Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire

Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire

by Howard D. Weinbrot

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Ranging over the tradition of verse satire from the Roman poets to their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century imitators in England and France, Howard D. Weinbrot challenges the common view of Alexander Pope as a Horatian satirist in a Horatian age.

Originally published in 1982.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to


Ranging over the tradition of verse satire from the Roman poets to their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century imitators in England and France, Howard D. Weinbrot challenges the common view of Alexander Pope as a Horatian satirist in a Horatian age.

Originally published in 1982.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire

By Howard D. Weinbrot


Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06510-6


Horace and Juvenal in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

    Behold for Pope [the British Genius] tunes the Laurel Crown,
    And centers ev'ry Poet's Pow'r in one:
    Each Roman's Force adorns his various Page;
    Gay Smiles, collected Strength, and manly Rage.
    Despairing Guilt and Dulness loath the Sight,
    As Spectors vanish at approaching Light.

So John Brown writes in the revised version of his Essay on Satire, Occasion'd by the Death of Mr. Pope (2nd ed., 1746, p. 26). Such recognition of Pope's eclectic muse was more familiar during the eighteenth than the twentieth century, for his readers then both knew more of their contemporaries' reactions to Pope as man and poet, and of the several Roman, as well as French and English, satirists Pope gratefully used and surpassed. "Ev'ry Poet's Pow'r in one" denotes pluralist rather than monist satiric traditions and suggests the complexity of Pope's achievement as a formal verse satirist.

Pope's modern students have achieved handsome results in reclaiming his varied contexts; but they generally accept two related and, I believe, misleading assumptions regarding Pope and the eighteenth century. The first is that his career is "progressively an Imitatio Horatii," and the second is that "Horatianism and Augustanism are definitive of the age." With guiding notions like these Pope of course yields to certain "Augustan" preconceptions, and his "central achievement as a satirist" becomes "his perfection of that plain-style Horatian voice." Thus imperfect by definition, Domitian's Juvenal seems to be only an occasional guide to occasional outbursts in Pope, and a strain upon his Horatian bias rather than a deliberate modification of it.


Though Juvenal is important as a model in the satirically undistinguished second half of the century, for the most part he is an unnaturalized citizen who never learns the native accents. Nero's Persius seems scarcely to have been known to the English Augustans and can be thrown out of the nest as a useless addition.

Collectively, this is a venerable hypothesis, but it should yield to the more venerable hypothesis of Pope as a synthesizing satirist. As I hope to show, when Pope looked at his Roman satiric ancestors, he saw that Lucilius, Persius, and Juvenal offered him much that Horace did not, and that much of what Horace offered could be used in negative as well as positive ways; when he looked at the ablest formal verse satirist of his immediate background, he saw that Boileau's success was in part based on his ability to combine the strengths of the classical Romans, but that his preponderant Horatianism made him noisome to British taste; and when he looked at that taste as it expressed itself for 130 years or so prior to his own satiric prime, he saw that though Horace recently had increased in popularity, Juvenal came closer to the national character, and that the often read and imitated Persius provided devices and tones of special utility. Before dealing with matters of practice, then, it is necessary both to clear the ground and to make clear that Horace was only one of several options for the eighteenth century; that so far from being definitive of Pope's age, or any other part of the eighteenth century, he often was regarded as smiling gaily when he should have been raging manfully; and that however brilliant and artful he certainly was, he was not the inevitable choice for an opposition satirist of the 1730s, for whom Juvenal and Persius would have supplied more appropriate ground, on which not merely to stand but to fall.

I: Renaissance and Restoration Satire

Most writers and readers during the Renaissance regarded satire as brutal, punitive, biting, and the product of a perceived Persian (rough, obscure) and Juvenalian (severe, exalted) inheritance that lashed, whipped, or burned out man's vices. The satirist's function is medicinal and purgative; he must bite or he can be no satirist. Such satire includes obscurity, ruggedness of verse, violence of tone, and shrillness of pitch in portraying a world overrun by the hordes of stupid, vicious, powerful enemies of God, the state, reason, virtue, and good sense. In 1509 Alexander Barclay praises Lucilius, Horace, and Persius, but calls Juvenal the "prynce" for his sharp and reviling attacks upon "all such as ar unmeke, Prowde, Couetous, Lecherous, Wanton," and comparably sinful offenders in a long catalogue.

Thomas Drant's 1566 translation of Horace's satires tells us that "Horace was excellent good in his time, a much zelous controller of sinne, but chiefly one that with sharpe satyres and cutting quippes could wel displaie and disease a glosser." Though Horace sometimes laughs at sin, he normally "assaileth fearcely, and ratleth up bitterly" the vices of the age. Drant's arguments to the satires are consistent with this image of blaming, reprehending satire, and consistent with Richard Stanyhurst's attack, in 1582, on the one class of satirists — Ennius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal — all of whom are "harshe and rough ... taunting Darcklye certeyn men of state."

