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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 15, août 1999

Romantic Parody

Sous la direction de John Strachan

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005863ar

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Article

Satirising the Courtly Woman and Defending the Domestic Woman: Mock Epics and Women Poets in the Romantic Age

Adeline Johns-Putra

Monash University


1

The burlesque achieves its satirical power through an "incongruity between style and subject". [1] More specifically, the burlesque that is mock epic, sometimes identified as high burlesque, exploits the discrepancy between the elevation of its style and the triviality of its subject. [2] The technique of mockery through deflation in the mock epic's high burlesque has been a popular means with which to carry out socio-political satire, for it is a way, as C. E. Vulliamy once remarked, of "putting down the mighty". [3] Such 'putting down' may occur in either the Horatian or Juvenalian modes, that is, it may be, at its roots, either good-naturedly tolerant or seriously condemnatory. Gilbert Highet's Anatomy of Satire distinguishes the Horatian burlesque from the Juvenalian according to a contrast between "optimist" and "misanthropist" outlooks respectively. [4] Interestingly, Highet also suggests that the Juvenalian mode is peculiarly masculine, the form's predilection for contempt and derision being absent among "Women, … with their kind hearts", and, thus, "very few of them have ever written, or even enjoyed, satire". [5]

2

What happens, then, when women attempt the Juvenalian mock epic, when they assume the task of deflating, ridiculing, and judging, a task that is unfeminine not just because it requires 'unkindness' but because it implies moral supremacy? I propose to examine two little known mock epics by women of the Romantic age. Elizabeth Ryves's The Hastiniad (1785) is a pro-Whig burlesque in the manner of the notable Whig satirist John Wolcot, while Lady Anne Hamilton's The Epics of the Ton (1807) appeared as a defence of the Princess of Wales in the aftermath of the Delicate Investigation of 1806 into charges of adultery against the Princess. Not only are these poems little known examples of mock epic poetry of the Romantic age, the true gender of their authors has only recently been acknowledged. [6] Significantly, neither of these poems has received any detailed literary criticism in recent discussions of female Romantic poets, although they yield no small insight into the age's perceptions of women. They raise questions of gender and genre, and reveal something of the clash between courtly culture and the cult of domesticity that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. Finally, a look at a third mock epic, The Mousiad (1787), by the pseudonymous Polly Pindar, paying particular attention to its use of a female pseudonym, is intended to shed further light on the issue of gender as it relates to the genre of the mock epic in the Romantic age.

I

3

The idea of the female mock epic poet raises a host of possibilities. First, it suggests that obstacles to adopting an authoritative position would have had to be overcome by any woman who attempted the mock epic. Certainly, both The Hastiniad (1785) and The Epics of the Ton (1807) were published anonymously. Indeed, Hamilton not only remained anonymous but subtly implied, in the second edition of her poem, that she was male. She plays up the issue of the poet's hidden identity in her preface. Acknowledging that "It is pleasing to know the name of an Author, and doubly gratifying to learn his private history", Hamilton pretends that her publisher has attempted to discover this name by procuring expert advice on "the styles of all men that have written, or that may write". Thus, Hamilton allows readers to take for granted that the poet is a man and to turn their attention instead to the question of just which man he may be. Such active concealment of gender would seem to confirm the idea that females were reluctant to assume openly the position of Juvenalian satirist, because of its connotations of acerbity, cynicism, and, consequently for a woman, indelicacy. Hamilton's and Ryves's anonymity signals a tactic to overcome such restrictions, suggesting a kind of backdoor entry to what was apparently an exclusive club.

4

The idea of women writing mock epics yields a second prospect, and a more tantalising one at that, of such women assuming the satirist's position in order to construct radical and subversive feminist critiques of reigning social norms. However, although a cursory examination of Ryves's and Hamilton's work raises the possibility of proto-feminist tendencies, a closer analysis problematises such a reading.

5

Certainly, both poems explicitly challenge the dominant political and social paradigms of their day, for Ryves and Hamilton launch stinging attacks on the government and the aristocracy respectively. Ryves's poem deals with Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India, who at the time of the poem's appearance had just returned to England to face an impeachment trial over alleged abuses of office. The poem is concerned mainly with describing the return of Mrs. Hastings to England, in which context the poet attacks the couple's extravagant lifestyle and implicates William Pitt the Younger, as Prime Minister, in supporting Hastings's excesses. This provides an opportunity for pointed critiques of British imperialism as exploitative and corrupt. The wealth displayed by Mrs. Hastings is described as the "Rich spoils of many a ransack'd clime" (p. 10), the "spoils or bribes / Of ravag'd India's royal tribes" (p. 11), and the "wealth of Ind's impoverish'd shores" (p. 16). Ryves laments the plight of the exploited Indian rulers, forced into parting with their personal fortunes under the threat of military invasion, "Proud stubborn tribes" who "from the scourge of war to save / Their country, they their treasure gave" (p. 11). Such desperate patriotism Ryves celebrates and identifies as a specifically non-European trait, in an apostrophe to the native rulers of India:

