Verse Satires 17001800 A Brief Commentary

One of the most powerful weapons in the satirist's arsenal is parody. Literary parody involves imitating the characteristic features, stylistic and other, of another work and turning those to ludicrous effect, often by applying them to a ridiculously inappropriate subject. Some of the most successful satires in the period are parodies, or involve parodic techniques. John Philips's The Splendid Shilling (1705) is a near-miss as far as the genre of satire is concerned: this autobiographical poem describing the misery of the penurious poet who lacks "a Splendid Shilling" creates too much sympathy for the speaker. Cleverly applying Miltonic inverted syntax and classical proper names to a world otherwise dominated by hunger and bailiffs — concerns as far away as possible from those of the Miltonic epic, where the fate of mankind hangs in the balance — the poem sets up some amusing local textures; but they cannot survive the sadness of lines such as these:

So pass my Days. But when Nocturnal Shades This world invelop, and th'inclement Air Persuades Men to repel benumming Frosts, With pleasant Wines, and crackling blaze of Wood;

Me Lonely sitting, nor the glimmering Light Of Make-weight Candle, nor the joyous Talk Of loving Friend delights; distress'd, forlorn, Amidst the horrors of the tedious Night, Darkling I sigh . . .

Including the self within the purview of the social critique or the satirical complaint entirely alters the prevailing tonality of the poem. To be effective, the satirist has to retain objectivity or invisibility, commenting from a position offstage to the visual drama.

Far more successful among parodic satires is John Gay's The Shepherd's Week (1714), a series of mock-pastorals written in imitation of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender but more directly mocking a set of pastoral poems produced in 1709 by Ambrose Philips. Pastoral was a genre coming under serious scrutiny in the early eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson's dismissal of it in his Life of Milton (1779), where he condemns Lycidas for its author's repugnantly conventional pretense that he and the dead poet whom he salutes in the elegy (Edward King) were shepherds tending their flocks on rural hillsides, sounded the death-knell for that poetic form. Earlier in the century, the question of whether there was any life left in a form that went back to the Greek poet Theocritus, working in the early third century bce, was a more open one. Pope's attack on Philips's pastorals in The Guardian, no. 40, was aimed not at the genre itself (Pope wrote pastorals based around the four seasons) but at the infantilizing tendency of Philips's simple diction and the idiot rusticity of the names and manners of his characters. Gay's The Shepherd's Week parodies those features of Philips's style. In "Friday; or, the Dirge," two swains with the unlikely names of Bumkinet and Grubbinol lament the demise of the much-loved Blouzelind:

Where-e'er I gad, I Blouzelind shall view, Woods, Dairy, Barn and Mows our Passion knew. When I direct my Eyes to yonder Wood, Fresh rising Sorrow curdles in my Blood. Thither I've often been the Damsel's Guide, When rotten Sticks our Fuel have supply'd; There, I remember how her Faggots large, Were frequently these happy Shoulders charge. Sometimes this Crook drew Hazel Boughs adown, And stuff'd her Apron wide with Nuts so brown.

Blouzelind (the name has overtones of "blousy," busty) has, it seems, indulged her passions all over the place. The verb "curdles" seems to liken Bumkinet's sorrow to a kind of cheese-making. The final four lines are crammed with sexual double entendres: "Faggots large" coupled with the name "Blouzelind" transfers the epithet "large" to her anatomical features rather than her firewood. Stuffing her apron with nuts, in context, takes on a seaside postcard jocularity. Overall, the solemn mourning for the dead shepherd/poet that is a convention of pastoral elegy is undermined by the latent sexuality, and the rustic characters, seen from the perspective of the knowing city poet, are incapable of having genuinely elegiac feelings. As is very often the case in satiric poetry, the satirist wins a victory through his superior intelligence and wit, even if he is not necessarily in the right. [See ch. 10, "John Gay, The Shepherd's Week."] Rustic pastoral may have been played out in England, but in Scotland it was going to combine with a genuine Scots vernacular to create newly energetic poetic forms, as is obvious in Allan Ramsay's "The Gentle Shepherd" (1726). Pope's polite pastorals, despite Gay's support, were not actually the way forward.