Horace was made, or remade, to fit this pattern in part because of the uncertainty regarding the derivation of the word satire and hence the genre's proper tones. There were several candidates for the satiric paterfamilias, and each pointed toward a form that bravely attacked the enemies of virtue. A translation of "Priscus Grammaticus de Satyra," which appears both in Drant's 1566 and 1567 volumes, outlines several candidates. Satire, which "JSa tarte, and carping kind of verse," comes from Arabic, where it "doth signifye a glave" — a broadsword or falchion; or it comes from Satyrus, the rude sylvan god, who "With taunting gyrds, & glikes 8c gibes must bere the lewde" and "Strayne curtesy"; or from "waspyshe Saturne," who is wrathful toward the vicious, whom he cuts down, but is "courteous and friendly to the good." Drant then offers capsule descriptions of the practitioners of the form:

    Lucill (I wene) was parent of this nipping ryme:
    Next huddling Horace brave in Satyr's grace.
    Thy praysed Pamphlet (Persie) well detected ayme,
    Sir Iuvenall deserves the latter place.
    The Satyrist loves Truthe, none more than he,
    In utter foe to fraude in ech degree.

Horace is accommodated not to insinuating but to invective satire which, whatever its derivation, must be pinching, waspish, nipping, and taunting. In such a world Juvenal, the only one of his group to be knighted, "deserves the latter place."

Milton, who thought that toothless satire was a contradiction in terms, also offers a reason for the necessarily noble tones of satire. Like Drant, he bases his argument on genealogy, one perhaps supplied by the theories of Donatus and Thomas Lodge: "a Satyr is as it were born out of a tragedy, so ought to resemble his parentage, to strike high, and adventure dangerously at the most eminent vices among the greatest persons." In such a milieu it is no surprise that Horace often is redefined, indeed with Juvenal's help. As Dryden, born in 1631, translates the quite different line 51 of Juvenal's first satire, "Such Villanies rous'd Horace into Wrath; / And 'tis ... Noble to pursue his Path." When Horace is not redefined, his seventeenth-century shade generally takes second place to the dominant satirist. Henry Peacham, in words later quoted in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755}, thus tells readers of his Compleat Gentleman (1622) that "Juvenal, of Satyrists is the best," and that "In his Satyres [Horace] is quick, round and pleasant; and as nothing so bitter, so not so satyrical as Juvenal." Horace's wrathful nobility was apparent to BoiIeau in 1662 and was magnified in 1696, when an unknown author imitated his seventh satire and suggested that Horace was not the genteel courtier but the Lucilian lasher. Both those satirists were "arm'd with equall spight" in their battles to unmask lurking vice, revenge virtue's cause, and discountenance sinners.

Several Renaissance Latin opinions regarding satiric authors suggest that the weight of European learning was then on Juvenal's side as well. Though Horace was much admired for his lyrics, correctness, and ethics, as Dryden noted, relatively few worthies were listed as his sponsors in satire — chief among them the German Acta Eruditorum of June 1684, Heinsius, and Vossius. On Juvenal's side we see "Quintilian," Porphyrio, Lipsius, Julius and Joseph Scaliger, Farnaby, and Rigaltius, whereas Casaubon thinks that Persius, Horace, and Juvenal are approximate equals. Sir Thomas Pope Blount's useful compilation De Re poetica (1694) includes many of these remarks; but several had been long collected in the translations of Juvenal by Sir Robert Stapylton (1647) and Barten Holyday (1673, posthumously) written, though not published, about the same time. Stapylton urges the high praise due Juvenal "for instructing us in point of Manners" and virtue, for attacking vice, and for being "incomparably the best Satyrist," as "the learned know." This noble poet uses "inimitable sweetness of language and Majesty of Sentences" to show the loveliness of virtue and the deformity of vice. Stapylton marshalls Quintilian, the Scaligers, and Lipsius against Horace and evokes Plato who, with either ghostly or anachronistic judgment, joins Stapylton in praising Juvenal as a philosopher. Holyday's comparably respected Preface shows much of the same affection for authority, many of the same remarks and conclusions, as well as several of the issues already joined and, we shall see, to be kept alive through subsequent generations of savants, demi-savants, and common readers. He has no doubt, with Scaliger, that Juvenal's ability and morally perverse times allow him to fulfill the potential of the satiric form, that the smiling, jeering Horace is but "some poor Theme-maker" in comparison to Juvenal's "Ardor, his Loftiness, his Liberty," and ability to reform rather than sneer: "Horace and Juvenal, may seem to differ as the Jester and the Orator, the Face of an Ape and of a Man, or as the Fiddle and the Thunder."

The preference for Juvenal and his mode of satire neither died nor radically diminished after 1660. This may be seen in the voluminous poems on affairs of state in general, and in the works of Robert Gould and John Oldham in particular, each of whom embodies and continues the earlier tradition transmitted through Marston, Hall, and, among others, Thomas Randolph. His Muse's Looking Glass (Oxford, 1638), for example, characterizes "Satyre" as using a whip of steel to lash the brand of shame "Even in the brazen forehead of proud sinne"; hence even "greatest tyrants / Have quak'd below my powerful whip" (p. 12). Gould is especially useful as a reservoir and conduit of satiric indignation, since he did not read Latin, and his notions regarding satire therefore came from his knowledge of English poems and translations. Almost any of his several satires shows his use of presumed Juvenalian devices. Here is part of his "Prologue to the following Satyrs," much of which reads like a Restoration version of Pope's Epilogue to the Satires (1738)

    To what Prodigious Height of Vice w'are grown,
    Both in the Court, the Country, Camp, and Town,
    That 'tis of late believ'd, and fix'd a Rule,
    Who ever is not Vitious is a Fool;
    Hiss'd at by Old and Young, despis'd, opprest,
    If he be not a Villain, like the rest:
    Vertue and Truth are lost — search for Good Men,
    Among Ten Thousand you'll scarce meet with Ten;
    But Fools and Knaves you ev'ry where may find,
    Almost as universal as Mankind.

