Sunday, August 17, 2003

More From Grub Street

Dug this one up while researching Grub Street:

Advice to the Grub Street Verse-writers
by Jonathan Swift

Ye poets ragged and forlorn,
Down from your garrets haste;
Ye rhymers, dead as soon as born,
Not yet consign'd to paste;
I know a trick to make you thrive;
O, 'tis a quaint device:
Your still-born poems shall revive,
And scorn to wrap up spice.
Get all your verses printed fair,
Then let them well be dried;
And Curll must have a special care
To leave the margin wide.
Lend these to paper-sparing Pope;
And when he sets to write,
No letter with an envelope
Could give him more delight.
When Pope has fill'd the margins round,
Why then recall your loan;
Sell them to Curll for fifty pound,
And swear they are your own.

Questions for Class Discussion
1. So what crawled up Swift's butt and died, anyway?
2. Pope is fellow poet Alexander Pope. Who's this Curll guy?
3. And while we're at it, why are Grub Street writers also called hacks?

This is one more salvo in the "war against the dunces" - a war in which both Swift and Pope took the higher moral ground. Both were moralists, Tories and beneficiaries of the patronage system of publication, and looked aghast at those whose motivation for scribing was a mere desire to eat. Suppposedly composed in 1726, it saw of light of day in 1735, which is important because of what was going in that later year with Pope, and may reflect support for his ally in these matters.

The Curll in question was Edmund Curll, a bookseller/publisher who had been quarreling with Pope for years. Were Curll alive today, he would have been a publisher of self-help books, perhaps a pornographer, or maybe manufacturing "shovel-ware" CDs filled with public domain material (indeed, he could be all three). Taking advantage of literary property laws of the time, Curll was willing to put into print all manner of content, from personal letters to sermons to struggling novelists, provided that it would sell, and was not above misrepresentation, self-promotion, and other forms of marketting to get the job done. If alluding tangentially that the work was by a particular well-known author, or declaring it to be a "new edition" when it was merely a repackaging, well, such was the nature of the business.

Pope himself had apparently written a number of gushing, gallant poems to a certain married lady, which Curll acquired and published as "Court Poems" - anonymously, but with the note they were written by the Translator of Homer (one of Pope's big gigs - everyone would know whom it meant). Pope responded by pilloring Curll in his satires, which of course promoted Curll even further.

In 1735, Curll was approached with the opportunity to publish Pope's literary correspondence (including some with the peerage) by a third party. Curll announced such, and Pope was outraged, arranging to have Curll hauled before the House of Lords and his stocks siezed. Curll managed to talk his way out of this one - he had no letters from the peerage, only the promise of them from this third party.

It turns out that the "third party" was nothing less than an agent for Pope himself, as the poet wished to see his correspondence published without seeming to betray his correspondents (which he later did, under another publisher, claiming to only to want to produce "the genuine article", in 1737). At the time, though, Pope frothed mightily against pirate publishers and was filled with righteous indignation, but one of his allies kept his own letters discussing the ruse, and Pope's roll in the scheme was revealed (after the deaths of both Pope and Curll).

Curll entered the English Language with the now-forgotten word "Curlicism", meaning indecent literary material. Indeed, he published such books as A Nun in Her Smock (which got him fined) and The Memoirs of John Ker of Kersland (which got him pilloried). And even going through sources for this report, I noted how Curll is reported depends entirely on how one approaches writing - Populist histories tend to support him, noting the wide variety of material he published (in a great number of non-lasivious fields), while those of a more literary-bent side with Pope and Swift and find him vile, piratical, and obscene. Any similarity between Curll and modern publishing tendencies will go uncommented-upon in this blog.

So the Swiftian advice above is "print your tripe, let Pope complain about it, then print the complaints." A small jab at Pope (for saving paper), but a cannonshot against the Strugglers of Grub Street. The poem may well have laid in some drawer for a good until the events of 1737 made it suitable for use in the 18th Century Culture Wars. Its timing was opportune, to say the least.

Finally, hacks. Hack writers come from the same source as hackney cabs. Both come from Hackney, which was a parklike area near London where horses might be stabled and hired. A hack is a hired horse - usually tired, plodding, and easily handled. and quickly transferred over to those who write for pay.

More later,