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Published three years after his important study of Satire and Romanticism (2000), Steven E. Jones’s The Satiric Eye provides the reader with an enormously wide-ranging and thought-provoking collection of essays that set out to challenge traditional long-held critical assumptions about Romantic sensibility and aesthetics as well as Romanticism’s representations of revolution, nature, sentiment, and the Gothic. Since the cultural historian E. P. Thompson re-established the significance of the satiric mode in the nineteenth century, there has been a burgeoning interest amongst literary scholars in the relationship between satire and Romanticism. Groundbreaking work by John Barrell, Jerome McGann, and Marilyn Gaull was successfully followed up by a number of critical investigations conducted by Gary Dyer’s British Satire and the Politics of Style (1997), Marcus Wood’s Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790-1822 (1994), and Steven Jones’s own study of Shelley and Satire published that same year. These critical responses to Romantic satire were complemented by the diverse range and register of primary material collated together, under the editorship of John Strachan and Graeme Stone, for Pickering & Chatto’s seminal five volumes on Parodies of the Romantic Age (1998). The scholarly enterprise of several of these key critics and editors in the field is represented by original contributions from them in Jones’s present critical collection.
Contributors’ essays, by the editor’s own admission, ‘are loosely clustered in (very) rough chronological order’ (7) with the first four contributors (Tim Fulford, Michael Gamer, Nicola Trott, and Marcus Wood) focusing on public ‘taste-making’ in the 1780s and 1790s as the subject of their discourse. Concerned with London in the 1780s, Fulford, in his ‘“Getting and Spending”: The Orientalization of Satire in Romantic London’, opens the collection by reflecting on how Britain’s rapidly commercialised and consumerist capital with its insatiable desires and sexual appetites were satirically associated with the excesses of the Orient and India. William Cowper, William Wordsworth, and George Crabbe responded to London’s moral and political vices by (after Virgil and Horace) adopting the moral high ground and creating a rustic retreat as a vantage-point from which to criticise the Oriental and Babylonian excesses of the city. This satiric fascination with the Oriental and London, Fulford persuasively explains, was in part fuelled by the practices of the street mountebank, Dr James Graham, who enticed his clients with a combination of scientific know-how and Eastern promise. But also the voyeuristic raree-shows that imitated the harems of the Far East told of by travellers and the adoption of Oriental fashions for women actresses in theatrical and other staged performances. The scandal surrounding the East India Company and the Prince Regent’s publicly lavish lifestyle reinforced this link for cartoonists, such as James Gillray, Robert Seymour and others, between London’s dizzying consumerism — replete with sexual titillation packaged as a consumerist product — and Oriental exoticism. It is, Fulford concludes, the ‘self-referential irony’ (27) of Byron’s Don Juan that regards ‘Wordsworthian spiritual and Oriental sexual solitude…[as]…similar ego-driven fantasies’ (26). Only the Byronic persona has the ability to inhabit the role of ‘both the Sultan and the salesman, the innocent and the rake of the raree-show that, the Romantics realized, was contemporary Britain.’ (27).
Michael Gamer’s essay also revisits London of the late 1780s, but takes 1786 as his starting-point and the capital’s newspaper industry at the time that John Bell, having sold his interest in The Morning Post, embarked upon the collaborative publishing venture of The World. In ‘“Bell’s Poetics”: The Baviad, the Della Cruscans, and the Book of The World’, Gamer re-examines the London newspaper scene of this period and revises our sense of the status of William Gifford’s The Baviad (1791) and The Maeviad (1795) and our understanding of the rise and demise of Della Cruscan writing. Gifford’s literary reputation was by no means assured with the publication of The Baviad and, in fact, changes in how Gifford’s satire of the Della Cruscans was received correlate directly with the author’s own changing career prospects, as Gifford, Gamer suggests, ‘moved from being perceived as an indiscriminating editor (for The Anti-Jacobin) to a respected and prestigious journal editor (for The Quarterly Review).’ (37) Although championed by ‘Tory journalists and social conservatives’ (37), The Baviad received less than positive reviews from other quarters and failed to stem a deluge of verse written in the Della Cruscan style. At its best, Gifford’s The Baviad spawned a series of poetic imitations and established in ‘its own right [a] subgenre of satire’ (38). For Gamer, what motivates Gifford’s attack on the Della Cruscans is the monopoly that Bell had realised for himself within the London and publishing literary market by the turn of the century. What proved the last straw, for Gifford, was Bell’s inclusion of Della Cruscan verses in the book form of The British Album (1790) with its ‘high cultural packaging accompanied by unqualified assertions of their unqualified merit’ (48). Once Bell confirmed himself ‘as a transgressor not only upon authorial but also upon critical privilege’ (47) and usurper of ‘literary authority’ (48), Gifford sought to establish himself as the self-styled defender of literary value and British letters.
