Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


Graeme Stones and John Strachan, eds. Parodies of the Romantic Age. 5 vols. London, Pickering & Chatto, 1999. ISBN: 1851964754. Price: £395 (US$650).

  • Seamus Perry

…plus d’informations

  • Seamus Perry
    Glasgow University

Corps de l’article

This handsome and well-set edition is full of delights and information; but since it has a slightly unusual arrangement, I had better start with that before I pick some plums. It is, in effect, three books amalgamated. Volume one is an edition (by Graeme Stones) of the poetry (and some of the prose) of the Anti-Jacobin of 1797-8; volume three is an edition (by John Strachan) of Warreniana, an obscure volume of clever parodies by William Frederick Deacon, published in 1824; and volume five (also Strachan's work) is an annotated Rejected Addresses, a once famous book of parodies and skits by Peter Patmore (father of Coventry) first published in 1826. That leaves volumes two and three, which are more miscellaneous: the second is John Strachan's gathering of poetic parodies, and the third (mostly) Graeme Stones's of prose, which covers a wide field: excerpts from novels but much else (including a piece of blank verse). The edition has a heterogeneous quality, then, as though about several tasks at once; and editorial intensity varies too, appropriately. The first, fourth, and fifth volumes are full-blown scholarly texts, with sometimes every glancing allusion to the parodied text resourcefully tracked down and noted in the footnotes; while the second and third are well-chosen, amused, informed, readerly selections, in the grand tradition of a compiler like Dwight Macdonald (no higher praise from this reviewer).

Heterogeneity in this case proves more of a strength than a limitation, registering an open-mindedness to the intrinisic problems which is entirely wise. 'Parody', like 'romantic', is an unforgiving category, so the editors were facing a doubled-up problem when it came to devising a policy about what to include. No one fights much about romanticism any more, and the period here stretches forward to a Victorian spoof of Charlotte Brontë—a very good one, which I cannot suppose anyone will object to on principle. But the obscurities of parody are more testing, not least because the term has featured so prominently as a kind of norm of 'discourse' (which is to say, 'reality') in much attentively modernist and post-modernist theorising. The editors are suitably conscientious about the difficulties in their introductions and head-notes: Graeme Stones, particularly, in his 'General Introduction', makes refinements and enters some thoughtful discriminations. His approach in this lively and ranging essay is not especially historical: 'parody' (a very coherent-sounding abstract noun which he animates with habits and traits) seems something like a trans-historical impulse of the mind. Its 'disregard for originality' is counter-balanced by a 'disrespect for authority' that encompasses its own authority, so that 'parody' becomes the quality of those texts that view their own capacity to assert with an in-built suspicion: this sounds like parody-as-deconstruction; and connections made with Bakhtin and the meta-narrative novel tend to confirm that vigorously rhetorical account of the idiom. At the same time, of course, parodies importantly exist in relationship to pre-existing texts, with a temper (as the 'Introduction' puts it, nicely) of 'sympathy-in-difference', which draws Stones towards Bloom's revisionary ratios for a description of the parodic process; and they also often exist in relation to pressing historical circumstance. Now, I do not say that these descriptions are mutually exclusive; but they do each imply the critic looking in a different direction: within the parody for its own sceptical disposition, without the parody for its revisionary adroitness, or for the current situation upon which it is commentating. I agree, none of this is more than the old and irresolved tussle between text and context, which we might discover (less squarely faced than Stones does here) anywhere in literary criticism; but the theoretical point registers especially prominently in the double-conception of this edition, in a way which invites us to think about the way a parody might possess a lasting literary merit. The first, fourth, and fifth volumes, in one way and another, are hugely impressive works of contextual reconstruction: references to current affairs, personalities, scandals, jokes, are all marshalled round the texts, beautifully adduced in historical explication. Volumes two and three, on the other hand, which are selections made from a potentially enormous corpus, largely justify their contents by appeals to self-evident literary merit and readerly pleasure, often established in the editors' introductory notes by admissions of undisguised personal delight in the works' nimbleness and simple fun. That is immensely likeable. Under this permissive regime, all kinds of texts get in which would scarcely be thought parodic normally, chapter thirteen of Biographia Literaria, for instance; but in these volumes the editors, while scholarly as ever, are really exercising a different sort of textual art: the art of the anthologist. Works earn their place in this dispensation mostly because reading them proves their (relatively speaking) inherent pleasures: self-undoing wit, sprightly knowingness, cheerfully undeluded literariness.

