWER’. So, the last poem of Verses on the death of Queen Caroline is a parody and a point-by-point refutation of this satire, which claims that Caroline died “unpitied both by Church and State, | The Subject of their Flattery and Hate.” The relationship between these poems, in which a funeral-crasher is reprimanded, is reminiscent of the Tory celebrations of William III’s death in 1702 and Daniel Defoe’s indignant verse response, 'The Mock Mourners' (p.41 of this volume). Thomas Browne’s enjoyable riff on Dryden’s obsequies is also brought to mind. Closer to our own time there was media circus surrounding the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Most recently, there was this:

Apart from the conflicting opinions that always surround prominent political figures, state funerals and excessive displays of public mourning also provoke this kind of indignation, I think, for generic reasons. Such commemorations demand from eulogists, celebrants, organisers or commentators a heightened emotional response that will always look strained and fabricated. How do you write a poem mourning someone you almost certainly didn’t know intimately? Wheel out formulae, stick to decorum and rules. Keep it ceremonial, distant. Hence the Scriblerian distaste for ‘empty’ panegyric like Lawrence Eusden’s (the target of 'Directions for a Birth-Day Song'), poetry that is held to substitute machinery for meaning.

So, like most lampoons, this one is calculated to disrupt various kinds of decorum. It deliberately cuts through the public elegy’s impersonal distance, speaking from a standpoint of personal acquaintance. Caroline is “Fawning and haughty, when familiar, rude, | And never civil seem’d, but to delude.” The bland sublimation typical of eulogies is overturned: the queen is “Flatter’d by those on whom her favours flow’d, | Hated for favours impiously bestow’d” – here ‘favours’ are unmistakably both politico-economic and sexual. In places this poem is not unlike the character sketches found in Pope’s later satires, in style if not always in achievement. That stylistic resemblance may be compounded by the generally ‘Opposition’ politics on show here, attacking those vices most prominently associated with the court Whigs – luxury, avarice, indolence, possessiveness, latitudinarian theology, and freethinking. The final, cutting lines

To her own offspring mercy she deny’d,
And unforgiving, unforgiven dy’d.

are a clear reference to her son, the opposition figurehead Frederick, Prince of Wales, whose more than unfilial behaviour (both to Caroline and George II) meant he was denied admission to see the queen on her deathbed. This lampoon has been attributed to Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, although never with absolute authority. Chesterfield, the author of a handful of poems, certainly has the right political profile; he had joined the opposition following his dismissal for opposing Walpole’s Excise Bill in 1733 and his speech against the Walpolean Bill for the licensing (i.e. censorship) of plays in 1737 earned him one of the few pleasant niches in Pope’s Dunciad in Four Books (IV.43-4).

Arresting and revisionary like all effective satire, this poem is a welcome addition to the miscellany. It makes it rather more miscellaneous, for one thing. But a well as being a generic breath of fresh (or rancid) air, this lampoon has been lovingly transcribed, and deliberately made to appear as if it is part of the same volume: the pagination is continued, enclosed in square brackets as in the rest of the volume; there is a catchword (‘Fawning’) at the bottom of p. 11; like the end of the first poem on p. 7 this one concludes with a ruled line; finally, there is in general a concerted effort to imitate the font and the typographical style of the printed text. It most immediately recalls Pope’s quasi-typographical fair copies of his early Pastorals (see David Fairer, English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century: 1700-1789, p.1). Pope’s manuscripts do a good – probably a better – job of looking like a printed book, but they also stand alone. However, this lampoon’s mimicry of print is even more functional than it was for the sixteen-year-old Pope, tied in to the poem’s occasion. More kin than kind, the lampoon is made to don mourning apparel, and straggles at the rear of this textual funeral procession before making a scene at the wake. The act of transcription puts the manuscript verse in an ironic visual and material relationship with the rest of the volume, throwing its generic incongruity and argumentative impropriety into sharp relief, and also neatly raising the much-rehearsed debate about the surprising formal proximity of satire and panegyric.

If this parasitical paratext is so interesting, then, why it isn’t going into the database? Well, despite doing a rather good impression of being a part of this bibliographical item, it of course only appears in this single copy. The DMI is an index of printed miscellanies, and including this poem would set a troublesome precedent; a few months before the end of a project is no time to be setting precedents. Manuscript verse fragments and other kinds of annotation do come up from time to time, and we have noted them as best we can. Rarely is such annotation as considered and involved as this is, but even so all we can give it is a lengthy note, and this blog post. Otherwise we’d have to start all over again, and I’m not sure any of us can spare another three years.

1 comment:

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