31 March, 2014Issue 24.6EssaysHistoryLiteraturePoetry

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Satire Reconstituted

Joe Hone


A satyr from the Villa de Misteri at Pompeii

What makes a satire? At first glance it seems a simple question. We all recognise satire when we see it, whether in the pages of Private Eye, or onscreen, in South Park or The Thick of It. Satire, it seems, should make us laugh; yet it should also have a discernible target, an object of ridicule. When asked that same question, literary critics reel off a few familiar names: John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson. In short, the great satirists of the ‘Augustan’ age. August by name, august by nature. But this hardly paints a complete picture of English literary satire. It seems lazy, if not downright negligent, to base our view of the genre so heavily on selected works by a Tory elite writing between 1660 and 1760. For better or worse, though, ‘Augustan’ satire is our locus classicus. Why? And is this a good thing?

Over the past hundred years, scholars of the ‘long’ eighteenth century have been busy pedalling this standardised story of satire. It supposedly rose to prominence after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and culminated with the so-called ‘Scriblerians’—a club comprising of Pope, Swift, and their colleagues John Gay, Thomas Parnell, and John Arbuthnot—before fading into obscurity with the rise of polite culture and sensibility from the 1760s onwards. It is a suspiciously neat narrative; history is rarely so simple. Moreover, it gives us an image of satire as a resoundingly conservative force, railing against political and cultural developments enacted under the Whig government of the day.

How did we end up with this coloured understanding of English satire? In part it results from canon formation. Pope and his cronies were enshrined as the leading lights of the century, aided not only by their pens, but by their canny relations with the book trade. Both Pope and Swift had multiple collections of their works printed in their lifetime, and Pope, in particular, became something of a literary celebrity, complete with adulating female fans and a rather tenacious stalker. But canon formation is as much a modern phenomenon as it is an eighteenth-century one. Indeed, some of the great literary critics of the twentieth century have been particularly guilty in this regard. Take David Worcester, who, in 1940, dismissed those satires that hadn’t “risen to the top” as “acidulous gruel”, a “thick sludge of hell-broth” unworthy of study. Still more significantly, Ian Jack’s vastly influential Augustan Satire (1952) mentions only 19 separate titles: just 19 satires in a book professing to cover nearly a century of writing. And of those lucky 19, less than half are analysed at any length and all are drawn from the canon. The problem was one of prejudice. For Jack et al, the “hell-broth” simply didn’t fit. For them, literary satire was high art: literature first, and satire second. It simply didn’t occur to them that the picture they described was entirely of their own imagining.

It has, nonetheless, prevailed. The cause appears twofold. First, the satirical canon of the early eighteenth century is undeniably rich. We continue to read Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub rather than, say, Henry Carey’s bizarre Chrononhotonthologos—and, with good reason. They are truly literary satires. And it is this literary quality that lends itself to critical practice. Take Pope’s Dunciad, in any of its multiple forms. The poem itself engages with so many literary traditions, from the classical to the contemporary, that it simply cannot be tied down to any single context. That is without even mentioning the copious mock-scholarly notes, which flood the page with a mixture of made-up pedantry and genuine quotations from Pope’s adversaries. This is satire as Jack saw it, resplendent and self-aware. Equally, the butt of the joke in texts such as The Dunciad or Gulliver’s Travels seems just as relevant today; we have our own hack journalists and power-hungry politicos who deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

The second reason for the survival of the satirical canon is, however, less laudable. As wonderful as the works of Swift and Pope may be, they are a tiny fraction of the bigger picture. In our idleness we have grown blind to the rich diversity of satire than exists beyond the ‘Augustans’, with whom we remain so enamoured. But it is just this bigger picture that makes the period between 1660 and 1760 such a golden age for satire. Our notion of Augustanism is homogeneous, all heroic couplets and classical imitations. This couldn’t be further from the view of satire ‘on the ground’ in the eighteenth century. In a single year, one might see satires on politics, monarchy, rebellions, but also on such diverse topics as coffee, wine, bad writers, and marriage. The modes of publication, too, varied considerably. Satires were printed in weighty quarto and folio volumes, available only to those with the requisite buying power; yet they would also appear in newspapers or on broadsides (single sheets of paper), cheap formats readily available to the public at large for a penny or two. The satire of this period was, then, a smorgasbord, not a set menu.

While the distorted canon of English literary satire originated in the cultural tastes of the 1940s, it has been perpetuated by a mixture of laziness and also a serious reluctance to relinquish older impressionistic value judgements. Rather than asking what makes a text ‘good’ satire, perhaps we should instead be asking different questions: What was this satire meant to accomplish? Did it achieve those aims? If so, how? And what does all of this tell us about the culture within which it was written? Such questions are by no means easy to answer. They require meticulous research, both into the conditions that governed the text’s material production (conception, printing, publication, distribution, reception), and also into the polemical strategies that make it an effective political tool. When accomplished properly, however, this mode of scholarship provides an antidote to phoney ‘historicism’, as it is all too often practised. True historicism, as envisaged by scholars such as Robert D. Hume, is a positivist enterprise that asks what, when, how, and why. It is a task that modern technological advances have considerably accelerated. Before Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), the average scholar would need travel to one of the world’s great research libraries, or build up a substantial collection of their own. But now they can peruse thousands of books from anywhere with an internet connection. Internet archives are a game-changer, as demonstrated by recent studies such as Ashley Marshall’s The Practice of Satire in England, 1658-1770, published last March.

The reconstituted image of satire that I propose does, though, raise some questions. If the status of the early eighteenth century as the golden age of satire comes not from the canon, but rather from the volume and variety of extra-canonical texts, perhaps other periods have a wealth of satire that we have previously ignored. Perhaps even enough to knock the eighteenth century from its podium. Satire did, of course, exist long before Pope. Chaucer is a wonderfully lively satirist, as we know from The Canterbury Tales. And satires with real political bite had been produced and disseminated about the court during the sixteenth century. Equally, there is a sting in the tail of many of Austen’s novels, and Byron needs no introduction. Certainly in the canon we see a movement away from satire by 1760; but outside of the anthologies, who can say? I suspect that there are a great many lampoons lying in wait, ready to be discovered. We must remember that the Romantics were not representative of their age, just as the Scriblerians were not. The teleology of literary history has likely got in the way of our appreciation of the satire produced in this later period.

There is, then, a great deal of work yet to be done, both in the ‘long’ eighteenth century, and in the periods that preceded and followed. Whilst texts such as The Rape of the Lock may be the most poetically accomplished satires of the age, they were not necessarily the most politically expedient, nor even the most resonant. These latter two areas—political expedience and impact—remain for the most part unexplored, even regarding some of the canonical greats, which we should not limit ourselves to. For instance, very few critics are willing to concede that The Dunciad might be a piece of propaganda. It is a literary text, interacting with classical and contemporary epic; but it is propaganda all the same, designed to influence opinion. Whether the political impact of satire belongs in the remit of historians or literary scholars is a moot point. Both offer valuable insights into historical satire, and the most valuable scholarship of all comes from between the disciplines. In short, if we want to understand satire properly, we need to return the drawing board.

Joe Hone is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Jesus College, Oxford.