A minor poet and his longest poem: John Dyer and “The Fleece”

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.

We’re better off when he’s giving us advice about sheep-rearing. The knowledge of animal husbandry he shows here was probably acquired during several years he spent managing rundown farms. In these areas of the poem the “columns of the Ionic dome” fall away and his language becomes exact. “The oldest carpet is the warmest lair,” he says, urging us not to replace thick old foliage with new. “[I]n newest herbage coughs are heard.” In other words, if you give your sheep sparse, new foliage to deal with then they are likely to fall sick. It sounds like sane, farmerish advice, and not the kind of thing that every poet of the time could have decanted upon a reader with such casual authority: not upperclass Anne Finch, who was married to a title, and not William Collins, who studied at Oxford and spent much of his adult life in London, as far away from concerns about “herbage” as a person could get.

After introducing himself, Dyer starts his story at the bottom. We learn about the best soil, the best grass, the best weather conditions for the best sheep. It turns out that the best conditions are British conditions. Dyer was a patriot. The French, with whom his country was at war, he dismisses as “trifling Gaul[s] / Effeminate,” insisting that they can’t tolerate the “slow-descending showers / Those hovering fogs” that sustain the best pasture in the world. Next we move to shearing, then the spinning of wool, the manufacture of cloth. Dyer’s language is plump with national pride. He recommends labour as the remedy for social ills. See: former beggars can find tranquility by working at looms. Now the cloth is loaded onto ships and the coiled energy that has been incubating in these domestic scenes uncoils itself and springs outwards. We go overseas.

Dyer never saw the far-away places that he writes about: the “palmy steeps” of Mozambique, “Bombay’s wealthy isle and harbour famed”, or the markets of Virginia where the native “Iroquese, Cheroques, and Oubacks, come, / And quit their feathery ornaments uncouth / For woolly garments.” The anthology’s editor, Hugh l’Anson Fausset, argues that this unfamiliarity weakens the poem. I’m not so sure. Dyer’s unquestioning support for colonial expansion seems quaint today, and disingenuous — “Britannia,” he declares,

“… ne’er breaks

Her solemn compacts, in the lust of rule:

Studious of arts and trade, she ne’er disturbs

The holy peace of states. ‘Tis her delight

To fold the world with harmony, and spread

Among the habitations of mankind

The various wealth of toil …”

— but this brisk travelogue, breathless with visions of volcanoes, spice-clouds, insolent tyrants, “yellow dust of gold,” snowstorms, pagodas, deserts, serpents, wolves, diamonds, glaring Argentineans, fierce cataracts, forests, heaving hills of ice, “wild-flying sails and tumbling masts,” is exciting, a bravura performance from the poet, who ties it all back to matters of trade, both serious and frivolous: attractive shells from Madagascan beaches end up in English display cabinets. He’s showing off again, but this time it’s entertaining. Here The Fleece, which began with the narrow, dense detail of sheep-farming, spreads outwards like the open end of the cornucopia Dyer believes Britain to be. The stable homely scenes have been turned into a platform for maritime liftoff. Rather than see it as a poem in two unequal parts, a strong part then a weak part, as Fausset does, I thought of it as a poem that changed speed, lingering at first, then accelerating.

After sixteen years of work, The Fleece was published in 1757. A year later Dyer was dead. In hindsight it seems perverse of him to have followed the success he had with Grongar Hill by turning in the opposite direction, toward an expansive classicalism. It was left to other poets such as Wordsworth to retrieve the idea of nature-simplicity and feed it until it was transformed into an enduring style. Having accidentally created a space for himself in the public eye, Dyer refused to fill it. So he wound up, a long time later, in a book of minor poets, inside the one-dollar box of a secondhand book dealer on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, in Australia, a country that never made it into his “habitations of mankind” because his fellow Britons hadn’t discovered it yet, let alone set up wool-trading exchanges with the locals. What if they had? Probably he would have decided that the new Australians could free themselves from moral vexation with a nice bit of sheep-farming.