Well, I am making heavy weather of this, but it does seem important that the heterogeneity in the edition somehow emulates a necessary heterogeneity in the afterlife of parody—the product of its especially intense experience of the double-existence endured by all literary works: at once the creature of their moment, and yet (if they are going to make it) somehow gifted with a life of their own. That last phrase, which has a positively period flavour, is adopted from one of the editors here, describing the invented poet Higgins, a butt of the Anti-Jacobin: a mixture of Darwin, Payne Knight, and whoever else displeased the fearsome threesome of Canning, Frere, and Gifford. In the 'Loves of the Triangles', which appears in issue XXIII, Higgins is brought 'suddenly into a life of his own' says Stones; and the impression is astute because it follows what the poetry is doing, or what it finds itself trying to do:

Such rich confusion charms the ravish'd sight,
When vernal Sabbaths to the Park invite.
Mounts the thick dust, the coaches crowd along,
Presses round the Grosvenor Gate th'impatient throng;
White-muslin'd misses and mammas are seen,
Link'd with gay Cockneys, glittering o'er the green:
The rising breeze unnumber'd charms displays,
And the right ancle strikes th'astonish'd gaze.

Jacobin-bashing is here temporarily lost to view, and we are for a moment in a world imagined for itself. The total effect is a coarser version of Gay or Pope, the anti-Jacobin poet discovering (as they discovered) an illicit kind of autonomous pleasure in scurrilous underworlds: kinds of experience that had only got into the poetry as objects of satire mysteriously free themselves, for a few lines, of their mock-heroic subordination. I must not overpraise the poem by comparing it to Pope; the effect is pretty muted, even in the best passages of 'Loves of the Triangles', which is always prone to return, deadeningly, to relevance, as though guiltily aware of its duties to history: 'Thus, happy France! In they regenerate land, / Where TASTE with RAPINE saunter hand in hand…'. But the masterpiece of the Anti-Jacobin parodies, The Rovers, is really quite free of such burdens, once the notional connection of German theatre and Jacobin politics has been safely established and the parodist freed for fun. Then attention turns to a series of dead-pan, excellently contrived jokes about theatrical artifice and convention, anticipating Beyond the Fringe or Stoppard's Inspector Hound:

Landlady: Have you carried the dinner to the prisoner in the vaults of the abbey?
Waiter: Yes.—Pease soup, as usual—with the scrag end of a neck of mutton—the emissary of the Count was here again this morning, and offered me a large sum of money if I would consent to poison him.

Or, this piece of macho aphoristic dialogue, which blissfully peters out into a kind of incompetent dead-end:

Beefington: Let us rescue him.
Casimere: Will without power, is like children playing at soldiers.
Beefington: Courage without power, is like a consumptive running footman.
Casimere: Courage without power is a contradiction.

If the run of the Anti-Jacobin shows, more or less, writing that incites historicism drifting into one that offers more simply literary amusements—a tied conception of parody drifting, surprised, into sorts of pleasure that are more autonomous— then that may well be because (as Stones notes) the political pressure was largely off by the time the last numbers appeared. Certainly, the more intently political verses in that periodical (particularly the rousing calls to arms, which Stones generously includes, though they are not parodic) are uniformly dreadful, and the angrily sardonic accounts of the merits of Jacobinism are not much better, quite lacking the complicating internal self-scrutiny that Stones evidently appreciates. The problem with them, you feel, is not that they are political, but that the politics are so stupid. I do not mean that it was stupid to dislike Robespierre or to suspect the likely implications of Godwinian philosophy (for what it is worth I think both very sensible courses of action); but that the kinds of quality we find in the greatest political verse, like Marvell's 'Horatian Ode' or Auden's 'Spain', are quite lacking in these bruisingly univocal assaults on the public sphere; and the specimens of Whig verse reproduced here suggest that it was no better. (Incidentally, Stones remarks in his introduction to the Anti-Jacobin that 'Literary genius on the political right is uncommon', which I must say struck me as dubious, without necessarily cheering the fact: would not this period alone offer Johnson, Burke, Austen, Scott? And, if recent revisionist criticism is to be believed, Wordsworth and Coleridge are implicitly Burkeans by the time of Lyrical Ballads too.)

