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.

Perhaps the nearest thing to a survival of the old magical cursing in its naked form is to be found nowadays in the lore and language of schoolchildren. ‘Drop dead,’ the curtest and most essential boiling-down of the bardic imprecation, is an idiom which we may or may not owe to the playing fields of wherever, but the Opies have collected many an example of the death-dealing taunt. Their enabling factor is that they aren’t normally for real, however near the bone. In most cases there is a more or less sophisticated awareness that it’s only a game, that we’re only kids, protected from any commitment to practical follow-through, though tragic exceptions sometimes occur. Perhaps ‘I would hang her up for sale’ is after all not so very different from Swift’s saying about the nation’s representers that ‘I would hang them if I could.’ The thing is said largely because he knows he can’t: Swift doesn’t ‘mean it’, though he doesn’t not mean it either. The old bards apparently both meant it and could.

Satire has often had a schoolboy dimension, both in its horrors and in its fun, not least where murders, hangings and extermination are involved: think of Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, who was once a schoolboy thug and retains his bully-boy oafishness in his later role of gangster and political boss; of Ubu Roi, whose original was an unfortunate pedagogue pilloried in schoolboy sketches by Jarry and his friends; or of Alan Coren’s Idi Amin, who amid his slaughtering pranks sends up ‘fo’ de Boys Own Paper Giant Packet o’ One Hunnerd Top Worl’ Stamps fo’ A Mere Shillin”, orders his radio equipment from Hamleys, and wants a cowboy suit for his ‘birfday’.

The schoolboy tyrant is often a mock-heroic figure, Wild proclaiming that the more nefarious trickeries of Homeric and Virgilian heroes (read in schoolboy cribs) confirmed him in his high opinion of the wisdom of the ancients, or Ubu taking on the features of Shakespearean kings. Satirists have more than once compared the practical jokes of schoolboys with the cruel whims of tyrant-emperors and the ‘tricks played ... by ministers and statesmen’. Schoolboys have been taught the heroic poems since Greek and Roman times, and Yeats was later to reflect that the great warrior kings eventually survived only in classroom recitation. The epic spirit has tended through the centuries to shrink to schoolboy size, whether by way of the classroom, or through the deep analogy, identified by Auden and Isherwood and others before and since, between what Horace Walpole called the ‘mimic republic’ of schoolboys and the worlds of epic and saga, with their fighting, games and conspiracies, their codes of honour and leadership, and indeed (in Auden’s phrase) their ‘gangster virtues’.

In this mythology, the classroom, playground and OTC shade into one another, and so do the figures of master and boy. Boy bully readily turns into tyrannical pedagogue and vice versa. It is hard to tell whether Ubu has more of one than of the other. And satirists have many times, more or less self-mockingly, adopted the figure of the punitive pedagogue to describe their own operations. Swift repeatedly described his satire as a flogging of his victims’ backsides, noting in one place that ‘there is not, through all Nature, another so callous and insensible a Member as the World’s Posteriors, whether you apply to it the Toe or the Birch,’ as if all the world had become an intractable schoolboy.

There is also a more genial side to the schoolboy dimension. Emrys Jones pointed out in a brilliant British Academy lecture how Pope’s dunces disport themselves like ‘children at play’, shouting, chattering, having peeing competitions and the rest, though none of this appears in Mr Grigson’s extracts. An analogous feeling comes through in a poem Mr Grigson does print, Henry Carey’s ‘Namby-Pamby’, which is in fact directed at one of Pope’s dunces (‘Namby-Pamby, pilly-piss, /Rhimy-pimed on Missy Miss’). The whole poem is an exuberant orchestration of the nagging sing-song of mocking children. It is blended with some shrewd literary criticism, but its masterly mimicry is less of Ambrose Philips’s poems than of the schoolboy’s hectoring taunts.

