A literary analysis of Thomas Love Peacock’s poem: “The Grave of Love” and, an introduction to Peacock’s essay “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820), P. B. Shelley’s response to it, “A Defence of Poetry” (1821) and the precursor to both, Philip Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry” (1595).
“The Grave of Love”
1. The poet
Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) was an English poet, novelist and official of the East India Company. Peacock left school at thirteen but, by way of assiduous reading, made himself an accomplished classical scholar and a master of both French and Italian literature. He was not an author by vocation, but his executive position at East India House, allowed him the time to pursue an avocation as writer of essays etc. (it is worth noting that the East India Company is indelibly linked to the U.K.’s former colonial domineering of India). Peacock was too, a good friend of the noted Romantic poet P. B. Shelley and it is clear that both were influenced by the work of the other. Peacock tended to satirise the intellectual tendencies of his time in his works of fiction in which, “conversation predominates over character or plot.” It is widely said that his best poetic verse is found within his novels. Peacock’s finest literary achievements are his inimitable satiric novels — Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817) (based on the “idea of an orang-outang mimicking humanity!) and Crotchet Castle (1831) — in which his procedure is to collect a group of argumentative eccentrics in a country house and set them to talking. His protagonists represent extreme or bigoted or visionary points of view on all sides of the important topics of the time. In one of his best-known works, Nightmare Abbey (1818), he constructs (satirises) characters drawn from the eminent poets of the time, including Shelley as “Scythrop Glowry,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge as “Mr Ferdinando Flosky” and, Lord Byron in the guise of “Mr Cypress” — the latter, a misanthropic poet destined for exile.
Peacock’s, “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820) is a satirical perspective on the history of poetry and its societal role (see below). He adapts the Greek and Roman view of literary evolution as a slow demise from the early golden age into his own trajectory, that has two rises and falls — the first age being the age of iron; the second, of gold; the third, of silver; and the fourth, of brass (cf.  Shelley’s, “A Defense of Poetry” (1821) and  Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry” (1595) — both discussed below).
2. The poem
What is, when all’s said and done, this thing called love? Well my woman ((Oh! My man))… analysis by analysis, a step or a few forward, one or two back, we will learn what it encapsulates, what it can be defined as and, how it unfolds and immutably entraps those that fall for Venus’s nectar — like a black hole, there’s various entry points but no known exit/s. To be clear, “The Grave of Love” was in fact an untitled poem. It was found amongst Peacock’s belongings after his death. According to Edith Nicholls (Peacock’s grand-daughter) it was probably written in or around 1807. Unlike what I’d first guessed — the burial of an infant child — Edith speculated that the poem was to a young woman, one Fanny Falkner, whom he had loved. Edith wrote that, “They were engaged when she was eighteen, and he was twenty-two. For a few months they were entirely happy in mutual affection and sympathy. … The engagement was broken off in an unjustifiable manner by the underhand interference of a third person, and the young lady, supposing herself deserted, married another man.” I have titled it as I have because the venerable Arthur Quiller-Couch included it in The Oxford Book of English Verse (1919) as “The Grave of Love.”
“The Grave of Love” is not a poem that’s often subject to analysis; the most precursory of searches will attest to this. Yet, it speaks of love (lost) and thus it speaks to me. It follows then that I read this and reread it many a time. I happened across it initially in, I think, a Norton anthology. In sum, the poem seems to be about a person — the narrator — laying someone to rest, but doing so metaphorically speaking and actually too. So, not burring the actual person or merely a thought of a person but the making of a shrine of sorts to symbolically lay that person to rest. The elfin bit made me think of an infant but this just did not and does not fit with the false affection and the immutable regret.
Yep, yep we all have dictionaries but, I do think that having the following word meaning reminders readily @ hand will aid both understanding and appreciation.
2.3 Literary & Poetic Devices
The poem consists of three stanzas of four lines apiece. There’s rhyme aplenty:
Was DUG all caps for emphasis, or should it not have been? Have I merely reinforced a typo of a kind or was this the poet’s want? Anyway, there’s bitterness,
and there’s regret:
Misunderstandings and seemingly run-of-the-mill errors of judgment can have monumental consequences, don’t I know it. Oh don’t I bloody fucking know it. You feel for the narrator, there digging the grave, he (let us assume it is a ‘he’) does this metaphorically so to speak (and yes, the poem itself is a metaphor too) but it is palpable: the earth, the sod and the mossy stone, all hark of the Emerald isle — the island of Great Britain — so too is the quintessential twined wreath of roses — red / English country garden etc. etc. — but then, amongst all of this, is the Cypress tree . . .
