W.B. Carnochan

  • Satire and Sentiment, 1660-1830 by Claude Rawson
    Cambridge, 309 pp, £40.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 521 38395 1

Item: in 1684, there appeared John Oldham’s posthumous Remains in Verse and Prose, with a prefatory elegy by John Dryden, ‘Farewell, too little and too lately known’. Dryden’s poem has been much admired and praised – but not by Claude Rawson, who calls it variously ‘pompous’, ‘self-serving’, ‘overrated’, ‘unctuously self-exalting’, ‘self-promoting’, ‘pontifical’ and ‘patronising’

Item: in a chapter on Richardson (wittily called ‘Richardson, alas’ after ‘Hugo, hélas’), Rawson quotes a curious letter in which the novelist asks a friend to come to Tunbridge Wells, where she will be able to see a figure more ‘grotesque’ even than Beau Nash or Colley Cibber, ‘a sly sinner, creeping along the very edges of the walks, getting behind benches ... afraid of being seen ... Come and see this odd figure!’ – who is of course Richardson himself. Rawson’s comment: ‘The specialist in our time of this species of histrionic self-oregrounding, with its teasing delusion of enhanced objectivity and its opportunities for a smirking inwardly directed irony, is Norman Mailer.’

Item: examining Oldham’s effort to replicate ‘the postures of the Rochesterian rakes’, Rawson detects in Oldham an occasional ‘note of hoity-toity tu quoque’.

Item: and, examining Boswell’s habit of draining every rhetorical situation to the lees, Rawson likens the Boswellian manner to that of ‘a hyperactive puppy on a benzedrine diet’.

I begin with this bill of particulars because Rawson, by any standard a powerful interpreter of the 18th century, can only be got at through the antechamber of his altogether individual style. You may love it, you may hate it, but you cannot overlook it. Reading Rawson, you’re forever being reminded of who it is you’re reading. What can be discovered, then, from the examples thus far?

First, he delights in the unexpected shock, both rhetorical and judgmental. Somebody else might have come up with the image of Boswell as hyperactive puppy (well, it’s possible), but on a ‘benzedrine diet’? Not for Rawson the cautiously self-protective. Where others would embed a renegade judgment on Dryden’s ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’ in the reassuring civilities of academic-speak (‘While most readers have judged it a triumph, it is in fact self-serving, even pompous’), Rawson opens his chapter on Oldham by letting you have it between the eyes – ‘“Farewell, too little and too lately known,” Dryden wrote in a pompous, self-serving poem.’

As for Richardson and Mailer, who else could have thought up such an odd couple – and so long held off the moment when Mailer’s identity as Richardson’s modern counterpart is revealed? Who else would have joined the insistent slanginess of ‘hoity-toity’ to the self-conscious tu quoque? Rawson insists on being attended to. You could even call him ‘uppish’ – one of his favourite epithets – and he would probably not mind.

Second, he loads up on attributives in order to establish tonalities: ‘pompous’, ‘pontifical’, ‘patronising’, ‘histrionic’, ‘teasing’, ‘smirking’ – and, among many others, ‘bossy’, ‘coy’, ‘festive’ and ‘genial’. For him, tonal precision, and precision about tone, matter hugely.

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