Finny Tribes and Feathered People: My Top 5 Periphrastic Kinds

Eightenth-century poetry has the reputation of being wordy, obscure, and affected. A common feature of eighteenth-century poetic diction is periphrasis – circumlocution, or the use of multiple words to describe something instead of naming it directly. So a telescope is an ‘optic tube’ and a pair of scissors ‘the glitt’ring forfex’.

One of the most common types of periphrasis is what Chester Noyes Greenough called ‘the periphrastic Kind’: a phrase that describes animals using an adjective and a group noun. Fish become ‘finny tribes’ and birds become ‘feather’d people’, and so on. These are particularly abundant in georgic poetry, given georgic’s thematic interest in nature and animals.

It’s easy to laugh at these periphrastic kinds and they often get cited as shorthand for BAD eighteenth-century poetry. But some critics have argued that, used skilfully, they can serve important poetic purposes and express complicated ideas about nature and knowledge. In The Triumph of Augustan Poetics Blanford Parker implies that they foreshadowed Darwinism by portraying animals as ‘the denizens of a competitive and sexual earth invented by the eighteenth century.’ (152) In Animals and Other People Heather Keenleyside argues that James Thomson’s uses of the figure work to ‘confound rather than shore up distinctions between human and nonhuman beings’ and ‘to define all kinds of beings as people.’ (30)

Ludicrous as many of them are, these weird adjective-group-noun phrases can be delightful, thought-provoking, and sometimes moving. Because I love a good countdown (and I was on this bandwagon long before the days of the Buzzfeed listicle), I’ve compiled a list of my top 5 instances of the periphrastic kind from the eighteenth-century georgic poems that I spend most of my time reading.

5) FRUGAL KIND – John Dryden, trans. The Georgics (1697)

Far from the Cows and Goats insulting Crew,
That trample down the Flow’rs, and brush the Dew:
The painted Lizard, and the Birds of Prey,
Foes of the frugal Kind, be far away.

There are loads of bees in georgic poetry, because they are the subject of the fourth book of Virgil’s Georgics. Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Georgics is a tour de force in finding alternative ways of saying ‘bees’. They are ‘th’indstrious kind’, ‘the lab’ring kind’, ‘the winged nation’, ‘the trading Citizens’. But I particularly like the idea of bees as ‘frugal’ (Dryden is contrasting them with the greedy, gaudy animals who prey on or trample them). It’s a good example of how periphrastic kinds can load animals with ethical significance.

4) FEATHERED TRIBES DOMESTIC – William Cowper, The Task (1785)

Now from the roost, or from the neighbouring pale,
Where, diligent to catch the first faint gleam
Of smiling day, they gossiped side by side,
Come trooping at the housewife’s well-known call
The feathered tribes domestic.

Here’s a double periphrastic kind: Cowper’s hens aren’t just part of the ‘feathered tribes’ – i.e. all birds – but are further classified as ‘domestic’. The ‘feathered tribes’ encapsulates the hens’ uniformity as they ‘troop’ en masse, but the ‘domestic’ adds the social and familial quality of these birds who gossip together and know their woman’s voice.

‘Feathered tribes domestic’: Landscape with Cottage, Bridge and Figures (1774) by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733–1794). Watercolour with grey ink over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

3) DIRTY UNDERMINING RACE – Robert Dodsley, Agriculture (1753)

…The corn devouring partridge; timorous hare;
Th’ amphibious otter bold; the weasel sly,
Pilfering the yolk from its enclosing shell;
And moles, a dirty undermining race.

Coming at the end of a long catalogue of the farmer’s animal enemies, Dodsley’s mole is comically bathetic. But there’s a peculiar bitterness about this use of the trope, which is used not to name the animal but to specify its ‘venial crimes’. You get the impression that moles don’t just literally undermine the fields, but that a mole has somehow personally undermined Dodsley.

2) JOLLY CLAN – William Somervile, The Chace (1735)

Warned by the streaming light, and merry lark,
Forth rush the jolly clan; with tuneful throats
They carol loud, and in grand chorus joined
Salute the new-born day.

Somervile has a lot of periphrastic phrases for his hunting hounds in The Chace: he uses them to draw attention to the various characteristics of an ambiguous animal. On the one hand, the hounds are ferocious killers, ‘the blood-thirsty crew’; on the other, they’re fun-loving companions, ‘the merry multitude’. I’ve gone for ‘jolly clan’ as my no.2 because it suggests the dogs’ optimistic personalities and their familial social order, yet still conveys the slightest hint of amorality. And because it’s adorable.

1) SOFT FEARFUL PEOPLE – James Thomson, The Seasons (1744)

Urg’d to the giddy brink, much is the toil,
The clamour much, of men, and boys, and dogs,
Ere the soft fearful people to the flood
Commit their woolly sides.

In The Art of Preserving Health John Armstrong calls sheep the ‘fleecy race’; in Agriculture Dodsley introduces them as the ‘bleating nation’, the ‘harmless race’, and the ‘woolly people’; in The Fleece Dyer has ‘the bleating kind’ and the ‘fleecy tribe’. But the best periphrastic kind for sheep – or anything, for that matter – has got to be Thomson’s from his lines on sheep-washing. Is there any more endearing way of describing sheep? It calls for our responsibility to treat them tenderly, but does so by asserting their personhood as well as their vulnerability.

Washing Sheep c.1806-7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Washing Sheep (c.1806-7) by JMW Turner (1775-1851) © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

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