The Heroic Couplet

What is the Heroic Couplet?
A heroic couplet is a group of two lines rhyming at the end, both the lines being iambic pentameters. Now, what is an iambic pentameter? A pentameter is a line consisting of five “feet”; and if every one of these five feet is an “iamb” or “iambic foot,” the line is an iambic pantameter. An iambic foot consists of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second, stressed. For instance, the word divide makes an iambic foot in verse for its first syllable (di) is unstressed and the second (vide) is stressed. In the same way the words given below make one iambic foot each:

Belie, delay, remain, between, and delight.
Now let us give an example of an iambic pentameter. This line occurs in Pope’s Epistle to a Lady:
But what are these to great Atossa ‘s mind?
This line can be “scanned” (that is, analysed metrically) as follows:
But what / are these / to great /Ato / ssa ‘s mind
Each vertical line divides one foot (here, one iambic foot) from the other, each cross indicates an unstressed syllable, and each horizontal line, a stressed syllable. It is by reading the line aloud that we can judge which syllable is to be stressed and which not. The iambic pentameter given above is the first ofthetwo lines making up a heroic couplet. Let us now give the second line.
Scarce once herself, by turns all Womankind! It may be scanned as follows:
Scarce once   herself buy turns- all mankind
Both the lines together constitute a heroic couple, as either of them is an iambic pentameter, and they rhyme at the end.
But what are these to great Atossa’s mind?
Scarce once herself, by turns all Womankind!
Now this is a normal heroic couplet. But the heroic couplet does admit of occasional variations. All good wielders of thetiefoic couplet use these variations to counteract the possibility of monotony caused by its peculiar singsong. We will discuss these variations a little later, but let us here give a few more characteristics of a normal or regular heroic couplet. They are as follows:
(i)         The heroic couplet makes a self-contained unit, just as a stanza. It is, in fact, a stanza in its own right. Sometimes, however, the sense is allowed to overflow from one couplet to the next.
(ii)        Tn each of the two lines of a heroic couplet there are generally two pauses (or stops)—one at the end (end-stop) and the other somewhere in the middle (middle-stop or caesura), usually after the fourth of sixth syllable, and very often indicated by a punctuation mark such as a comma or a semicolon. In the first line of the heroic couplet quoted above, the caesura comes after the word these (fourth syllable) and in the second, afterjhe syllable self (again, the fourth syllable).
(iii)       The rhyme is limited to the ending syllables (mind and kind) both of which are accented.
Some Variations:
(1)        A heroic couplet may not always form a self-contained unit. The sense may be allowed to flow from one couplet to the next. In other words, the couplet may not be a closed one having a strong pause at the end. This overflowing of the sense from one couplet to the next is called enjambement. Almost all the wielders of the heroic couplet,including Dryden and Pope, allowed themselves consideable liberty for enjambement. Consider, for instance, how Keats uses the couplets at the beginning of Endymion:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still keep
A bower quiet for us, and sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
In this case the sentence structure is independent of the metre. The lines are not end-stopped.
(2)                 Sometimes the two lines (or one of the two lines) of a heroic couplet may not be exact pentameters. Instead of some iambic feet the poet may use some other kind of feet. And sometimes even the number of syllables in each line may not be ten. Thus in Keats’s passage quoted above, the first two lines consist of eleven syllables each.
(3)                 Sometimes the caesura may not come at all. The absence of the caesura makes for speed.
(4)                 Sometimes the rhyme may not be limited to the ending syllables; it may extend to the two ending syllables of each line. Such a rhyme is called a double rhyme or feminine rhyme for example:
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
Besides ten thousand freaks that dies in thinking.
–from Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel
(5)        Sometimes (but seldom) the heroic couplet may give place to a triplet, that is, a set of three iambic pentameters all rhyming together or two iambic pentameters followed by a rhyming alexandrine (an iambic hexameter). Dryden was particularly devoted to the triplet-for which Pope took him to task.
