Satire: What’s the Point
John Wolcot, by John Opie (date unknown)
Why bother? Satirists have asked this question with varying levels of desperation for the last two thousand years. “Who will read this?” asks the interlocutor in Persius’s Satire I. “Are you asking me?” the poet replies in surprise. “Why, no one”. Juvenal, a few decades later, claims boldly that it is “hard not to write satire” in an age as wicked as imperial Rome, but has to admit all the same that his efforts are hardly unique or likely to make much of a difference: “No point, when you meet so many / bards, in sparing paper (it’s already doomed to destruction)”. This, of course, is partly rhetorical posturing—declaring your country and its people to be beyond satire is an economical way of expressing seriously profound disgust—but it’s also something more problematic, an anxious querying of the confidence behind satire’s claim to denounce and correct, and a more private concern that the self-imposed burden of ‘being a satirist’ might mean speaking out for a set of principles shared by no one else, or being ignored entirely.
Eighteenth-century satirists often lapsed into gloom about the application of their craft. “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it”, Swift writes with mock-despondency in his Preface to The Battle of the Books (1704), finding something at least to laugh about in the uphill struggle of the satirist’s task. Johnson, with a similar sense of lonely exceptionalism, wonders in ‘London’ (1738) if there is any worldly use for his moral sensibility: “What, my friend, what hope remains for me, / Who start at theft, and blush at perjury?” Pope, in the last of his Horatian imitations, comes to terms with anxieties like these by experimenting with the practical limits of satire. His One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty-Eight dialogues (1738) cautiously negotiates the idea of giving up and resigning the apparently thankless task of being a satirist, and they achieve this by taking an established satiric form and testing its boundaries.
In Roman satire, the point of the verse dialogue is to pit the satirist’s persona against an opponent who represents the corrupt and ignorant administration of the day. He is a reliable stooge – he gives callow and cautionary advice (“Wouldn’t you be a richer man if you stopped being so angry?”), and he is intentionally set up so that he can be shot down. But Pope does something different with dramatic form. He’s interested in dialogue because it admits of contrariness: what happens, and what sorts of new problems arise, when the claims made on satire’s behalf are challenged in a convincing manner. The one-sided conversation works well enough if the satirist’s opponent is feeble and intellectually limited, but it gets more problematic if he has good arguments to offer, and all the more so if the poet seems to be on the back foot. At the end of the second Dialogue, Pope’s persona defends the business of satire with his usual violent energy: “Truth guards the Poet, sanctifies the line, / And makes Immortal, Verse as mean as mine”, he exclaims in triumph, and rhetorically squares up to have the last word on the subject. Unexpectedly, his opponent is given the final couplet of the poem, and he uses it to be pragmatic and reasonable. Since satire now has little power to wound, and usually ends up hurting the satirist more than the satirised, it would be a good idea to return to a more fruitful and less controversial kind of work: “Pray end what you began, / And write next winter more Essays on Man“. The extent to which this is persuasive is hard to measure, but it’s intentionally too smart and too honest to be dismissed out of hand.
The mood of gloomy self-deprecation got a lot worse as the century wore on. Satirists at mid-century were the first to use the fact of their own impotence as poetic subject matter. Robert Lloyd, schoolmaster, poet, editor and chronic debtor, padded out a fair part of his 1762 Poems with poetry about how hard he found it to write poetry, especially satire. In the years since Pope’s death, Lloyd explains, most satiric verse has just been a form of second-rate copying (“Imitation’s all the mode – / Yet where one hits, ten miss the road”), which means that it feels like rehearsed metrical anger without any intellectual precision: “In these the spleen of Pope we find, / But where the greatness of his mind?” For Lloyd’s friend Charles Churchill, the greatest satirist of the second half of the century, following Pope was less of an intellectually stifling proposition, but he had doubts nonetheless about the efficacy and the application of the old satiric forms, and he was adept at the sort of rhetorical tricks and twists that would allow him to disclaim his muse whilst appearing to embrace it. So, for instance, in The Author (1763), Churchill speaks the language of fiery satiric railing that he inherits from Juvenal and Pope, but not in his own person, and not in the present tense:
In Numbers here below the Bard shall teach
Virtue to soar beyond the Villain’s reach;
Shall tear his lab’ring lungs, strain his hoarse throat,
And raise his voice beyond the trumpet’s note,
Should an afflicted Country, aw’d by men
Of slavish principles, demand his pen.
