"A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past," Peacock writes in The Four Ages of Poetry, adding that if poetry is indeed cultivated, it is at the expense of an area of study more valuable to society. Thanks to a reminder of that work here, a connection may be drawn between Peacock's work and Vico's ages in New Science that I wrote of yesterday. Both of them, through their 'ages' attack the spirit of science where it impinges upon the humanities.
Brett-Smith writes that Four Ages exhibits, "illuminating criticism in epigrammatic form" if written in "mocking wit" and that Peacock distrusted contemporary verse as much as contemporary science, possibly holding those poets in disdain as his own poetry met with "calm" reception.
I think of Ages as a swan song (the kind issued by Socrates, end Phaedo) of a laudator temporis acti; moved when I read his description of the golden age of poetry - themes he returns to in his retorts to the poetry of his day. The golden age makes claims to a truth, ancestors are respected. "Tradtitional national poetry ... is brought like chaos into order and form. The interest is universal: understanding is enlarged" and involves robust passions, character, and nature; "poetry is more an art: it requires great skill in numbers," a command of language, comprehensive knowledge.
Surely his work now reads more as a prediction than incisive wit: "While the historian and philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown up babies of the age." One may cease to think of verse and instead think of the poetic that one expects from art - and recall Picasso's masks: "Je ne sais pas ce qu'est l'afrique" he said, or something like it, just as Peacock writes of, "disjointed relics of tradition and fragments of second-hand observation".
He sees such "querulous, egotistical rhapsodies" as opposite to the mind that orders: he sees the excess of passion, feeling, sentiment as possibly wasting the time of the poet and reader: plenty of older, good poems abound. To read the work of the present at the exclusion of the past is "to substitute the worse for the better." I see in these words the concern of the conscientious writer, his wit as the tool to get us to think twice. Not so much as to mock, he is that gruff friend everyone wants to have, who corrects, but corrects himself five times more.
What is more, his Ages bears some similarities (I shall briefly go out on a limb) to Schleiermacher's On Religion: both write (Peacock in his marathon sentence) of those who are charmed ... in connection with critics. Peacock: "whose minds are not awakened to the desire of valuable knowledge, and who are indifferent to anything beyond being charmed". Schleiermacher: "Wherefore, you must liken them to persons who cannot be made to feel till commentaries and imaginings on works of art are brought as medicinal charms for the deadened sense ... Show me one man to whom you have imparted power of judgment, the spirit of observation, feeling for art or morality".
Something was being lost in that age. Call that thing what you will. Peacock surmises that the "subordinacy of the ornamental ... will ... sink lower in the comparison of intellectual acquirement". Some of us can no longer understand the Latin epigraph at the start of his essay. But we could also mark the dissolution of judgment - whether because of charms and gewgaws (i.e., unreal, pretentious).
It is not enough today to say that an antidote to the modern age may lie in poetry, one must specify what kind of poetry. Peacock's poetry of the golden age has numbers in it. Coleridge would surely object that he included the science of his day in his poems - but Peacock writes of his "compound of frippery and barbarism" and that the man who knows a little has the advantage of knowing more than he who knows naught. (Science can't necessarily escape philosophy.)
But then we may consider Shelley's Defense, written in response to Ages, which Brett-Smith succinctly observes is a different type of argument altogether, making use of metaphor where Peacock uses wit. Logic is not Shelley's strong side, but his "passionate faith in poetry." And maybe between these two great minds, we get what we are missing (here). For example, in Shelley we may see the "madness" described by Socrates (of being inspired by the Muses); in Peacock, we have Socrates' detachment, as in his almost mocking epideictic oratory.
They are both valid criticisms. We could draw on Isaiah Berlin's idea in "Historical Inevitability," that "This naive craving for unity and symmetry at the expense of experience is with us still," and argue in favour of individual experience over mathematical models that wish to explain us away. We could also argue against the chaos of experience in favour of golden universals that may helpfully inform caprice, which when left to its own devices often destroys.
Berlin argues for some among many possible tunes. A pattern, but not the pattern. Which is a rather benign direction to take. He observes, too, that the principles [scientistic] historians sometimes apply to their work are not the same they apply to their own lives. Do we not sometimes need Peacock, and sometimes need Shelley? We return to the complications of Aristotle's φρόνησις.
Aristotle writes in Poetics that the difference between history and poetry is that, "one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts."
We need new poetry because the possibilities change through time. But for it to be golden, it needs to be receptive to truth. Rilke wrote these truths need to be distilled. Peacock warns us not to waste our own time, let alone that of others. And tells us to study, first. Socrates tells us to listen, but carefully.