The Anti-Jacobin is well-known of course, although it is good to have it edited as well as this. Volumes two and three are full of surprises and delights, and the editors' introductions shift their register subtly, even at times acquiring an almost belles lettres feel, which strikes exactly the right kind of note: 'The "Hampshire Farmer" from Rejected Addresses stumps up to the stage's apron with his boots and vocabulary as earthy as William Cobbett at his best', and so on. The range is immensely generous, possible partly because only fragments of texts have (as a rule) been chosen. Volume two has sections from Probationary Odes for the Laureateship (1785), Gifford's Baviad, Rejected Addresses, Hogg's Poetic Mirror, Whistlecraft, Beppo, Hood's Odes and Addresses, and Moore's Fudges in England; Reynolds's Peter Bell appears in full and Shelley's Peter Bell the Third in excerpt; there is a good scattering of individual poems, and Hone's The Political House that Jack Built is reproduced in facsimile. Volume three is yet more eclectic: there are bits of Gulliver Revived, Austen's Love and Friendship, Beckford's Azemia, Lewis's Castle Spectre, Hogg's The Spy, Peacock's Melincourt, and the White Knight from Alice Through the Looking Glass; some squib criticism from The Inquirer; pages from The Microcosm (the paper edited at Eton by Canning and Frere, and so forerunner of a kind to the Anti-Jacobin); a Bible-spoof from Blackwood's (in full); the celebrated thirteenth chapter from Biographia; the great mock-theological letter that Lamb angrily sent to Coleridge; one of Scott's riddlingly metatextual introductions to his novels; a large section from the account of Hone's famous defence against charges of blaspemous parody; and a piece from Henry Taylor's tragedy Edwin the Fair, a pretty plodding business (to judge by this specimen) and scarcely parodic at all, but included because it includes a disguised portrait of Coleridge.

That last example shows how encompassing the second and third volumes of this set are. Quibbling over the contents of an anthology is a tedious part of any review, and I will not go on here. I agree that Melincourt is a striking thing, but Mr Flosky in Nightmare Abbey seems to me a much shrewder parodic portrait of Coleridge; and the figure drawn by Taylor in his tragedy looks me my eyes only approximately (and not very interestingly) Coleridgean. But these are grumpy and minor points to be making. A slightly more substantial caveat one can imagine arising would wonder how precisely parodic Beppo is; and an initial reaction might be the feeling that it does not quite deserve its space (for space is limited and we can easily find it elsewhere). I think second thoughts prevail here, as elsewhere: placed next to its inspiration, Whistlecraft, (and not next to earlier Byron in a Complete Works) it looks a significantly different poem, and indeed rather more of an achievement than it does when overshadowed by the imminent magnificence of Don Juan; and the contrasts which the volumes' juxtapositions engineer (as, for example, that between Reynolds's 'Peter Bell' and 'Peter Bell the Third') consistently cast new light like this. (Hone's defence, incidentally, while sending up the pomposity of the court, is really more a disquisition upon parody, its history and form, than an exercise of it; but certainly warrants its place here.)

