Alexander Pope

On first consideration, Pope seems more likely to be a victim of satire than a perpetrator of it. Disabled and deformed by a tubercular condition contracted in early childhood that left him less than a meter and a half tall; a Roman Catholic at a time when Protestantism established its ascendancy, and therefore unable to enjoy a university education or to own property; unmarried and childless - Pope does not seem well equipped for the business of ridiculing, dissecting, and exposing others. The fascination of Pope's career is the way in which he turned weakness into strength, marginality into centrality. To be effective — to distinguish itself from lampoon or name-calling or mere insult — satire had to be accurate and ethical. Such a view of satire was the one that Pope developed, over the whole length of his career. Crucial to this enterprise was the development of an entirely distinctive poetic voice, an instantly recognizable, unmistakable personality, the keynote of which was independence. Constructing himself as an outsider, uninterested in power or patronage, a non-metropolitan figure who, retiring to his suburban fastness in Twickenham, could view with detachment the follies of Court, city, and government — a creative artist who, like Oscar Wilde, had nothing to declare but his genius — Pope persuaded his readers that he stood outside all the interest groups that polarized his society. In no one's pocket, owing allegiance to no potentate or party, he made his own unimpeachable life underwrite the ethical truth of his writing.

Mythologizing the self goes hand-in-hand with making myths out of others, as Pope did with both his enemies and his friends. Over the years, Pope's satire created a gallery of heroes and villains, the proper names that peppered his verse not just pointing at living individuals — particular men and women — but coming to stand as symbols for timeless qualities of good and evil, virtue and vice. In the various versions of The Dunciad published between 1728 and 1743, Pope created the "Grub Street" myth. He isolates a phenomenon called "Dulness" presided over by a goddess bearing that name, and embodied in individuals called "Dunces." They have a collective identity somewhere between a political party, an academic college, and the laborers in a factory for the manufacture of bad writing. They live in identifiable, generally shady and poor, parts of London; but just as the action of the Homeric epics dramatizes a move westward from Troy to the foundation of Rome, and just as the barbaric tribes of the dark ages later moved from east to west to sack Rome and end civilization, so the Dunces are always going west. Overcrowding their allotted spaces, they threaten to overrun the polite areas of London where Court and government have their seats. Behind this mythology is a metaphysical scheme, part pagan and part Judeo-Christian, in which civilization is perpetually threatened by the goddess Dulness's desire to restore the empire of primal stupidity and mental anarchy over which she once reigned. The dunces' activities in sapping morale and undermining intellectual endeavor are tools in this project of inverted Restoration. As in the earlier Rape of the Lock, Pope crams into the narrow compass of three books all the main incidents that one expects from an epic.

In the 1730s, in a series of poems very loosely based on earlier poems by Horace, though punctuated by original works such as the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Pope created himself as the cultural arm of the political opposition to Sir Robert Walpole and his governing clique of Court Whigs. Part of the attack was to be found in the Dunciads analysis of intellectual degeneration, outlined above. Responsibility for this was located in Walpole's patronage of hack writers to give a journalistic respectability to his political manifestos. England was in the grip of moral corruption, beyond the capability of Parliament, the courts, or the Church to stem. Only the exemplary life of the fearless satirist, Pope repeatedly argued, could stand in the way of this ethical decline. Reviving the art of the satirical portrait as practiced by Dryden, Pope created memorable pictures of Joseph Addison (Atticus), George Bubb Dodington (Bufo), and John, Lord Hervey (Sporus), in Arbuthnot, and in the Imitations a host of more general portraits that skewered an entire caste of politicians and Court favorites, not stopping short of King George II and Queen Caroline themselves. Year upon year, Pope produced "state of the nation" poems in which his own indomitable, ungaggable voice rings out, as it were from a soapbox in the public square.

By the middle of the eighteenth century there was a turning away from this kind of writing. The most explicit statement of a new Zeitgeist occurs in the work of Joseph and Thomas Warton, the former writing in the introduction to his Odes on Various Subjects (1746) of a need to eschew didactic subjects for poetry and to turn away from wit [see ch. 34, "Augustanism and Pre-Romanticism"]. Joseph Warton's biography of Pope (first volume published 1756) picks up on a growing climate of opposition to and downgrading of Pope that is expressed, for example, in Edward Young's influential series of poems composed in the 1740s, Night Thoughts, and in his later Conjectures on Original Composition (1759). Young's Conjectures were heavily influenced by the novelist Samuel Richardson, who — like Warton — took the view that Pope lacked all imagination and was a second-rate poet. Perhaps the most central poet of the mid-eighteenth century, Thomas Gray, is notable precisely because he rejects a poetry of public statement, finding significance in rural retreat, obscurity, and the labyrinthine complications of the inner self [see ch. 20, "Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard"].