Its Good Qualities and Defects:
Like all pther verse measure the heroic couplet has its good qualities as also’ efects. By its very nature the heroic couplet makes the fittest medium for certain kinds of poetry, but not for others. Its rapidity, balance, and epigrammatic flavour render it suitable particularly for satiric and narrative poetry, and the very same qualities make it unsuitable for elegiac, tender, passionate, or lyrical verse. But we cannot be too categorical in our statement, as in the hands of a master like Pope the heroic couplet can become a pliant medium for the expression of every mood and purpose. Pope’s Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, a wonderful elegy, is in heroic couplets. So is his passionate poem Eloisa to AbelardR. P. C. Mutter and M. Kinkead-Weekes observe in the Preface to the Selected Poems and Letters of Alexander Pope : “From Dryden’s extremely varied achievement in the heroic couplet Pope learnt how it could be made flowing and easy, or packed and concise, how it could spit like a firecracker or soar with eloquence, how it could be wittily antithetical or tenderly elegiac. The couplet may look monotonous as we see it on the page, but when we read it with attention as the poet’s art directs us, it is a highly flexible style. Pope used it for nearly all his poetry-for all his greatest-because he could do anything with it that he wanted”. The following may be considered the ‘good qualities” of the heroic couplet
(i)         As we have said, the heroic couplet makes for speed and brevity of expression. There is nothing languid or slumbrous about it as is the case with such verse-forms as the Spenserian stanza.
(ii)        The heroic couplet admits of balance and antithesis which lend rhetorical colour to verse and render it more forceful for the purpose of argument. Dryden was the greatest arguer in verse.
(iii)       Its brevity and balance give the heroic couplet an epigrammatic flavour. Pope is among all the English poets the most quotab’0 for he abounds in epigrams (short, witty, proverb-like sayings) which are evidently not possible with long stanzaic forms.
(iv)       All the qualities enumerated above make the heroic couplet the most eligible medium of satiric poetry. It is not an accident that the golden age of English satire was also the golden age of the heroic couplet. For one thing, the satirist can deliver in heroic couplets his appraisal of the satiric target in the form of short and pithy points which look like proverbs or axioms impossible to be controverted. Many of Dryden’s heroic couplets, according to George Saintsbury, have the sound of an actual slap in the face.
(v)        The use of the heroic couplet demands a peculiar discipline from the poet. The conformity of the sentence structure to the metre demands that he should think not in long sentences but couplets. Thus he cannot afford to be slack or flaccid.
Here are some of the “defects” of the heroic couplet;
(i)         The greatest “defect” of the heroic couplet is the possibility of its growing monotonous. In the hands of not so good a poet it runs the very serious danger of degenerating into mere singsong. However, a poet IjJsgLDryden or Pope knows how to vary his metre, and thus avoid monotony. This charge against the heroic couplet can, in fact, be adduced against any other measure too. Thus many critics have disapproved of the cloying monotony of such a complex form as the Spenserian stanza, and at least F. R. Leavis has criticised what he calls the ritualistic colour of Milton’s blank verse.
(ii)        Another “defect” is the incapability of the heroic couplet to serve as a fit measure for poetry other than satiric and narrative-specially, tender or passionate poetry. But here again the defect is not so much in the measure as in the poet. We have already cited the instance of Pope who could do anything with the heroic couplet. However, it has to be admitted that very few tender, elegiac, or passionate poems have been written in heroic couplets. Few lyricists have used this form.
(iii)       The rhetorical colour of the heroic couplet detracts from the sincerity of sentiment sought to be expressed by the poet. The poet using heroic couplets sounds like a public speaker and not a person giving sincere expression to sincere feelings. You can argue through heroic couplets, but you cannot move anybody with them.
