Poetry and the Common Weal: Conceiving Civic Utility in British Poetics of the Long Eighteenth Century

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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poetry and poetics
English Augustanism
civic humanism
Comparative Literature
Literature in English, British Isles
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This dissertation pursues a twofold proposition: writers of the long eighteenth century widely presumed that poetry influenced the “common weal” (the common wellbeing, conceived as a national community); and this expectation guided poetic composition even at the level of strategy or “design.” I demonstrate this claim in a series of three case studies, each of which delineates an elaborate, intertextual dialogue in which rival authors developed divergent strategies for civic reform. My analysis emphasizes the category of poiesis (poetic making), negotiated within discursive conventions of neoclassical genres. Chapters 1 and 2 argue that two verse translators of The Works of Virgil exploited to different ends the convention that epic poetry shaped the “manners.” Whereas John Ogilby conceived the Aeneid as a work that inspired “obedience” to an absolute monarch, John Dryden refashioned Virgil’s poetry to serve a limited monarchy in the wake of the English Revolution. Chapters 3 and 4 argue that two satirists of the age of Walpole tackled the “Mandevillean dilemma,” which encouraged satirists, traditionally scourges of vice, to accommodate the controversial idea that private vices had public benefits. Whereas Edward Young imagined vanity as a passion that facilitated its own reform, Alexander Pope’s Dunciad proved that even published expressions of malice might have virtuous effects. Chapters 5 and 6 argue that two West-Indian georgic writers divergently confirmed the commonplace that georgics modeled good agricultural management. Whereas Samuel Martin appealed to local sugarcane planters as “practical philosophers” who made “interest” and “duty” agree, James Grainger courted a metropolitan audience, ebulliently portraying a form of colonial settlement flawed at its core: riddled with disease, neglected by absenteeism, and tragically dependent on transatlantic trade to sustain its human populations. Taken together, these case studies tell a story in which visions of mixed government gradually supplant visions of monarchical absolutism and criticism of powerful public figures is increasingly theorized as a positive force in the polity. By revising our investigation of the relationship between poetry and “politics” in the long eighteenth century, I suggest, we gain access to a sophisticated communitarian discourse about the role of the arts in sustaining government.

Dr. Suvir Kaul, Professor, English <br> Co-Supervisor of Dissertation
Dr. John Richetti, Professor, English <br> Co-Supervisor of Dissertation
Dr. Michael Gamer, Associate Professor, English
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