Boundaries: The country/city opposition in eighteenth-century and Romantic literature.

The city and country dichotomy is one which pervades eighteenth-century art, from the neo-classicists through to the Romantic period. It follows a trajectory from outright hostility towards the city and its representations of commodification, stemming from an anxiety towards the proto- industrialisation of the early 1700s, ‘London, Swift subliminally suggests, is the new Sodom/Gomorrah,’[1] to gradual acceptance from Wordsworth in the early Romantic period, to further rejection from Shelley and Byron in the early 1800s. ‘Hell is a city much like London’, wrote Shelley[2], supported by Byron’s cry that ‘Accursed be the city where the laws would stifle nature’s!’[3]. The negative attitude towards the city is countered with a binary opposite approach to the country; there are as many virtues in the provincial regions as there are vices in the city. The process of work and labour is acknowledged as being important in both arenas, but in the city it is seen as destructive, even demonic, with the famous ‘dark, satanic mills’ of Blake’s poem evoking images of Milton’s Pandemonium. Work in the countryside however is celebrated with its own art form; ‘Georgic celebrates the importance of work, particularly agricultural labour’[4]. The contradictory approach to work and toil in the city and country is indicative of the double standard commonplace to the dichotomy.

To the neo-classicists, the countryside was a place of idealisation, an environment in which everything worked in a clean and orderly manner, and the work was laborious but noble. This perception of the countryside has been criticised by Martha Bohrer who compares the neo-classical poets’ perception of the countryside to the land owners and the views from their homes. Bohrer invokes the imagery of the ha-ha, a visual architectural trick created by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to limit the encroachment of reality into the upper-classes idealised concept of the country, ‘by disguising or distancing less pleasing aspects of rural life and labour’[5]. An effective way of defining the neo-classical approach to the countryside is by understanding movements that deliberately subverted the Augustan ethos. Stephen Duck created the genre of counter-pastoral in which ‘the pastoral landscape is drenched in sweat’ as the poem The Thresher’s Labour depicts an ‘ideological counter to the many neoclassical versions of pastoral and georgic poetry circulating in the early eighteenth-century’[6]. In Duck’s early poetry he was dismantling the figurative ha-ha and bringing the reality of the countryside, sweaty, dirty and hard, to the front door of the manor houses and there would have been no need had there not already existed the ideal version of the country preferred by the standard poets. Running alongside the beautiful image of the country was the idea that the city was filthy, congested and immoral as typified in Swift’s A Description of a City Shower. The city represented all that was wrong in the world and in humanity but in fact the negative aspects of the city as described by the poets bore many similarities to the reality of the countryside as described by Duck. It would seem that human life is always hard no matter the environment and only takes on the appearance of beauty when the viewer is removed to some degree.

Brean Hammond in his essay ‘The city in eighteenth-century poetry’ shows that the portrayal of the city was on the whole negative. The city is seen as degenerate with the individual either commoditised or looking to buy, not out of necessity but out of a growing greed. Hammond sees prostitution as being the purest form of this commodification and ownership interplay, ‘Prostitution is a pervasive feature of eighteenth-century city poetry, increasingly being recognized as the vice that, more than any other, is not merely a part of city life but a symbol of its condition’[7]. Hammond looks at two poems written nearly eighty years apart, John Gay’s neoclassical Trivia written in 1716 and William Blake’s London, written during the Romantic period in 1794. In both, Hammond finds evidence of the eighteenth-century poet’s negative attitude towards the city; in Gay the city creates laziness and sloth in its inhabitants, ‘The poem sets up a clear, almost Orwellian moral schema — LEGS GOOD, WHEELS BAD’, suggesting that the physical activity, or lack of activity, demonstrates the moral activity of its agent[8]. By succumbing to sloth and utilising carriages to traverse the city, one is displaying moral decay and a descent to the immoral. Blake’s London also shows a descent for man into confined living conditions, ‘Blake’s city suggests the effects of industrialisation and the drift of people into the cramped concentrations of the urban ghetto’[9]. These conditions, a far cry from the open skies and spaces of the countryside are inherently negative with the urban and industrialised a ghetto in which man’s humanity is diminished.

Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower perfectly demonstrates the demonization that the city was subjected to by the Augustan poets[10]. Written as a satire based on Virgil’s Georgics, it demonstrates the neoclassical approach of utilising the style of the classical poets and also evidences the country and city divide as Swift uses a model which would normally show an idyllic, rural life to instead present the debased, urban lifestyle of London. In the initial rhyming couplet Swift suggests the growing industrialisation is inextricably linked with negativity as he jokingly says that it possible to predict dismal weather using the abundant engineering of the city. The metonymic rain is so bleak that it can stop the natural activities of animals ‘the pensive cat gives o’er/ Her frolics and pursues her tail no more’ (lines 4 and 5), the man made is trumping nature. The negativity inherent in the city is elaborated upon with a semantic field of commerce and economy, ‘if you be wise, then go not far to dine/ You spend in coach-hire more than save in wine’, (lines 7 and 8). The impression generated here being that it takes a wise man to avoid being taken advantage of in monetary terms by the denizens of the metropolis. The poor weather is then returned to only now we are told how men can predict a downward turn in the weather by painful, physical means. ‘Shooting corns’, ‘old aches throb’, ‘hollow tooth will rage’, (lines 9 and 10) just being in the city means physical maladies and unrelenting misery. Swift next tackles the immorality of London with the personification of a storm cloud and its torrent of rain falling from it being akin to a drinker who has drunk too much and vomits his spirits back up, (lines 15 and 16). This allusion to excess and debauchery is then coupled with the earlier ideas of business and money with the introduction of prostitution (line 19). Swift is showing the reader an environment in which everything has a price and is for sale. As Hammond said when writing about John Gay’s ‘Trivia’ written six years after Swift, “a symbol of the human commodification that the city’s employment conditions foster”[11]. The poem is presented in mostly closed form with an abundance of end stopped lines. This makes the poem read as a slow procession of negative images and a list of reasons to dislike the city, all the while reminding its reader, aware that it is a mock urban georgic poem, that life in the country is much more pleasant.

The poem can be seen as a reaction to the coming industrial revolution, still some decades away but the proto-industrialisation was already beginning to take people away from the country to the cities to find work. Swift also demonstrates the typical neoclassical biblical influences with the downpour in London evoking images of the great flood which befell Noah’s world. In the Bible this flood was intended to put an end to the vice and sin which was so prevalent in the world and the deluge in A Description of a City Shower is arguably comparing the prostitution and sin found in London to antediluvian attitudes. This image of death and drowning becomes apparent at the end of the poem with images of cats drowned in mud. The people of London are literally walking over the bodies of dead animals; nature has been trampled into the ground of the city by mankind.

The cultural context of the country and city divide to the Romantic poets is more important than it was to the neo-classicists. The country was seen as the heartland of the Dissenters and Radicalism, ‘in certain provincial centres… many wealthy member of society were Dissenters’, and country dwelling poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge were seen as proponents of Radicalism[12]. In later years, the second generation of Romantic poets, Shelley, Byron, and Keats et al. became angry at what they saw as Wordsworth and the Lake Poets’ abandonment of the Radical cause, which lead to their characteristic public abuse directed at the earlier Romantic poets. Opponents of the later Romantic poets pejoratively referred to them as ‘the Cockney school’, linking them to the concept of ‘city’ as being less than ‘country’ in a negative fashion[13]. A group of the younger Romantic poets grouped together in Marlow, a town in the Thames Valley and near to London, where Butler believes, ‘what happened in Marlow in 1817 was the counterpart to what happened at Alfoxden between Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1797’[14]. By comparing the provincial birthplace of the Lyrical Ballads and Romanticism, and the ‘Cockney school’s’ residence near to London, it seems that the younger Romantics are going to be linked with the city, whether they would like it not. Butler also sees a connection between the younger Romantics and the Mediterranean city states of Athens and Rome. While the older Romantics were characterised by Christianity, isolation and introspection, a state inspired by their Germanic inspirations, the younger Romantics were pagan, extrovert and expressive; a consequence of their embrace of the concept of the European city[15]. A clear divide had been formed between the country and the old Romantics, and the city and the new Romantics, “it is plain that the group always interpreted their shared taste for what they thought was characteristically Greek — comic, elegant and harmonious — as a deliberate rejection of the taste for the German, which Coleridge was advocating in Biographia Literaria[16].

There has not been a great deal of criticism written on Shelley’s On Leaving London for Wales, although it is one of the great late-Romantic poems exploring the country and city divide. The poem is a celebration of leaving London, exemplifying all cities and manmade structures, and venturing into the countryside of provincial Wales. I-Chieh Lin saw the poem in colonial terms with London showing the corruption endemic to the British Empire, being the seat of power. Lin also sees ‘contamination, flatness, corruption and busyness’ in Shelley’s poem and sees London as being ‘a city without any vitality or hope’[17]. In this one section of her thesis, Lin provides the only real analysis of the poem readily available, others refer to Peter Bell the Third’s reference to London as a ‘Hell-city’[18]providing some insight into Shelley’s attitude towards the city, but it is Lin who homes in on what the city meant to Shelley. The tiredness of its people and environment, always busy but also drab and exhausted, directly contrasted with the fertile, regenerating countryside of Cambria.