Oh, glorious Chiefs! what northern sphere

Shall e'er such gen'rous Kings revere

As you, with patriot love replete,

Who pour'd your stores at Hasting's [sic] feet?

p. 11

In doing so, Ryves contrasts the colonialist greed of Europeans with the pure motivations of Indians, thus producing a sympathy with those who are exploited and marginalised, a position that is consistent, it would seem, with her gender.

6

Hamilton's poem, meanwhile, exposes the hypocrisy, immorality, greed and incompetence of the ton, the demi monde of the royal court. In the poem's two books, "The Female Book" and "The Male Book" (which form the plural 'epics' of the title), she carries out character assassinations of various women and men of high society: ladies and lords, royal mistresses and politicians. At significant points in this litany, a more specific, and more elevated, target is revealed, that of the Prince of Wales and his dissipated, adulterous lifestyle. Thus, the first victim in "The Female Book" is Mrs. Fitzherbert, a woman rumoured to be the Prince's first wife and described in this poem as "the first of r-y-l———", or 'royal whores' (i, 65). [7] In this context, Hamilton's lengthy footnote decrying the supposedly Continental practice of keeping royal mistresses is really a pointed commentary on debauchery in England and in particular on the Prince himself. "How blind are princes," laments Hamilton, "how criminal, when they endanger their own destruction, and the good order, virtue, and happiness of their people, for such sensual gratifications as would appear despicable in the lowest debauchee!" (note to i, 66). In addition, the last subject in "The Female Book" and almost the only person to escape insult of any kind is Caroline, the Princess of Wales, whom Hamilton addresses as a virtuous wife suffering under the tyranny of a cruel and unfaithful husband:

…he who vow'd thy weakness to defend,

In joy thy partner, and in grief thy friend.

To other cares, to other pleasures fled,

Deserting thine to share another's bed,

Mock'd at thy woes, and scoffing at thy pain,

Had joy'd to hear thy heart had burst in twain…

i, 1227-1232

In short, Hamilton launches a bold offensive at the highest levels of fashionable society and, indeed, at its foremost member, the Prince of Wales. Significantly, she attacks him for actions that, though conventionally reserved for royal men, are presented by her as cruel and intolerable. Thus, Hamilton appears to sustain her attack across both class and gender, challenging the privileges of both royalty and masculinity.

7

Yet, having established a case for reading Hamilton and Ryves as potentially radical feminists, I would argue that such a hypothesis, as promising or appealing as it may be, is not borne out by an inspection of the historical and political contexts of their work. A closer look at both the poems and what little is known of the poets problematises such readings. Though their socio-political critiques establish them as strong and outspoken women, neither poet may be portrayed as a simple proto-feminist, for each possesses political or personal loyalties above and beyond an isolated concern about the rights of marginalised groups such as women. Ryves, for example, more than just a sympathiser of the Indians, was a consistently pro-Whig poet. [8] Her poem was one of many offensives in the pamphlet war that surrounded Hastings's impeachment. [9] One of the major objectives of the poem, it would seem, was to damage the reputation of the Tories by casting aspersions on Pitt's association with Hastings, for the first canto climaxes in a meeting between Mrs. Hastings and Pitt in which she procures his support. The political motivations behind this scene are obvious, in particular when considered in the light of historical evidence that Pitt's association with Hastings was relatively harmless and tenuous, but was deliberately misrepresented by the Whigs. [10] At the end of this canto, Ryves is unabashed about her partiality to the Whigs under Fox's leadership, noting how "in F-x's head-strong band, / The noblest sons of Britain stand" (p. 20). Next, she lays the responsibility for imperialist greed and corruption squarely with Pitt and his government, ending the canto with her most damning version of Britain's exploitation of Indians, a speech mouthed by Pitt:

"From India's unexhausted store,

We'll draw the golden nerves of war;

Then shall their factious legions feel,

The force of Fortune's adverse wheel;

While tax on tax their coffers drain,

Enriching those who forg'd their chain.

