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May 22, 2017

Olivia’s lewd, but looks devout,
And scripture-proofs she throws about
When first you try to win her.
Pull your fob of guineas out,
See Jenny first, and never doubt
To find the saint a sinner.

Baxter by day is her delight:
No chocolate must come in sight
Before two morning chapters:
But lest the spleen should spoil her quite,
She takes a civil friend at night
To raise her holy raptures.

Thus oft we see a glowworm gay
At large her fiery tail display,
Encouraged by the dark;
And yet the sullen thing all day
Snug in the lonely thicket lay,
And hid the native spark.

–Elijah Fenton, 1707

COMMENTARY: I don’t think anybody teaches Elijah Fenton anymore, and several English professors I mentioned his name to had never heard of him. I only found this poem by chance leafing through Paul Fussell’s anthology English Augustan Poetry. During Fenton’s lifetime, though, he was fairly well-known. Or at least known by the right people. As schoolmaster at a small school in Kent, he was private tutor to the statesman William Trumbull. Though his literary output was small (a book of poems in 1707 and a biography of John Milton in 1725), he had the good fortune of living roughly next door to Alexander Pope. According to Samuel Johnson, Fenton’s poems impressed Pope who then asked him to help with his verse translation of The Odyssey. When Fenton died in 1730, Pope composed his epitaph calling him: “A poet blest beyond the poets fate/ Whom heav’n left sacred from the proud and great.”

Anyway, I like this poem for its lively control of its musical form, the wiliness of its euphemisms (especially the winking “civil friend” for lover) and the striking final metaphor. The “Jenny” in the fifth line likely refers to a waiting maid (at the time, Jenny was the “Jeeves” of maid names) who likely had some influence over her mistress. Baxter was Richard Baxter, a Presbyterian theologian, whose What Must We Do To Be Saved was a popular devotional in the early 18th century.

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