Book Review

Augustan Satire Reconsidered

For many decades now college English students have had to absorb something called “Augustan satire,” to all appearances as self-contained and discrete a movement as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood or Transcendentalism. The Augustan period, so the standard narrative goes, took place between the Restoration of Charles II in 1680 and the deaths of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope in the mid-1740s. It was the high point of satiric writing, and its masterpieces were Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, Pope’s Dunciads, Moral Essays, and Horatian imitations, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Henry Fielding’s Shamela and Jonathan Wild, Samuel Johnson’s London and The Vanity of Human Wishes. The other several thousand satirical works written during the period are by common consent ignored. The central group of “Scriblerians”—Pope, Swift, Gay, and their colleague John Arbuthnot—are considered to have had common satiric aims. They formed a “school” of satire. After their passing, the dawning “Age of Sensibility” discouraged the often harsh and caustic tone of the Augustans, and satire was rendered gentler and more diffuse.

All this was laid down in stone in the mid-twentieth century, most notably by Ian Jack in his influential Augustan Satire: Intention and Idiom in English Poetry 1660–1750 (1952). This standard “story” of eighteenth-century satire has been followed religiously in university curricula on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. It is now being loudly challenged by a combative young academic named Ashley Marshall, who argues that such a narrative ignores the thousands of works from that same period that do not fit into its neat pattern. In her bold new study, The Practice of Satire in England, 1658–1770,[1] she goes on to point out radical and even irreconcilable differences between the great Augustans themselves.

In fact she disputes the whole idea of “Augustan satire,” not to mention the equally problematic “Restoration mode.” Non-canonical works such as John Dryden’s lewd farce The Kind Keeper, or topical political ephemera like Lord Blunder’s Confession, an anonymous satire on Robert Walpole, are just as much a part of their respective satirical milieux as Dryden’s more dignified endeavors or Swift’s and Gay’s better-known invectives against Walpole. “The argument of this book,” Marshall proclaims in her introduction, “is that if we are not reading the ‘hell-broth’ alongside the canonical masterworks, then we are misrepresenting the culture of satire in the eighteenth century. The scope and diversity of that culture is enormous, dauntingly complex and until now largely unknown: scholars rightly proclaim that this is the great age of satire and then overlook much of what makes it so spectacular.” Marshall herself has perused some 3,000 satiric works from the period, the majority of them topical and transitory pieces that have not been taken into account in the standard narrative: “satiric ballads, lampoons, formal verse satires, ballad operas, farce, mock journalism, cartoons and caricatures, and just about any other type of verbal or visual representation.” Such a task, she points out, might not have been possible for earlier scholars, as it is only since the Internet revolution that new resources like Early English Books Online, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, and the English Short Title Catalogue have revolutionized research possibilities. Scholars can now easily lay hands on riches that would previously have had to be hunted down with much effort.

And what riches they are! How tempting are obscure titles like the Earl of Rochester’s Seigneur Dildoe! Or David Garrick’s Shakespearean parody Ragandjaw, in spite of the fact that according to Marshall it “provides little more than sophomoric humor and coarse entertainment.” It makes us wonder which of our own topical satires will stand the test of a couple of hundred years. Perhaps as few as comprise the standard Restoration and Augustan canon; for of all the literary modes in existence, satire is the most “purposive,” to use academic jargon—the most dependent on events of the moment. South Park, screamingly funny now, will probably be incomprehensible to viewers a century hence, while some of Stephen Colbert’s apparently topical rants might prove to be for all time: his classic “Truthiness” episode is as universally applicable as some of the masterpieces of his spiritual forebear, Jonathan Swift. Dr. Strangelove, which would seem to be deeply inscribed in the context of Cold War paranoia, still speaks to us as strongly as ever and will probably do so for many decades to come. Scholars and common readers of the future will determine the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century canon, but it is probably safe to say that, as has been the case with the Augustans, the works that will last are those that deal with human nature itself rather than mere current events.