The History of the Heroic Couplet and Some Poems Written in
The heroic couplet was first used by Chaucer who adopted it perhaps from old French verse. Some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as also the Prologue are in couplets. At the end of the sixteenth century, Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare made various uses of the heroic couplet. Spenser’s Mother Hubbard’s Tale (1597) is a satiric narrative in heroic couplets. In Michael Drayton’s England’s Heroical Epistles, again, we find the use of the couplet. The last two lines of every sonnet by Shakespeare constitute a heroic couplet. Some of these couplets look curiously like the couplets of Dryden and Pope. For instance, consider the following one;
For we. which now behold these present days,
Have eves to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
Edward Fairfax in his translation -of Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne! (1600) used the same measure, and was riarned by Dryden himself as one of the earliest reformers of English prosody. The group of Elizabethan satirists including Donne, Lodge, Hall and Marston also had recourse to the couplet, but their couplets are uneven and rugged and flagrantly disdainful of its discipline. Sir John Beaumont wrote his Bosworth Field in couplets which are instinct with sweetness and have an even flow. Sir George Sandys used the heroic couplet in his Metamorphoses (1621—26); but his couplets were neither pithy nor uniform. Incidentally, Sandys was praised by Dryden as “the best versifier of the former age.” Milton used heroic couplets for four of his Cambridge poems, but in their freedom, they look more like rhymed blank verse. Edmund Waller was recognised by both Dryden and Pope as their master. Denham wrote his, Cooper’s Hill in couplets which resemble Waller’s. Cleveland’s political poems also used the heroic couplet. His couplets are not smooth, but they have the important quality of directness.
With Dryden and Pope we come to the real masters of the heroic couplet. They made the couplet regular and correct and at the same time a very flexible and polished medium of poetic expression. Dryden wrote no fewer than thirty thousand couplets. He used the couplet not only for his narrative and satiric poems like Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, Mac Flecknoe, and The Hind and the Panther, but also for his “heroic tragedies” like Aureng-Zebe and The Conquest of Granada. Pope perfected the couplet. All his important poems, like The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, Essay oq Man, and Essay on Criticism, are in couplets. Pope’s contemporaries like Addison, Prior, Gay, Swift, and Ambrose Philips also employed the heroic couplet for their numerous works. After them the most important and the “weightiest” wielder of the heroic couplet is Dr. Johnson whose Vanity of Human Wishes is his greatest work. The vogue of the couplet declined after him as romanticism spread in the air and poets started gradually turning away from the conventions of the neo-classical school of Dryden and Pope. However, off and on, there did come poems in heroic couplets. Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) is the most notable example. Byron was indeed the most “classical” of all romantic poets.

Poetic Diction

What is Poetic Diction:
English neo-classical poets, like their French counterparts, were very particular about the division of poetry into various kinds of genres-such as the elegy, the heroic poem, the satire, the epic, and so on.

They upheld the principle of decorum which demands that for every kind a particular style is needed and that there should not be any confusion of styles. Further, they drove a wedge between the language of prose and the language of serious poetry. For lower genres like satire they did not mind using the language and idiom of prose, but for the elegy, the heroic poem, the epic, and such like genres, what they aimed at employing was a language as far removed from the lowly prose as possible. Obviously, in an epic such words as pot, broom, or even door could not be used, as their presence would create a bathetic effect. Consequently, a special language of poetry was devised, and later traditionalised, by the practice of poet after poet. This special language, somewhat stilted and artificial, ruled the roost for decades and was challenged only by Wordsworth at the end of the eighteenth century. In the Preface to -the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800) Wordsworth vehemently protested against what he called “the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers”. He further protested “There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction; as much pain has been taken to avoid it as is ordinarily taken to produce it.” Wordsworth was against the very principle of the divison of language into the language of prose and the language of poetry. He went so far as to assert that “there neither Js, nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition-Poetry sheds no tears ‘such as Angels weep’, but natural and human tears: she can boast of no celestial ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the-veins of both.” Coleridge in Biographia Literaria controverted Wordsworth’s point of view. He maintained that there ought to be some difference between the language of poetry and that of prose, as there should be some difference between the language of prose and that of actual conversation. “I write,” said Coleridge, “in metre because I am about to use a language different from that of prose.” It may be pointed out here that Wordsworth did not only criticise the language (diction) used by many of his predecessors but also their frequent indulgence in archaisms (both of grammar and vocabulary) and various other “poetic licences” pressed into service for poetising their language and consequently removing it as far from the language of prose as possible. Robert Bridges in his essay “Poetic diction in English” in Collected Essays (1910) observes: “The revolt against the old diction is a reaction which in its general attitude is rational: and it is in line with the reaction of “The Lake School” of poetry, familiar to all students in Wordsworth’s statement, and Coleridge’s criticism and correction of that statement in his Biographia Literaria. Both .movements alike protest against all archaisms of vocabulary and grammar and what are called literary forms and plead for the simple terms and direct forms of common speech.”