. . . the sigh press tree. Well, this lifts the tragedy of laying a loved one (or a terminated love affair) to rest to a higher plane. Timeless poetry can put one’s emotional ephemerality into some degree of perspective and for poetry’s roots, where do we go if not to The Iliad and The Odyssey; the foundational texts of Western literature. Where do we seek solace if not to poems and poetry, to long-read (or long form) articles and tomes that deal with the nature of the human condition. I mean, the sun had set and the flowers were dead.
Who’s love exactly?. . . Was it — this love 💔 — frail because it was false (‘fake’)? Frail because it was fickle (‘fleeting’)? Or frail because the giver of this love became feverish and then passed away?
Knowing the context (the notes of Edith Nicholls etc.) is — I feel more and more — an impediment not an aid to usefully analysing poetry.
— § —
The Four Ages of Poetry &c.
“The Four Ages of Poetry,” an essay of 1820 by Thomas Love Peacock, was both a significant study of poetry in its own right, and the stimulus for the 1821 essay: “A Defence of Poetry” by P. B. Shelley. Both are, in a way, nuances of the arguments made by Philip Sidney’s 1595 An Apology for Poetry (in which Sidney responds to some points made by a puritanical contemporary of his).
In essence, “Four Ages” (see the full essay, with commentary, here) is a utilitarian attack on the Romantic poets of Peacock era; characters indeed that he was closely and amicably associated with. Note well that Peacock was first and foremost a satirist and thus tongue n cheek was the order of the day — in other essays Peacock would write in defence of such poets! In a nutshell, Peacock offered a mocking account of how poets originally developed a claim to be historians and/or moral and ethical guides. He argued that: practice is mainly rooted in expression, so it should not be held as fact. In a counterpoint essay — “A Defense of Poetry” — Shelley places the poet on a pedestal see the full essay, with commentary, here). Arguably Shelly’s case for the poet is built upon the essay Philip Sidney wrote — “An Apology for Poetry” — back in 1595 that defended poets and poetry from prudish puritans see the full essay, with commentary, here). The shoulders of giants. . . ; decline and fall. . . & moment’s monuments. . .
First published in the journal Literary Miscellany in 1820, Four Ages was Peacock’s satirical perspective on the history and societal role of poetry. He describes the golden age as the age of Homer, the silver age as “the poetry of civilized life,” with two kinds of poetry, “imitative and original.” Peacock holds Virgil as an example of a strong imitator, and casts the original poetry of the silver age as the emergence of comic and satirical forms, and notes of the age the “labored polish of versification” as a new obstacle to poetry’s previously unencumbered music of sound and sense. The [Romantic], brass era is marked, according to Peacock, by poems of “verbose and minutely-detailed description of thoughts, passions, actions, persons, and things.” Peacock concludes that industrialised civilization has outgrown the need for poetry, and that as societies become more complex the intellectual role that poets had held is more effectively taken on by philosophers and statesmen. In the brass age, Peacock argues, the poet is “a semi-barbarian in a civilized community.”
Objection your Honour!
Shelley retorted to Peacock by saying that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley’s essay — “The Defence of Poetry” — contains many allusions to Peacock’s Four Ages, e.g., “If I know the knight by the device of his shield, I have only to inscribe Cassandra, Antigone, or Alcestis on mine to blunt the point of his spear;” taking one instance of a favourite character from each of the the three great Greek tragedians. Shelley begins with reason and imagination, defining reason as logical thought and imagination as perception, adding, “reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things.” From reason and imagination, humankind may recognise beauty, and it is through beauty that civilization comes.
