Why won’t our artists aim higher?

London ravaged by disease. Social and sexual mores collapsing. Shifting political alliances and a wobbling constitution. A Babel of competing voices vying to dominate new media channels, driving public discourse to fever pitch. It’s not the first time we’ve been here.

Today our artists embrace (and sometimes accelerate) the vibe. Sculptors are more interested in subverting statuary than glorifying anything; painters warn of an oncoming apocalypse in two-storey murals and most music is about getting laid. But back at the dawn of the modern world, when politics, culture, mores and faith were as much in flux as they are today, the 18th century’s artists took a more aspirational approach.

The cultural sphere they depicted was every bit as harmonious as the world that produced it was volatile. But while today we still listen to the measured strains of Handel, and marvel at the elegant proportions of a building by Inigo Jones, the poets of the same era are ignored. Of these, the most criminally underrated is also, perhaps, the one whose work offers the most intriguing clues for the modern world: Alexander Pope.

Pope was born the same year as modern Britain: 1688, when a group of English statesmen deposed James II as King of England, in favour of his son-in-law William of Orange. The reasons for James’ deposition were complicated, but included his Roman Catholicism as well as his insistence on the king’s divine right to abolish Parliament and govern centrally via decree.

Unenthusiastic about absolute monarchy, and nervous of future kings trying it on again, Parliament slapped new constraints on royal power — and the upshot was the constitutional monarchy we’ve lived with ever since.

As the old order liquefied at the end of the 17th century, and the fight began in earnest for power at the beginning of the 18th, aristocrats and a new class of emerging industrialists poured in to fill the vacuum left behind by an absolute ruler. These politicos increasingly split between “Tory” defenders of James II, and “Whig” proponents of Protestantism, in a political configuration that gradually took the form that would become our modern adversarial Parliament.

This binary antagonism, every bit as values-driven and visceral as the Leavers and Remainers of today, drove a febrile “us and them” political discourse. And in a forerunner of today’s clickbait-for-profit content machine, the flames were fanned by advances in printing technology, that made the written word suddenly cheap and plentiful. Presses sprang up like mushrooms, and publishers grew rich selling the scandals, libels and “fake news” of the day.

Modern politicos blame social media for a decline in public civility. But compared to the grotesque caricatures, insulting posters, inflammatory street speakers and assassination plots against senior Tories that characterised politics in the early 18th century, what gets painted today as declining standards of politeness appears more like a return to form.

New governing elites, having displaced an absolute monarch less than a generation before, were sharply aware of how fragile public consent was for their newfangled constitutional monarchy — and how much potential hostile presses had to shatter that consent. In a move that foreshadows modern drives worldwide to regulate social media, new laws pushed to suppress dissent: the 1706 Star Chamber Case De Libellis Famosis ruled that accusations against the monarch or government could constitute seditious libel even if they were true.

Pope was in many ways an outsider, a condition that today we associate with a subversive mindset. Like the deposed James II, he was Catholic, and also a Tory in a hegemonically Whig era. But he was as preoccupied with order and stability as the Star Chamber, and — albeit in a different way — every bit as critical as they were of the newly democratic world of letters.

Rather than the law, though, Pope’s battleground was literature, where he emerged as a fierce defender of high culture and classical tradition against the pandemonium of “Grub Street”. First published 1728, The Dunciad pillories the hacks of “Grub Street”, in ironically high style, as a throng of “Dunces” under the Queen of Dullness herself.

It’s perhaps the most barbed and sparkling feature-length piece of literary shade ever thrown, by turns cultivated and scabrous. Where Twitter today might just call someone a shit writer, Pope depicts one rival as powered by the spatterings of Jove’s own chamberpot:

Renew’d by ordure’s sympathetic force,
As oil’d with magic juices for the course,
Vig’rous he rises; from th’effluvia strong;
Imbibes new life, and scours and stinks along; (Dunciad II, 103-6)

Without a working knowledge of Pope’s political and literary world, getting The Dunciad’s jokes is bit like someone from the year 2320 to try and follow the jokes on Have I Got News For You. But it’s hard not to see an echo in it of our access-to-all digital “publishing” environment, and the impact it’s had on the contemporary discourse:

‘Twas chatt’ring, grinning, mouthing, jabb’ring all,
And Noise, and Norton, Brangling, and Breval,
Dennis and Dissonance; and captious Art,
And Snip-snap short, and Interruption smart. (Dunciad II, 231-34)

Pope’s blend of wit, erudition and waspishness made him a sharp satirist of contemporary chaos, but his happier visions were of tradition and harmony. London, in Windsor-Forest (1713) was envisioned as a gilded, ordered, place and the rightful heir of antiquity. Faced with its glory, the Muses would quit singing about the glories of ancient Rome, and praise England’s capital instead:

Behold! Augusta’s glitt’ring Spires increase,
And Temples rise, the beauteous Works of Peace. (Windsor-Forest, 377-8)

“Augusta”, a Roman name for London, gives Pope and his contemporaries the name by which we know them today: the Augustans. And yet London in Pope’s day was not a vision of order and beauty at all, but famous for slums, licentiousness, corruption and STDs.

The print boom extended to a flourishing trade in porn, with smutty publications bought not just for private consumption but to read aloud in pubs and coffee houses. And prefiguring Frank Ski by some centuries, there really were whores in all kinds of houses: Covent Garden was a byword for the sex trade, from the low-class “flash-mollishers” and theatre-visiting “spells” to brothel-operating “bawds” and “Covent Garden Nuns”. Prominent prostitutes, such as Sally Salisbury (1692-1724) became celebrities: Salisbury’s noted clients including Viscount Bolingbroke, and even (according to rumour) the future George II.

On top of this gossipy, salacious and politicised backdrop, urban living conditions in the city were filthy and disease-ridden: more people died in London in the 1700s than were baptised every year. The century was characterised by near-continuous military engagement. So on the face of it, nothing makes sense about Pope’s depiction in the 1733 Essay on Man, of all the cosmos as “the chain of Love/Combining all below and all above”, in which “Whatever IS, is RIGHT”.

This seems especially strange today, in the light of our modern preference for art that’s “representative” of demographics or otherwise reflective of “the real world”. But Pope’s fixation on order, hierarchy and beauty make sense, because he feared that the alternative to an idealised order would be infinitely worse:

Let Earth unbalanc’d from her orbit fly,
Planets and Suns run lawless thro’ the sky,
Let ruling Angels from their spheres be hurl’d,
Being on being wreck’d, and world on world,
Heav’n’s whole foundations to their centre, nod,
And Nature tremble to the throne of God:
All this dread ORDER break – for whom? For thee?
Vile worm! Oh Madness, Pride, Impiety! (Essay on Man, Ep. I, 251-7)

Modern tastes run more to deconstructing than glorifying canonical art or the social hierarchies it idealises. Today we’re all about writing doctorates on marginalia, humanising a stammering monarch, or revealing the sexual licence beneath the aristocratic facade. But from Pope’s perspective, it was order that needed defending, as the only real defence against tyranny:

What could be free, when lawless Beasts obey’d
And ev’n the Elements a Tyrant sway’d? (WF, 51-2)

Read against the corruption, volatility and rampant, clap-infested shagging of Georgian high society, the restrained vituperation, classical learning and formal orderliness of Pope’s writing could be seen as a paradox. Or, perhaps, a state of denial. But what if it was more a set of aspirations that succeeded — just not straight away?

The ensuing century, dominated by Victoria and Albert, is perhaps Peak Order for modern Britain. If Boswell’s diaries, in the latter half of the 18th century, record 19 separate instances of gonorrhea, Victoria’s ascent to the British throne in 1837 was characterised by a society-wide backlash against the excesses of the preceding era.

Whether methodically colouring the globe in red, or imposing strict codes of sexual conduct, public-spiritedness and emotional reserve at home, the Victorians reacted against the perceived licentiousness of the Georgian era — by delivering the kind of order that Alexander Pope both depicted in his writing and also, in his own political era, never saw realised.

In the time since Peak Order we’ve all become somewhat more free-and-easy again. But we should be wary of viewing this either as evidence of moral progress, or (depending on your outlook) of a decline that’s likely to continue indefinitely. Our age has its digital Grub Street, its own pandemic, its unstable political settlement, and its patronage politics. So perhaps it may yet produce its own Alexander Pope, and with it a new poetics of order — for a future none of us will live long enough to see.

Originally published at UnHerd