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Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

 

English novelist and poet who satirized the political and cultural scene of his time. Although he ridiculed well-known figures of the Romantic movement – William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and others – Peacock's verbal attacks were not aggressive and did not arouse open hostility. Usually Peacock assembles his characters in a country house, where they exchange opinions over a dinner table in a merry atmosphere. The 'Socratic dialogues' are leavened by songs, hilarious and extravagant episodes, and romantic love-plots.

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
My heart is gone, far, far from me;
And ever on its track will flee
My thoughts, my dreams, beyond the sea
.
(in Crotchet Castle, 1831)

Thomas Love Peacock was born at Weymouth, in Dorset, the only son of Samuel Peacock, a London glass merchant, and Sarah Love. Peacock's maternal grandfather was a master in the Royal Navy. After the death of his father in 1788, the young Thomas Love was brought up by his mother at Chertsey in his grandfather's house. Peacock was educated at a private school in Englefield Green. His formal schooling in Greek, Latin, and French ended before he was 13, but throughout his life he read omnivorously in five languages. With the help of a modest inheritance form his father, Peacock was able to live as a man of letters. In the winter of 1808-09, he served as a secretary on board H.M.S. Venerable, a 'floating Inferno', as he called it.

In 1812 Peacock met Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who greatly inspired his writing. Later they were friendly antagonists. Peacock also became Shelley's literary executor after his death. Through Shelley he was drawn into a wider literary circle, but his knowledge of classical literature also helped the younger poet. Peacock's satirical essay on the value of poetry, The Four Ages of Poetry (1820), provoked Shelley's famous Defence of Poetry (written 1821, published 1840).

Peacock claimed that poetry is not one of those arts which require repetition and multiplication – like painting. There are sufficient amount of good poems for all readers and they are far superior to contemporary achievements, "the artificial reconstructions of a few morbid ascetics in unpoetical times." Since poets have become semi-barbarians in a civilized community, their talents would be more usefully employed improving the world in the new sciences. "The highest inspirations of poetry are resolved into three ingredients: the rant of unregulated passion, the whining of exaggerated feeling, and the cant of factitious sentiment: and can therefore serve only to ripen a splendid lunatic like Alexander, a puling driveller like Werter, or a morbid dreamer like Wordsworth." From his own viewpoint Shelley saw, that poetry is a force for social freedom. Poets, such as Chaucer, Dante, and Milton, are "the unacknowledged legislators of the World." Peacock's real stand is hard to define – some of his suggestions are made somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and some of his opinions are not so far-fetched, he does not fit into some mold, and his satire is often double-edged. "Poetry was the mental rattle that awakened the attention of intellect in the infancy of civil society; but for the maturity of mind to make serious business of the playthings of its childhood, is as absurd as for a full-grown man to rub his gums with coral, and cry to be charmed to sleep by the jingle of silver bells."

Probably due to financial problems Peacock left the country for London and took regular employment. He entered the East India Company's service and became in 1819 an assistant to the Examiner at India House. It was a well-paid post. The next year he married Jane Gryffydh, the 'White Snowdonian antelope' of Shelley's 'Letter to Maria Gisborne'. In 1826 she suffered a breakdown at the death of their third daughter. Never fully recovering, she was a mental invalid until her death in 1851. The eldest daughter, Mary Ellen, married and separated from the writer George Meredith, whom Peacock helped financially. With her Peacock collaborated on an article on 'Gastronomy and Civilization' (Fraser's Magazine, 1851). Mary Ellen died at Capri in 1861. She featured in Meredith's sonnet sequence Modern Love.

"The good qualities of a trout," said the little friar, "are firmness and redness: the redness, indeed, being the visible sign of all other virtues."
"Whence," said brother Michael, "we choose our abbot by his nose:
The rose on the nose doth all virtues disclose:
For the outward grace shows
That the inward overflows,
When it glows in the rose of a red, red nose."

(in Maid Marian, 1822)

After unsuccessful attempts in poetry and the theatre, Peacock found his special form in the 'discussion novel' or novel of ideas, in which conversation predominates over character or plot. This format later inspired Aldous Huxley. The first of Peacock's seven novels was Headlong Hall (1816), a satire of the idealistic aspirations of Romanticism, which presented the elements of his subsequent works. Peacock's favorite setting was a country house, where a group of eccentric guests are seated at a table, eating, drinking sherry or ale, laughing, and embarking on witty or ridiculous discussions in which many common opinions of the day are criticized. He once said that "solitary habits take away many means of forming correct opinions, and prevent opportunities of removing prejudices." Young women provide the necessary characters for the romance, but they rarely participate in the general conversation.

