The lyric poetry of the mid eighteenth century has traditionally been hard to locate in literary history as anything other than transitional, as ‘post-Augustan’ or ‘pre-Romantic’, as decline or anticipation. It has struggled to establish a critical vocabulary in which it can be judged on its own terms. Pinned between the canonical achievements of Dryden-Pope on the one side and Wordsworth-Coleridge on the other, this poetry has often been used to further other agendas, to play a ‘minor’ role in reinforcing ‘major’ achievements, or to exemplify an individual eccentricity. But such tired ‘survey course’ arguments have now begun to look very limited. The old categories need to be set aside, and these poets be allowed to set their own agenda. The challenge is to find critical perspectives that will do justice to them as individual poets while acknowledging their contemporaneity and suggesting lines of connection between them. It should also be possible, through them, to question some of the traditional criteria for literary judgment. These two trajectories will help to guide the discussion that follows.
Thomas Gray (1716–71), William Collins (1721–59), the Warton brothers, Thomas (1728–90) and Joseph (1722–1800), Christopher Smart (1722–71), James Macpherson (1736–96), Thomas Chatterton (1752–70) and Robert Burns (1759–96) offer as wide a range of voices as any group of poets in history; but there are ways in which they can gain from being discussed together. To take one extreme example: the lyric lamentations of Macpherson’s Ossian, the third-century bard who sings in his melancholy rhythmical prose of fallen heroes and a doomed race, could not be more different from Burns’s catchy rhymes, satirically edged and interspersed with responsive tavern laughter or drawing-room applause. Yet each is capturing a mood and is conscious of projecting an expressive, strongly characterised voice that carries the poem so as to reach the heart of the listener. Both are in their very different ways, lyric performances.