Books: From the Land of Shadows : Grigson’s Satirical Tradition |
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Grigson’s Satirical Tradition

The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse chosen by Geoffrey Grigson (Oxford University Press, London and New York)

THERE ARE several glaring omissions, but otherwise The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse is one of the best anthologies by the best modern anthologist. Geoffrey Grigson has always had a way of picking plums. His famous anthology of the 1930s, New Verse, remains a good introduction to the poetry of that time. He has continued making anthologies ever since. Some of them are anthologies of prose, others are chrestomathies of everything interesting from a given period, but they are all useful. A good anthology gives the reader the sense that he has stumbled on new outcrops of high-grade ore, even in poets whose work he thought he knew. The latest of Grigson's efforts fulfils that condition pretty well.

The selection runs from Skelton all the way through to, well, me. It could have stopped a bit earlier but I won't pretend to be disappointed it didn't. It might have started, however, a lot earlier. There are plenty of satirical passages in Chaucer and anyway it is important to include him for technical reasons, since he, to all intents and purposes, invented the couplet, which provides the formal spine of satire in English even when it is elaborated into other measures.

In his short preface, Grigson doesn't waste much time on trying to define satire but he does say that it postulates an ideal of human conduct which it then finds wanting, and takes delight in doing so. He points out that the delight is taken by technical means — rhythm, vocabulary, rhyme, surprise. He might also have pointed out that the form is the embodiment of the ideal: the more the poet can show us proportion, balance, and harmony in his form, the more effectively he can use it to say that the world has gone awry. The contrast between the symmetry of the vehicle and its forensic verve marks out the best satire for what it is. There are such things as formless satirical poems — this book includes a few — but they are almost invariably of the second rank. The licence to speak allowed by its own strict form gives satire the wide intellectual range which permits it to claim the title of embodying the intelligence of English poetry, just as lyric poetry embodies the emotion. The wide intellectual range was staked out by Chaucer, so it is a pity he is not here.

Enough of the quibbles: here comes the parade. John Skelton is only the first of many to be very satirical about the Scots, who were to remain anybody's meat until Culloden, after which it took bad taste to continue the joke.

0 ye wretched Scots,
Ye puant pisspots,
It shall be your lots
To be knit up with knots
Of halters and ropes
About your traitors' throats.

'Puant' meant smelly. Skelton is usually put forward as a model of economy but really he is full of wind: those two-beat lines give the illusion of speed but it takes time to get anything complicated said in them, since the rhyme continually arrives too early. For this reason the dimeter had no future in satirical poetry, which has always been most commonly written in tetrameters and pentameters. Following Skelton, an Anonymous of the early sixteenth century was likewise extremely satirical about the Scots.

Sanct Peter said to God
      In a sport word,
Can ye not mak a Hielandman
      Of this horse turd?

Wyatt satirised court life with unremarkable invention, but he did it in pentameters, which meant that Chaucer's forgotten accomplishments were beginning to be rediscovered. Wyatt, in the example Grigson gives here, arranged his pentameters in terza rima, a viciously difficult form in English even when you cheat the rhymes, but still the naturalness of Wyatt's long iambic line brings you the sound of real speech.

I cannot with my words complain and moan
      And suffer nought; nor smart without complaint,
      Nor turn the word that from my mouth is gone.

Wyatt didn't always count his stresses and frequently perpetrated an unintentional tetrameter or alexandrine. A sophisticated case can be made for such lapses being intentional (as, of course, Dryden's occasional alexandrines are intentional), but in fact you can usually tell when a poet is careless, even when he is hundreds of years away. Chaucer set the standard: that five-beat pulse is always there, ticking along without a hitch. Nor did Shakespeare, in his formal poems, ever lose count. Donne did, though. Eager to defend him against pedantry, Donne's admirers rightly praise the vigour of his conversational rhythms. But his eighteenth-century critics were right about his roughness, which can be compensated for in his great lyrics but cracks your jaw when you try to scan his satirical couplets. Yet even the worst thicket of unspeakability is usually redeemed by the strength of his ideas, and occasionally the couplet settles into a toughly argued neatness which harks forward to Dryden, or at any rate back to Chaucer.

But he is worst who (beggarly) doth chaw
Others' wits' fruits, and in his ravenous maw
Rankly digested, doth these things out-spew
As his own things; and they are his own, 'tis true,
For if one eat my meat, though it be known
The meat was mine, th'excrement is his own.

Samuel Butler made the next big technical impact, with Hudibras, composed in the iambic tetrametric couplets which have ever since been known as Hudibrastics. He handled the form with specious bravura. The lines are rhythmically self-aware and there are gestures towards polysyllabic rhymes, although often these are so approximate (Bring down/kingdom) that they sound more slovenly than playful. His great virtue was to keep the argument rolling.

      There is a tall long-sided dame
(But wondrous light) ycleped Fame,
That like a thin chameleon boards
Herself on air, and eats your words:
Upon her shoulders wings she wears
Like hanging sleeves, lined through with ears...