Melincourt (1817) was about the early pioneer of anthropology, Lord Monboddo. One of its characters is an orang-outang called Sir Oran Haut-Ton, who plays the flute and the French horn. In Crotchet Castle (1831) the central characters tried to determine the most desirable period of history. In Nightmare Abbey (1818) Peacock used well-known literary figures as models: Mr. Losky was drawn from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Scythorp from Shelley, and Mr. Cypress from Lord Byron, whose fourth canto of Childe Harold was the source of his phrases. Shelley was not disturbed that his relations with Harriet Westbrook and Mary Godwin was discussed through the central characters of the novel.

In the East India Company, Peacock's supervisor was the Scottish utilitarian philosopher and economist James Mill. Peacock succeeded him in 1836 to the responsible position of Examiner, retiring in 1856. Mill's famous son was John Stuart Mill; they both sought to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Their views also influenced Peacock's interest in social issues, exemplified in Four Ages of Poetry.

Peacock's mother died in 1833 and he lost interest in writing for a long period. Though he had once been characterized by Thackeray as a "whiteheaded jolly old wordling", Peacock spent much of his final years in his library, in his garden, and seldom left his home at Lower Halliford, near Chertsey. Founding fulfillment in the quiet life, Peacock devoted himself to the search for peace of body and mind.

Peacock died in Lower Halliford, Surrey, on January 23, 1866. His death followed shortly after a fire drove him to his beloved library, filled with fine editions of Greek, Latin, and Italian classics, which he refused to leave. Peacock's last novel, Gryll Grange, a satire on the mid-Victorian age, appeared in 1860-61. It is considered by many readers his masterpiece.

For further reading: The Life of Thomas Love Peacock by Carl Van Doren (1911); Life by J.B. Priestley (1927); Life by J.J. Mayoux (1932, in Works); Peacock: His Circle and His Age by Howard Mills (1968); Thomas Love Peacock by Robert Forbes Felton (1973); Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in his Context by Marilyn Butler (1979); The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock by Bryan Burns (1985): Thomas Love Peacock by James Mulvihill (1987); Frivolity Unbound: Six Masters of the Camp Novel: Thomas Love Peacock, Max Beerbohm, Ronald Firbank, E.F. Benson, P.G. Wodehouse, Ivy Compton-Burnett by Robert F. Kiernan (1990); Peacock's Progress: Aspects of Artistic Development in the Novels of Thomas Love Peacock by Margaret McKay (1992); The Characters in the Novels of Thomas Love Peacock, 1785- 1866: With Bibliographical Lists by Claude A. Prance (1992); The Christian Faith and practice of Samuel Johnson, Thomas De Quincey, and Thomas Love Peacock by Neil Tomkinson Lewiston (1992); Humor and Transgression in Peacock, Shelley, and Byron: A Cold Carnival by Thomas H. Schmid (1992) - For further information: The Thomas Love Peacock Society homepage.

Selected works:

  • The Monks of St. Mark, 1804
  • Palmyra and Other Poems, 1806
  • The Genius of the Thames, 1810
  • The Philosophy of Melancholy, 1821
  • Sir Proteus: A Satirical Ballad, 1814
  • Headlong Hall, 1816
  • Melincourt, 1817 (3 vols.)
  • The Round Table; or, King Arthur's Feast, 1817
  • Rododaphne; or, The Thessalian Spell, 1818
  • Nightmare Abbey, 1818
  • 'Essay on Fashionable Literature', 1818
  • The Four Ages of Poetry, 1820
  • Maid Marian, 1822
  • 'Long Night Succeeds thy little Day', 1826
  • The Misfortunes of Elphin, 1829
  • Crotchet Castle, 1831
  • The Paper Money Lyrics and Other Poems, 1837
  • 'Newark Abbey', 1842
  • Gryll Grange, 1861
  • Memoirs of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1858-60 (2 vols.)
  • The Works of Thomas Love Peacock, 1875 (3 vols., edited by Henry Cole )
  • The Poems, 1906 (ed. R. Brimley Johnson, in Routledge's The Muses Library)
  • The Plays of Thomas Love Peacock, 1910 (edited by A.B. Young)
  • The Works of Thomas Love Peacock, 1924-34 (10 vols., ed. H.F.B. Brett-Smith and C.E. Jones, rpt. 1967)
  • The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock, 1963 (2 vols., ed. David Garnett)
  • The Letters of Thomas Love Peacock: 1792-1827, 2001 (ed. Nicholas A. Joukovsky)
  • The Letters of Thomas Love Peacock: 1828-1866, 2001 (ed. Nicholas A. Joukovsky)


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