“Shall”, “shall”, “Should”: this is slippery and equivocal writing, and the circumlocutory way in which it’s phrased is complicatedly at odds with the zero-tolerance attitude of what is being said. It’s not clear, either, quite who is saying it, because attributing verse to ‘the Bard’ is a clever way of claiming and abjuring responsibility all at once. Churchill might be referring to himself, but he might also be referring to a kind of poetic everyman, or to an ideal which is only loosely in touch with what it’s actually like to write and sell poems in the London literary marketplace. “This is a great, a glorious point of view, / Fit for an English Poet to pursue”, he continues, and once again leaves it open to considerable doubt as to whether he has himself in mind. Churchill here is at home with the theory of satire, but not the practice of it; he can reiterate with verve and fluency the kinds of phrases and tropes that he has inherited from a glorious Augustan satiric tradition, but the degree to which he believes in them personally is not clear.
By the turn of the century, traditional Juvenalian-style rage had become the butt of the joke, rather than the mode. John Wolcot, who went by the literary name of ‘Peter Pindar’ and was admired by both Wordsworth and Byron, produced a comic version of Pope’s One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty-Eight dialogues, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-Six (1796). Wolcot’s dialogues are staged between ‘Tom’, a fiery and principled young satirist, and ‘Peter’, who fulfils the traditional function of the cautionary interlocutor. Wolcot draws on Pope’s technique of playing with the possibilities of dialogue to allow the interlocutor to gain ground on the poet’s persona, but he goes a step further and inverts the form entirely: by casting himself as the interlocutor, not the satirist, he dissociates himself from a tradition that has begun to feel embarrassing, and the act of positioning himself outside it allows him to look at it critically and sceptically. He is particularly unforgiving when it comes to Tom, whose righteous anger is made to seem self-defeating in its absurdity, jejune, and a bit silly:
TOM: I’ll fabricate the poetry of Death.
O’er many a neck my scimitar shall flame,
And Havoc’s corpses form my road to Fame:
On Satire’s burning coals this villain fries,
And roasted that with skewers in his eyes.
Tom is deadly serious, but what he says isn’t commensurate with any sort of genuine moral activity; his rhetoric, melodramatic and hollowly imitative, has no echo in the existing arenas of politics and debate. Peter, by contrast, professes a kind of exasperated common sense (“Heav’ns! TOM, be cooler; take advice”), and what makes his reasonableness so attractive is that it measures itself against the real circumstances of the world, rather than holding up an idealised Augustan standard of rationality and virtue. Tom’s project, Peter says, is “a pious resolution / Would Fortune kindly crown the execution”: he means well, but he can’t do anything, and nor could any satirist who talked the way he does. Wolcot’s achievement is to take the dialogic form and empty it of its moral seriousness. His poem is a strained extension of the satirist’s traditional self-belief into a context where such conviction—or, possibly, conviction in general—feels frankly laughable.
This road leads to Byron, to the comic worlds of Beppo (1817) and Don Juan (1819-24). Divorcing satire from seriousness is what enables the poet to laugh at the world, but not to laugh it back together again, because the moral confidence reposed in the corrective power of literary style is no longer available to draw on. So when, in Don Juan I, Byron exclaims
Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all?
—it is unclear whether he is satirising the lords, the ladies, or himself, because the glibness of the couplet and the attention-seeking campiness of the rhyme make style, rather than substance, the point. Byron here is doing exactly what Augustan satirists a hundred years earlier were so keen to denounce: he is making verbal flourish and temporary charm a substitute for more profound kinds of order and confidence in the real world, and that raises difficult questions about the use and appeal of a literary genre traditionally founded on just such sources of intellectual faith. But though his reasons are more sophisticated and his way of putting them is more irreverent, he has the same basic questions in mind as his predecessors: how futile is this? Is it better to dramatise failure than hope for success? Am I writing for myself alone? What’s the point?
Clare Bucknell is an Examination Fellow in English Literature at All Souls College, Oxford.