Romantic Circles stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Read our statement.

Steven E. Jones, ed., The Satiric Eye: Forms of Satire in the Romantic Period

Wednesday, March 5, 2008 - 10:29
Steven E. Jones, ed., The Satiric Eye: Forms of Satire in the Romantic Period. New York: Palgrave, 2003. 231pp. $69.95. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-29496-4).

Reviewed by
Talissa J. Ford
University of California, Berkeley

"The man who permits you to injure him deserves your vengeance. He will also receive it. Go, Spectre! Obey my most secret desire," writes William Blake, the romantic satirist conspicuously absent from Steven E. Jones' collection The Satiric Eye: Forms of Satire in the Romantic Period. What this book does particularly well is to consider the relationship between satire and the culture in which it intervenes—what happens, in other words, when that spectre is let loose in the world. From the American satirist-barber J. R. D. Huggins and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" poet Jane Taylor, to first—and second—generation standards Wordsworth and Byron, The Satiric Eye explores not just the fact but the circulation of satire in the public, consumer culture of Romantic-era England (and America).

As a collection, this is impressively—even bizarrely—coherent, especially given the stunning diversity of its subjects. Chapters have a too-regular-to-be-accidental habit of ending where the next pick up, whether that means closing with Wordsworth (less surprising) or Jane Taylor (a bit more surprising). The effect is to create the impression, not of isolated instances of satiric outbursts, but of a community— at more and less visible levels of society—whose satiric work in one realm enabled similar interventions in other places or times. As serious consideration of Romantic satire is fairly recent, probably beginning in earnest with Marcus Wood's 1994 Radical Satire and Print Culture, this collection is valuable, not only for its individually strong readings, but for its implicit argument that satire was a prevalent, and in some ways cohesive, "Romantic" (or un-Romantic) form.

Tim Fulford's essay "'Getting and Spending': The Orientalizaton of Satire in Romantic London" is a fitting start to a section on taste-making in the public sphere. Unlike the satires of Wordsworth and Cowper, who used their retirement from the public as a moral high ground from which to critique, the satires that interest Fulford are a product of the very consumer culture they satirize. This was a "biting but ephemeral genre, written to sell cheap and fast, a product for and of a public who were as used to 'getting and spending' on a minor scale as George IV was on a major one" (22). Examining the Oriental imagery of James Gillray, William Hone, and others in pamphlets, handbills, and magazines, Fulford argues the importance of self-referentiality in satire; these writers and artists implicate themselves in the excesses they satirize. If there is a weakness in this brand of satire—if Hone and Gillray lose credibility for making use of the consumption they mock—Byron, argues Fulford, shows that there is no other way. Oriental and commercial culture demanded that any effective satire must be written from within, that "commentators would have to accept—and turn to their advantage—the implication of their publications in the culture they criticized" (27). This turning to advantage made Byron the greatest satirist of the era, putting, so to speak, his mouth where his money was. Fulford gives Byron the last word here: the Romantic satirist, he claims, would have to have "lived in the world . . . and tooled in a post-chaise . . . In a gondola . . . Against a wall . . . The cant is so much stronger than the cunt nowadays; that the benefit of experience in a man who had well-weighed the worth of both monosyllables must be lost" (27).

Enter Michael Gamer and the Della Cruscans. In one sense, "'Bell's Poetics': The Baviad, the Della Cruscans, and the Book of The World" documents the opposite phenomenon; where Fulford's satirists succeed by making their work as impermanent and consumable as urban London demands, the Della Cruscans, Gamer demonstrates, become a perceptible threat when they turn what was meant to be disposable—verse that was "deliberately consumable and temporary," "spontaneous, sincere, unplanned, and unlabored" (36)—into potentially canonical poetry by publishing the poems in a book. If the "adolescent nastiness" (37) of Gifford's Baviad rings excessive on modern ears, that is because, Gamer smartly shows, Gifford's critique isn't motivated by the Della Cruscans' poetry at all. Published nearly two years after The World poems Gifford attacks, and focusing on Bell—the publisher of The World and its subsequent book form, but otherwise a minor figure in the poetic movement—The Baviad's paranoia is inspired not so much by the supposedly inconsequential poetry itself, but by the printing and publishing empire that backs it. For Gifford, then, "Bell's attempts to repackage Della Cruscan verse into high cultural artifacts amounted to multiple usurpations of literary authority: of the poetic 'work' by improvised, self-consuming verse, of book by newspaper, and of critic by bookseller" (48). Gifford's objection is less artistic than political, a defense of the hierarchies of print and culture.

