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Jane Austen, Peacock, Thackeray, Beaconsfield, may, after all, be left to speak for themselves without this adventitious aid of snippets.
Again, with a view to saving space for pieces more generally interesting and more genuinely amusing, I have been as sparing as possible in my selections from authors who require to be read dictionary in hand. "I have aimed merely at giving extracts representative of the early English school, not of each early English satirist.
As to the Introduction, I have tried to give a bird's-eye view rather than an exhaustive account or a dull and confusing systematized classification of our satirists, and, whilst noting what seem to me the distinguishing characteristics of them, I have tried, also, in dealing with so many writers in so short a space, to avoid the perhaps unavoidable dulness of a catalogue.
It remains to remind the reader that my criticisms deal almost exclusively with the satirical work-in many cases but a small part of the whole-of the writers reviewed.
4, SMITH SQUARE,
T is useful, in considering a subject of so large
and so vague a character as satiric writing, to
attempt a definition of it. A definition is always the best introduction to a discussion. But satire is so elastic a term-it is used to denote a form of literature which at one time includes, and at another excludes, so many different elements-that it is impossible to define it accurately.
Satire may be frankly personal, with no other object than that of private revenge, or professedly general, with the avowed object of improving public morals. For all satire is not moral, any more than all moralizing is satire. Though we are apt to look for an air of moral superiority and of moral intention in the satirists, we do not always find these qualities. Wit, humour, sarcasm, irony, invective, ridicule, burlesque—all these find a place in satiric writing, but it is difficult to determine how far any one of them is necessary to this species of literature; so that it is perhaps best to be content with saying that satirical writers are the censorious critics of life, literature, and manners-critics, in fact, of everything and of everybody except themselves—and that they use one or more of the above-mentioned weapons. Satire itself, it will then follow, is a matter of critical intelligence. It is founded on intellect and wit rather than on imagination; but when wit and intellect are combined with the creative faculty, there we find the most effective, because the most pleasing, the most ironic, and the most subtle form of satire.
This kind of composition will naturally be most popular, and attract the greatest writers during those periods of literature when men's thoughts turn from the passions to politics, from sentiment to a study of social phenomena; when, in fact, the critical predominates over the imaginative faculty. The triumph of reason and the stir of politics at the time of the Reformation are reflected in the writings of Skelton, and a hundred years later an age of argument and criticism finds expression in such writers as Marvell, Butler, Dryden, Swift, Pope, and Addison.
From the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century all the world wrote satires, whether against satirists, politics, brandy, coffee, or man.
The reaction in favour of the romantic type of literature begun by Thomson and others, encouraged by Bishop Percy, and established by Sir Walter Scott, left little room for cold and clear-cut criticism, as it had been formulated in the classical satires of Pope. But in an advancing civilization the occasion of satire can never wholly be wanting. Byron, Peacock, Beaconsfield, Carlyle, Thackeray, all modu. lated in different keys on the scale of satire, which criticises or condemns the existing state of literature, society and politics. Till we are all Houyhnhnms,
1 Vide the collections of Poems relating to State Affairs.
till the millennium has arrived, when vice and affectation have vanished off the face of the earth, there will always be scope for the satirist. Dum civitas erit, judicia fient, is true in more ways than one. Law cannot deal with the offences of bad taste. Satire was introduced into the world to supply the defects of law. The satirist should be the watchdog of society. This is the ideal. But we have to admit that the modes of satire are as various as the motives of satirists. The motive may be the pleasure of laughing in a corner, of reforming mankind, of making a hit, or of taking revenge. The mode may be that of denunciation, of irony, or, most useful and least offensive, that which, instead of lashing, laughs men out of their follies and vices. Of all these we shall find in the present review examples that will bear comparison with any that the literature of Greece or Rome or France can afford.
Up to the middle of the fourteenth century the English satirical spirit expressed itself in the form of Latin verse, or of imitation and translation of the prevailing French models. Popular ballads, satirical and political lays there were, dealing with the evils that provoked the Lancastrian Revolution ; but as poems these have little but an antiquarian
1 Cicero, pro Sex. Rossio. 2 Hor., Sat. II. i. 85: Si quis opprobriis dignum latraverit. 3 Swift, Intelligencer, No. III.
4 E. g., Apocalypsis Goliæ, and the various poems attributed to Walter Mapes.
6 E.g., ‘The Land of Cockayne.'
6 This country has always at periods of excitement been prolific in the production of political squibs, ' libels,' lampoons. I must refer the curious reader to Mr. Wright's collections of political poems. Among the chief writers of these ballad-satires in later days may be mentioned Cleveland, Brome, Buckingham, Rochester, Dorset, Congreve, Swift, Gay, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, Wolcot and the writers in the Anti-Jacobin, Hook, Moore and Burns.
interest, and as satires they are sufficiently illustrated by the extracts given from them and from Langland.
William Langland, the author of 'The Vision of Piers the Plowman,' may claim to be the first great English satirist, and he has the additional interest of being almost the last writer to compose in that native, unrhymed, alliterative verse which his contemporary Chaucer was sending for ever out of fashion. Chaucer himself, who had learned to handle his weapons by translating the Roman de la Rose,' wrote, incidentally, brilliant satire, with that sly but genial humour and keen observation which are his. But he wrote it as a poet and a realist, as a transcriber of life, a teller of tales.
His stories are not written with a didactic purpose, but they occasionally give rise to ironical descriptions. In his ‘Sir Thopas' he anticipated that sphere of literary criticism in which so much satire has since been centred; whilst, in his carefully-studied portraits of men and manners, he may be said to have foreshadowed the methods of the poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The humorous realism with which in the 'Canterbury Tales' he delineates men as he saw them, instead of mere abstract virtues and vices in the allegorical fashion of the day, shows how great a satirist he might have been if he had had any motive for devoting himself to satire ; if, in place of a largehearted interest in men as they were, he had been possessed of a burning zeal to improve them.
Chaucer, however, only grew didactic in his decline. Otherwise, he lacked the moral purpose which we look for in the deliberate satirist. This purpose inspired Langland as truly as it inspired Wycliffe.
1 Professor Courthope's 'History of English Poetry,' vol. i.