The other great verse satirist to engage in parody was Jonathan Swift, and he has in common with John Gay the deployment of highly unstable parodic forms — so unstable, indeed, that the reader is sometimes left uncertain what exactly is being mocked, and from what point of view. At variance with the standard metrical practice of the period's verse satire, which is to use rhyming iambic pentameter couplets, Swift deployed a less formal octosyllabic line. Yet the fast-moving ease of this meter can lull the reader into a false sense of security. Some of Swift's notoriety resulted from a poem called "The Lady's Dressing Room," published in 1732, and the set of poems he published in 1734 concerning, broadly, the relationship between sexuality and hygiene: poems the subject matter of which offends public decency and penetrates taboo areas where most readers feel acutely uncomfortable. In "The Lady's Dressing Room," Swift provides an exaggerated catalog of all the repulsive features of a woman's boudoir, as discovered by her young and immature lover. Forced by some mysterious compulsion to leave nothing unturned, Strephon is punished by having his imagerepertoire poisoned to the extent that, whenever afterwards he thinks of a woman, he cannot dissociate her from the base physicality that he has discovered. At one level, the poem is a parody of the "courtly love" or Platonic tradition of writing about women that had its latest efflorescence in some of the Elizabethan sonneteers. The exaltation of women, so that young men are encouraged to experience them idealistically and falsely as goddesses, is somewhere behind the satire. Yet Swift supplies a "moral" to this poem that, while it is presented as a normative perspective — the view of any rational man — is actually difficult to swallow:

If Strephon would but stop his Nose;

(Who now so impiously blasphemes

Her Ointments, Daubs, and Paints and Creams,

Her Washes, Slops, and every Clout,

With which he makes so foul a Rout;)

He soon would learn to think like me,

And bless his ravisht Sight to see

Such Order from Confusion sprung,

Such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung.

Strephon stopping his nose reminds us uncomfortably of the insane Gulliver stopping his nose with rue to eliminate the odor of humanity at the close of Gulliver's Travels. His sight would need to be "ravisht" to appreciate the transformation of Celia; and the force of the adjective "gaudy" is hardly positive.

"A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed" commences with mock-pastoral. Corinna, a whore "For whom no Shepherd sighs in vain" (the implication being that no shepherd sighs at all; and that no one need sigh who has the price of her body), ascends to her "Bow'r" (read "garret") and proceeds to offer the voyeuristic reader a bizarre strip-show. More than undressing, however (or less), Corinna begins actually to take herself to pieces, removing all the prostheses that create her semblance of beauty. It is as if a woman were reducible to a set of artificial bits and pieces, having no soul, no inner life at all, being just the sum of her unnatural parts. As such, the poem seems to be an uneasy satire on cosmetics — a very old misogynist theme. Yet the poem does begin to recruit sympathy, perhaps despite itself, for the psychological traumas Corinna undergoes. If the reader has been smiling uneasily at the "cabaret," s/he ceases to do so when it becomes apparent that Corinna cannot escape the harsh reality of her social circumstances even in her dreams. The final stanza speaks to the difficulty of reassembling the fragmented self, of facing the day; and its inclusion of the poet in the first person suggests involvement of a kind that has been absent before:

The Nymph, tho' in this mangled Plight,

Must ev'ry Morn her Limbs unite.

But how shall I describe her Arts

To recollect the scatter'd Parts?

Or shew the Anguish, Toil, and Pain,

Of gath'ring up herself again?

The bashful Muse will never bear

In such a Scene to interfere.

Corinna in the Morning dizen'd,

Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison'd.

The final line compounds the poem's overall uncertainty of tone. Having created a sense of Corinna's psychological inner being, and having seemed to sympathize with her miserable plight, it throws up its hands and reverts to a cruelly mocking, truly satirical tone. Swift manifests here an ambivalence toward prostitution that was a feature of his era: are prostitutes victims, or predators? In novelistic treatments of the later century, whores are increasingly to be represented as women ruined by men and refused a fair chance thereafter; in Swift's time and in his poem, they could still be perceived as sirens who lure men to their ruin.