Perhaps satire is by its very nature so polymorphous that any attempt to impose a narrative on it is doomed. Marshall comments that the period between 1660 and 1770 contains an “unparalleled number of modes emerging, developing, and sometimes disappearing,” but the same could be said of our own era, with its plethora of new media and their attendant possibilities. Scholars attempt to classify, prune, and somehow tame the literary landscape, and with satire this process was attempted as early as 1693 by John Dryden, whose famous Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire traces the progress of satire from Horace, Juvenal, and Persius to his own day. But as Marshall rather brutally points out, even Dryden’s own work did not always conform to his classificatory scheme. “Modern scholars,” she writes, “often read Dryden’s most famous verse satires in terms of the high moral dictates outlined in the Discourse, whether they invoke that essay directly or not. The Discourse is the product of the 1690s, however, and its dictates have little connection to Carolean satiric practices—including Dryden’s.” During the reign of Charles II, whom he supported against his many enemies, Dryden could be not only partisan but crude; the canonical Mac Flecknoe might have lofty aims, but it is “a lampoon,” Marshall asserts, “and a vulgar one at that.” The equally respectable Absalom and Achitophel—how many generations of college students have snoozed over it!—is hostile, partisan, and meant to hurt.

Dryden’s partisanship won him Charles’s esteem, and he was awarded the posts of poet laureate and historiographer royal. His conversion to Catholicism ensured that he continued in royal favor during the reign of James II, but with the accession of the Protestant William and Mary he was thrown into defensive opposition. The result was that “Dryden’s satire in the reign of William is so far removed from his earlier work that it might have been written by a different man. To some extent it was: gone is the imposing poet laureate and self-assured believer in the status quo.”

As this tale demonstrates, the nature of satire in England changed with the change of monarchs, just as satire today changes with new presidential administrations. The Restoration literary culture, as is well known, was licentious and aristocratic, and much of its satire reflects these qualities; although Marshall claims not to be able to find a “Restoration mode” in the “wildly disparate group of Dryden, Rochester, and Buckingham,” she acknowledges common themes—Charles’s incessant womanizing, his neglect of political duties, and a widespread residual fear of Puritans and other religious dissenters—that persist in the satire of that period. Anti-Catholicism, too, was rife, particularly when Anglican paranoia and vengefulness ran rampant during the Exclusion Crisis and the Popish Plot. (Of the Carolean anti-Catholic satires the most tenacious has probably been Lilli burlero, with words by Thomas Wharton; its catchy melody is still the BBC World Service’s signature tune.) The three-year reign of James II (1685–8) and the Glorious Revolution that brought in William and Mary showed a marked shift in satiric concerns, and with the accession of Queen Anne in 1702 and the simultaneous birth of the daily newspaper that same year, the culture changed definitively.

Most Restoration satire had been written “by insiders for insiders” and was not intended for print or a wide readership. The advent of newspapers immediately created many new writers and readers, and satire ceased to be the exclusive business of the privileged and began spreading downward to the new middle class, giving early eighteenth-century satire a markedly different character from that of the Carolean period. But “Characterizations of ‘early eighteenth-century satire,’” Marshall asserts in her confrontational manner, “almost invariably derive from Gulliver’s Travels (1726), The Beggar’s Opera (1728), the first Dunciad (1728), and a few other works, mostly by Pope and Swift—which is precisely what I want to avoid. . . . The tendency to define satire, at least implicitly, as that which Pope and Swift practice is a bad idea.” Not to mention the fact that Pope and Swift were two very different types of satirist with different aims and techniques, for as Pope wrote to Swift, “I have not the courage . . . to be such a Satyrist as you, but I would be as much, or more, a Philosopher. You call your satires, Libels; I would rather call my satires, Epistles: They will consist more of morality than wit, and grow graver, which you will call duller.” Drawing from the correspondence between the two writers, Marshall states the obvious: “Pope is first and foremost an artist, Swift a sociopolitical warrior. . . . Pope broadens out; Swift zeroes in.”