Nomenclature is a bore, but still, a lot of the material (in volume two) might be re-classified under an archaic title, 'light verse', and much (in volume three) called by an even deadlier sobriquet: 'humour'. Derogatory names to modern ears, no doubt; but the invention of these genres is one of the most striking features of the 'romantic' period. 'Light verse', which simply makes no sense in an Elizabethan or Augustan context, suddenly becomes a key part of the scene; and 'humour', with its facetious periphrasis, comic hyperbole, and sudden lurches into schmaltz (the mode which would eventually find its natural home in Punch) is also a peculiarly nineteenth-century phenomenon. ('Nonsense' is a slightly different creature, but obviously some kind of cousin.) We rarely send our students to read this kind of thing, and our principled attempts at canon-expansion are happier bringing in science and peasant poets, than extending the syllabus to Thomas Moore and the Round Circle of Fraser's; so it is an admirable impulse on the part of Stones and Strachan to include such texts here, even if it does stretch their title. (Strachan explains the decision to include 'generic burlesque' in his introduction to volume two.)

Widening the canon is a Good Thing, of course; but, as the late Tony Tanner once remarked in the Times Literary Supplement, a literary culture comes as much from forgetting what you do not need, as remembering what you do. It is an excellent thing to have all the forgotten texts here, but you are not so very surprised that some of them needed to be rescued. Light verse can be pretty tame, or tiresomely joshing, or disastrously droll: Maginn's 'Weep for my Tomcat! All ye Tabbies weep!' hits the note; as does Thackeray's 'Cabbages'. This hearty stab at L.E.L.'s 'Violets' establishes the kind of idiom to a tee:

Cabbages! bright green cabbages!
April's loveliest gifts, I guess.
There is not a plant in the garden laid,
Raised by the dung, dug by the spade,
None by the gardener watered, I ween,
So sweet as the cabbage, the cabbage green.

Thackeray's poem is not embroiled in current affairs—far from it—but it suffers from a kind of contextual over-dependency, just as the least permanently readable items in the Anti-Jacobin do. It has no reason to exist, really, without its L.E.L. original printed (as here) in parallel, for Thackeray follows it quite closely, putting in 'cabbages' for 'violets', on the 'Wouldn't it be funny if…?' principle. A poem like Catherine Fanshawe's dazzling parody of Wordsworth, on the other hand, in Strachan's excellent words, 'deftly blends the imitative with the aversive', indulging itself in brands of verbal imagination that quite exceed the requirements of mickey-taking or point-scoring:

And I have said, my little Will,
Why should not he continue still
A thing of Nature's rearing?
A thing beyond the world's control—
A living vegetable soul,—
No human sorrow fearing.

The way this registers the presence of Marvell ('My vegetable love') in the serious play of one brand of Wordsworthian lyricism, is simply brilliant; the attention to Wordsworth's use of 'thing' inspired; the emulation of a perversely genuine concern in the falling feminine rhyme perfectly caught. It is as good as parody as Henry Reed's 'Chard Whitlow', lines of which Eliot admitted he could not, at times, believe he had not written himself.

Wordsworth (like Eliot) is an interesting case because he secretly anticipates the parodists he attracts: one reason why he is so relentlessly parodied might be that his own genius feels something like parody already, which is why the Fanshawe poem falls somewhere between parody and parallel creation. The anonymous 1819 skit on 'Benjamin the Waggoner', included in full here and new to me, hits all the right notes of Wordsworthian infantilism ('I have a little boy and girl, / I have a little girl and boy: / The girl is twenty months—no more; / The boy's he's less—he's only four; / But he's his mother's joy'), but in that mode Wordsworth good-humouredly meets the parodist more than halfway already. Other poems show how difficult he really can be, in his blank verse especially, when the humour is almost completely subterranean. Then the one thing you must not do is imagine him a simpler fellow than he is, or it is you who looks flat-footed:

The book's half ended, and I'm well pleased,
Not with the book exclusively—but that
It is half ended—and unwieldly volume,
Like other ponderous thing, is wearisome,
And this book seems heavy in more ways than one …