Its History and Examples:
It is usual to blame Dryden and Pope—the protagonists of the neo-classical school of poetry-as the poets who established the so-called poetic diction in England. However, it is not Dryden and Pope but their imitators who ought to be blamed, for it was they who thought that poetic diction could be a substitute for poetic inspiration. But poetry is not diction alone. It is so many thing besides. “In all fields of Art,” observes Robert Bridges in the essay mentioned above, “the imitators are far more numerous than the artists and they will copy the externals in poetry, the Versification and the Diction which in their hands become futile”. Eighteenth-century poetic diction does not start with Pope. The vast fund of poetic diction could not be created overnight. It was rather the cumulative result of the efforts of a large number of poets spread over many years.
Nevertheless, broadly speaking, it is Joshua Sylvester who can be credited with the use for the first time of that peculiar phraseology which goes under the label of poetic diction. In his verse translation of the French poet Du Bartas’ epic La Semaine we come across numberless ‘”poetic ornaments” and extravagances.which are rather unimaginatively flung here, there, and everywhere. Both Du Bartas in his original French composition and Sylvester in his English translation employed a very large number of expressions derived from Latin instead of their native equivalents. Such expressions ultimately formed a fair’v lame proportion of poetic diction. The tendency of ‘Du Bartas and Sylvester to use Latinisms was chiefly dictated, apart from the consideration of ornamental value, by their search for compression. Verbs and participle adjectives derived from Latin were evidently more concise than their composite equivalents in French and English. For illustration see the following lines by Sylvester:
A novice Thief (that in a Closet spies
A heap of Gold, that on the Table lies)
Pale, fearful, shivering twice or thrice extends,
And twice or thrice retires his fingers’ ends.
The unpurgedAire to Water would resolve,
 And Water would the mountain tops involve.
Another method of compression employed by Sylvester and the later poets was of the “pictorial” kind. For instance, for the loadstone, “iron mistress”; for the sea, “watery camp”; for the fish, “scaly crew”; and so on. A very common procedure was to frame a two-worded phrase with “round” as the second word and some epithet as the first. All-these practices contributed towards the proliferation of eighteenth-century poetic diction.
Many poets of the seventeenth century accepted the lead of Sylvester. Among them may be mentioned Drayton, William Browne, Sandys, Benlowes, Milton, and Dryden. Sandys, the translator of Ovid, did the most, before Dryden, to popularise poetic diction through his own example. He had taken upon himself the task of translating Ovid into an almost equal number of lines in English. Moreover, he was to employ pentameters, not the hexameters of the original. This put him to the necessity of compression, more particularly because Latin itself is a much more concise language than English. Naturally enough, Sandys had to have a recourse to the methods of Sylvester and also to devise a number of formulas of his own. The result was that the language, of metrical composition moved farther and farther from the language of prose or the language of actual conversation which was to be advocated by Wordsworth for use in metrical composition.
The translations of Lucan rendered by Thomas May (1626-27) and Rowe (1718) show much indebtedness to Sylvester and Sandys. So do Milton’s minor and some of his major poems. In’Lycidas, for instance, Milton uses various phrases which have the ring of poetic diction and many more which are used for their poetic beauty and even “unnaturalness”. Dr. Johnson expressed his keen dislike ofLycidas or the ground that much in it was unnatural or away from commonexperience.’ After Milton it was Dryden, the founder  of the neo­ classical school of poetry, who really established poetic diction so firmly that it continued reigning uninterrupted for about a hundred years to follow. Specifically speaking, it was in his translation of Virgil that, to maintain the dignity of the original, he employed highstrung diction. In his satires, however, his diction and idiom are nearer the language of prose. Satire, as we have already pointed out, was considered by the neo-classicists a low genre, and, as such, was not deemed to require any specially wrought diction and idiom.
The Role of Pope:
In this respect Pope thought alike with Dryden. In his satires we have not much of the so-called poetic diction. They are couched in a conversational language unadorned with poetic gewgaws. Consider, for instance, the opening lines of his Epistle to Arbuthnot:
Shut, shut, the door, good John! fatigu’d I said,
Tie up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead.