Such ‘childishness’ is, in Jones’s words, ‘viewed with the distance and distaste of the Augustan adult’. The Dunciad’s sympathies take in more than the satirical intention suggests and are in some ways subversive of it. And such elements in satire, when they became too visible, have tended to arouse disapproval. Dryden looked down on the burlesque verse of Butler’s Hudibras for its ‘boyish kind of pleasure’, and indeed in the time of Dryden and Pope satire was already making a big point of being grown-up. Swift’s poems (which used the same verse as Butler’s) would have seemed ‘boyish’ to Dryden, and Swift in some moods disparaged his own poems for being on the trivial side. It is at about this time too that the serious epic finally went out of business. The direct celebrations of ‘heroic’ deeds which excited Juvenal’s schoolboys retreated more and more exclusively into the classroom, until Yeats could point to them as having dwindled to a classroom chore:

Where are now the warring kings?
An idle word is now their glory,
By the stammering schoolboy said ...

Perhaps the epic and satire, on the face of it so incompatible, have in common a deep underlying childishness. Certainly the two have never shown a greater need for each other than when both became subjected to the uneasiness of a world which thought itself too polite and grown-up for the cruelties and scurrilities of either. Some of the greatest poems of the age of Dryden and Pope (as never before or since) mixed the two together in the form of mock-heroic. It is not a case of the one being brought in at the expense of the other. Whatever mock-heroic satirises, it is usually not the grandeurs of epic. Some mock-heroics, like Jonathan Wild, brought into juxtaposition the oafish murderousness of heroes and the strutting of the school thug. Others, like the Dunciad, touched other features of a common childishness but studiously avoided bringing to mind the most damaging of heroic properties, the killings of the battlefield. The grandeurs, in rational terms inseparable from these killings, were somehow kept separate in poetic fact, and remained largely protected from satiric damage. The loyalty of mock-heroic is to some notional ideal of an older and nobler time, from which moderns have lapsed. And it is a truism too that, at least until recent times, the greatest satires have usually been culturally and politically conservative, looking back to old models, older standards of virtue. Even the most apparently alienated of outsider-satirists, Juvenal or Swift, is really recalling his countrymen to ancient values now neglected, not calling for a new order.

If epics celebrate slaughter and the earliest satire actually killed, perhaps it is as well that society has slowly grown out of them. Augustan sensibilities were well aware that heroic times were good to write of but bad to live in. It is also not surprising that that most direct of poetic utterances, the bardic curse, has steadily grown more oblique. Its progress from magic to art has been marked by an increasing indirection of tone and point of view, by accretions of ‘allusion’ and learned wit and coterie humour, and by a versatile talent for wrapping itself up in the protective covering of satirical fictions.

The schoolboy metaphor is one such fiction. It has been a means of preserving for satire some of its original vigour and also of domesticating it by building-in an accompanying note of grown-up superiority. It is largely by such lofty disengagement that Pope and his best contemporaries were able to take on board both the scurrilities of satire and some of the awkward majesties of the heroic.

The increasing attenuation of satire’s primitive aggressions was attended for a time by a corresponding elaboration of formal structure. The design of the neo-Horatian epistle or the epic plots of Augustan satire are intricate pieces of rhetorical and narrative management. This largely escapes from view in the Oxford Book, which prints hardly any of the most finely articulated examples in full. Not a single poem by Pope is given complete, for example. We seem to have lost the taste for such things, as well as for the more primitive simplicities, preferring briefer and more manageable compositions, as Mr Grigson prefers his Pope broken up into gobbets entitled ‘Plain Fools’, ‘The Bookful Blockhead’ or ‘The Patron’.

