The Decline of Mock Heroic

So far I have given the impression that mock-heroic thrives only as confined to self-standing poems, such as Philips's Splendid Shilling and Pope's Rape. However, one aspect of mock-heroic's advancement over the course of the eighteenth century is that it diffuses itself as a transient element within longer, non-burlesque works. Two such are the miscellaneous poems written by James Thomson and William Cowper, The Seasons (1730) and The Task (1785), both of which contain mock-heroic set-pieces. Moreover, the trend is not confined to poetry: Henry Fielding's novels, for example, delight in drawing mock-heroic parallels between the worlds of classical epic and insalubrious modern reality (Rawson 1972). Take the following example from Joseph Andrews, where Fielding deploys an extended Homeric simile to introduce Mrs. Slipslop's attempted seduction of Joseph:

As when a hungry Tygress, who long had traversed the Woods in fruitless search, sees within the Reach of her Claws a Lamb, she prepares to leap on her Prey; or as a voracious Pike, of immense Size, surveys through the liquid Element a Roach or Gudgeon which cannot escape her Jaws, opens them wide to swallow the little Fish: so did Mrs. Slipslop prepare to lay her violent amorous Hands on the poor Joseph . . .

When we see mock-heroic figuring in this way, we can register it as both a victory and a defeat for the genre: on the one hand, we see mock-heroic asserting its relevance to a new literary form, the novel, which had no classical roots and which to some degree defined itself against the classical; on the other, the conditions under which mock-heroic makes an appearance here might be seen as gestural and trivializing. Mock-heroic is perhaps the iconic literary genre of the English Augustan era, a period that we can roughly define as from the Restoration (1660) to the death of Pope (1744). During this period, it enjoys prominence despite being a coterie genre: what we customarily see as the great incarnations of the form, Dryden's Mac Flecknoe, Garth's The Dispensary, and Pope's Rape and The Dunciad, are few in number and linked by strong ties of influence. It is an august company that mimics the tight-knit brotherhood of the great epics themselves: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Milton's Paradise Lost. Influential recent commentators have seen the period of mock-heroic's flourishing as one of cultural malaise, in which educated people, while remaining reverential toward the grandeurs of the past, have begun to doubt the continuing relevance of those illustrious past times to a tarnished modern reality (Rawson 1972). Mock-heroic, a genre that calls on classical models while expressing satiric views about modern society, posed itself as a uniquely appropriate form in which to speak about this cultural unease.

The last of the great Augustan mock-epics is Pope's The Dunciad, which appeared in three books in 1728, with an apparatus of satiric notes in 1729, and in a revised four-book version in 1743. In its final version, the poem tells the story of the coronation of Colley Cibber as the King of Dulness. The event is marked by a festivity involving viciously satiric (and very rude) games, after which Cibber is transported to the Elysian shades to receive a vision of the triumph of Dulness. The fourth book of the poem describes the fulfillment of these prophecies, with the death of science, education, and culture under the universal reign of Chaos:

Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restor'd;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And Universal Darkness buries All.

The Dunciad provides me with a good point on which to finish, for the apocalyptic end that it trumpets is to some degree the end of mock-heroic itself — the death of precisely the kind of classically influenced culture in which mock-heroic could seem an appropriate language to detail society's ills. Once the virtues of classical society and classical precedents are no longer to be taken for granted, the irony that is generated by counterpointing the classical and the modern, as in mock-heroic works, becomes less sharp-edged and more problematic. Mock-heroic works carry on being produced throughout the rest of the century, and the idea of an ironic paralleling of the classical and modern can be found in influential modern works like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). However, after the death of Pope, mock-heroic never again stands so close to the heart of a literary culture's sense of self-identity.

See also chs. 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm"; 11, "Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock and 'Eloisa to Abelard' "; 14, "James Thomson, The Seasons"; 25, "Rhyming Couplets and Blank Verse"; 27, "Verse Satire"; 32, "Whig and Tory Poetics"; 33, "The Classical Inheritance"; 37, "The Sublime."

References and Further Reading

Ashfield, Andrew, and de Bolla, Peter, eds. (1996). The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bond, Richmond P. (1932). English Burlesque Poetry, 1700—1750. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Broich, Ulrich (1990). The Eighteenth-Century Mock-Heroic Poem, trans. D. H. Wilson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Colomb, Gregory G. (1992). Designs on Truth: The Poetics of the Augustan Mock-Epic. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Cook, Richard I. (1980). Sir Samuel Garth. Boston: Twayne.

Ellis, Frank H. (1965). "The Background of the London Dispensary." Journal of the History of Medicine 20, 197-212.

Hammond, Brean (1997). Professional Imaginative Writing in England 1670—1740: "Hackney for Bread." Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hammond, Paul (1985). "Flecknoe and Mac Fleck-noe." Essays in Criticism 35, 315-29.

Hammond, Paul (1999). Dryden and the Traces of Classical Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Griffin, Dustin (1986). Regaining Paradise: Milton and the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jack, Ian (1952). Augustan Satire: Intention and Idiom in English Poetry, 1660—1750. Oxford: Clarendon.

Martindale, Charles (1986).John Milton and the Transformation of Ancient Epic. London: Croom Helm.

Monk, Samuel H. (1935). The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

Nokes, David (1995). John Gay: A Profession of Friendship. A Critical Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paulson, Ronald (1998). Don Quixote in England: The Aesthetics of Laughter. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rawson, Claude (1972). Henry Fielding and the Augustan Ideal under Stress. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rawson, Claude (1982). "Pope's Waste Land: Reflections on Mock Heroic." In Suheil Bushrui

(ed.), Essays and Studies 1982: The Poet's Power, 45—65. London: John Murray.

Rawson, Claude (1994). Satire and Sentiment 1660— 1830: Stress Points in the English Augustan Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Solomon, Harry M. (1980). Sir Richard Blackmore. Boston: Twayne.

Swedenberg, H. T. (1953). The Theory of the Epic in England: 1650—1800. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tave, Stuart M. (1960). The Amiable Humorist: A Study in the Comic Theory and Criticism of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Terry, Richard (2001). Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past 1660—1781. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Terry, Richard (2005). Mock-Heroic from Butler to Cowper: An English Genre and Discourse. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Watt, Ian (1957). The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Chatto & Windus.

Wilding, Michael (1972). "The Last of the Epics: The Rejection of the Heroic in Paradise Lost and Hudibras." In Harold Love (ed.), Restoration Literature: Critical Approaches, 91-120. London: Methuen.

0 0

Post a comment