Still focused on the long eighteenth century, Marcus Wood notes that an often neglected area of critical studies of Romantic satire and parody is the representation of ‘slavery, the slave body, and the associated subjects of slave trauma and interracial sexuality’ (55-6). In his chapter, ‘Black Bodies and Satiric Limits in the Long Eighteenth Century’, Wood argues that the overall tendency of anti-slavery literature and William Cowper’s Sweet Meat Has Sour Sauce; or, the Slave Trade in the Dumps, in particular, is to treat the black African slave body in abstracted terms rather than as individual, personalised, members of humanity. Given the object of Cowper’s satire is the slave trader’s animalised vision of the slaves, the poem’s audience can never entirely separate themselves from the slave trader’s gaze (asked as they are to view the world through his eyes). This abstracted and dehumanised representation of the slave body persists even into pro-slavery poetry where the black female slave body, in James Boswell’s No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love (1791) or Isaac Teale’s earlier composed The Voyage of the Sable Venus (1793), emerges as a source of sexual desire and inter-racial fantasy. Often this kind of poetry is characterised by a rhetorical excess that enjoys invoking neo-classical models and conventions of love poetry to ponder on ‘love and light, blackness and love, and the supposed paradox that black beauty cannot be radiant’ (68). Perhaps, more bizarrely this poetic fixation on the female slave body, as Wood shows, conceives of white masculine sexual triumph, domination, and exploitation in such terms that render the conquered female body as the conqueror of ‘white men’s hearts’ (65) and an empowered figure of black feminine beauty. Behind these physical liberties and transgressions of sexual and racial boundaries in poetic satire, Wood believes, is a more deep seated anxiety about the extent to which the satirist could maintain authorial control.
Placing satiric responses to Wordsworth’s poetry at the centre of her essay on ‘Wordsworth and the Parodic School of Criticism’, Trott questions the often assumed antagonistic relationship between Romantic poets and their reviewers to suggest that there was a good deal of intricate — if not collusive — interaction between this ‘new school of poetry’ and ‘new school of criticism’ (72). This newly emerging form of criticism borrowed from the techniques of parody and contrived to ‘see Wordsworth as, in some incongruous sense, his own best parodist’ (72). Both The Quarterly Review and Edinburgh Review aligned Wordsworth’s humdrum and ordinary poetic subjects with the mode of parody and his poetic diction with childish namby-pamby. Wordsworth’s poetic language triggered a series of parodic responses — exemplified by Richard Mant’s The Simpliciad and the anonymous Benjamin the Waggoner — which equated his poetry with the mere prattle of nursery rhyme. Such responses characterised Wordsworth as having a capacity for an unwitting self-parody and ‘brought his poetry into alignment with the perspective being adopted by his critics’ (92). Yet this insistence by reviewers about the unconscious nature of Wordsworth’s parody, Trott suggests, misses the mark. These parodic responses to Wordsworth’s poetry served only to exacerbate a latent tendency and potentiality in his work towards the satiric and humorous which, Trott maintains, Wordsworth knowingly invites his audience towards and yet perpetually diverts their attention away from.