This, 'On Reading Wordsworth's "Excursion"' by Samuel Smith (a real find), is subtitled 'Written after the Manner of that Author', which is precisely what it is not: a sort of laid-back Cowper, maybe, or slack Browning, but anyway not Wordsworth. Even Hogg in The Poetic Mirror, which is much more brilliantly attuned to Wordsworthian oddness, finds it difficult to out-parody the secretly oddball life of registers in Wordsworth's intensely individual verse. He is expert at emulating Wordsworth's attentive poetry of the eye. The stuff outside the brackets in this next passage is just jolly fustian, but you might be hard put to tell the cadence of what is inside from a genuine bit of adequate plain Wordsworth:

He cast his eyes to east, and west, and north,
But, nothing save the rocks, and trees, and walls,
(Of gray stones built, and cover'd on the top
Sheep-fold-wise, with a cope of splinter'd flags,
That half-diverging stood upon their edge
And half-reclining lay) came in the range
Of his discernment—

That the subject of parody might itself be already someway towards 'parody' in a more comprehensive sense is one of the positions Stones raises in his 'General Introduction', which makes you wonder whether (for instance) speaking of Southey's 'vulnerability' to parodists strikes quite the right note. It was Grigson who said, long ago, that the poems of Southey which the Anti-Jacobin found so risible were tacitly highly amused by themselves: as elsewhere in this capacious pages, you wonder whom exactly the joke is on.

The final volumes are especially beautifully edited, with original page numbers noted throughout, and will be valuable additions to any serious library shelf. Their contents perhaps lack the readier, self-evident pleasures of the middle volumes. The first impression of Warreniana is especially hard to re-evoke, as it largely relies on a series of once famous advertisements for Warren's blacking, which it then re-runs through the imagined voices of the major poets of the day. It is, in that sense, a one-joke book; but the parodies themselves are extremely adept. Almost as enjoyable is Strachan's admirable and absorbing introduction, which pieces together the history and reproduces many of the relevant advertisements, in what is a model piece of archival scholarship. The Coleridge parody might suggest how parodic intent and the donné of the collection come into some conflict. The poem is funny, but by this stage it has drifted some way from Coleridge:

Proudly he strode to his palace gate,
Which the witch and the Warren approached in state,
But paused at the threshold as onward they came,
And thus, with words of fever and flame,
The tradesman addressed, 'Your name, Sir, is known
As a vender of sables wide over the town;
But in hell with proviso this priase we must mix,
For though brilliant your blacking, the water of Styx
Is blacker by far, and can throw, as it suits,
A handsomer gloss o'er our shoes and our boots.'

The book's spirits are jolly and festive, and the degree of invention extremely impressive and consistent; it is a noble act of scholarly resurrection. Patmore's parodies were never so obscure, and some of them at least clearly deserved their celebrity. The skit on Elia, especially, seems very sharp, exactly catching the blend of subdued antipathy and pining domesticity: 'I hate all Steam, and all that it can do, except when it comes singing its soft sweet tune, from out the mouth of a half bright, half black tea-kettle, on a December evening fire'. (The only better parody I have come across is in the 'Oxen of the Sun' chapter in Ulysses.) The best of Rejected Addresses, though, to my mind, is the Hazlitt spoof (Patmore was a friend of Hazlitt), which astutely hits off the habits—the simplifyingly over-assertive antithesis, the piled-up reiterations in parallel, the dropped quotation, the mock-modesty of a professional plain man:

In regard to Mr Hazlitt's writings, this one distinguishing quality is the unrivalled power which they display of looking into the hidden truth of things. He pierces the depths of human life, and 'plucks out the heart of their mystery.' His pen is like Ithuriel's spear; whatever it touches starts up before us in its naked truth. If you are afraid to hear the truth you must not listen to him; for it will out, whatever may be the consequences. And this even when the turth in question is a personal one. But when it is an abstract truth that he happens to hit upon, away at once with love and jealousy! out it must come, even though it should blacken his dearest friend or brighten his bitterest foe; for the truth is to him—the truth.

It is a terrific gathering of works, a pleasure to read, and full of scholarship and good humour, and everyone should have a set—failing which, they should persuade their friendliest local library to buy one.