Language, Shelley contends, shows humanity’s impulse toward order and harmony, which leads to an appreciation of unity and beauty. Those in “excess” of language are the poets, whose task it is to impart the pleasures of their experience and observations into poems. Shelley argues, that civilization advances and thrives with the help of poetry. This assumption then, through Shelley’s own understanding, marks the poet as a prophet, not a man dispensing forecasts but a person who “participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one.” He goes on to place poetry in the column of divine and organic process: “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth … the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator.” The task of poets then is to interpret and present the poem; Shelley’s metaphor here explicates: “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”
Today, Defence of Poetry is considered by far the most important of Shelley’s prose writings. In it, Shelley claims that poets have the capacity to be philosophers; that they are the creators and protectors of moral and civil laws; and that if it were not for poets, scientists could not have developed either their theories or their inventions.” Shelley opens his essay by discussing the two faculties of the human mind: reason and imagination. He highlights the difference between them and says:“Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences,and imagination the similitudes of things. The reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.”
From the Romantic era, let’s rewind to the Elizabethan era. Philip Sidney in his 1595 “Apology for Poetry” reacts against the attacks made on poetry by the puritan and anti-theatrical writer, Stephen Gosson. To, Sidney, poetry is an art of imitation for specific purpose, it is imitated to teach and delight. According to Sidney, poetry is simply a superior means of communication and its value depends on what is communicated. The claims Gossen made (and were then countered by Sidney) are as follow:
For Sidney, (1) poetry is the source of knowledge and a civilizing force, for Sidney. Gossen attacks on poetry saying that it corrupts the people and it is the waste of time, but Sidney says that no learning is so good as that which teaches and moves to virtue and that nothing can both teach and amuse so much as poetry does. He contends that ancient Greek society respected poets quite considerably. The poets are always to be looked up. So, poetry is not a waste of one’s time. Sidney claims (2) that poet does not lie because he never affirms that his fiction is true and can never lie. The poetic truths are ideal and universal. Therefore, poetry cannot be false per se (or as others have put it, “the mother of all lies”). Sidney rejects too the notion that poetry is “the source of abuses.” To him (3), it is people who abuse poetry, not vice-versa. Abuses are more nursed by philosophy and history than by poetry, by describing battles, bloodshed, violence etc. On the contrary, poetry, the argument goes, helps to maintain morality and peace by avoiding such violence and bloodshed. Moreover it brings light to knowledge. Sidney (4) contends that Plato in his Republic wanted to banish the abuse of poetry not the poets. He himself was not free from poeticality, which we can find in his dialogues. Plato never says that all poets should be banished. He called for banishing only those poets who are inferior and unable to instruct the children.
As Sidney sees it, art is the imitation of nature but it is not slavish imitation as Plato views. Rather it is creative imitation. Nature is dull, incomplete and ugly. It is artists who turn dull nature in to golden color. He employs his creative faculty, imagination and style of presentation to decorate the raw materials of nature. For Sidney, art is a speaking picture having spatiotemporal dimension (belonging to both space and time or to space–time). For Aristotle human action is more important but for Sidney nature is important. Nature vs. Nurture. . . Oh how I want it to be the latter (we can hope society, family and parenting can improve) but all indications are that it’s nature, our dee en ay & our genes, that overrides and supersedes and is writ large 😦
📙 An Apology for Poetry (1595)
📙 Melincourt (1817)
📙 The Four Ages of Poetry (1820)
📙 A Defence of Poetry (1821)
📙 Crouchet Castle (1831)
📙 Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey (1850)
📙 Gryll Grange (1861)
📙 The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1900 (1919)
Brett-Smith, H. (Ed.) (1923). Peacock’s Four Ages of Poetry, Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, Browning’s Essay on Shelley (2nd ed.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Eliot, C. W. (Ed.) (1909). Percy Bysshe Shelley – A Defence of Poetry. English essays, from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard classics, Volume 27. New York: P. F. Collier & Son.
Eliot, C. W. (Ed.) (1909). Sir Philip Sidney – The Defense of Poesy. English essays, from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard classics, Volume 27. New York: P. F. Collier & Son.
Peacock, T. L. (1817). Melincourt. London: T. Hookham.
Peacock, T. L. (1831). Crotchet Castle. London: T. Hookham.
Peacock, T. L. (1850). ‘Headlong Hall’ and ‘Nightmare Abbey’. New York: George P. Putnam.
Peacock, T. L. (1861). Gryll Grange. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd.
Quiller-Couch, A. T. (1919). The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1900. Oxford: Clarendon.