Admirers of Pepys will know that their hero tried long and hard to find Hudibras entertaining but could never stave off boredom. Modern readers should not be ashamed to concur. There is nothing wrong with sustained tetrameters — Auden has written them brilliantly in our own time and the trochaic version of the same measure is at the heart of classical Russian poetry — but there is something tedious about Butler. His small stock of ideas shows you that technique is not everything. He deserves credit, however, for being original in the way his verse moves, if in nothing else.

Cleveland was intensely satirical about the Scots.

Had Cain been Scot, God would have changed his doom,
Not forced him wander, but confined him home.
Like Jews they spread, and as infection fly,
As if the Devil had ubiquity.

Marvell merely transferred the Scots to Holland, but the high quality of his technique is at once apparent.

Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land,
As but the offscouring of the British sand,
And so much earth as was contributed.
By English pilots when they heaved the lead,
Or what by th'ocean's slow alluvion fell
Of shipwrecked cockle and the mussel shell
This indigested vomit of the sea
Fell to the Dutch by just propriety.

The imagery has the luminous precision you would expect in his lyrics, but are agreeably surprised to find being lavished on a baser purpose. Marvell is already giving satire a good halfof his talent, and with Dryden we see the whole gift being applied. When we get to Dryden it is like the sun coming up.

Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.

Saintsbury, who remains the highest authority on English prosody, wrote a little book on Dryden (in the English Men of Letters series) which can confidently be recommended as the best appreciation of Dryden's originality. Dryden's technical assurance in the satirical couplet, Saintsbury argues, depended on his long theatrical training. Having written thousands of couplets to be spoken aloud, he was ready, when he came to satire comparatively late in life, to give it a uniquely dramatic voice, 'a sort of triumphant vivacity'. Grigson awards Dryden a generous selection but one is bound to feel that it is still not generous enough. The man who made English prose a fit instrument for argument did the same for English verse.

Rochester introduces a new element — satanic pornography.

Nor shall our love-fits, Chloris, be forgot,
      When each the well-looked link-boy strove t'enjoy,
And the best kiss was the deciding lot
      Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy.

But he could handle the couplet with a conversational elegance not shamed by Dryden.

Huddled in dirt the reasoning engine lies,
Who was so proud, so witty, and so wise.

In Swift there is so much disgust that the self-delighting element is hard to find, but his pungent accuracy of form eventually tells you that it is there.

All human race would fain be wits,
And millions miss, for one that hits.

These lines are from a long poem called On Poetry: A Rhapsody, which Grigson prints entire. Written in faultlessly propelled Hudibrastics, it is interesting all through — as good today as when it was written. Grub Street is portrayed as a pit of squalor but there is no missing the fact that Swift liked it that way: with no dunces to aim at he would have been a marksman without targets.

Edward Young's Night Thoughts were hugely successful at the time but are forgotten now, although occasionally there is some academic attempt to revive interest in them by placing them in their context, etc. The selection here provided is enough to show that Young was as fiat as he was perfect.

Some go to church, proud humbly to repent
And come back much more guilty than they went.

After yawning over his smartly turned banalities it is a relief to get to Pope, who is perfect too but immeasurably more highly charged.

There is no call to insult the reader by rehearsing what can be said in Pope's praise, but it is worth venturing that there are things to be said against him. In the Epilogue to the Satires he showed signs of wanting to be dramatic: he split lines up between characters, achieving the same quick shifting of attention that the French dramatists, following classical models, had traditionally employed. But he lacked Dryden's long training in theatrical speakability. Pope's couplets are exquisite in themselves, but they tend to remain themselves: they only effortfully accumulate into speech. There are any number of academic studies to justify Pope's rhetorical monumentality but the net effect of it is of something hard to read out.

Nevertheless Pope's virtues look all the more supreme for being excerpted. The character of Atticus in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot is a more subtle job of psychological penetration than anything that had occurred in satire before. As for the couplets, they are so highly tuned you can say nothing against them except that they sometimes take English too far towards Latin — you have to re-read in order to sort out the subject from the object. At their best, they strike the exact balance between compression and naturalness: the syntax is as complex as it could possibly be while still being intelligible at first reading.

Beauties, like tyrants, old and friendless grown,
Yet hate to rest, and dread to be alone,
Worn out in public, weary ev'ry eye,
Nor leave one sigh behind them when they die.

The tiny clockwork is wound almost to the point of jamming in the first three lines and then goes zing in the fourth, which has an internal rhyme to help celebrate its own speed. Pope exhausted the possibilities of the end-stopped, or heroic couplet, which since his time has never been fully revived as it form by anyone except Roy Campbell. The way ahead was through the romance couplet, with all its turn-overs and polysyllabic rhymes — a form as easy to write badly as Pope's is difficult to write well.

Charles Churchill, dead in 1764 at thirty-three, is one of the might-have-beens of English poetry. Those who are convinced that he had greatness in him will find their belief borne out by the selection given here. He wrote the romance couplet at full tilt, but with all the judgment necessary to produce an easily speakable verse paragraph.

Far, far be that from thee — yes, far from thee,
Be such revolt from grace, and far from me
The will to think it...

