Weeks ago I came across a secondhand one-dollar copy of a hardcover Everyman’s Library anthology named Minor Poets of the 18th Century. The old Everymans make a beautiful set of books: small, neat, studious, green. The covers, with their blunt-edged knots, are plain enough to suggest surprises.
The surprise here was a blank-verse four-part poem called The Fleece written by a man named John Dyer. I’d never heard of it before. Searching online for a version of the poem that I could link to this post, I found nothing more than a single old, scanned copy at Google books. Not all of the poems in Minor Poets are that obscure. Etexts of William Collins’ “Ode to Fear” are available in several places, and Anne Finch’s “The Owl Describing her Young Ones” was once the Poem of the Week over at the Guardian‘s book blog. Even taking its age and minor status into account, it seems safe to suggest that The Fleece is not well known.
Welsh by birth, Dyer tried his hand as a painter and parson as well as a poet before dying in 1758 at the age of 59. His one great success came in 1727 with the publication of a nature poem named Grongar Hill. The idea behind Grongar Hill is simple. Our narrator climbs a hill and admires the countryside, which, he tells us, is a place of “Pleasure” where “Quiet treads”.
“Now, even now, my joys run high
As on the mountain turf I lie”
“Dyer,” remarked Samuel Johnson, “is not a poet of bulk or dignity sufficient to require an elaborate criticism. Grongar Hill is the happiest of his productions.” Wordsworth liked the poem so much he wrote a posthumous ode in Dyer’s honour. The Fleece is wobblier than Grongar Hill, but it’s also more ambitious, an attempt to take the idea of Virgil’s Georgics and re-mould it to tell the story of the contemporary international trade in British wool. Dyer was not alone in his inspiration—other poets of the same time wrote georgics on the subjects of cider, sugar cane, and hops—but as far as I know he was the only one who chose sheep.
He introduces himself to us in a deliberately classical tone, like this:
“The care of sheep, the labours of the loom,
And arts of trade I sing. Ye rural nymphs,
Ye swains, and princely merchants aid the verse.
And ye, high-trusted guardians of our isle,
Whom public voice approves, or lot of birth
To the great charge assigns: ye good, of all
Degrees, all sects, be present to my song.”
This introduction lets us know that The Fleece is not going to be a small-scale poem like Grongar Hill, taking place on a single spot of countryside. This is going to be an epic that will embrace as many people and parts of life as possible. Trade is society, Dyer suggests. The shepherds and merchants are not only subjects of the verse, they also “aid” it. Buried under that self-conscious ‘ye’ is a basic egalitarian cry—come one, come all, gather round, listen, this poem is yours. The unsteadiness that runs through The Fleece has its origins in the contrast between Dyer’s heightened language and the hucksterish sociability of that cry, and between his abstract ideas of Ancient Rome and the concrete fact of a sheep. Between, in short, simplicity and artifice. Sometimes he lets one swallow the other. A ram’s head “is fenced
With horns Ammonian, circulating twice
Around each open ear, like those fair scrolls
That grace the columns of the Ionic dome.”
In lines like this his attachment to the classics—to the ideas they stood for at the time, to scholarship and respect, to the invisible footnote that pipes up like a schoolchild, “I’ve read Latin!”—uproots him from himself. The horns like column scrolls are falsely conceived, not felt, not seen: forced. This is part of the reason why the poem is not completely successful, why it has been assigned to a book of minor poets. Dyer doesn’t completely trust his own experience. He can’t free himself from this self-consciousness, or find a way to merge with it as other poets have found ways to reconcile themselves with their uncertainties. Parts of his own work have been allowed to fight against him.