John Sheffield’s Essay upon Poetry: The Use of Literature for Educational Purposes in the Long Eighteenth Century

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In this article, I look to examine howliterature was used for educational purposes during the long eighteenthcentury. In doing so, my study aligns itself with one strand in the work ofAnthony W. Johnson, namely his long-standing interest in the plays and speechesproduced by the students at King’s School, Canterbury in the second half of theseventeenth century and gathered in the “Orationes” manuscript. However, byfocusing on John Sheffield’s Essay uponPoetry (first printed in 1682) – a didactic poem composed in the spirit ofHorace’s Ars Poetica – the aim is to castlight on the connection between learning and literature in the public realmrather than the grammar school classroom. In examining how Sheffield goes aboutteaching the reading public through the medium of poetry, I argue for theimportance of first considering how he envisioned the teaching situation: how didhe address his audiences and what precisely was it he wanted them to learn? Although,the Essay upon Poetry lacks the specific addressee so often found in thegenre, I find that its addressivity is still complicated since Sheffield implicitlydistinguishes between two types of audience, those who know the rules of poetryand those who do not. Sheffield did not aim to teach his most ignorant readersa set of specific poetic techniques or compositional methods, however. Rather,he appears to have wanted to provide the public with an entertaining poem that,primarily, looked to inform his less knowledgeable readers about how to improve their skills and where tolook for real advice and inspiration. Sheffield thus forwarded a view ofliterary history that revered classical literature.  Finally, I consider how Sheffield dealt withone particularly acute problem facing the didactic poet: how not to offendreaders by assuming a position of superiority. There are clear signs in the Essay upon Poetry that Sheffield adoptedquite traditional methods extended from a simple Lucretian pedagogy, but thereare also signs that would suggest he looked to create a feeling of solidarityand camaraderie with other poets.

Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Title of host publicationRenaissance Man. Essays on Literature and Culture for Anthony W. Johnson
EditorsTommi Alho, Jason Finch, Roger D. Sell
PublisherJohn Benjamins
ISBN (Electronic)9789027262004
ISBN (Print)9789027204257
Publication statusPublished - 2019
MoE publication typeA3 Part of a book or another research book


  • Poetry
  • literature
  • poetry in education
  • public sphere

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