Then shall triumphant Hastings stand,

With pow'r, with honours at command;

Trampling the neck of each bold slave,

Who dares him to the ordeal brave.…"

pp. 20-21

Finally, Ryves's depiction of the encounter contains imputations of bribery and of sexual favour that render the whole affair especially sordid. Ryves first hints, through ambiguous syntax, that Mrs. Hastings is attempting to bribe Pitt. She depicts how Mrs. Hastings shows off a range of exotic and extravagant items to Pitt as being "To thy auspicious influence due" (p. 18). This implies not only that Mrs. Hastings's acquisition of wealth is due to Pitt's help, but that the items are the due, that is, the reward, for this support. In other words, Ryves suggests that Pitt benefitted handsomely from helping Hastings. In addition to this, Ryves subtly sexualises the encounter, as when she describes Pitt's progress from room to ante-room and finally through to Mrs. Hastings's chamber, where a sexual subtext culminates in Pitt's entry through the parting doors:

At length thro' many a chamber past,

The ante-room receives at last

Th' illustrious guest; and opening spread

The doors which to the closet led.

p. 16

More explicit is Ryves's comparison of Pitt's audience with Mrs. Hastings to an Eastern prince wooing a fairy queen, "led by Fays at midnight hour / To view their Queen's resplendent bower" (p. 16). This, coupled with the persistent references to Mrs. Hastings's body, as when she "gracious deigns her form to bend" (p. 17) and when "high her breast, / The rapture heaving soul confest" (p. 18), designate Mrs. Hastings as an object of male attention and Pitt as her lovestruck gazer, and further impute an air of seduction and favour to the affair. In criticising Hastings and slandering Pitt, then, it would seem that Ryves was carrying out a pro-Whig attempt to damage the reputations of both men, as well as that of Mrs. Hastings. Indeed, in doing so, she aligns her poem with the sexual slander of other Whiggish satires, such as the Probationary Odes for the Laureateship (1785) by George Ellis and others, which accused Pitt of homosexuality. [11]

8

Hamilton, similarly, is compelled by more than a general concern with reform and women's rights. Though she was connected with the Radicals through her brother (and was possibly one herself), the motivation behind her poem is profoundly personal rather than political. [12] She was a member of the royal court and served as lady-in-waiting to Princess Caroline from 1812 to 1814, when Caroline left for the Continent, and again when Caroline returned in 1820 and died a year later. [13] Hamilton appears to have exhibited an unwanted and interfering curiosity in the Princess's affairs while displaying a loyal devotion to her, for Caroline is reported to have disliked her "love of meddling, prying and managing and a want of tact" in the early days of Hamilton's service, but to have later recorded her deep gratitude to Hamilton for being the only one of her former ladies to return to her aid. [14] Although the poem may be read as an attack on behalf not just of the Princess but of all injured wives, it appears that a defence of Caroline qua Caroline is Hamilton's primary objective. The poem itself was published after the Delicate Investigation of 1806 into allegations of the Princess's adultery which, though subsequently abandoned, greatly damaged the Princess's standing in the royal family. [15] Hamilton's poem, then, attempts to turn the tables on the aristocratic elite who had ostracised Caroline, first accusing them of impropriety and then lionising Caroline's guiltlessness. She contrasts the immorality of the beau monde with the quiet virtuousness of Caroline's circle. Thus, her descriptions, for example, of the Countess of Derby's marrying for money (i, 354-82) and of Lady Cloncurry's infidelity (i, 1105-33) bring into relief her tributes to Caroline's modesty, in the course of which Hamilton explicitly defends the Princess from charges of adultery:

Or let thy censor to thy court repair,

He'll find no rampant vices foster'd there;

No lewd debauch the nightly vigil keep,

No Sunday revels make the pious weep.

No husband's feelings there th' adult'ress shocks,

And bravely gay his shame and anguish mocks…

i, 1178-83

Furthermore, Hamilton's diatribe against the Prince of Wales, once it is recognised as a pointed defence of Caroline, is not necessarily part of a more general feminist or anti-male stance. It is, indeed, specifically directed at Caroline's antagonists, and implicates along with the Prince not other men but another woman—the Queen. Hamilton would have been well aware that Caroline received no sympathy from her mother-in-law, who openly preferred her son's mistress. [16] Indeed, in a much later work attributed to Hamilton, entitled A Secret History of the Court of England (1832), Queen Charlotte is directly accused of having masterminded the adultery charges and turned the entire royal family against Caroline. [17] In her poem, then, Hamilton hints at the Queen's coldness, lamenting that Caroline had vainly sought comfort from an unnamed parental figure, presumably the Queen, that the Princess was "led by nature's counsel to impart / Thy secret sorrows to a parent's heart / To find this wretched solace ev'n denied, / The seal of honour broke, its laws defied" (i, 1225-26). In the context of Caroline's, and probably Hamilton's, antipathy to the Queen, a tribute to the Queen near the beginning of the poem may be read instead as circumspect praise for Caroline. Although the poet addresses "Britain's Queen" (i, 95), beseeching her to "accept the tribute due / To Virtue, Honour, Modesty, and You" (i, 95-96), the lines that immediately follow this render the true object of praise ambiguous:

