Haggling With the Muses: Negotiating Value in 18th Century English Poetry

Morgan, Paige. Haggling With the Muses: Negotiating Value in 18th Century English Poetry. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

"Haggling With the Muses: Negotiating Value in 18th Century English Poetry" argues that English poets writing in the 1730s and 1740s were substantially engaged with the emergent economic system as a result of their professional aspirations. In particular, I present an in-depth examination and reading of Edward Young's Night Thoughts, and show how Young channeled his frustrations at his lack of success into imagining an economic system that would privilege his own efforts. Young's poetry grapples with the concept of labor value vs. market value, the meaning of capital, and what it means to be an economic individual. His use of religious idiom enhances the complexity of his imagined system. Night Thoughts is part of the so-called Graveyard School; and in this dissertation, I investigate whether Young's engagement with economics was an isolated phenomenon, or a more widespread aspect of poetry from this period. Specifically, I examine the works of Thomas Parnell, James Thomson, and William Shenstone. I also explore the concepts of otherworldliness and virtue, both of which have been strongly associated with graveyard poetry.

Earlier studies of eighteenth-century verse have often treated poems from the Graveyard School as products of simplistic religious piety, and as a transitional point between the high wit of the early eighteenth century and Romanticism. My research indicates that it is essential to the economic and professional situations of poets in order to understand the concerns that are likely to appear in their verse. I argue that eighteenth-century reading practices encouraged readers to extract short excerpts of verse for epigraphs and commonplace books, and that these activities obscured the economic content of Night Thoughts, and were responsible for the reputation of Young and his contemporaries as authors of melancholic Christian verse.

Status of Research
Research Type