Swift was just as ambivalent, however, when writing about himself in Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, D.S.P.D. (1739). Taking his cue from the idea that in German is called Schadenfreude - our tendency to derive a perverse and guilty pleasure from the misfortunes even of our closest friends (and how typical of Swift to face up to this) -

the poet imagines his own last illness and demise and its reception in the polite world, whose denizens "Then hug themselves, and reason thus; / "It is not yet so bad with us" (ll. 115—16). Swift's female friends "Receive the News in doleful Dumps, / 'The Dean is dead, (and what is Trumps?)' " (ll. 227—8). The cliched expression of doleful Dumps seems particularly inadequate to represent feeling at a close friend's death, but in any case the card game is more important. Even his closest friends, it seems, cannot sustain their mourning or his memory for a decent interval of time. This is mordantly ironic enough, but the poem then takes an unexpected turn. Cutting to the Rose Tavern, where a group has assembled, Swift invents an "indiffrent," supposedly objective observer to provide an "impartial" account of his character. Character portraits in satirical poems are normally not flattering. This one, however, is almost entirely flattering, and Swift could hardly have done better if he had written it himself (which, of course, he did!). Lines such as the resounding "Fair liberty was all his Cry" (l. 347) seem to be entirely sincere, non-ironic tributes to Swift's achievements as an Irish patriot who liberated Ireland from certain kinds of colonial pressure applied by England. Yet there are also some subversive undercurrents. Discussing Swift's literary work, the impartial observer absolves him from accusations of plagiarism: "To steal a Hint was never known, / But what he writ was all his own" (ll. 317—18). This couplet is itself, however, stolen from, or at least identical to, a couplet earlier written by the poet Waller! Does that irony suggest a more sustained, structural irony throughout the entire poem? Is the imagined eulogy a satire on the genre of funeral eulogizing? Does it glance at his friend Alexander Pope's flattering self-portrait in his verse autobiography Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot? Is it, on the contrary, Swift's attempt to write the history books under cover of a poetic persona? Or his entirely sincere self-evaluation? One way of reading Swift's satire is the so-called "reader entrapment" approach. Readers schooled in this approach will be aware that, if the usual "contract" made between the satirist and the reader is to be in league together against a satirized third party, Swift's writing makes this contract and then fails to honor it, dragging the reader into the position of the victim. In Verses, the reader has been enjoying Swift's fictionally posthumous joke against his friends and his society, only to start to suspect that s/he may have been the butt of the joke all along. Swift is an exception to the generalization made earlier in considering John Philips, that autobiographical presence in a poem seems to sabotage the degree of clinical detachment required for successful satire.

Female-authored poems tend to include the self within the scope of the satirical complaint, altering the satiric pitch of the poem. Sarah Fyge Egerton, for example, and Mary Leapor write powerful poems demanding their share of social liberty and speaking out boldly against male oppression, often in startlingly modern terms — "Say Tyrant Custom, why must we obey / The impositions of thy haughty Sway?" (Egerton, "The Emulation," ll. 1—2) — but they do not remain immune from the tyrannies of which they complain. Leapor's "Mira" poems fall into this category. "An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame," for example, is technically a very fine achievement, but in presenting a portrait gallery of types who strive to get above the crowd and be notable, she self-deprecatingly introduces herself as an offender and the poem modulates into the confessional rather than the satirical: "Ev'n Mira's Self, presuming on the Bays, / Appears among the Candidates for Praise" (ll. 63—4). Leapor, however, achieves a genuinely distinctive voice for female-authored satire in poems that do not try to emulate the strategies of masculine satire. In "Crumble-Hall" (1748), Leapor adopts the conventions of the traditional country-house poem as practiced by Ben Jonson and Alexander Pope, the point of which was to celebrate the lord of the manor as a generous and good landowner living in harmonious balance with the architecture of his house and the management of his estate. "Crumble-Hall" is distinctive in that, based on Leapor's experience in Edgcote House where she was a kitchen-maid, it views the country house from the perspective of one who cleans, rather than owns it. Rococo wood-carving of the kind created by Grinling Gibbons in great houses such as Burleigh seems very odd indeed when looked at from the servant's-eye view:

Then step within - there stands a goodly Row Of oaken Pillars — where a gallant Show Of mimic Pears and carv'd Pomgranates twine, With the plump Clusters of the spreading Vine

The Roof — no Cyclops e'er could reach so high: Not Polypheme, tho' form'd for dreadful Harms, The Top could measure with extended Arms. Here the pleas'd Spider plants her peaceful Loom: Here weaves secure, nor dreads the hated Broom.