Though this loose age, by French example wise,

The sacred rites of wedded love despise;

Though matrons shine, when lost their honest name,

And with th' adult'rer proudly flaunts the dame;

Yet her I honour to whose single court,

Chaste maids may still without a blush resort;

Even if the lewd should come, they come unknown,

And Vice itself must here its name disown.

i, 97-104

Here, the pointed emphasis of "her" implies contrast, bearing a cataphoric, rather than anaphoric, meaning that suggests that the poet is actually praising another lady. The identity of that other lady becomes unmistakable with the mention of a "single court", considering what was known of Caroline's retired and solitary lifestyle. [18] The reference to adultery and an open acceptance of mistresses further recalls Queen Charlotte's complicity in her son's extra-marital affairs. The "tribute" which the poet is offering to the Queen, then, is a mock tribute, in line with the poem's status as mock epic, for it conceals a subtle critique of the Queen's treatment of Caroline. Hamilton's poem, in short, is a representation of Caroline's interests and an attack on her antagonists, from the collective enemy of the ton to the villains who are her husband and her mother-in-law.

9

It is further possible to align these ostensibly satirical and subversive poems with the domestic ideology of the times, for they are disproportionately critical of women who fail to display virtuous or modest behaviour. The centering of these critiques of aristocracy and extravagance on women is unsurprising, considering that heightened interest in the domestic woman, as Gary Kelly has suggested, occurred largely in opposition to the figure of the "courtly woman", who signified "the court system of intrigue and patronage, in which women used their sexual desirability and erotic skills to achieve power not available to them by 'legitimate means'". [19] The rise of the domestic woman in the late eighteenth century has been chronicled by Nancy Armstrong, who has demonstrated that separate spheres ideology was perpetuated in conduct-book literature and domestic fiction not just by men but by women, as a way of wresting for themselves a degree of authority, albeit a limited one. [20] The sphere over which domestic woman presided may have been restrictive and removed, but responsibility for it was at least equal and complementary to the powers of the public sphere which were her husband's. [21] Mitzi Myers has also shown, through the writings of Hannah More, just how domestic ideology could be read as a programme for female empowerment rather than for female subordination. [22] Myers's study of More discusses her domestic ideology as a project of "female domestic heroism", a project which More shares, indeed, with her more famous and radically feminist counterpart, Mary Wollstonecraft. [23]

10

The mock epics of Ryves and Hamilton, then, may be read as attacks on the courtly woman, if not as outright defences of the domestic woman. It is too readily apparent, for example, that Mrs. Hastings, not Warren Hastings, is the protagonist of Ryves's Hastiniad. As one reviewer noted with surprise, "Mr. (or rather Mrs.) Hastings, is the subject". [24] Ryves's criticism consists primarily of sarcastic descriptions of the grandeur of Mrs. Hastings's arrival in England, pointedly suggesting just how little deserved it is. Mrs. Hastings is, for instance, met with a gun-salute "Which Kings and Heroes only greet" (p. 12). She travels to London in "splendour that with Crowns contends" (p. 14) and appears "High tow'ring with Imperial mien, / In Britain's court a sister Queen" (p. 14). The apparently luxurious Newbury Inn, which has pleased "many a princely guest" (p. 12) is not enough for the exacting standards of Mrs. Hastings:

Yet, for the Dame 'tis all too vile,

(Hastings, though in a northern isle,

Must find, where'er she turns her eyes,

The splendour of the Indies rise. …)

p. 12

Furthermore, Mrs. Hastings herself is the perpetrator of the bribery that takes place between Hastings and Pitt. In short, though, as we have seen, all this is part of a censure of Pitt and the Tories as well, the primary target is clearly Mrs. Hastings. It is Mrs. Hastings, after all, who is the heroine of the mock epic, identified by Ryves as a "Heroine [who] hastes from Indian climes" and who is the "bright subject" of Ryves's "Epic lyre" (p. 7). That Ryves vilifies not Warren Hastings but his wife is significant for, in doing so, she correlates the extravagance and corruption of the Hastings administration in India to Mrs. Hastings's over-spending and scheming. It would seem, then, that Mrs. Hastings is being admonished for violating womanly conduct on at least two counts—manipulating her husband and showing a desperate ineptitude in what moralists such as More designated as that most vital of female arts, domestic "oeconomy". [25] In short, she is too much of a courtly woman and not enough of a domestic woman.

