22. A Splendid Shilling

Object type:  A splendid 1701 shilling, uncirculated. 

Materials: Silver 

© Photo courtesy Royal Mint Museum.


When I teach John Philips's 1701 poem "The Splendid Shilling," students assume, even after reading the poem, that it is about a shilling.  What could be more obvious?  Titles after all tell about contents, in the same way that file labels tell us what is in the files.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will be about Harry Potter and a sorcerer's stone; Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, its title redundantly announces, will be about Moby Dick, a whale.  But "The Splendid Shilling" is a bit of a false lead; the poem is not about a shilling-- no shilling appears in the poem.  In fact, what we might call "no-shilling" is its subject; the poem is about being broke.

I'm singling out my students, here, but they are not alone.  Joseph Addison, one of the leading literary luminaries of his age (see Exhibits 13 and 14), made a similar mistake.  It occurs in an essay he wrote for the Tatler (#249), a weekly periodical run by journalist Richard Steele.  Addison's essay, composed in about 1710, is inspired by a dream of a speaking coin, and tells the life of an object in the same way that a novel might tell the life of a person.  Born in Peru, it voyages, by way of Drake’s cruise, from the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty through the interrupted reign of the Stuarts. It witnesses the development of England from a marginal kingdom among others into a nascent mercantile empire.  Each of its stops leaves its mark; it bears the image of a queen, is nicked, bent, worn smooth, clipped, and finally remelted to take the profile image of King William III.  It would be possible to imagine a tale like this in which the coin tells its story through its scars: this nick remembers the teeth of a tavern keeper testing me for soundness, this scratch remembers when I was cast under a wall, and so forth.  In essence, Addison proposes a coin that can collect experiences and recount them despite being melted down and remade.  He proposes a coin that can only accrue; he imagines an account as an inventory, as the irreversible collecting of things, with no expenses and nothing ever lost.

Addison’s own evidence, however, speaks against him.  Among the adventures Addison's coin relates is a brief pause in the pocket of John Philips, where it claims to have provided the inspiration of Philips’s burlesque poem “The Splendid Shilling.”  This is a remarkably literary shilling—stitching its way from Philips to Addison; presumably, just as Addison is inspired by the shilling on his desk, so, too, Philips was inspired by a shilling in his pocket.  In telling the story in this way, Addison has assumed that a poem about the meaning of a shilling will depend upon owning it; because Addison experiences his creative process as depending upon the things he owns, because, in other words, he finds inspiration in things that are his, he has assumed that Philips works in the same way.

But “The Splendid Shilling” does not record ownership as a meaningful artistic principle; the poem may not be said meaningfully to cross with Addison’s coin at all, for it is a poem, instead, about how the lack of a shilling changes the poet’s relationship with the world he inhabits.  The poem begins by imagining a man who, “in Silken or Leathern Purse retains / A splendid shilling.”  This could almost be Addison; possession penetrates the texture of the possessor’s experience.  Such a man, armed with the purchasing power of such a twelve-penny piece, is imagined smoking in peace, “laugh[ing] at merry Tale[s],” toasting the health of friends and lovers.  He does not “hear with pain / New Oysters” hawked on the street, nor “sigh for cheerful Ale,” for the simple fact that he money in his pocket means that he does not experience lack as immanent pain.  He may experience lack as pleasure—for it implies the sweetness of satisfying a desire.

Philips, on the contrary, owns no such shilling.  The poem is about what it means to lack a shilling.  He is starved, suspicious, circumspect, and cold.  He “feed[s] with dismal Thoughts” his “anxious Mind.”  He is hounded by bill-collectors, bank agents, and other agents of the law—or anxiously imagines them even when they aren’t there.  Pain and anxiety become the very reasons that he is a poet.  Paradoxically, the lack of a shilling makes him productive.  This is not the productivity of capital; it is the roving alertness of the dispossessed, the sensitivity to things that can be borrowed, reused, reappropriated, or spent as though they were his own.  The bodily experience of frustrated desire, the experience of being “from Pleasure quite debarr’d,” is the engine of the Grub Street poet’s mental work.  

The differences between having a shilling and wanting one penetrate into the very texture of the verse.  Where Addison’s poetry chains together affirmatives, “The Splendid Shilling” continually offers alternatives, each of which stalls before coming into being.  While the poet “labour[s] with... eternal drought, / And . . . parched throat,” he writes "mournful Verse... and sing[s] of Groves and Myrtle Shades, / Or desperate Lady near a purling stream."  This is a poetry of dispossession; it is what is called "grub street" poetry.  This is the poetry of hack writers and piece-work journalists, of writers-for-hire who are paid by the line or by the page.  These are all stock images, chosen for their convenience, and recycled here as general objects of desire.  This is all the more troubling, at least to possessive theories of originality, inasmuch as Philips did reasonably well with this poem.  That is, it sold quite well, the profits devolving to his publisher and, to a lesser extent, himself.  Put differently, the grub street poet is the one who steals from others in order to invent something of his own; he brokers images from one place in order to sell them somewhere else.  

It is worth noting, in this light, that “The Splendid Shilling” was the title given the poem by men like Addison.   Joseph Addison’s career, for instance, ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of his patrons, but he was never troubled by the law, seriously in debt, called before a judge, or dispossessed of his belongings.  He never made dispossession a programmatic object of his remarks.  Why would he, if it wasn’t part of his experience? On the contrary, he built a philosophy of possession, adding to the theoretical and cultural buttressing of what would emerge as liberal subjectivity, the theory of possessive individualism.  The person is a collection of objects; mind is a collection of ideas.  Simply gaze upon the world, as Addison puts it, and it gives you a kind of property in everything you see.  And this story often stands in as the normative one—as though the possessive experiences of a few could adequately stand in for the complicated, embodied experiences of the multitude.  

But when "The Splendid Shilling" first appeared, it was in unauthorized editions of pirated verse.  What is more, it was simply called an “Imitation of Milton.”  It wasn't only a sort of parody of Milton; it was advertised as such a parody, and sold as such.  We have entered, in other words, the realm of the dispossessed.  This is not a poetics that mirrors the careful tending of things, like a garden or a repository.  It is a poetry that rises up as the effect of dispossession, and that, itself, recirculates images it borrows without repaying.

As an aside, it might very well be that all new ideas, at least after John Locke, are merely the combinations of old ones.  I don't think that it is inevitable that the mind be thought of as a collection, but once we do, once we accept (in Locke's phrase) that there is "nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses," then it is difficult to think of any alternative.  It is difficult to figure out how new ideas might come into being, except as the combinations of old ones.  It might even be, by the same token, that the ideas for new combinations are themselves merely misremembered old ideas: half-mutilated memories that are mistaken for fresh notions.  Looked at in this way, all ideas are collections sorted out of things borrowed from someone else.  This is why this museum's bibliography is stored in the Lost and Found.

It is the argument of this museum, and the book that catalogues it, that philosophies of mind emerge from embodied experiences with environments.  The general philosophy that the mind is a collection is underwritten by various habits of collecting. We say that we "have" memories, we have an idea "in mind," we speak of remembering and recollecting.  But what about people whose experiences of loss far outweigh those of acquisition?  What about the state of the dispossessed?  For what seems to be an intuitive claim-- "the mind is a collection"-- is in fact a sorting switch of power.  It is the well-to-do that think of the mind as a clean, well-lighted place.  This space, dedicated to the dispossessed, is about some of the alternatives-- which seem to me far to outweigh the rather narrow assumption that the mind is a collection of objects.