The Bishop’s Move

Posted on July 21, 2015 in Essays

Review of Nick Groom (ed), Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry”, 3 vols (Routledge,Thoemmes Press, 1996)

In his “Essay Supplementary to the Preface” (Lyrical Ballads, 1815), Wordsworth sets in opposition two anthologies of English poetry. First, Johnson’s English Poets, that uniform edition of male, public-school and university­ educated or privately tutored poets which began to appear in 1779, and secondly Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, first published in 1765. Of the former, he writes:

We open the volume … and to our astonishment the first name we find is that of Cowley! What is become of the morning star of English poetry? Where is the bright Elizabethan constellation? Or, if names be more acceptable than images, where is the ever-to-be-honoured Chaucer? Where is Spenser … where Sidney? and lastly … where Shakespeare?

Then, of Percy, he continues:

I do not think there is an able writer in verse of the present day who would not be proud to acknowledge his obligation to the Reliques; I know that it is so with my friends; and for myself, I am happy in this occasion to make a public avowal of my own.

Something of this distinction was already implicit in the original 1800 Preface, in which Wordsworth intrudes on an old dispute. In 1771, Percy had published an original ballad, “The Hermit of Warkworth: A Northumberland ballad”, which rapidly went through six editions. Johnson, provoked by the insidious success of Reliques, which he had, in effect, sponsored, published a parody: “I put my hat upon my head / And walked into the Strand / And there I met another man / Whose hat was in his hand.” Wordsworth’s well-known riposte was to quote a stanza from the “pretty ballad of the Babes in the Wood”, which Percy had recently added to the fourth edition of Reliques (1794), viz., “Those pretty babes with hand in hand / Went wandering up and down / But never more they saw the man / Approaching from the town.”

But here the story takes a curious twist. For the stanza Wordsworth quotes is not from the version given in Percy (where it appears as “The Children in the Wood”) but from a broadsheet version, dated by the British Museum as c1800, which he had bought on a London street. Coleridge’s notebooks reveal a parallel twist. “Compare the author of the Babes in the Wood with Buonaparte”, he wrote in December 1799, quoting the title of the broadsheet. In June 1811, there is a parallel entry, this time quoting the title from Reliques: “O but think of the thoughts, feelings­, radical impulses that have been planted in how many thousands of thousands by the little ballad of the Children in the Wood! The sphere of Alexander the Great’s agency is trifling compared with it.”

It has been commonplace to argue that the making of Lyrical Ballads was deeply influenced by Reliques. No study of Wordsworth is complete without its mandatory paragraph on Percy and Nick Groom in this lavish new edition repeats the standard claim that without Reliques there would have been no “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Yet two questions seem pertinent. When did Wordsworth and Coleridge first encounter Percy’s collection? More important, was the relation between Reliques and Lyrical Ballads simply or even primarily a case of a text influencing a text?

The last thing Percy intended was to bring about any revolution in literary taste. As Groom shows convincingly in a dense but rich introduction his concerns were antiquarian, linked with the revived interest in pre-Christian archaeological sites and popular traditions. If he had any political motive, it was to defuse and de-politicise ballads, rescuing them from what Groom calls “trashy, salacious ephemera and political squibbery” and reinforcing eighteenth-century preoccupations with the formation of the canon by enshrining them “in the cultural museum of Englishness”. Part of the appeal of the original folio manuscript, rescued from the flames at Humphrey Pitt’s house in 1753, was “The Ballad of Chevy Chase”, virtually a family saga; with the publication of Reliques, he secured the patronage of the Northumberlands and strengthened his claim to a blood tie.

In his own introduction, Percy is apologetic to the point of self-parody. He confesses himself “long in doubt whether, in the present state of improved literature, they could be deemed worth the attention of the public … I am sensible that many of these reliques of antiquity will require great allowances to be made for them.” His defence is that the pieces are arranged chronologically to demonstrate “the gradual improvements of the English language and poetry from the earliest ages down to the present”, and that “they display the peculiar manners and customs of former ages, or throw light on our earlier classical poets”, including a section of “Ballads that illustrate Shakespeare.” Finally, he throws in supportive quotations from Sydney, Addison, and Nicholas Rowe, and claims the endorsement of William Shenstone, Thomas Warton and the Great Cham himself (Johnson wrote the Dedication to the Countess of Northumberland).

The words “Reliques”and “Ancient”, Percy’s last-minute choice by way of title, locate these songs and ballads firmly in the archaeological sub-strata of the Augustan peace. Groom notes how cannily this anticipates William Thoms’s invention in 1846 of the term “folklore”, with all its attendant cultural and aesthetic formations. In fact, the legacy is considerably longer. The assumption that surviving oral cultures are a kind of archive of the distant past out of which literate cultures evolved informs H. M. and N. K Chadwick’s magisterial survey The Growth of Literature (1932-40), while Percy’s fascination with the textual shift from orality to print (despite the fact that his original folio manuscript was already in written form) anticipates Milman Parry’s distinction between two kinds of form, “oral” and “written”, and the long dominance of oral formulaic theory with its reification of oral forms at the expense of their content, culminating in Marshal McLuhan’s and Walter J. Ong’s invention of “Oral Man”. One fascinating aspect of this edition of Reliques is the close attention paid to its status as a splendid example of eighteenth-century publishing, with a profusion of formats and typefaces and fine engravings.