11

Just as significant are the accusations of unfeminine behaviour and domestic neglect levelled at women in Hamilton's poem. There can be no more apt emblem for Hamilton's support of the doctrine of separate spheres than her segregation of women and men in the two books of her poem. Hamilton makes a sharp distinction between what constitutes impropriety for each sex, for, while her "Male Book" mainly rebukes politicians for their professional incompetence, her "Female Book" inveighs against various ladies of society for immodest and indelicate behaviour. Although the unstated objective of the poem is to highlight the adulterous behaviour of the Prince of Wales, the Prince does not appear in "The Male Book" and references to his infidelity, indirect and discreet, appear only in "The Female Book" when Mrs. Fitzherbert and the Princess are discussed. Thus, impropriety for Hamilton, even when perpetrated by men, occurs primarily in relation to women.

12

Hamilton is expressly concerned with perpetuating a domestic ideology of female behaviour. She censures women for a range of serious transgressions and minor peccadilloes, from adultery to card-playing, gambling to match-making, and, significantly, she is especially disdainful of women who neglect domestic interests for intellectual pursuits. Hamilton, conveniently relying on her masculine persona, derides such women by labelling them sexually undesirable, foisting on them the familiar correlation of sexlessness and female intellectualism:

Go on, ye fair! your learned course pursue,

And do as nature's impulse bids ye do;

May fate your labour's crown, make famed your life:

Nay, make you any thing—if not my wife.

i, 514-17

Abandoning her satirical tone in her footnote, Hamilton declaims in seriousness on the need for women to acquire domestic skills, complaining that "ladies of fashion, in the present day, are almost as much unacquainted with the use of their needle, as with baking of bread, cooking of dinner, and weaving of broad cloth" (note to i, 445) and introducing the positive example of the highly educated Lady Jane Grey, who, "in pursuit of these extraordinary acquisitions, … did not fall into any neglect of those useful and ornamental arts, which are peculiarly desirable in the female sex. The delicacy of her taste was displayed in a variety of needle-works, and even in the beauty and regularity of her hand-writing." (note to i, 455). Hamilton, in short, reiterates an important prerequisite for female learning, according to domestic ideology—that home duties are never neglected.

13

This excessive regard for domestic and feminine accomplishments comes to a head in Hamilton's tribute to Caroline. Hamilton, coming down as she does on the side of domestic ideology, works hard to absolve the Princess of any courtly attributes and to place her squarely in the role of domestic woman. The Princess is praised for devoting herself to motherhood and leading a retired life; in short, she is nothing like the women who precede her in the poem. Hamilton invites potential critics, personified by an imaginary future "censor" (i, 1188) to:

…view her private life,

Attend the mother, and observe the wife:

Here duty, honours, temp'rate virtues shed

Their verdant wreathes around a fruitful bed;

A happy husband feels her cares bestow

Domestic joys which monarchs rarely know…

i, 1188-93

Here, Hamilton paints Caroline as a loyal wife and the Prince as a husband who should be "happy", or pleased, with her domestic virtues, but is instead happily, or blissfully, ignorant of them. Caroline, moreover, is well aware of her place in the domestic sphere and shows no interest in the very public matters of state. Addressing Caroline directly, Hamilton imagines the hypothetical future censor looking back at Caroline's affairs and finding nothing with which to impugn her:

No whisp'ring plots, or fraudful arts he'll find

By thee to mar a people's peace design'd;

No private ends pursued by black intrigues,

Won by pernicious war, or perjur'd leagues;

With bold deceits that misbecome thy sex,

Thou ne'er wer't known the statesman to perplex;

To shake the court, to sheath or draw the sword,

Confound the council, and disgrace thy lord.

i, 1159-66

The Queen, in contrast, is guilty of precisely the social and political machinations of which Caroline is innocent. In A Secret History, the portrayal of events in and leading up to 1807—the date of the poem's publication—places the Queen at the head of an elaborate conspiracy to damage Caroline's reputation, as well as in a scheme, in collusion with Pitt, to use the pretext of war to over-tax the people "and keep a gorgeous appearance at court" (p. 50). Thus, the "power to act" (p. 16, original emphasis) that belonged rightfully to the King, was "in possession of his Queen and other crafty and designing persons, to whose opinions and determinations he had become a perfect slave" (pp. 16-17). For overstepping the boundaries of female propriety and usurping her husband's place, the Queen is labelled "one of the most selfish, vindictive, and tyrannical women that ever disgraced human nature" (p. 10). The Queen, then, is a courtly woman; Caroline, on the other hand, home-loving, decorous and uninterested in politics, is the ideal domestic woman.