I do not know the reason (perhaps that never-ceasing all-purpose historical process known as the Rise of the Middle Classes should be invoked at this point), but there is hardly a single distinguished modern poem which amounts to an extended satiric composition on the scale of The Rape of the Lock or the Dunciad. Eliot’s Waste Land seems to have begun as an attempt at such a poem. The Dunciad had in a sense been Pope’s Waste Land. The subject of both poems is a modern cultural decline, played off against an ambiguous sense of ancient grandeurs, and a substantial part of Eliot’s cancelled draft is an outright pastiche of The Rape of the Lock, heavily impregnated with elements of Swift, in whom Eliot was deeply interested. Mock-heroic is not likely to have much point if the heroic itself no longer seems important enough for lapses from it to matter. Nor can one imagine any poet since Pope investing his whole imaginative being in a massively sustained composition which went in at much length for calling people dunces (a word which, by the way, in the course of its own history has been steadily transferring itself from schoolmen to schoolboys). We have doubtless become even more grown-up than our Augustan ancestors.

Pound, as everyone knows, got Eliot to discard the Popeian couplets: ‘you cannot parody Pope unless you can write better verse than Pope – and you can’t.’ The satirical couplet in its high Popeian form seems also to have become increasingly hard to write with conviction. The 20th-century examples collected by Mr Grigson usually have the cutting edge of a rolling-pin. The best succeed by subverting and ostentatiously coarsening the form, as Wyndham Lewis did:

So there you have (in this political age)
The secret of the dishonour of the sage –
The one that’s young enough to have some teeth
The one that’s suspected honest underneath.

Lewis’s own teeth were all on display. Their power came less from their intrinsic sharpness than from the muscles of his jaw. It is in any case in blasting and not in coupleteering that Lewis put his best tooth forward, while Roy Campbell’s copious couplets are like an outsize set of flashing dentures.

The naturalness and force of the Popeian couplet presumably rested on some kind of live assumption that a sufficient degree of order and certainty existed to make patterned summations possible without patness or falsity. Pound, who excised Eliot’s couplets, is represented here by some intermittent couplets of his own, although his greatest triumphs of satirical observation are surely to be found in such free verse sketches as ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Social Order’, which operate more by a kind of quasi-novelistic or short-story portraiture than through the buoyant certainties of summary judgment to which the couplet tends. Eliot’s best satiric writing, outside the special sense in which The Waste Land is satire, is perhaps to be found in a similar kind of short-story sketch, of which the finest example is ‘Aunt Helen’. Eliot, whom Yeats had spoken of as ‘an Alexander Pope ... satirist rather than poet’, is not represented in this volume at all.

It is in general a relief, in the later sections of this volume, to turn from the strident coupleteering patnesses of Campbell and others to the fondly nurtured exactitudes of spite of Lawrence’s vers libre, to its precisions of mimicry and its rich flow of superlatively placed contempt (it is as though the Middle Classes, having Risen at Satire’s expense, were being put back in their place in ‘How beastly the bourgeois is’); or to Stevie Smith’s ‘Lord Barrenstock’, a poem of strange moral and metrical turns and counterturns, comparable in some ways to Pope’s lines on Sporus, but making its point through the full elaboration of a highly specific case rather than through an assured reliance on a pre-existing sense of fitness or the high and unwavering aplomb of Popeian virtuosities of definition.

Mr Grigson claims in his Preface not to ‘have narrowed my choice by too severe a definition’ of satire, but he might be accused of having narrowed it by too severe a lack of definition. All he will insist on is that ‘the joke must not be lost’ – fair enough as a rough and ready observation but slipshod when used as the guiding principle for putting together a big book. It allows Mr Grigson to print anything he thinks anyone might find amusing but hardly commits him to any representative range. He expresses a predilection for ‘satire of a milder levity’, and this produces some real delights by Peter Pindar, Tom Moore and Chesterton, and three Betjeman pieces which surprise us by their target precision, along with much bumptious and complacent balladry by Macaulay and Thackeray and Belloc, and altogether too much Phyllis McGinley. MacNeice, Gavin Ewart and Enright are woefully underrepresented, and the omission of anything by Mr Grigson himself is a real loss, though ‘milder levity’ may not be his most salient feature. The refusal to ‘define’ satire, welcome enough in its way, does not in fact offer the expected release from confining dogmatism or any great openness to the rich variety of satiric expression, but only an impoverished and somewhat trivialised record.