Walpole and His Opponents

Walpole's opportunistic rise to power followed the respective death and resignation in 1721 of his rivals Stanhope and Sunderland. Over the next twenty years he forged a de facto prime ministerial role from his combined offices of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the Commons, and King's adviser. Walpole enjoyed the confidence and trust first of the German-speaking George I and then, after 1727, of his son George II and his powerful wife Queen Caroline. Walpole's steady hand enabled British trade to flourish and the country's commercial prosperity to increase without the crippling expense of the wars that had drained the national economy between 1690 and 1714. Historical hindsight makes it difficult to sympathize excessively with the large number of his opponents — both politicians and poets — who called for his resignation during the course of his long period in office. Samuel Johnson, a hot-headed "Patriot" in his youth, whose London of 1738 blasted the corruption of the times, rapidly back-

pedaled from his former opposition stance soon after Walpole's fall from power in 1742. Like Henry Fielding, another erstwhile opponent of Walpole who went on to describe him as "one of the best of men and of ministers," Johnson came to think better of Walpole and far worse of the so-called "Patriots" as Britain became embroiled in an expensive and unsuccessful war against Spain. However, Walpole's very personal style of government, autocratic and opaque in its operations (he was often satirized as "screening" all kinds of political corruption and acting as puppet-master for state affairs), inevitably provoked calls for greater transparency amid accusations that he was yet another "royal favorite," a power-hungry commoner who filled his own coffers at the public expense. The scale of Walpole's impressive stately residence in his home county of Norfolk, Houghton, stuffed with art treasures from across the world, did little to dispel such accusations.

Walpole's habit of quashing opposition to his parliamentary measures by dismissing renegade Whigs from their political offices earned him a new set of opponents: former colleagues who, during the 1720s and 1730s, came to swell the ranks of the Patriot opposition. Some were pushed, and others jumped. Lord Cobham, one of the powerful Whig aristocrats, resigned in 1732 in protest at Walpole's refusal to countenance a further inquiry into the South Sea Company. Walpole's decision to strip the military hero of his regimental honors caused a wave of hostility, and Cobham used his extensive family connections to bolster support: a circle of nephews, nicknamed "Cobham's Cubs" or the "Boy Patriots," joined the ranks of the opposition as soon as they entered Parliament, forming a flying squad to harangue Walpole. This circle, which cohered around Frederick, Prince of Wales, formed a magnet for opposition poets such as James Thomson, David Mallet, Mark Akenside, even Pope.

The question remains as to why so many leading poets came out in opposition

— some of it vitriolic — to Walpole's administration. All the leading male writers of the day — Pope, Gay, Swift, Thomson, Akenside, Fielding, Johnson, and lesser-known figures such as Richard Glover, David Mallet, and Aaron Hill — joined the swelling criticism of Walpole. Thomson, a staunch Whig and previously a loyal follower of Walpole, turned his hostility on the ministry in 1729 with his Britannia, which attacked Walpole's reluctance to stop Spanish ships from intercepting British trade

— just a year after the ministry had rewarded the poet with a £50 gift for his elegy on Newton, giving him every chance of becoming one of "Sir Robert Walpole's Poets." For poets of the 1730s, the distinction between "Whig" and "Tory" now seemed less relevant than a broader sense of cultural politics. Many writers, whatever their political persuasion, associated Walpole with the deliberate downgrading of the cultural marketplace: when the "money" culture came to dominate the arts and all that mattered was the quick "bob" to be turned, then poets turned to defend the status of their own art. Correspondence of the 1730s between the Whig literary entrepreneur Aaron Hill, himself a former theater impresario, and the Tory Catholic Alexander Pope shows that they shared a common idiom of cultural degeneration. They both agreed that the appointment as Poet Laureate in 1730 of the comic actor and playwright Colley Cibber, and the widespread pandering to the popular taste with garish and showy pantomimes which had displaced the market for decent theater, pointed to a serious decline in cultural standards. Walpole's own combination of an apparent indifference to poets with a readiness to pay for useful ministerial propaganda ("A Pamphlet in Sir Bob's Defence / Will never fail to bring in Pence," as Swift remarked in 1733) differed in extent and kind from the network of political patronage which had flourished under William III and continued into Anne's reign, distributed by such patrons as Dorset, Montague, and Halifax. Whereas under previous Whig regimes poets had had a stake in imagining and creating a forward-looking vision of modern British greatness, Walpole's writers were at best paid to defend narrow ministerial policies and to attack his critics. Public panegyric, which had distinguished the previous Whig ministries, now became the butt of opposition satire as the kind of poetry that (as Swift goes on to instruct in his "On Poetry: A Rapsody") can be turned out according to set formulae for flattery.

