The Distressed Poet of William Hogarth’s popular print is a sorry figure. The bill for the milk is unpaid, the baby grizzles for want of a fire, the dog is about to make off with the joint, and his wife is mending already much-mended trousers. He should be industriously scribbling — a penny ballad, a pamphlet — and earning enough to see off the milkmaid brandishing her bill at the garret door. But here he is scratching his head and frowning out of the window, while scrap paper piles up under the table. The engraving appeared with verses from Alexander Pope:
Studious he sate, with all his books around,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profund!
Plung’d for his sense but found no bottom there,
Then writ, and flounder’d on, in mere despair.
The Distressed Poet made his appearance in print in 1736. He was still there, in the same attitude and in want of money and inspiration, in 1836. By 1936 his quill pen had become a typewriter. In 2016, it is a MacBook.