“Reliques”, of course, is a deeply ambiguous word, especially in the context of sentiment and the Gothic. It suggests (in Johnson’s definition, quoted here) not only “that which remains”from the past but “that which is kept in memory … with a kind of religious veneration”. Yet is this in itself, or this combined with the sanitising of the “ballad”, a sufficient route to Lyrical Ballads and the “Dejection” and “Immortality” Odes? It seems worth inquiring whether Wordsworth and Coleridge had encountered Reliques before embarking on their “experiment”. Wordsworth is recorded as buying a copy (presumably the fourth edition) in the autumn of 1798, when Lyrical Ballads was already in print. Though long afterwards he claimed to have been introduced to Reliques by Bowman, his headmaster at Kendal, there is no sign of Percy’s influence in the writers surveyed in “An Evening Walk” (or indeed in the books in The Prelude). Much has been made of Coleridge’s reference to “Sir Cauline”, in a letter to Wordsworth of January 23, 1798. It may have been here he found the repeated phrase “fair Christobel” (though only in the 191 iines concocted by Percy and not in the 202 lines of the original folio manuscript). The familiar manner in which he refers to the ballad perhaps indicates that Reliques featured in the intensive review of ballad forms he and Wordsworth conducted in the spring of 1798. But so, too, did the mass of broadsheet materials they were collecting and which, as we have seen, furnished their references to “The Babes in the Wood”. As late as 1802, in the epigraph to the “Dejection Ode”, Coleridge is either misremembering Percy or quoting from some other version of “Sir Patrick Spens” he had to hand.

The distinction may seem a fine one. It matters because the impact of Reliques was much greater than supplying the odd name or some textual reminiscences. There are moments in literary history (arguably in eleventh-century Andalusia, giving rise to troubadour poetry, demonstrably in modern African and Caribbean poetry in English) when popular culture challenges literacy and raises the most basic questions about poetry’s subject-matter, forms, language and means of dissemination; in short, about who poetry belongs to. In an important paper pub­lished over forty years ago, Robert Mayo showed the impact of Reliques on the poetry appearing in monthly magazines – magazines not restricted by copyright laws and sharing in print something of the fluidity of oral poetry in the way poems which caught the fancy would be pirated, plagiarised, imitated and recast. Acknowledging that he was speaking only of a “persistent minority” of poems, Mayo showed how Percy’s popularization of the ballad form had spawned new subjects for poetry (deserted women, married or unmarried, with or without babies, often in exotic settings; beggars, both male and female, often ex-soldiers or sailors; peasants made destitute by enclosures or agricultural depression; idiots and convicts) together with new poetic forms (the ballad, the sketch, the complaint, the effusion, the anecdote, and especially the fragment), all prefiguring Lyrical Ballads in everything but simplicity of language. The term “ballad” in a poem’s title no longer functioned as a description of form; what it identified was the poem’s intended audience, in a manner given respectability by Reliques. It was this popular ferment that Wordsworth and Coleridge were addressing: “The Rime of the Ancient Marlner” was originally planned to earn them a fiver from one of the magazines to cover the cost of a walking tour.

Scott’s first encounter with Percy is revealing. He remembered ”the very grass seat … to which I retreated from my playfellows to devour the works of the ancient minstrels”. But they were not new to him. They were, he says, in an image conjuring illicit pleasures, “the secret Delilah of my imagination”. What he hadn’t realized, in his classroom study of Dryden and Pope, was that they were poetry, capable of being printed, glossed and analysed. The real importance of Reliques for Wordsworth’s generation is not that they read and digested and reproduced its abundance of forms and styles, but that Percy gave academic validation to a practice they had arrived at through their contact with popular forms, which had themselves been given a boost by Reliques.

Wordsworth’s endorsement is not without its own ambiguities. If Reliques belongs with Gray’s Celtic poetry and Walpole’s Gothic prose in marking the transition from Augustan neo-classicism to Gothic Romanticism, Percy’s acceptance into the pantheon marks the point at which Romanticism ceased to be iconoclastic and became preoccupied with establishing its own canon. Was this also the moment when Reliques ceased to be an innovative text? It seems unlikely that this new edition (astonishingly, the first since Henry Wheatley’s of 1889) will influence late twentieth-century poetic practice. But it should restore Reliques to their rightful place in Romantic criticism after a long period in which references to Percy have become somewhat formal and perfunctory. For those who can afford them, these are handsome volumes to possess, and an indispensable addition to any library.

First published the Times Literary Supplement, June 27 1997.