On Leaving London for Wales creates a religious feeling in the reader. With references to the soul, sacred springs and the healing properties of Snowdon in the first stanza the immediate impression is one of reverence on the part of the author for the Welsh countryside. The only mention made to the city in the poem is in the title, suggesting that the poet has begun his journey to Wales from London and is so enamoured with what awaits him in the provinces that the city leaves his mind almost as soon as he has exited it. This suggests a temporal element to the city, inferior to the eternal, spirituality of the country. The poem is written in a form based on the Spenserian stanza, used by Spenser in his Faerie Queen, with each stanza having eight lines of broadly iambic pentameter followed by a final alexandrine. The allusion to Spenser’s epic, a celebration of the virtues, lends more weight to the virtuous ideal of the countryside. The second stanza introduces conflict for the poet. He admonishes himself for forgetting about people who are suffering while he basks in Wale’s regenerative environment. The author questions himself three times during the stanza, pressing himself upon whether he will ignore the suffering. This stanza, with the spectre of London in the distance, suggests that the healing properties of Wales make the author all the more aware of the need for charity and love for mankind. It takes leaving the city with its teeming population to recognise that there are people in need of help, it is vital to remove oneself from the city, which crushes the spirit of charity, in order to remember that it is important to help those who cannot help themselves. This seems to be the attitude of the poet in the third stanza as he answers the questions posed earlier. The semantic field is now of battle, the reader is treated to sights of unfurled flags waving over fields of battle, after the author has donned a shield and ‘the weapon that I burn to wield’ (line 23). The ‘bloodless victory’ (line 26) of stanza three is expounded upon in the final stanza. It is important to the poet that his battle is won with reason, it is not for him to pick up a sword and march into battle, rather the battle is to be fought with words and sense and he will ‘not madly stain their righteous cause with gore’ (36).

All throughout the poem the reader is shown the inherent virtue found in the countryside. The name of the poem is important for it shows the poet not just viewing and celebrating the Welsh countryside but clearly saying that the countryside is directly juxtaposed with London. The beauty of the countryside is made all the more because how unlike the city it is. Shelly, a vital figure of the Marlow sect, is here demonstrating a love for the countryside more fitting the earlier generation of Romantics, the Lake Poets. The object of Shelley’s provincial adulation is one letter away from the homeland of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Cumbria, possibly as an implicit reference to his predecessors in the Romantic genre, an act which Shelley and Byron had shown a taste for previously. The fact that Shelley finds something in the countryside which is not readily available to him in the city is considered beyond doubt by Rogers, ‘Shelley is here the disciple of Rousseau, seeking virtue among unspoiled people and places’[19]. Because Shelley, despite his connections to the intrinsically city based ‘Cockney school’, is seeking virtue in the country, it is apparent that that virtue is lacking in the city. Shelley it would seem shares the same feelings of Swift, from a century before, towards the city. It is a place of vice, full of sin and the complete opposite of the provincial environment of the countryside.

The respective attitudes towards the city and the country demonstrate that the two do not exist independently from one another. It is not the case that the country is virtuous just because of the features it contains but rather that the absence of the vices contained in the city contributes to its virtuosity and vice versa. The two are inter-dependent as evidenced by what Hammond refers to as ‘rus in urbe’[20]. Hammond also makes this point clear when he says that ‘Agricultural historians would surely take exception to the apothegm that “God made the country and man made the town”. This is itself as much an urban perception as is its converse’[21]. Understanding of one environment informs understanding of the other. The city is not independent of the country, nor the reverse, they exist in tandem, acting as torches throwing light upon one another’s virtues and vices. The country and the city are two opposite sides of the same coin, showing that there exists more than just the individual in life. In the country this is exemplified by the mountains, the lakes, and nature, giving evidence of something existing free of humans and so placing mankind in the position of just another inhabitant of the world. In the city what is greater than the individual is the collection of individuals. The society, culture, and commerce created by many giving rise to something worth more than the sum of its parts; the absence of mankind in the nature of the country and the very opposite, the accumulation of mankind in the city offer the same suggestion of the individual’s place in the world. Man’s place in the world is celebrated and agonised over in equal measure in poetry pertaining to the country and the city respectively but they must be read and understood together in order to grasp what each is trying to convey. The physical countryside is distinct from the concept of ‘country’ and without the defined parameters of the country there exists no ‘city’, and without the city there can be no ‘country’.

[1]Hammond, 2001, p. 83

[2]Shelley, 1839

[3]Byron, 1826, p. 457

[4]Hammond, 2001, p. 89

[5]Bohrer, 2008, p.92

[6]Andrews, 2011, p. 113

[7]Hammond, 2001, p. 87

[8] Ibid.

[9]Hammond, 2001, p. 86

[10]Swift, 1710

[11]Hammond, 2001, p.87

[12]Butler, 1981, p. 113

[13]Butler, 1981, p. 123

[14]Butler, 1981, p. 128

[15]Butler, 1981, pp. 123–124

[16]Butler, 1981, p. 128

[17]Lin, 2006, p.14

[18]Campbell, 1970

[19]Rogers, 1972, p. 364

[20]Hammond, 2001, p. 86

[21]Hammond, 2001, p. 102

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