Pope was very much particular about the demands of decorum–the appropriateness of the style to the subject or the genre. As he says in the Essay on Criticism,’
Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent, as more suitable:
For different styles with different subjects sort,
As several garbs with country, town and court.
In practice he was very particular even about the style of his letters. Spence reports these words of Pope: “It is idle to say that letters should be written in an easy familiar style: that, like most other general rules, will not hold. The style, in letters as in all other things, should be adapted to the subject”.
It is in his translation of Homer that Pope makes the maximum use of poetic diction. Pope felt that the sublimity and grandeur of the original were incapable of being conveyed in ordinary, familiar English phrases. So he had to coin new ones and had to borrow numerous others from his predecessors. His Homer has been almost universally and wholly held responsible for the creation of eighteenth-century poetic diction. To quote some opinions. Consider first Coleridge’s who called it “the main source of our pseudo poetic diction.” Southey asserted that it had “done more than any or all other books, towards the corruption of our poetry.” Whatever be the other faults of Pope’s Homer, it is evident that is was not the originator of poetic diction. Pope was merely following a tradition and passing it on to his successors. Geoffrey Tillotson observes in this connexion: “Pope’s Homer is certainly the greatest work which used this diction.But Pope did not invent the diction. When he used it he was drawing from and adding to a fund which had been growing for more than a hundred years, a fund which has been argumented and improved by the ‘progressive’ poets of the seventeenth century that is, by those who stand in the direct line of development.”
Pope used poetic diction in his Homer with a definitely utilitarian purpose in view. The compression, sublimity, and archaic flavour of the original could be captured, he felt, only by the use of a peculiar diction. He did not use it, as many of his successors did, for the purpose of ornament or for camouflaging in attractive trappings the spells of poetic sterlity. He would, as he tells us,
Show no mercy to an empty line.
Pope is one of the most concise of English poets, though, to quote Tillotson again, he “makes no fuss about his conciseness as Browning does.” The only senselessly prolix lines in his poetry are those in which he parodies the senseless prolixity of others. This is how-.he satirises the emptiness of his rivals in pastoral poetry:
Of gentle Philips will I ever sing,
With gentle Philips shall the valleys ring.
My number too for ever will I vary,
With gentle Budgell and with gentle Carey.
Or if in ranging of the names i judge ill,
wih gentle carey and with gentle Budgell.
Pope, in fact, condemns the needless, unthinking use of poetic diction. In Peri bathous he lashes the foolish poets who, as he puts it, instead of writing the plain shut the door (as he himself wrote in the first line of the Epistle to Arbuthnot quoted above) write:
The wooden guardian of our privacy,
Quick on its axle turn.
After Pope:
After Pope poetic diction ruled supreme right till the end of the eighteenth century. The names of almost all the poets of the century are associated with its use. Dr. Johnson, Collins, Cowper-all made use of it and augmented and consolidated its fund, wordsworth in the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads quotes verses from Dr. Johnson, Cowper, and Gray and points out how their diction differs from the words used in speech and in written prose. He calls them bad poetry for this reason. Those who really did the most mischief were not these poets, however, but the numberless imitators of Pope who made the language of Poetry altogether fantastic, and altogether lifelesws and conventional. Hence Wordsworth went to the opposite extreme. In the keen desire for fresh air a few windows are likely to get broken. In condemning the poetic diction of the eighteenth century, Wordsworth went to the extent of condemning all the poetry which employed this diction.Hence Tillotson’s complaint: ” The poetic diction of good eighteenth-century poetry has been much misunderstood, and denunciation of it has sometimes been taken as the automatic denunciation of the poetry as a whole”. We must allow eighteenth-century English poetry its due, in spite of our disapproval of its poetic diction.

English Verse Satire in the Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century is remarkable as a period in which the satiric spirit reigned supreme. The names of all the important writers are associated with satire; in fact, their very greatness is due mainly to their greatness as satirists.