The next grouping in Jones’s collection, comprised of three essays by Karl Kroeber, Donelle R. Ruwe, and Stuart Curran, attend to the role of ‘women and children…as authors, readers, and characters…at what might be called the satiric scene of instruction’ (8). Kroeber’s innovative reading of Jane Austen’s self-reflexive satire in Northanger Abbey focuses on biopoetics to explore the ‘retention, modification, and re-transmission of information’ (100) that occurs at the complex site of reading. In Kroeber’s ‘Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Self-reflexive Satire and Biopoetics’, Northanger Abbey encompasses a variety of satiric modes and, like much of the satire from the Romantic Period, thrives on ‘being relational and resistive to sharp definition’ (101). For instance, the dividing line that exists between satire and parody, as Trott eloquently illustrates in the previous essay, too easily distorts and blurs. For Kroeber, Austen’s fictional satire of the Gothic genre, expounded by Ann Radcliffe amongst others, is a double edged blade which ridicules ‘those crippling assumptions that novels may themselves foster’ (104) about the pictureresque or sublime, whilst recognising the potency of the novel as an artistic medium. In Northanger Abbey, Austen avoids didacticism even when her purpose is to be instructive about the authentic power and value of novel writing and her main preoccupation is with those lessons in love learnt by Henry and Catherine. Novels for Austen, according to Kroeber, ‘instruct by example’ (109) and for this reason certain forms of the novel, the Gothic, for example, should be approached warily by the reader. This instructive aspect of Austen’s fiction is concerned not with rarified ethical principles, but making us conscious of our own consciousness and the ‘practical psychic flexibility’ (110) that is required, at this point on the evolutionary scale, to adapt, respond, and remodel our surrounding environment.
Donelle R. Ruwe’s chapter on ‘Satirical Birds and Natural Bugs: J. Harris’s Chapbooks and the Aesthetic of Children’s Literature’ examines the historical and contextual reasons for the success of William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, published in 1806 by The Gentleman’s Magazine. Ruwe is particularly interested in accounting for the canonical status attributed to The Butterfly’sBall as a piece of children’s literature when, for instance, Catherine Dorset’s satiric The Peacock “At Home”: A Sequel to the Butterfly’s Ball, although published in a more popular form and influential in its own day, has been largely neglected by critics in recent times. The popularity of Roscoe’s own ‘escapist fantasy’ (119) verse for children, Ruwe believes, stems from its participation in a Wordsworthian aesthetic that valorises the figure of the child and its ability to access the secret wonders of an animate nature. More importantly, Ruwe shows, that these ‘Romantic ideological assumptions in constructing children’s literary history’ (118) — and shaping the reception of Roscoe’s verse — have privileged imagination over reason; a-historical childhood innocence over historical adult experience; and nature over society to blind critics to the salient ‘political protests and social work found in other contemporaneous animal poems’ (119). Written, like all children’s literature, for the dual audience of child and adult, Roscoe’s writing also tapped into the popular vein of satiric literature. Subsequent revisions and chapbook editions of Roscoe’s work ensured that it bore even more explicit hallmarks of the Romantic ideology of childhood. Like Jane Taylor’s renowned children’s poem, ‘The Star’ (‘twinkle, twinkle, little star’) it is precisely this complicity with ‘the implicitly gendered, anti-satiric, Romantic ideology of the child’ (132) that assured the publishing triumph of Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast.
Stuart Curran takes up as the subject of his essay, ‘Jane Taylor’s Satire on Satire’, the important contribution that Jane Taylor made, as the only female poet satirist of the period, to the literary history of the Romantic Period. Appearing with the publishers Taylor and Hessey (a year before they published Keats’s first volume of poetry), Taylor’s Essays in Rime, on Morals and Manners (1816) quietly undermines the ‘edifice’ (142) of eighteenth-century satire in a manner, although from a very different perspective, reminiscent of Byron’s poetry. Taylor, Curran illustrates, realises in her poetry an uncomplicated, unpretentious, and authentic ‘vernacular rhetoric’ (140) that wittily draws on proverbial phrases. Taylor’s poetry elects to focus on ‘the domestic establishment’ and ‘private values’ (143) rather than those public debates concerned with high culture and literary taste favoured by the ‘traditional satire of masculine culture’ (142) and exemplified by Gifford’s attack on the Della Cruscans. Curran’s conclusion that what is central to Taylor’s poetry ‘is not prescription or proscription but rather its revelation of the conditions [social, economic, and moral] forging the modern world’ (149) finds an affinity with Kroeber’s sense of the practical instruction of Austen’s fiction.