Thus it was that Walpole's critics — even his Whiggish critics — participated in reviving and perpetuating a myth of cultural "dullness" around Walpole's Britain which was enshrined most powerfully in Pope's The Dunciad. Although opposition poetry of the 1720s and 1730s came in a variety of forms, and Whiggish Patriot writers preferred to rouse patriotic feeling through the loftier precepts of epic and heroic verse (Glover's Leonidas or Thomson's Liberty), satire remained the dominant mode. Under Walpole, satire reached an apogee never to be achieved again after 1742. Walpole's long spell in power, his distinctive and personalized style of government, and a set of readily parodiable physical features made him a perfect target for political satire: there is a point at which anti-Walpole satire acquires an aesthetic life of its own, created from a network of correspondences, allusions, and innuendo. In a still unrivaled study of Pope, Maynard Mack described it as "an argot whose variations were inexhaustible . . . it had . . . an interior coherence which made it possible in touching one string to strike another too, or even to set them all vibrating without, apparently, touching any" (Mack 1969: 134). This argot was shared by other forms of visual culture, especially theater and popular prints. The Finch ballad on the Bubble hinting at the "brass" face is an instance of this — as is Pope's account in The Dunciad of the "wizard old" casting a spell over the nation which makes it fall into a profound sleep:

With that, a wizard old his Cup extends;

Which whoso tastes, forgets his former friends,

Sir, Ancestors, Himself.

There are echoes here of high culture — Spenser's wizard Archimago, his seductive Acrasia in the Bower of Bliss, herself modeled on Homer's Circe, who turns men into swine with her magic potion — as well as a whole history of anti-Whig writing which casts Whigs as wizards. These images are mirrored in low or popular visual culture, such as the notorious (obscene) print The Festival of the Golden Rump, published in

1737, which shows a large-bellied wizard (Walpole) officiating at a pseudo-religions ceremony around the naked buttocks of George II. The richly allusive nature of political satire directed against Walpole was made possible by the length of his time in office. This tradition of visual and verbal satire emerged again briefly in the Wilkesite satire of the 1760s, targeted at Lord Bute; but the monotonously phallic emphasis of the Bute prints and squibs is a poor substitute for the imaginative wit and irony of Walpolian satire.

Few women poets participated in the literary opposition to Walpole. Satire, with its connotations of obscenity and malice, was still deemed an inappropriate mode for women poets [see ch. 27, "Verse Satire"]. Yet the issues are more complex. Arguably, there was very little in the Patriot agenda to appeal to women. Glover's Leonidas, with its model of Spartan self-abnegation and its emphasis on male bonding, reflects at one level the nature of the friendships among Bolingbroke, Pope, and their circle. Pope's admiring letters to the youthful Earl of Marchmont and other young "Boy Patriots" hint at an almost homoerotic infatuation. The Patriots' political cliquiness and assertive masculinity would have excluded female participation. Kathryn King, noting the decline in female public writing from the 1720s onwards, speculates that the complex of cultural shifts transforming Britain into a commercial empire during this period had transformed women into consumers — beneficiaries rather than critics of the new-found prosperity of Walpolian Britain (King 2003: 218). Female poets who did write public verse tended to be loyalist in their sympathies, often addressing their works to Queen Caroline. Caroline, who had wide-ranging cultural interests, including theology, art, and poetry, was one of the few monarchs to offer patronage to poets such as Richard Savage and Stephen Duck. The Welsh poet Jane Brereton, under her nom de plume "Melissa," celebrated Queen Caroline's erection of "Merlin's Cave," her garden building in Richmond Park, linking herself as Welsh poet with the Hanoverians' attempts to graft themselves onto British and even Celtic roots (Prescott 2005a). Caroline, as fertile mother of nine children and a female intellectual of Enlightenment tastes, gave the traditional courtly focus for female poetic aspiration a distinctively modern twist. It was Caroline in this incarnation who fueled the Tory Pope's reactionary and nightmarish vision of the monstrous Queen Dulness / Caroline in Book IV of The Dunciad, first published in 1742, swallowing authors and culture in a parody of inverse reproduction.

It is perhaps instructive that the only female poet who could rival Pope and Swift in satirical edginess, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was a Court Whig. The only political satire she published at the time, "Verses Address'd to the Imitator of . . . Horace" (co-authored with the waspish Lord Hervey), undermined Pope's claims to moral integrity as the basis for his satires. Less well known are her unpublished "P[ope] to Bolingbroke" and "The Reasons that Induc'd Dr S[wift] to write a Poem call'd the Lady's Dressing room" — two poems on Pope and Swift respectively which hit well below the belt with their intuitively female understanding of the weak points of each man: Swift's meanness and misogyny, and the middle-class Pope's yearning for aristocratic élan, exposed in her parody of his obsequious reverence for the High

Tory Viscount Bolingbroke. Her untitled fragment "Her palace plac'd beneath a muddy road," co-authored with Henry Fielding, reworks the fantasy landscape of Pope's Dunciad, inverting its political values: the poem reattributes "Dulness" not to modern Whigs, but to the aptly named Catholic Alexander Pope and his literary cronies, bemired in centuries of "monkish" superstition. For Montagu, it is Whiggish writers such as Milton and Addison who have refined English taste and led the nation toward intellectual enlightenment, political liberty, and politeness.

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