Naturalistic fruit carved out of wood comes to seem simply idiotic in Leapor's skeptical gaze; high ceilings and grand rooms are simply inconvenient places where spiders can be at their ease. Homeric reference to the Cyclops Polyphemus is here rendered amusing by its domestic application. "Crumble-Hall" is a wonderfully quiet satire at the expense of a poetic mode, the country-house poem, that takes itself very seriously indeed. [See ch. 16, "Mary Leapor, 'Crumble-Hall.' "]

The one woman poet who could consistently beat the men at their own game was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Her Verses Address'd to the Imitator of Horace (1733) breaks all the rules of femininity in attacking Alexander Pope directly, kicking him in all the places that hurt. It is what in the eighteenth century would be called a "particular" satire, directly focused on an identifiable individual. Her trump card is that she derives from an aristocratic social provenance above that of Pope, and could look down upon him in lines like "Hard as thy Heart, and as thy Birth obscure" (l. 20). She shows her knowledge of contemporary debates about the nature of satire, and deploys it in the satire itself:

Satire shou'd, like a polish'd Razor keen, Wound with a Touch, that's scarcely felt or seen.

Thine is an Oyster-Knife, that hacks and hews;

The Rage, but not the Talent to Abuse;

And is in Hate, what Love is in the Stews.

Accustomed to think of himself as the most polished satirist of the age, Pope must have writhed on the receiving end of what is itself a very suave performance, suggesting that the great poet's satire is as inept and misplaced as a lover in a brothel. Class elevation is exploited brilliantly again by Lady Mary in her "Epistle from Arthur Gray the Footman, to Mrs. Murray, after his Condemnation for Attempting a Rape" (1747). Lady Mary imagines the last confessional words of Arthur Gray, whose desire for his mistress Griselda Baillie, friend of Lady Mary, got the better of him. He was apprehended, sentenced to death, and eventually transported. Lady Mary ventriloquizes Arthur the footman's plaintive voice, explaining that by contrast to the trifling beaux of the fashionable world, his actions were prompted by genuine love:

Turn, lovely nymph (for so I wou'd have said)

Turn from those triflers who make Love a trade

Frequent debauch has pall'd their sickly taste

They sigh not from the heart, but from the brain . . .

Enlisting the reader's sympathy for this hopeless longing, Lady Mary nevertheless succeeds in sabotaging it. Her worldly, aristocratic, and cynical elevation shows through the cracks in Arthur's voice, and the ludicrously inappropriate, even slapstick aspects of Arthur's attempt are apparent as, summoned by her bell, he brings his mistress's tea armed with a pistol: "Think when I held the pistol to your breast, / Had I been of the world's large rule possest, / That world had then been yours, and I been blest!" (ll. 97-9). Although this is not straightforwardly classifiable as a satire - it is perhaps a mock Ovidian epistle, where some of the humor resides in the fact that lovers' complaints such as Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" usually featured female voices; or perhaps even an early dramatic monologue, anticipating those of Browning in the nineteenth century — it is an unsettling and memorable poem. [See ch. 13, "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Six Town Eclogues and Other Poems."]

Charles Churchill's brief active career (1761—5) was in many respects a throwback to that of Alexander Pope. Politically, the 1750s were a relatively soporific decade, as a "Broad-bottom" consensus tried to avoid the direct controversy generated by the split between "outs" and "ins." By the end of the decade, however, there was controversy aplenty as George III assumed the throne in 1760 at the height of the Seven Years War: once again there were popular heroes such as Pitt the Elder and John Wilkes, and villains such as the Prime Minister Bute, who was widely believed to be heading a Scottish conspiracy to take over the corridors of English power.

Charles Churchill's satire is steeped in the poetry of his eminent predecessor Pope, and yet he took every opportunity to distance himself from his mentor. Although not short of targets - The Rosciad, for example, functions as a kind of gossip column, satirizing a range of theater practitioners from David Garrick downward - Churchill seems to lack Pope's ethical basis. The commitment to permanently existent, publicly shared values, insisted upon by Pope, is absent from Churchill's œuvre. Lacking a secure position from which to speak, Churchill, in poems such as "An Epistle to William Hogarth," mythologizes abstractions like "Prudence" and "Candour" — the latter being the distinguishing quality of Churchill's own work. "Prudence" in Churchill's vocabulary is an ironized label for inauthenticity. In his book, Pope was a "prudent" poet: that is, a hypocrite whose claims to moral probity were bogus. In the terms created by Churchill's poem "Night," Pope was a poet of the "Day," whereas Churchill was a poet of the "Night" - a poet of freedom, outspokenness, and good living. Pope claimed to see a continuity between a virtuous private life and virtuous politics; Churchill severed that bond, making his frankly rakish and sensuous private life the guarantee for his unblemished record of public service. Downwardly mobile compared to Pope's, Churchill's satire looks for its validation not to a group of aristocrats who represent public morals, but to the marketplace, to the book-buying public with whom he was so popular.

