David A. Kent
Centennial College, Toronto
Gary Dyer’s British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789–1832 is the twenty-third volume in the “Cambridge Studies in Romanticism,” a series devoted to expanding the scope of inquiry into British Romanticism by considering matters of gender, politics, criticism, and culture. Only a few years ago, the phrase Romantic satire might have been considered an oxymoron instead of a description of a substantial body of literature. However, because this study of satiric writing in the Romantic period follows recent books by Steven Jones (Shelley’s Satire) and Marcus Woods (Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790–1822), Dyer’s work marks yet another step in giving adequate attention to the “astonishing” amount of satiric writing published between 1789 and 1832 (1).1
Clearly written, painstakingly documented, and thoroughly grounded in the primary and secondary literature of its topic, British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789–1832 contains five chapters and a select bibliography listing over 700 satiric poems and narratives that appeared during the period. Chapter 1 surveys the genres and subjects of Romantic satiric expression and focuses on three poets whom critics of the day identified as important satirists: William Gifford (The Baviad, 1791, and The Maeviad, 1795); Thomas James Mathias (Pursuits of Literature, 1794–97); and John Wolcot (“Peter Pindar,” who wrote more than sixty works of satirical verse between 1778 and 1817). Chapters 2 and 3 identify three kinds of satiric poetry published in the opening decades of the nineteenth century: “Neo-Juvenalian” (including Gifford and Mathias); “Neo-Horatian” (including John Cam Hobhouse and Henry Luttrell); and “Radical” (Thomas Moore, as well as Sir Charles and Lady Morgan, but also Shelley, Byron, and Leigh Hunt). Chapter 4 turns to prose and the satiric narratives of Thomas Love Peacock (the six that were published between 1815 and 1831) and Benjamin Disraeli (The Voyage of Captain Popanilla, 1828). The final chapter describes the disappearance of Romantic satire by concentrating on works by William Combe (The Tour of Dr. Syntax, in Search of the Picturesque, 1812), Jane Taylor (Essays in Rhyme, on Morals and Manners, 1816), and John Hamilton Reynolds and Thomas Hood (Odes and Addresses to Great People, 1825). Dyer presents his book as a pioneering survey of Romantic satire’s literary terrain—a naming and description of the contemporary satirical traditions—and this claim has considerable validity to it. In identifying different strains of satiric writing, he provides invaluable charting and detailed descriptions of several co-existing types of satire. The two that dominated the 1790s and early 1800s were what he calls the Neo-Juvenalian and Neo-Horatian modes, the former marked by formal verse satire and heroic couplets, distinguished by its anger and harsh moralism, and practised by “men of royalist, Anglican, anti-reformist convictions” such as Gifford, Mathias, John Wilson Croker, Francis Hodgson, and George Canning (30). This first style flourished in the 1790s as patriots responded to the Jacobin threat from abroad and within, and Dyer creates a helpful profile of these like-minded men who were born into, or adopted by, the aristocratic elite and landed gentry and who were educated in classical literature at one of the ancient universities (49–50). In contrast, Dyer says the Neo-Horatian style of satire is marked by couplets, feminine or misplaced rhymes, and triple meters and hudibrastics, characterized by its comparatively mild, conciliatory tone, and practised by such writers as Luttrell, Moore, Reynolds, Hood, and Hobhouse.
Chapter 3 is the central chapter in the book and in some respects the least focused because Dyer tries to delineate a third vein of Romantic satire, what he calls “Radical satire.” The other two strains, he states, both tended “to defend existing institutions and conventions” so that writers with reformist ambitions abandoned those modes and adopted something different (57). But the techniques and methods of this other kind of satiric writing, Radical satire, are themselves so heterogeneous that this category remains elusive and elastic and therefore of necessarily more limited usefulness. Consider some of the epithets that Dyer uses to characterize Radical satire: “ironic or parodic” (67), “pluralistic and international,” “mixes meters and genres,” or “Polyphonic writings” (68); or, finally, “characteristically Menippean by virtue of its formal heterogeneity” (97). Radical satire embraces heterogeneity to avoid the satiric style associated with conservatism but also to blunt the “threat of persecution” (68). If Romantic satire is “hybrid” (4), why not adopt an indigenous term such as “medley” (as Steven Jones does in Shelley’s Satire) on the assumption that the practitioners of this form know what they are about? 2