14

These poems, then, celebrate the conservative domestic woman and criticise her courtly antithesis. Yet this conservatism is proof, rather than a contradiction, of the poems' satirical tendencies. These poems are adhering to, and not diverging from, the true patterns of mock epic. The burlesque of the mock epic works to undermine the hypocrisy and artificiality of its time by contrasting it with the serious and respectful conventions of the epic. The two characteristics of the satiric target, according to Peter Petro, are, first, that "the satiric target has a model, an ideal counterpart: a Platonic ideal, or its approximation in reality" and, second, that "this counterpart is given normative value by the satirist". [26] Thus, the mock epic posits that the current age, marked by vanity and insincerity, lacks true epic spirit and character, and that this epic spirit is, by implication, simplicity, virtue, and honesty. [27] In these poems, then, female vanity, extravagance and impropriety are the targets of satire, while domestic and modest femininity—conspicuous by its absence in Ryves's poem and emblematised by Princess Caroline in Hamilton's poem—is implied to be the more deserving epic subject, that is, their ideal counterpart.

II

15

In discussing mock epics by women in the Romantic age, one mock-heroic poem, The Mousiad (1787) by the pseudonymous Polly Pindar, deserves particular attention. [28] The poem's title-page identifies the poet as "half-sister to Peter Pindar", the pseudonym of the well-known satirist John Wolcot. Though there is no evidence to suggest that Wolcot was responsible for The Mousiad, its title obviously echoes his mock heroic poem, The Lousiad (1785-95), a pro-Whig swipe at the Tory tendencies of George III. The indeterminacy of the poet's identity, and thus his or her true gender, destabilises any conclusions about authorial intention. This analysis, then, will discuss this poet's use of a female pseudonym, not in order to unearth clues to authorial gender, but in order to explore contemporary attitudes to women writing mock epics.

16

The Mousiad may be more aptly described as comic epic rather than mock epic, for it aims above all at humorous effect. Though it purports to be a mock heroicisation of a mouse, it is more accurately a bawdy tale of an unnamed prelate, the Doctor. It tells, in its first and only canto, of how one of the Doctor's nightly trysts with his maid, Molly, is interrupted by noisy mice and the pair are discovered by the nursemaid. The sheer irreverence of the poem is evident in that it not only parodies the epic but also attempts to mock the mock epic. First, the poem makes obvious its use of serious epic techniques, commenting as it employs an epic simile that:

whether apt, or not,

Rich similes, should never be forgot:

But ever and anon, should gain admission,

To shew the Poet's seeming erudition…

69-72; original emphasis

In addition, the poem highlights its use of the conventional markers of satire, overdoing, for example, the satire's customary concealment of proper names. Thus, God is referred to as "Y—h" (or Yahweh) (27) and the Doctor, whose title already renders him anonymous, as the "D—r" (39). Moreover, that the poem consists of just one canto, and yet promises at least a second canto, is more likely a parody of the division of both epics and mock epics into several cantos, rather than a case of real incompleteness.

17

While the poem's burlesque is aimed at both epic and mock epic, its satire appears to target male-dominated institutions. This is especially significant in the light of the poet's assumption of a female pseudonym, raising the possibility of a feminist critique of patriarchal systems. The hypocrisy of the Church, for example, is symbolised by the Doctor's immorality, not just conveyed through his seduction of Molly but also underscored by bawdy asides throughout the poem. As he performs his "duties of the Closet" (114), for example, the reader is reminded that priests are "a pious race!—/ Who all, like him, can kneel—in any case!" (118; original emphasis). Priests, in other words, are able to kneel both at the pew and, in this instance, on the chamber-pot, the implication being that the one action is just as unsavoury as the other. Similarly, in his planned seduction of Molly, the Doctor's manhood is repeatedly referred to and euphemistically described as his "one great argument", as when the reader learns that "privately in sheets, it loosely lay" (152; original emphasis), when it is described as especially beneficial to "ev'ry Lady, that's devoutly bent" (155; original emphasis), and finally when, at the poem's bathetic end, the Doctor's "one great argument had lost its force" (220). By using a theological tool as a metaphor for a sexual one, the poem points up the moral failings of those, such as priests, who are appointed to safeguard the spiritual well-being of others. Moreover, the poem fires a salvo at the Church's enforcement of domestic ideology, when it shows how the Doctor restricts his wife's movements by having her bear a child every year:

For know, this able man, in early life,

Did ev'ry year confine, his duteous wife;

But then in such domestic, useful way,

That she, dear Saint! could never say him nay!

107-10; original emphasis

The emphasis on the word 'confine' associates maternal confinement with restriction and imprisonment while poking fun at the notion of the dutiful, submissive, religious and useful domestic woman, who would come to be celebrated by More. The wife's 'saintly' obedience to her husband's demands is especially ironic considering that it is this that makes it possible for the Doctor to sleep "all alone" (106) and consequently to carry on his night-time liaisons with Molly. Finally, the poem inserts what appears to be another subtle critique of male restrictions on women when it describes the Doctor's library as containing books "in English, Latin, and in Greek, / Big with all knowledge, man, or maid, could seek" (176; original emphasis). So conspicuous is this reference to women's interest in books that it appears at a glance to be an obvious claim to female learning.