The final two essays in this section make an unlikely pair. Nicola Trott's "Wordsworth and the Parodic School of Criticism" takes as its subject satirical attacks launched on Wordsworth—in particular, Hunt's claims that parodies of Wordsworth might be mistaken for the originals, and Jeffrey's claims that poems written by Wordsworth himself are so overly Wordsworthian that they might be mistaken for parodies. But the joke, Trott argues, is on his critics; the "sense of the ridiculous" required to satirize Wordsworth is imbedded by Wordsworth, knowingly, in the poems themselves (92). "And that," concludes Trott, "is Wordsworth's way of having his joke and eating it too" (93). Marcus Wood, then, makes Wordsworth eat it. "Black Bodies and Satiric Limits in the Long Eighteenth Century" takes up a kind of parody that is essentially satiric; the danger of treating black bodies in satire is the danger of affording them too much serious attention. The solution: to write parodies of black beauty and black strength, poems whose subjects were never meant to be taken seriously. Wood ends with an especially disturbing poem from Wordsworth—penned, the story goes, "amid bursts of hilarity" in the drawing room—depicting white abolitionist males and black slave females "involved in a relationship of mutual desire that is somehow hopelessly funny to the white audience" (64, 66, 68). Wordsworth comes away from this looking awfully bad—seeming, as Wood suggests, "to enforce the lowest, most banal assumptions of popular racism" (68). The question on which Wood concludes lingers even after Trott's attempts to answer it: "was [Wordsworth] really in control of what he was doing?" (68).

The second group of essays, on women and children "at what might be called the satiric scene of instruction"(8), includes particularly illuminating and complementary essays by Donelle R. Ruwe and Stuart Curran. The section begins with Karl Kroeber's "Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: Self-reflexive Satire and Biopoetics." Though its claim that Northanger Abbey can "make us more fully human" (106) by altering "what appear to be immutable genetic determinants of our behavior"(100) finally isn't as interesting as it sounds, his suggestion that Austen "defends the novel form as an exemplary means for freeing us from crippling assumptions that novels may themselves foster" (104) offers a useful stage for Ruwe's and Curran's essays, both of which are interested in the extent to which satire can (or, perhaps, should) critique itself from within.

Ruwe's "Satirical Birds and Natural Bugs: J. Harris' Chapbooks and the Aesthetic of Children's Literature" examines three works from a series of illustrated children's chapbooks printed by London publisher John Harris between 1807 and 1809. The connection between children's literature and satire should not, argues Ruwe, surprise; "the double nature of satire, in which signals are to be interpreted by one reader as a criticism of another, can be effectively cross-written for the adult and child audience" (125). What is surprising—or, rather, what Ruwe shows to be unsettlingly unsurprising—is the relative canonicity of Roscoe's The Butterfly's Ball over its far more popular parody, Catherine Ann Dorset's The Peacock "At Home": A Sequel to the Butterfly's Ball. Roscoe's poem wins out over Dorset's because it is more "Romantic" in its aesthetic sensibility; the fantastical nature to which Roscoe's small hero escapes preserves the image of the child's natural innocence and the power of imagination. In contrast, The Peacock at Home fails to represent childhood as an "enclosed, special time"—offering instead a satire that is topical, local, and contextualized, society only thinly disguised as "nature." Ruwe concludes with a discussion of Jane Taylor and the overwhelming popularity of "The Star" ("Twinkle Twinkle Little Star") over the comic-satiric Signor Topsy Turvey's Wonderful Magic Lantern. As with Roscoe's chapbooks, an "implicitly gendered, anti-satiric, Romantic ideology of the child" is what gets a poem canonized.