    (2: sig. A4r)

    What Saty'rist then can Honestly sit still,
    And, unconcern'd, see such a Tide of III,
    With an Impetuous Force o'erflow the Age,
    And strive not to restrain it with his Rage?

    (2: sig. A4v)

    Unbrib'd, Impartial, Pointed, and Severe:
    That Way my Nature leans, compos'd of Gall;
    I must write sharply, or not write at all.

    (2: sig. Ar)

Oldham's death in 1683 evokes several elegiac poems, including those of Thomas D'Urfey and Thomas Andrews, who celebrate his Juvenalian lashing and rage, and Thomas Wood who admires his "boundless Keenest Satyr." Like others, Gould admires Oldham's "Native Sweetness" but insists on the strength of his "Native Sting" and reforming satire that "spar'd no Grievances, or Crimes." Gould also affirms Oldham's and his own satiric style and suggests that a fashionable new mode already is on the horizon.

    How vain are those that wou'd obscure thy Fame
    By giving out thy Verse was rough and lame?
    They wou'd have Satyr their Compassion move,
    And wit so pliant, nicely soft and smooth,
    As if the Muse were in a Flux of Love.
    But who of Beaus, and Knaves and Fools wou'd Sing
    Must Force, and Fire, and Indignation bring;
    For 'tis no Satyr if it has no Sting.
    In short, who in that Field wou'd famous be,
    Must think and write like Juvenal and Thee.

Subtlety and insinuation are reared, but do not mature, in late Restoration England. Hence, Thomas Shadwell tells readers of his imitation of Juvenal's tenth satire (1687}, smoothness is not required in his genre, "which ought to have a severe kind of roughness as most fit for reprehension, and not that gentle smoothness which is necessary to insinuation." Dryden, whose "Discourse ... of Satyr" (1693) sometimes is thought a touchstone of assent to the Horatian temper, argues that the nature of Horace's genre demands attacks and wounds, and gives Horace "the Quivers, and the Arrows, as the Badges of his Satire." We should recall that even when Dryden praises temperate satire, he likens it to "the fineness of a stroak that separates the Head from the Body, and leaves it standing in its place." The malefactor may "die sweetly," but the satirist has beheaded him nonetheless.

From at least the earlier sixteenth to the later seventeenth century, most verse satire remains fierce and outraged; though certainly softening toward the end of that period, it is primarily Juvenalian in its conventions and is just beginning to be encroached upon by a partially defanged Horace who nevertheless bears arrows and is an artful executioner of the guilty. Some of the conception of satire was changing along with the received wisdom regarding its genesis. As Joseph Trapp tells his students at Oxford in 1711, the controversy over the derivation is important, since the solution "in a great Measure defines its Nature." The resolution of that conflict was to introduce a new gentility to the English lashing mode, which was to be modified but never eradicated.

II: The Changed Derivation and the Comic Form

Though the derivation of satire was inconclusive in the sixteenth century, it generally was associated with the Greek rustic demigod satyrs who whipped or tossed scurrilous invectives at their victims. Numerous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century prints and frontispieces to editions of satires show the satyr scourging sinners — of course for their own good. The publication of Isaac Casaubon's De Satyrica Graecorum poesi & Romanorum satira (Paris, 1605), and the new, and probably accurate, derivation of the word were seminal: satire comes, not from the Greek satyr, but the Latin satura, "full," with lanx understood. As he and his followers, especially Dacier, understood it, the word was not a noun but an adjective; the satura lanx signified a full platter of meats or fruits and suggested the variety, limited only by the size of the charger, of the satiric form. Quintilian thus was correct when he said that satire was wholly Roman: it gradually lost its hardness as it moved away from the Fescennine and Saturnian insults made by peasants, became a regular afterpiece in the theater, and was transformed into a separate discourse in different kinds of verse by Ennius and then Pacuvius. Lucilius added some polish by using only one kind of verse, and more "salt" in faulty imitation of the Greek old comedy. The form, according to several commentators, reached its peak in the varied, dramatic, comedic practice of Horace. Satire is not harsh, exalted, tragic, sublime, or punitive — it evolves into a civilized, gently instructive, "low" form that relates man to man rather than separates them through severe punishment or chastisements. Both Heinsius (1612) and Vossius (1695-1701) stress the desirable nonexalted tones of satire. Heinsius, as Dryden translates him, defines satire as including punitive language, but with the essential word "familiar."


Excerpted from Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire by Howard D. Weinbrot. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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