Let me tell you something. The eighteenth century was just straight up not a good time for poetry. Of course, there are exceptions; we’re talking about a hundred years (or, if you’re in graduate school, we’re talking about 160 years). Still, the principle is essentially sound. 1700–1800: bad poetry.
Well, “bad.” Better say unreadable. Some inventive genius could probably set up a pay schedule where the big eighteenth-century poets get their fair share of huffin’-and-puffin’ adjectives. But adjectives aside, the desire to read the stuff is small, vanishingly small.
It wasn’t a bad century for prose. Swift, Fielding, Sterne, Johnson, Gibbon, Boswell. Or zoom in close: Have you ever looked at Elizabeth Carter’s translation of Epictetus? Or Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters? Anybody today’d be damn proud to be compared to any of those cats. Whereas, if somebody compares your poetry to that of Thomas Gray, you are being made fun of.
So why in the world do I read eighteenth-century poetry. Am I a pervert? Do I like things that should not be liked? Answer: I’m no different from you, when it comes to taste. The difference between us is I’m interested in escaping my own perspective as to what’s good and bad in poetry. I want to know what in the world those wigged heads saw in Shenstone, Young, Akenside, Lyttleton…
You don’t care about that. You don’t have a whole lot of time for poetry in the first place, let alone stuff nobody’s read in 150 years. Unless … maybe you’re a little bit like me, after all? Maybe you’re afraid the poetry that you yourself are writing—though esteemed and popular now—will one day be a prompt for baffled speculation. “What in the world did those fapoons in the twenty-first century think poetry was for anyway?”