He was the master of the conversational style. Also he had a large spirit, even to the extent offinding a good word for the Scots.

The Scots are poor, cries surly English pride;
True is the charge, nor by themselves denied.
Are they not then in strictest reason clear
Who wisely come to mend their fortunes here

In the vivacity of Burns you can already hear something of Byron's impetus, in the bite of Landor something of his attack, and in Thomas Moore something of his urbanity. But Byron not only sums them all up, he leaves them looking as pale as his own skin. With Byron the sun comes up again. The selection from him is long and could have been longer. Technically his couplets are familiar.

Blest be the banquets spread at Holland House,
Where Scotchmen feed, and critics may carouse!

But Byron soon learned to save his couplets and use them as fireworks tied to the tail of longer stanzas, usually the ottava rima.

For glances beget ogles, ogles sighs,
      Sighs wishes, wishes words, and words a letter,
Which flies on wings of light-heeled Mercuries,
      Who do such things because they know no better;
And then, God knows what mischief may arise,
      When love links two young people in one fetter.
Vile assignations, and adulterous beds,
Elopements, broken vows, and hearts, and heads.

From the formal angle this has everything. Technical lapses in Byron can never be attributed to ignorance, only to the sheer speed with which he wrote against deadlines. As Auden told him in 'Letter to Lord Byron', he was master of the airy manner. His poetry might be an arrangement of prose, but it is an arrangement of fully developed prose, and it is a fully developed arrangement.

In Byron, satire was whole. After him we must be content to see it splitting up. Shelley is bitter about Castlereagh, Praed is whimsical about Whigs and Tories, but satire was only a part of Shelley's poetry and Praed's meticulously turned vers de societé was only a part of satire. There are poems by Thackeray and Dickens to show that they would have written great verse satires if they had not written great prose ones. Browning, not present here, put the romance couplet to such fluent use in narrative poetry that the heroic satirical couplet would sound archaic ever after. By the time you get to Belloc, the self-delighting element has become self-regard: Belloc was a mighty versifier but only rarely did he manifest that unstudied intensity by which the true satirists use their form to speak naturally.

In the pages devoted to modern times there are absences to regret and presences to deplore, but on the whole Grigson has stayed true to his code, which has always been to spurn what he calls 'fudge'. Wyndham Lewis, his mentor in fudge detection, is represented by a long selection from If So the Man You Are. Lewis could count to five, but sometimes forgot to. Ezra Pound simply couldn't: there is a large chunk of L'Homme moyen sensuel to prove that a decently turned couplet was beyond him. There are only two of Sassoon's war satires. Norman Cameron, for some strange reason, is missing entirely. The selection from e. e. cummings leaves out `POEM, OR BEAUTY HURTS MR. VINAL', the most comprehensively satirical piece he ever wrote. On the other hand it is good to see Edgell Rickword represented. A first-class critical intellect until he turned Marxist and threw it all away, Rickword was an original poet particularly adept at Hudibrastics, which he wrote with an acrid flourish.

Roy Campbell wrote end-stopped couplets with a consciously archaic Popishness but some of his best poetry is couched in them. A pity that there is nothing here from Flowering Rifle, in which he mounted his most telling attack on the left writers of the 1930s. Nor does the selection from MacNeice quite make up for the absence of anything from Autumn Journal; which struck a note unheard since Goldsmith.

The omission it is impossible to forgive, however, is that of A. D. Hope. As an Australian poet, Hope guessed the penalty he would pay for never moving to England, but it is ridiculous that he should have to go on paying it at this late stage. Young critics can perhaps be forgiven for pretending that they haven't heard of him but it is most decidedly not all right for Grigson to ignore the most accomplished verse satirist since Auden. Hope's 'A Letter from Rome' would on its own have been enough to earn him a prominent place in this anthology.

Just think of Bede the Tourist! — I, you see, am
Not drunk, but just a little 'flown with wine' —
Bede came to Rome and offered his Te Deum,
Fresh from a land as barbarous as mine,
Made one remark about the Colosseum
And plodded back to Jarrow-on-the-Tyne.

But there can be no quarrel with the dominating presence in the last part of the book — Auden. Composed in an ebullient rhyme royal, 'Letter to Lord Byron' celebrates Byron's tone and recreates it at the same time. Auden wrote the poem in a tearing hurry while he was in Iceland with MacNeice. It has its blemishes but still seems to me the ideal way to look at the world when the world looks determined to fall apart.

The match of Hell and Heaven was a nice
      Idea of Blake's, but won't take place, alas.
You can choose either, but you can't choose twice;
      You can't, at least in this world, change your class;
      Neither is alpha plus though both will pass:
And don't imagine you can write like Dante,
Dive like your nephew, crochet like your auntie.

Here again it could be said that this is only prose. But there has always been a kind of poetry which is only prose — prose squeezed until it sings. The satirical tradition is a tradition of clarity. Sometimes the clarity is a window on nothing, at other times it is too dazzling to reveal anything, but on occasions you can see the whole world through it. Geoffrey Grigson has collected enough of those occasions in this book to make it among the most commendable achievements in his long career of service.

(New York Review of Books, 1981)