18

However, the poem's apparently feminist tendencies lose their force in the face of its overtly provocative nature, manifested, as we have seen, in frequent scatological and sexual references. For example, the double meaning attached to books and learning, due to the insistent sexual innuendo of the "one great argument", probably carries over to the books in the Doctor's library, which are "Big with all knowledge" and would appeal to both men and maids. The suggestion, then, is that, while men would be interested in learning, maids (of which Molly is one, in both senses of the word) would be interested simply in sex.

19

Moreover, the concentration of such sensationalist bawdiness in the authorial presence of Polly Pindar is especially problematic for an anti-patriarchal reading of the poem. The risqué humour to come is foreshadowed in this preface, in which Polly addresses her reviewers thus:

If you, grave Sirs! most kindly will admit,

That Polly Pindar, has a little Wit;

When next she earns a Shilling, on the Town,

Nor You, nor any Prude, shall wear a Frown

For she most chastely, will her Story tell.

Then spare the Bardling!—bursting from her Shell!

1-6; original emphasis

This tongue-in-cheek posturing presents Polly Pindar not as a mere pseudonym but as a persona as colourful and alive as are the poem's characters. She is, according to this preface, pert and immodest, for she is tart with reviewers and impatient with prudes, and is, moreover, likely to earn money "on the Town". In other words, Polly Pindar is a prostitute. Polly's behaviour and demeanour, then, like those of the Doctor and Molly, are calculated to shock. Polly's alleged writing of the poem is a kind of speech act, achieving its effect in the moment of production, the very effect—prudish disgust and horror—that is conveyed by the Doctor's seduction of Molly and Molly's enjoyment of that seduction (she is, after all, "unsatisfy'd" [219]). It is no coincidence that Polly's name is echoed in the poem by Molly's, for both are examples of the same class of woman, one that may be sexualised, objectified and utilised simply for effect. Thus, the fact that Polly is a woman is not so much an expression of female empowerment as it is a simple sensationalist tactic, one that takes advantage of and ultimately perpetuates the expectations of female propriety and chastity that mark domestic ideology.

20

Indeed, the poem's irreverent and almost good-natured mockery creates a marked contrast between Polly and her 'half-brother' Peter Pindar. That The Mousiad presents as simple bawdy fun while its predecessor, Wolcot's Lousiad, engages in political satire enforces a dichotomy of the masculinity of the political sphere with the femininity of the non-political, that is, domestic sphere. It is as though this poem's allegedly female author assumes a Horatian rather than Juvenalian attitude because this is entirely in keeping with the expectations of domestic ideology.

21

As we have seen, the mock epics of Hamilton and Ryves adhere to the tenets of mock epic by combining an imitation of epic with a sustained critique of apparently non-epic behaviour. The comic epic Mousiad, on the other hand, conducts an all-out parody of both epic and mock epic that corresponds to its irreverent bawdiness and its all-embracing satire. Ridiculing everyone from hypocritical Church leaders to dutiful wives to saucy young wenches, it is as much or as little misogynist as it is misandrist, and parodies the gamut of human nature.

22

These mock epics provide useful insight into issues of genre and gender in the Romantic age. Certainly, the poems of Ryves and Hamilton suggest that some manipulative effort, in the form of anonymity and pretenses at masculinity, was required on the part of female poets who attempted the Juvenalian mock epic, while the authorial persona of Polly Pindar indicates just how important questions of gender were to the question of authorial attitude and satire. Nonetheless, though the poems are ostensibly subversive in the satirical nature of their subject matter and the political backgrounds of their poets, they are not ultimately so. Ryves and Hamilton are essentially conservative in their outlook, defending domestic ideology while attacking the aristocratic antitheses to this ideology, and the poet behind Polly Pindar may be shown to rely on gender norms in order to gain the full force of sensationalist bawdiness for his or her poem.


 

Notes

[1]

Richmond P. Bond, English Burlesque Poetry, 1700-1750 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932) p. 3.

[2]

The distinction has been made by a range of early critics of satire, including Bond, English Burlesque Poetry, 1700-1750 pp. 4-6; David Worcester, The Art of Satire (New York: Russell and Russell, 1960 [1940]) pp. 44-48; and Henryk Markiewicz, 'On the Definitions of Literary Parody,' in To Honour Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, 11 October 1966, 2 vols. (The Hague: Mouton, 1966) vol. ii, pp. 1271.