In the third and final cluster, contributions from Gary Dyer, Kyle Grimes, John Strachan, and Marilyn Gaull centre on ‘topical and political satire’ (8) as it manifests itself in a plethora of different mediums during, what could broadly be termed, the Regency period. Dyer examines Thomas Moore’s popular satiric responses to the issue of spying, sedition, and other forms of ‘government surveillance’ (152) in The Intercepted Letters: or, The Two Penny Post-Bag (1813) and The Fudge Family in Paris (1818). Alert to the high risks of Moore’s satiric stratagem, Dyer observes how Moore’s satires exploited to their own ends the rules that determine the spying game whether spy or spied upon. Moore deliberately generates a sceptical mistrust about the information received or given through acts of espionage to such an extent that ‘the identification of epistolary sedition’ becomes unreliable. A seditious remark about the Prince Regent’s excesses, as Dyer deftly demonstrates, in The Two Penny Post-Bag, can be just as easily construed as an innocuous tailor’s comment about the Prince’s waist-size. It is, then, increasingly difficult to prove, as Moore knows, that his satire is ‘seditious’ (168) since it is ‘easy to read a text as seditious when it isn’t’ and ‘a seditious text can be explained away as innocent when this becomes necessary’ (167). Grimes, in ‘Verbal Jujitsu: William Hone and the Tactics of Satirical Conflict’, also explores the destabilising strategies of, what she terms, the ‘hacker satire’ of the art of George Cruikshank and the literary compilations of William Hone. Cruikshank’s and Hone’s success depended, as Grimes elaborates, on the rapidity of the production of their visual and verbal parodies which, during the Regency period, exposed pretensions to literary power and enabled ‘a seizing of authority by those who had heretofore been excluded from a place in English public discourse’ (182).
Turning to nineteenth-century New York, in his chapter on ‘“Trimming the Muse of Satire”: J. R. D. Huggins and the Poetry of Hair-Cutting”, Strachan unearths a richly complex and variegated form of satire in the advertisements of the barber, John Richard Desborus Huggins. These had originally been printed in newspapers along the East Coast and were brought together under the title Hugginiana; or, Huggins’ Fantasy, being a Collection of the most esteemed modern Literary Productions (1808). Like other forms of Romantic satire, Huggins’s collected advertisements possess a self-reflexivity and, at several points, attempt to erase their own origins as ‘advertising copy’ (186) and deny any sense of hyperbole about the qualities, merits, and achievements of their central protagonist, Huggins himself. Indeed, Huggins’s excellent traits and adroit performances on his premises, dubbed the ‘dressing room’ (204), indicate a very real and qualitative difference in the world between availing yourself of Huggins’s premier service and visiting some other ordinary barber’s shop. Returning to Britain and, more specifically, ‘the Covent Garden pantomime…[of]… 1806 to 1830’ (209), Gaull argues, in ‘Pantomime as Satire: Mocking the Broken Chain’, that this form of theatrical performance vitally shaped public taste and reflected the changing street life of London at a time of rapid social and economic change. One of pantomime’s many virtues, as Gaull highlights, is its ability to bring ‘the lawless contemporary street culture…to the licensed stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, along with the dramatic conventions it satirises’ (216). By drawing on the satiric devices of nineteenth-century cartoons and periodicals, pantomime transgressed ‘boundaries of laws and behaviour, by mocking authority and eluding punishment’. In this manner, pantomime challenged the authority and pretensions of supposedly serious theatre, helping to ‘secularise and democratise the once sacred and elite theatrical arts’ (222).
By reassessing the prevalence of the satiric as an artistic and literary form in the Romantic Period — defined, historically, at least, as between 1780 and 1832 — Jones’s valuable and informative critical collection places key canonical authors and their works in a refreshing dialogue with both high and low forms of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century culture. What emerges with such clarity from all of these essays and their careful retracing of the history of Romantic satire is the profound extent to which this counter-culture permeated all aspects of the literary, printing, and theatrical establishment.
- Dyer, Gary. British Satire and the Politics of Style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Strachan, John and Graeme Stone, eds. Parodies of the Romantic Age. 5 vols. London: Chatto, 1998.
- Jones, Steven E. Shelley and Satire: Violence, Exhortation, and Authority. Illinois: Illinois UP, 1994.
- Jones, Steven E. Satire and Romanticism. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000.
- Wood, Marcus. Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790-1822. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.