We’re inaugurating a new type of post on the RRG blog: the spotlight, in which we will introduce an under-read, under-appreciated, recently recuperated, or otherwise interesting-but-little-known text.
Today, it’s “The Laurel of Liberty” (1790) by Robert Merry, better known as ‘Della Crusca.’ This poem is one of the earliest liberal responses to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolutionin France (1790). While Merry’s poetic reputation had been made with his debut exchange of flirtatious verses with ‘Anna Matilda’ (Hannah Cowley), in the “Laurel” Merry addresses his impassioned, eroticized verse to “Liberty” rather than to any of his fellow poets.
The poem, running to 702 lines, is written in heroic couplets and dedicated to the National Assembly of France, “The true and zealous representatives of a free people, with every sentiment of admiration and respect.” The poem contains the marks of neoclassical poetry–apostrophe, personification of abstractions, rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter–all in the service of praising Liberty and France.
When Liberty appears to bless Britain, she warns against government corruption and declares the necessity of Parliamentary reform:
Should zeal of Parliament be empty words,
And half the Commons represnt the Lords,
Or should the People’s suffrages be sold,
And base corruption rule the lade with gold,
Boroughs be bought at open settled price,
And each distinction bear the badge of vice;
Should stern Excise his fierce designs confess,
And Persecution hover o’er the Press;
Contending factions irritate the state,
With selfish violence, and venal hate;
While the grim giant Commerce should destroy
The modest mansions of each genuine joy,
With artificial lustre cheat the eyes,
And vaunt his triumph as my influence flies.
Then, shall my best beatitude conceal’d
From her, be to new continents reveal’d (ll.291-306)
This passage reminds me rather strikingly of Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), in which she writes in prophetic voice about the genius of civilization deserting Britain in favor of America, while nonetheless sounding rather Popean for the 1790s.
Merry’s poem was mocked, perhaps more forcefully than it can deserve, by William Gifford in his verse satire, The Baviad (1794), which attacks Della Cruscan poetry generally and the collection The Florence Miscellany (1785) more specifically. The Baviad’s initial scene involves Merry giving a recitation at a Piozzi’s home; Gifford writes, “O wretched man! And dost thou toil to please, / At this late hour of life, such ears as these? / Is thy poor pride contented to receive / Such transitory fame as fools can give?” (ll.59-62) Gifford attacks not only Merry, but the entire Della Cruscan circle, which included Hester Thrale Piozzi, Hannah Cowley, Bertie Greathead, William Parsons, and Mary Robinson, among others. After The Baviad and the overkill of The Maeviad, the Della Cruscan style of impassioned, sentimental declamation fades from the literary scene. But the impact of Della Cruscan stylistics can be seen in the work of Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth, Felicia Hemans, and L.E.L. (Letitia Landon).
The full text of Gifford’s Baviad and a collection of Della Cruscan poetry, including Merry’s “Laurel of Liberty,” can be found in volume four of British Satire 1785-1840 by Pickering & Chatto, edited by John Strachan.