Curran's own treatment of Jane Taylor picks up, in a sense, where Ruwe's leaves off. "Jane Taylor's Satire on Satire" argues that Taylor's satirization of satire itself undermines "the premise on which satire . . . constructed its edifice" (139)—that, though she can knife-wield with the best of them, in an "exceedingly delicate balancing act," Taylor positions her satires such that they represent (in the sense of speaking for) social ills (148). Taylor's self-stylization as one who has the skill, but not the malevolence, to resort to satire, participates in the double-voicedness to which Ruwe argues satire always tends.

The final cluster of essays, about topical and political satire in the Regency period, begins with essays by Gary Dyer and Kyle Grimes, both of whom are interested in ways that satire can play with its sense of itself as a genre. Dyer's "Intercepted Letters, Men of Information: Moore's Two Penny Post-Bag and Fudge Family in Paris" examines the trope of the "intercepted letter," not just as a convenient trick for satirists, but as a means of critiquing governmental practices of information-gathering. Moore's critique evokes not just the government interception of mail, but also government surveillance of print satire—calling attention, Dyer suggests, to the dangers, and limits, of Moore's own satirical practice. Moore's turning of the (supposed) letters into poetry, furthermore, works as a kind of double-voicing, "composed of an original, earnest text, and a second text that appropriates and comments on it" (164).

The "hacker satire" which Kyle Grimes discusses in "Verbal Jujitsu: William Hone and the Tactics of Satirical Conflict" is "parasitic, derivative, opportunistic, parodic" (174). If Moore can be said to use a kind of double-voicing, William Hone's parodies might be said to produce a double-reading, as the public re-reads the parodic imitation back onto the original. The "hacker satire" exploits weaknesses in the system, relying on "both the tactical ingenuity of the satirist/publisher and the technologies of print and distribution" to respond "quickly and massively to momentary and fleeting opportunities in the public sphere" (173-4). The particular works Grimes examines are rather explicit seizings of cultural authority intended to "expose, disarm, and ridicule their pretension to authority" (182).

John Strachan's essay "'Trimming the Muse of Satire': J. R. D. Huggins and the Poetry of Hair-Cutting" shows the most unlikely of publications—a barber's collection of advertisements—to engage in a similarly dialogical negotiation. Grimes suggests that satire can be " not so much a distinct, quasi-literary genre as a dialogizing counter-movement to the implicit truth-claims of all monological discourses, be they literary, political, philosophical, or theological"(178). Strachan shows that Huggins' Hugginiana as well—in which the satire is as important as the advertising— necessarily critiques and undermines cultural and political claims to authority with its own parodic claims to authority (in, for example, Huggins' references to himself as the "emperor of barbers"—just as Napoleon is issuing his own imperial proclamations).

The final essay in the collection is Marilyn Gaull's "Pantomime as Satire: Mocking a Broken Charm", which examines the Covent Garden pantomime between 1806 and 1830. Spoken drama had been censored since 1737; whether reacting against or struggling within the licencing acts, all theater was "not only a satire of the authorities that enforced the laws but also a satire of the dramatic tradition from which most theaters, actors, and dramatists had been excluded" (209). The pantomime which concluded evenings of melodrama only heightened the satiric impact of spoken theater; "even King Lear," quips Gaull, "looks quite different when . . . [it] concludes with the eighty-fourth performance of Mother Goose, in which the supernatural agent is played by the aging cross-dressing Samuel Simmons, who might be Lear himself in some warped afterlife" (212). As religion and politics were forced off the stage, thought too sacred for representation, the paganism and ritualism of pantomime not only satirized the culture of authority but, argues Gaull, introduced into the culture the "concept of transformation," to "secularize and democratize the once sacred and elite theatrical arts" (222). That the book ends with Gaull's invocation of Coleridge's "Conclusion to Part II" of Christabel ("To mutter and mock a broken charm/ To dally with wrong that does no harm") is fitting; the artists treated here, from Byron to the unnamed heroes of Gaull's pantomime, break the "charm" of dominant discourse in their mockery of it, dallying with wrong in the interest of undoing harm.