A great bear of a man with coarse features (even in physical appearance the antithesis of the finely chiseled Pope), a former Anglican clergyman and an anti-Jacobite, Churchill's opinions and attitudes were in most respects opposed to those of Pope. Nevertheless, he was engaged on a self-conscious mission to restore the satirist to the position of public prominence that Pope's poetry had gained for him. Changes in the nature of politics and of literary taste had, however, already rendered his aspirations redundant. Pope's independent, ego contra mundum posture, derived from his sense of speaking for an aristocratic alternative government, was unavailable to Churchill, to whom it was ideologically and temperamentally unsuited. Churchill borrowed many of Pope's poetic forms and alluded to them constantly, but he inhabited his poems in a way that created himself as Pope's anti-type. This new presence, that of the candid, hard-living poet of the night, lacks the Popean power to convince. The diminution of ethical energy ensured that he would, in Byron's terms, "flame the meteor of a day."

After Churchill, verse satire in the sense of poetry written to ridicule or condemn using the devices of humor and wit, poetry unafraid to name names and pillory individuals, was rarely attempted in the eighteenth century. Both Goldsmith in The Deserted Village (1770), in which he condemned the enclosure of common land, and Crabbe's The Village (1783), reacting against the former's idealization of village life, are fueled by Juvenalian anger:

Say ye, opprest by some fantastic woes,

Some jarring nerve that baffles your repose;

How would ye bear in real pain to lie, Despis'd, neglected, left alone to die?

These are serious, even poker-faced, poems, however, and the most complete and successful satire of the later eighteenth century is to be found in the Scottish Lallans dialect reintroduced by Robert Burns. "Holy Willie's Prayer" (1789) satirizes William Fisher, a church elder in the parish of Mauchline, Ayrshire, and an inveterate enemy to the poet on account of his amorous scrapes and his lack of respect for the cloth. Fisher is imagined down on his knees, praying to his God, whom he addresses familiarly as if God were a senior official in the church. Indeed, Fisher remakes God in his own image. Fisher's certainty of his own salvation, deriving from the "auld licht" Calvinism that he has molded to his own advantage, coats him in a smug self-satisfaction. God's intimate knowledge of his soul will surely result in his being forgiven for fornication with a servant lass — "three times — I trow," especially if his being drunk is taken into account. Holy Willie enlists God in his struggles against his parochial tormentors Burns and Gavin Hamilton:

L—d mind Gaun Hamilton's deserts! He drinks, and swears, and plays at cartes, Yet has sae mony taking arts Wi' Great and Sma', Frae G-d's ain priest the people's hearts He steals awa.—

The brilliance of this satire lies not only in the exploitation of the stanzaic form (the "Habbie"), nor in the vigor of the dialect, but in the analysis of the relationship between a particular strain of Calvinism and its making of a particular strain of Scots smallmindedness and hypocrisy still with us today.

See also chs. 1, "Poetry, Politics, and the Rise of Party"; 26, "Epic and Mock-Heroic"; 33, "The Classical Inheritance"; 34, "Augustanism and Pre-Romanticism"; 38, "Poetry and the City."

References and Further Reading

Doody, Margaret Anne (1985). The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Fairer, David, and Gerrard, Christine, eds. (2004). Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gill, James E., ed. (1995). Cutting Edges: Postmodern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire. Knox-ville: University of Tennessee Press.

Griffin, Dustin (1994). Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Nokes, David (1987). Raillery and Rage: A Study of

Eighteenth-Century Satire. Brighton: Harvester. Poems on Affairs of State (1963—75), ed. George De Forest Lord et al., 7 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press. Rothstein, Eric (1981). Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Poetry, 1660—1780. Vol. 3 of The

Routledge History of English Poetry. Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sitter, John, ed. (2001). The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Trickett, Rachel (1967). The Honest Muse: a Study in Augustan Verse. Oxford: Clarendon.

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