[3]

C. E. Vulliamy, The Anatomy of Satire: An Exhibition of Satirical Writing (London: Michael Joseph, 1950) p. 13.

[4]

Gilbert Highet, The Anatomy of Satire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962) pp. 235-37.

[5]

Highet, The Anatomy of Satire p. 235.

[6]

The Hastiniad: An Heroic Poem, in Three Cantos (London: Debrett, 1785), further references given after quotations in the text are to page numbers; and The Epics of the Ton; or, the Glories of the Great World: A Poem, in Two Books, With Notes and Illustrations, 2nd edn (London: C. and R. Baldwin, 1807); further references given after quotations in the text are to line numbers. For identification of Ryves's authorship, see The Feminist Companion to English Literature: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present, ed. by Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy (London: Batsford, 1990) pp. 935-36; and J. R. de J. Jackson , Romantic Poetry by Women: A Bibliography 1770-1835 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) p. 284; for identification of Hamilton's authorship, see Jackson, Romantic Poetry by Women p. 143.

[7]

Flora Fraser, The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline (New York: Knopf, 1996) pp. 33-37.

[8]

The Feminist Companion pp. 935-36.

[9]

P. J. Marshall, The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965) p. 197 mentions The Hastiniad in a bibliography of anti-Hastings pamphlets.

[10]

Marshall, The Impeachment of Warren Hastings p. 23.

[11]

Probationary Odes for the Laureateship (1785; repr. London: J. Ridgway, 1795).

[12]

Hamilton's brother was the political reformer, Lord Archibald Hamilton, DNB; Hamilton is described as "a keen Radical" by Fraser, The Unruly Queen p. 356.

[13]

DNB; Anne Somerset, Ladies-in-Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984) p. 263.

[14]

Lady Charlotte Bury, Diary of a Lady-in-Waiting (London: Lane, 1908) i, 111-12 and ii, 370; qtd. in Somerset, pp. 263-65.

[15]

Fraser, The Unruly Queen pp. 166-92; Thea Holme, Caroline: A Biography of Caroline of Brunswick (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979) pp. 79-84.

[16]

The Queen patronised Lady Jersey in particular, see Fraser, The Unruly Queen pp. 48 and 79; she was cool toward Caroline throughout the Waleses' marriage, her profound dislike of Caroline supposedly dating from her hearing rumours of Caroline's promiscuity as a young girl, see Fraser, The Unruly Queen p. 28 and Holme, Caroline p. 6.

[17]

A Secret History of the Court of England: From the Accession of King George the Third to the Death of King George the Fourth (London: Stevenson, 1832) pp. 58-61, further references are given after quotations in the text; according to the DNB, "A person who had gained the confidence of Lady Anne and obtained from her a variety of private information, published, without her knowledge and much to her regret and indignation, a volume purporting to be written by her, entitled 'Secret History of the Court of England from the Accession of George III to the Death of George IV'".

[18]

The Princess resided at Montague House at Blackheath from 1798 to 1807, where she lived a quiet life, see Fraser, The Unruly Queen pp. 125-127; the Prince had imposed strict social restrictions on her because he was suspicious of her popularity, see Fraser, The Unruly Queen pp. 93-97; and from the early years of her marriage her social circle was restricted to a list of people supplied by the Queen, see Fraser, The Unruly Queen pp. 74-79.

[19]

Gary Kelly, Women, Writing, and Revolution 1790-1827 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) p. 7.

[20]

Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) pp. 59-95.

[21]

Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction pp. 59-95.

[22]

Mitzi Myers, 'Reform or Ruin: "A Revolution in Female Manners",' Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 11 (1982): 199-216.

[23]

Myers, 'Reform or Ruin' p. 204.

[24]

Review of The Hastiniad, Gentleman's Magazine 55, 2 (July 1785): 556.

[25]

Hannah More, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, 2 vols. (London: Thoemmes, 1995) vol. ii, p. 5.

[26]

Peter Petro, Modern Satire: Four Studies (Berlin: Mouton, 1982) p. 17.

[27]

Jonathan Lamb, 'The Comic Sublime and Sterne's Fiction,' English Literary History, 48 (1981): 119-20.

[28]

Polly Pindar, The Mousiad: An Heroi-Comic Poem (London: for the author, 1787); the copy referred to here is that of the Brown Women Writers Project and further references in the text are to line numbers. That the poem is held by the Brown Women Writers Project demonstrates the extent to which it is currently being read as female-authored.

Auteur : Adeline Johns-Putra
Titre : Satirising the Courtly Woman and Defending the Domestic Woman: Mock Epics and Women Poets in the Romantic Age
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 15, août 1999
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005863ar
DOI : 10.7202/005863ar

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