The three most important writers of the age were Pope, Swift, and Dr. Johnson.-Whereas Pope and Dr. Johnson gave the English language some of its best verse satires, the second named gave it its best prose satires. But apart from this redoubtable triumvirate, the names of a hundred other lesser satirists can be mentioned. In addition to the regular satires, the satiric spirit peeps through other modes of writing, too. The novel and the periodical -paper were the two important gifts of the eighteenth century to English literature. These new genres, too, are exhibitive of the impact of the satiric spirit which was ubiquitous in the age. Some of the most delightful satire of the age is provided by the periodical papers of Steele, Addison, an’d their followers and the novels of Fielding, Smollett, and Steme. As a genre satire ruled the roost till roughly the third quarter of the century, when new tendencies appeared, to the detriment of the satiric spirit. The precursors of Romanticism found satire incompatible with their new sensibility. Satire naturally declined and since then up to the present day very few satires have appeared which can show the same brilliance as characterised eighteenth-century satires.

Reasons for Dominance:
All satire arises from the sense of dissatisfaction, despair, amusement, anger, or disgust at the departure of things from their ideals. Satire aims at pointing out and chastising the falling short of things from their well-accepted standards of excellence. It is only when standards get fixed that any departure from them can be measured or appreciated. In the eighteenth century-particularly its first half-4he standards of human conduct were more or less well fixed. -This century has been variously called “the age of good sense,” “the age of good taste,” “the age of reason”, etc. Almost all the writers of the age harped upon common sense, good taste, and what they called “right reason.” Any departure from them, real or imaginary, put the whip of the satirist into action. Further the accentuation of the political division of Englishmen into Whigs and Tories also nurtured and provided much material for the satiric spirit. Nearly every important writer of the first half of the eighteenth century was “employed” by either the Tory or the Whig party to further its cause and to down its opponents. Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, Prior, Addison, Steele-all were actively aligned with one party or the other, even though they did not write many political satires of the nature of Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel and The Medal. Thirdly, we have to take into account the fierce personal animosities of the writers of the age. It was in the eighteenth century that, for the first time in the history of English literature, the vocation of a man of letters, like other professions, became a lucrative job. With the unprecedented increase in the number of readers (consequent mainly upon the expansion of trade and commerce and the resulting richness) the printed word could sell. Pope and some others depended for their livelihood entirely upon the patronage of their readers. With the phenomenal rise in the number of readers there was an equally phenomenal rise in the number of writers many of whom decorated the garrets of Grub Street. Each of them was necessarily jealous of all the rest as it involved his very livelihood. The whole air was thick witrHnutual animosities among writers and the personal satires which they gave rise to. Even Pope’s Dunciad-Jhe most powerful and the best satire of the eighteenth century^was expressly written to lash his literary rivals and critics. His translation of Homer and edition of Shakespeare had proved for him the most lucrative assets and when they were attacked, partly justly and partly unjustly, by critics like Bentley and Theobald it was reason enough for him to try to satirise them into silence.
Formative and Guiding Influences:
There were three formative and guiding influences on satire in the eighteenth century. They were : the tradition of the Roman Augustan satire of Horace, Juvenal, and Persius; the tradition of the French satire of the neo-classic school; and the neo-classical native tradition of Dryden. The French satirists like Boileau were themselves influenced by the Roman satirists and Dryden was influenced by both the Roman and the French. Let us now consider these three influences one by one.
(i)         As regards the influence of the Roman satirists, it is quite apparent in the work ofPope, Dr. Johnson, and others. Horace and Juvenal -the two greatest Roman satirists—did not write the same kind of satire. Horation satire is, generally speaking, of the comic, and Juvenalian satire, of the tragic, kind. Horace is polished, good-honoured, precise but sly, pretty tolerant and somewhat lenient, and always indirect. Juvenal, on the other hand, is mordant, direct, intolerant, stately, intense, and disdainful. Whereas Pope came mostly under Horace’s influence, Dr. Johnson was evidently influenced by Juvenal.
(ii)        Boileau was the most important of the neo-classical French satirists. Dryden himself came under his influence. Boileau’s Le Lutrin was presumably the first example of a mock-heroic poem in world literature. Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe was also a mock epic. In the eighteenth century we find Pope giving a mock-heroic framework to his famous satires-The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad. Swift, .likewise, followed the lead of Boileau in The Battle of the Books. Scarron, the French poet who parodied Virgil, had also some followers in eighteenth-century England.
