Panegyric and Satire

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The problems that I have been outlining above all concern the notion that verse might operate as a metaphor for political ideology. Yet there are more straightforward relationships between the two spheres, in which we can discern causal links between the position of the poet in relation to the government of the day and his or her choice of poetic genre. To put it in the crudest terms, those who supported the political establishment tend to write panegyrics, verse eulogies on affairs of state or public figures, while those who opposed it wrote poetic satires criticizing the regime and mocking its supporters. In the period we are concerned with here, this is particularly evident in the decades between 1720 and 1740, which saw the political hegemony of the Whig party, in association with the Hanoverian monarchy. There is a large body of poetry by Whig writers in praise of contemporary political life, much of it in the form of elevated panegyric poetry on particular events. Writers like Joseph Addison, Laurence Eusden, and Thomas Tickell wrote odes and heroic verse depicting the Hanoverian monarchs and their military victories in mythological terms. In the decades after the War of the Spanish Succession, writers such as John Dyer and Edward Young celebrated England's burgeoning role in global trade and colonial enterprise in lengthy georgic poems [see ch. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"].

In contrast with these enthusiastic declarations of commitment to contemporary public life, the members of the Scriblerian group, chief among them Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay, were in their different ways opposed to and outside of this Whiggish and Hanoverian political establishment. They tended to write satires lamenting the corruption and inertia of the regime, a response memorably characterized by one critic as "the gloom of the Tory satirists" (Bredvold 1959). While Whig poets were producing official verses to celebrate the glories of contemporary public political life, many of their Tory counterparts writing under the Hanoverians turned to alternative themes, rejecting celebratory public poetry in favor of oppositional satire or the more private modes of lyric and song. Jonathan Swift's extensive poetic output consists largely of satires, lampoons, and lyrics, while Matthew Prior abandoned the earnest panegyric of his earlier career as a Whig in favor of epigrams, songs, and lyrics. John Gay produced burlesques, ballads, and fables. Pope's sense of himself as a public poet is more complex, shifting over the course of his career from the optimistic and very public pronouncements of Windsor-Forest to his assumed role as moral and satirical scourge and commentator in the Epistles and Imitations. But he too rejected the official role of the poet as panegyrist and mythologizer of the Hanoverian political establishment.

In the works of all these writers, the rejection of elevated "public" poetry becomes in itself a political comment, a refusal to participate in the contemporary affirmation of the political status quo. This is made explicit in Swift's "On Poetry: a Rapsody," where he depicts a sharply divided literary culture within which it is the Whig poet who "for Epicks claims the Bays" while the Tory writes "Elegiack Lays" (ll. 95—6). The poets of the political establishment seem to have captured the genres of heroic poetry, while their opponents, perhaps nostalgically, turn to lyric verse. In "Directions for a Birthday Song" Swift lampoons public poetry by producing instructions to write a panegyric:

To form a just and finish'd piece Take twenty Gods of Rome or Greece Whose Godships are in chief request, And fit your present Subject best

Your Hero now another Mars is, Makes mighty Armys turn their Arses.

Swift suggests that the official poetry of his contemporaries is so formulaic in its tributes that it could be written according to a series of instructions: all that is required is the standard panoply of classical allusions and mythological comparisons. The seriousness of such eulogistic verse is undercut in the satire both by the comic chimes of the couplets and by the bathetic "arses."

We can see a slightly different approach to panegyric verse in Pope's Epistle to Augustus, one of his imitations of Horace. In this, his rendering of the first work in Book II of Horace's Epistles, Pope offers an ironic mock-panegyric to George II. Rather than deflating the solemnities of official verse through bathos, the satire works through the implied and unflattering comparison between the present British king, George Augustus, and the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. In imitating Horace's sincere lines to his ruler, Pope's compliments to his own king expose instead the monarch's failings [see ch. 33, "The Classical Inheritance"]. Although Pope addresses George II as "great Patron of Mankind" (l. 1), the implied point of the comparison between the two men is that while Augustus Caesar was famed for his support of the arts, George II was criticized for his lack of interest in things cultural. In the final lines, spoken directly to the monarch, the apparently innocuous compliment "Your Country's Peace, how oft, how dearly bought" (l. 397) draws attention to the highly unpopular pacific policy adopted by George II; the lines "How, when you nodded, o'er the land and deep, / Peace stole her wing, and wrapt the world in sleep" (ll. 400—1) remind us of the soporific dulness that Pope had earlier associated with the Hanoverian monarchy in The Dunciad Variorum.

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