A striking example of culture on the change is offered by the two major "imitations" in the satiric mode composed by Samuel Johnson. Whereas his London, composed in 1738 in imitation of Juvenal's Third Satire, illustrates all the aspects of metropolitan political satire that we have described above, when he came to write The Vanity of Human Wishes a decade later (1749), he had lost faith in the bristling certainties of such a poetic voice. Written in imitation of Juvenal's Tenth Satire, The Vanity of Human Wishes has to transform Juvenal's Stoic message of mens sana in corpore sano ("a healthy mind in a healthy body") into something far more explicitly

Christian. The reader is exhorted, despite all the evidence of disappointment, sadness, and downright evil that the poem has catalogued, to pray — to "raise for Good the supplicating Voice" (l. 351). There is no guarantee, however, that any deity is listening: and Johnson's poem ends in an uncertainty far closer to tragedy than to satire [see ch. 18, "Samuel Johnson, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes"].

In the latter half of the century, the most prominent satirical voice — in the sense that his œuvre is dominated by verse satire — belongs to the poet Charles Churchill, whose short-lived career spanned the years 1761—5, and whose work (to which I shall return later in this essay) seems like a throwback to an earlier generation. Satire could certainly still colonize passages of longer poems, as it always had. A denunciatory voice rings out very many times in John Milton's poetic œuvre regardless of whether the prevailing genre is epic, as in the case of Paradise Lost, or pastoral elegy, as in Lycidas. In imitation of Milton, an angry voice of complaint is found in eighteenth-century modes as diverse as georgic, pastoral, and Pindaric ode — such as happens in Thomas Gray's "The Bard" when the narrator excoriates the colonizing activities of King Edward I in Wales. Some of the period's greatest long poems, such as James Thomson's The Seasons (1730), had broken out in a satiric rash from time to time — as happens in "Autumn," when in a lengthy excursus the poet hits out at rural sports, the passage culminating in an orgiastic scene of mind-numbing drunkenness:

Confused above, Glasses and bottles, pipes and gazetteers, As if the table e'en itself was drunk, Lie a wet broken scene; and wide, below, Is heap'd the social slaughter: where astride The lubber Power in filthy triumph sits, Slumbrous, inclining still from side to side, And steeps them drench'd in potent sleep till morn.

William Cowper's loosely associative poem The Task (1785) is based on an ideal of casual conversation very far from the polished elegance of Drydenian couplets; but in the opening of Book II it rises to an impassioned complaint against the slave trade and a defense of what the poet takes to be the quintessentially English virtue of liberty:

I would not have a slave to till my ground, To carry me, to fan me while I sleep, And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth That sinews bought and sold have ever earn'd. No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart's Just estimation prized above all price, I had much rather be myself the slave And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.

"Complaint" is perhaps a more useful term than satire to describe such departures from the prevailing tonality of long poems; and we can use it, too, to characterize a number of poems, many by women, that voice a deep unhappiness with the prevailing conditions of living. Mary Collier's heated response to Stephen Duck's The Thresher's Labour (1730), in which Duck had seemed to betray class solidarity by singling out women agricultural laborers as lazy gossips "Prepar'd, whil'st he [Our Master] is here, to make his Hay; / Or, if he turns his Back, prepar'd to play" (ll. 165—6), is precisely a "complaint." The Woman's Labour (1739) is not exactly a satire under our definition: it is the washerwoman's counter-claim that the nature of her labor is a durance every bit as hard as farm work. Collier and Duck are significant, however, in that they might support a hypothesis that the genuine satiric voices to be heard in the eighteenth century, after Churchill, are those of marginal and marginalized figures [see ch. 15, "Stephen Duck, The Thresher's Labour, and Mary Collier, The Woman's Labour"]. At a time when Cowper could produce the line "God made the country, and man made the town" (i. 749) as the peak of the crescendo to Book I of The Task, it seems that the polarities of town and country have been reversed and that satire might come from those, like Mary Leapor, Burns, Crabbe, and Blake, whose sympathies are with the common man, especially the downtrodden agricultural poor. The next section of this essay will investigate the poetic achievement of the period's verse satire in a little more detail by way of a brief survey of some satirical poems (excluding those by Pope), most of which appear in the second edition of David Fairer's and Christine Gerrard's Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology (2004).

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