(iii)       Last but not least is the bracing influence of Dryden who breaking away from the native satiric tradition of Hall, Marston, Donne, Cleveland, and Butler, had looked for guidance to the Roman satirists and their followers in France. Pope has well been designated “Dryden’s poetical son.” His satires provided so many models for numerous eighteenth-century satirists. The Dunciad followed Mac Flecknoe in being a satire on dunces. But what is more, Dryden’s popularisation and effective handling of the heroic couplet for the purpose of satire had a powerful effect on the eighteenth century. Almost all the good satires of this century were written in heroic couplets. Pope regularised the couplet and made it more precise, balanced, and artistic and, as such, provided a model for his successors. But Dryden’s freer use of the couplet had also its admirers and imitators among whom may be mentioned the name of Churchill.
After these preliminary considerations, let us examine briefly the satiric work of important individual writers.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744):
Pope, “the wasp of Twickenham”, was the greatest verse satirist of not only the eighteenth century but of all centuries. It is interesting to note that almost every discussion of his satire boils down to discussion of his personality. The hase of outright condemnation of Pope as a mischievous and malicious imp is now over. To quote Bredvold in A History of English Literature, edited by Hardin Craig, “recent scholarship has made important corrections of the traditional view of Pope and he is now receiving a more sympathetic hearing.” We no longer agree to such views as the one of Lytton Strachey which represents Pope as a malevolent monkey sitting in a window and pouring on the passers-by (for whom he has dislike) ladlefuls of boiling oil. Sometimes Pope did hit first, but more often he was hit first. Pope himself was designed by God to be a rich satiric target. He was short-statured, hunch-backed, and lame. And then he was a Roman Catholic. But, above all, he was a successful writer-tfie author of numerous best-sellers. Naturally enough, he excited the spleen of a host of pen-drivers whom at a place he compares to a swarm of gnats plaguing him. We have also to take into account his revengeful and somewhat malicious temperament. After getting hit he could not just connive at the attack. He rose from the depths of anger and disgust and made short work of most of his disparagers. None could match him in his most telling use of the heroic couplet. Well could he claim that he was “proud to see”
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me.
Happily did he keep politics and religion out of satire. With the exception of The Rape of the Lock, which is a general satire on female frivolities, all his major satires are characterised by indulgence in personalities. To name all the persons he attacked in his satires would require tens of pages. His greatest satire The Dunciad is, in its fundamentals, a satire on the contemporary dunces who had happened to offend him.
Pope’s Friends:
Pope’s companions-Arbuthnot, Swift, Prior, and Gay—who were, like him, members of the Tory “Scriblerus Club”—also distinguished themselves as satirists. But Arbuthnot wrote only in prose. Swift, as we have already said, was the greatest prose satirist of the age. But he also wrote some verse satires. He seldom used the heroic couplet and couched almost all his verse satires in the octosyllabic couplet of Butler’s Hudibras. Most of them do not rise above the level of the doggerel. “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet”-this was the verdict of Dryden. And he was right. Much of Swift’s verse, as his prose, is besmirched in scatological grossness. Swift takes an almost morbid pleasure in dwelling on the filth of the human, particularly the female, body. His misogynistic poems like “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” are almost unreadable/Here is an example from one of his poems:
Had you but through a cranny syp ‘d
On house of ease your future bride,
In all the postures of her face,
Which nature gives in such a case;
Distortions, groanings, strainings, heavings,
‘Twere better you had licked her leavings
Than from experience find too late
 Your goddess grown a filthy mate.
It is nothing more than chamber-pot poetry. However, Swift is delightfully ironical in such poems as The Death of Dr. Swift and The Furniture of a Woman’s Mind which are happily free from the scatological taint.
Matthew Priori (1664-1721) contribution to satire is his parody of Dry den’s The Hind and the Panther entitled Story of the Country Mouse (1687), and his Hudibrastic satire on Philosophy, entitled Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind, in which he traces the advance of the soul from the ankles in childhood to the head in maturity. Prior is best known not for satire, however, but for his light, topical Anacreontic verse and his numerous poems for children;
John Gay (1685-1732) showed better talent for burlesque than Prior did. “Informality and burlesque,” says George Sherburn, “permeated most of Gay’s works.” His most important work The Beggar’s Opera also was a satire on and a parody of the Italian opera so popular then. Wine is again a burlesque-of Ambrose Phili’s Cyder Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets in London is a parody of the Georgics of Virgil. It was the most famous of the “town eclogues” written also by such writers as Swift, Lady Mary Wortley Mongtagu, and some others. Gay, at any rate, did not taint his page with bitter satire. His satire is mostly impersonal and essentially good-natured and gay. His tombstone carries the following inscription composed by himself:
Life is a jest, and all things show it,
I thought so once, but now I know it.
