Blistering Attacks

Claude Rawson

  • The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse by Geoffrey Grigson
    Oxford, 454 pp, £8.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 214110 4

You wouldn’t guess it from Mr Grigson’s anthology, but satire was once a deadly activity. It literally killed, or was believed to, which sometimes had the same result. Robert Elliott’s classic study of The Power of Satire tells us that poems were used as weapons of war in pre-Islamic Arabia, and it is not only there, or in the curses of primitive tribesmen remote from our literary tradition, that this ‘power’ showed itself. It existed in the Greece of Archilochus and his descendants, and among Irish bards whose reputed ability to rhyme enemies or rats to death still excited the imagination of poets of the age of Ben Jonson or Swift.

Sometimes the enemy destroyed was a rival poet, and perhaps this is what the tradition eventually narrowed down to. Jonson and more recently Roy Campbell are on record as threatening to destroy some fellow poets – in the latter case, better ones – who all survived. Mr Grigson does not print any of this, but his anthology reveals, a bit depressingly, how much the satire of poets has been concerned with other poets. Perhaps this marks a minor decadent track in that progress from ‘magic’ to ‘art’ which Elliott has written about. The ‘art’ itself has declined, or so it will seem if one compares the reciprocal barbs of Mr Grigson’s contemporaries with the corresponding performances of Pope or Byron. Mr Grigson has modestly left himself out. But his own scatterings of spleen are among the richer moments of an art in decline, and in one or two poems (‘Committed, or Mr Yeats and Mr Logue’, or ‘Birth of Criticism’) he has preserved some traces of the old ritual imprecation, at times scaled down to a stylish nagging.

Perhaps Mr Grigson has mellowed, or perhaps he dislikes the invective of others, especially the earlier and robuster sort. He omits Marston ‘because he uses words like a rumbling bully’, and he is ‘not too happy’ about Skelton, though he quotes a pungent example in his Preface and gives him a few pages in the book. The Skeltonic heaping of graphic scatological or animal insults is a descendant of the old magical shamings, which struck men dead, or drove them to suicide, or caused blisters (the Irish satirists were good at causing blisters, and we still speak of ‘blistering attacks’). It has remained part of the satirist’s armoury, though otherwise unrepresented in this book. There is a fair sprinkling of it in the later Irish satires of Swift, in ‘Traulus’ or ‘The Legion Club’:

Traulus of amphibious Breed,
Motly Fruit of Mungril Seed:
By the Dam from Lordlings sprung,
By the Sire exhal’d from Dung:
Think on ev’ry Vice in both,
Look on him and see their Growth.

The nearest we get to this aspect of Swift in the anthology is an altogether lighter affair called ‘On the Irish Club’. Even the curse on Traulus is in any case no simple replay of the primitive bardic imprecation, but a sophisticated thing, conscious of its own excess, playing the game for all it is worth. Nor do its intensities, fierce as they are in their way, place Swift at the Juvenalian pole of what Mr Grigson calls ‘those ancestral antipodes in satire, Horace and Juvenal’. There is little that is identifiably Juvenalian in Swift, though the myth to the contrary dies hard. Swift’s temperamental dislike of ‘lofty stiles’ was too well-developed to tempt him often into the majesties of ‘tragical satire’. It is Pope, the official Imitator of Horace, who is given to Juvenalian postures. Swift ‘imitated’ Horace too, and preferred him to Juvenal – not the Yeatsian Horace invented by Pope, aglow with egocentric fervours of ‘urbanity’, but a drier, low-key, scurrilous and self-under-cutting figure (perhaps equally unlike the real Horace) whose ‘laughing satire’ unsettles and undermines instead of issuing defiant self-assertions. This, for the most part, is the Swift who is represented here, though the particular choice of poems is a little drab.

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