Marshall also strenuously objects to the simplistic academic tendency to separate satirists into two camps, the sharp denouncers and the gentler didacts. “Some satirists are denunciatory and some didactic, but the material cannot be divided into Swift and Pope versus Addison and Steele,” she insists. The latter pair might indeed be harbingers of a new age of “Sensibility” that valued sincerity, good manners, and domestic harmony, but the boundaries between all these satirists’ intentions were more porous, she maintains, than is generally acknowledged, and she dislikes the idea of Augustan satire as essentially a negative enterprise: “Some satirists are indeed gloomy and some indignant, but a great many have a jolly good time. . . . This is at once a great age of abusive and cynical political satire and a period of transition toward increasingly sympathetic and human satire.”

If satire became gentler as the eighteenth century progressed, moving toward comic didacticism in the manner of Henry Fielding, perhaps it was because satirists had less to be angry about and less to fear. The Hanoverian dynasty appeared firmly in place, and however popular or unpopular it might have been, its very stability represented a major improvement over the turbulence of the previous hundred years. The Licensing Act of 1737, which in essence established a government censor over the stage, ended by softening dramatic fare in London, where satiric offerings began to tend toward either social commentary or lightweight entertainment. Fielding, now famous primarily as a novelist, was also a successful dramatist of the period, and in his best-known plays, The Tragedy of Tragedies, The Author’s Farce, Tom Thumb, and The Covent-Garden Tragedy, we get the sort of gentle, tolerant satire that would characterize Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. One of the satire scholars whose work Marshall frequently invokes, Ronald Paulson, points out that the vital difference between Fielding and his harsher contemporaries such as William Hogarth “is in the matter of rigorous consequences: Hogarth’s Tom Jones would have died of tertiary syphilis or at the very least suffered a clap.” Oliver Goldsmith (The Vicar of Wakefield, She Stoops to Conquer), a generation younger than Fielding, practiced a similar style of didactic comedy. But harsh satire, Marshall points out, was still alive and well. The plays of Goldsmith’s contemporary Richard Brinsley Sheridan, most notably The School for Scandal, project a much darker view of human nature than Goldsmith’s, and Charles Churchill, crony and collaborator of the renegade John Wilkes, was turning out his scurrilous work throughout the 1760s, while Samuel Foote—“the English Aristophanes”—specialized in crude personal satire in which as both author and star he cruelly imitated various well-known persons.

Marshall deplores the fact that discussions of satire within the academy have tended to ignore both the novel and the drama, since these genres seldom present “pure” satire. It is true that the aims of nuanced, realist fiction and those of pure satire are mutually exclusive: the former demands “round” characters, for one thing, while in satire characters tend to be flat, each representing some particular vice or folly. But only someone hopelessly mired in academic literalism could fail to see the comic novels of the eighteenth century as rich in satirical material. Tom Jones, Smollett’s Roderick Random, and, in a rather later period, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey may ultimately be novels rather than satires, but they contain some of the best satire in the language and should by no means be dismissed from studies of the subject. And Tristram Shandy is in a class by itself.

I have no doubt that Marshall’s bracing, assertive study will cause much talk in the academy and probably a lot of resistance as well. Will she succeed in upturning the venerable Ian Jack’s “Augustan satire” narrative? One can only hope, although—alas!—one doubts whether college students will ever be assigned Seigneur Dildoe as an alternative to Absalom and Achitophel. Nevertheless, Marshall’s self-assurance and erudition are impressive, her common sense is evident, and many of her contentions are unarguable. This study, along with the new online resources she describes, should open up broader vistas not just for the scholar but for the casual reader as well.

[1] THE PRACTICE OF SATIRE IN ENGLAND, 1658–1770, by Ashley Marshall. The Johns Hopkins University Press. $59.95.