We may also refer here to the work of Edward Young (1683-1765) who was one of the first imitators of Horace in the eighteenth century. Sherburn observes: “The first Hdration satires to achieve real success were the seven that Edward Young published in 1725-28 as Love of Fame, the Universal Passion. Practically all of Pope’s satires post dated those of Young, which were highly praised.”
Dr. Johnson (1709-84):
Dr. Johnson as a satirist ranks next only to Pope among the verse satirists of the eighteenth century. In addition to being a satrisfhe was, to quote Legouis in A Short History of English Literature, a “translator, journalist, lexicographer, commentator, novelist, biographer and finally literary critic.” His two verse satires are London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1746)-4he latter of which is superior to the former. London is a satire on the great city which he loved so passionately. There is “the language of the heart” in his question: “when can starving merit find a home?” There is real pathos in the lines which describe the misfortunes of talented and enlightened men of letters who are rudely treated by rich fools. The Vanity of Human Wishes is, according to Edmund Gosse, “a much finer and more accomplished production.” Johnson based this weighty poem on the Tenth Satire of Juvenal whose manner he tried, fairly successfully, to imitate. Johnson’s style is heavy-handed and serious, and his attitude, too, is Juvenalian in its pessimism and noble disdain. He has often been charged with verbosity and prosaicness; and Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads gave him a rather undue meed of dispraise. However, modern critics, after the example of T. S. Eliot, have rehabilitated him as a poet. T. S. Eliot praises his poetry for, what he calls, its “minimal quality” that of direct, complete, and effective statement. Referring to a passage in The Vanity of Human Wishes he justly enquires if it is not poetry, what is it?
Charles Churchill (1731-64) and Minor Satirists:
After Johnson we find in the rest of the century few satirists of his stature, not to speak of that of Pope. The most outstanding among the numerous minor satirists was Charles Churchill—a man of dissolute and ferocious character who died young of dissipation. He failed in the vocation of a clergyman, and in utter disgust of the world started writing extremely mordant satire against whosoever crossed his way. He was particularly severe on Dr. Johnson and the famous painter and engraver Hogarth. He keenly disliked Pope, and in the handling of the heroic couplet’ he followed the lead of Dryden who had handled it with much greater freedom than Pope. Much of his satire is of the personal kind and scarcely rises above coarse lampoonery. But there is always in it a devilish strength. Churchill was particularly good at the art of satiric portraiture and his portrait of Pomposo (Dr. Johnson) in The Ghost’(1762-63) is, quite remarkable. The Times (1764) was a general satire on the, vices of Londoners. The Duellist was a virulent attack on Warburton and Lord Sandwich, as they were against Churchill’s hero John Wilkies who had incurred the wrath of George III. The Rociad (1761) was a very vigorous satire on some famous actors of the day. Edmund Gosse observes about Churchill: “The happiness of others is a calamity to him; and his work would excite in us the extremity of aversion, if it were not that its very violence betrays the exasperation and wretchedness of its unfortunate author.”
William Cowper (1731 -1800) is much less known for his satiric than non-satiric verse. His Poems (1782) contains many satiric pieces on such subjects as The Progress of Error, Truth, Hope and Charity, Conversation and Retirement. William Blake (1757-1827) was apoet of his own kind. Some of his poems like London are satirical in temper. Among the little known poets may be mentioned John Wolcot, an opponent of George III (like Churchill) who wrote The Lousiad. William Giffbrd in The Baviad (1794) and The Maeviad (1795) satirised bad critics and poets now justly forgotten. Canning and Frere in Anti-Jacobian denounced the revolutionary zeal of poets like Southey and Coleridge. The last twenty years of the eighteenth century were a period of singular inactivity as regards not only satiric poetry but all poetry.