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 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.