Gary Dyer, British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789–1832

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Gary Dyer, British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789–1832. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, 23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xii + 263 pp. $59.95. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-56357-7).

Reviewed by
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

However, although Dyer repeatedly links Radical satire with parody—e.g., "parody was the dominant technique of populist radicalism" (75); radical satire "relies on parody" (125); or "the parodic methods of Radical satires" (98)—the relationship between the two is never clearly delineated. Is parody a mode of satire, a subgenre, or a method satire sometimes assumes? What makes this lack of differentiation more serious is that the texts Dyer chooses to illustrate Radical satire—the Morgans' The Mohawks, Moore's The Fudge Family in Paris, Hunt's Ultra-Crepidarius, Shelley's Peter Bell the Third, and Byron's The Vision of Judgment—are themselves all clearly marked by parodic motive and features. Furthermore, Dyer generally appears to undervalue the ideological and affective power of Romantic parody, describing the parodies of Southey in The Anti-Jacobin as "amusing" (46), the parodies of Rejected Addresses as "innocuous" (56), and "Ode to Mr. Graham, the Aeronaut" by Reynolds and Hood as lacking "satiric impact" (160). Dyer is able to discover "behind Moore's apparent playfulness" in The Fudge Family the author's real "disgust and anger" (74). Yet the vicious scorn of Southey's class, his politics, and his aesthetics in The Anti-Jacobin parodies, the superb mimicry of Byron's style, Coleridge's incoherence, and Southey's epic pretensions in Rejected Addresses, and the exposure of Wordsworth's moralistic condescension (literally looking down on everyone) in the "Ode to Mr. Graham" all go unremarked. Dyer's ascription of the comic with the parodic misrepresents the fierce ideological battleground parody frequently embodied.

Chapter 4 seeks to situate Peacock's prose narratives within the world of Romantic satiric writing, but Peacock's idiosyncratic achievement is also difficult to categorize and the chapter is curiously inconclusive. As Dyer admits, in Peacock's works the "generic boundaries are unclear" (100). Where typical Regency satire (such as Bath: a Satirical Novel, with Portraits, 1818) attacked by using personal details about individuals, Peacock's restraint and concern with public rather than private actions help his narratives to seem more comic than satiric. As the targets are more general, "the errors addressed become more prevalent" (113). Dyer's analysis of Peacock is often astute and helpful, but it is another matter to render judgments such as the following when the work in question does not fit snugly within one's preconceptions: Peacock "did not always recognize the difference in spirit between comedy and satire" (114); some of his writing is trivializing or "superficial" (115), or his "vision is, in the last analysis, contradictory" (119). The shrinking up of the satiric spirit as the 1820s drew to a close is represented by Benjamin Disraeli's The Voyage of Captain Popanilla (1828). In Disraeli's novel, satire has become "a literary exercise" and a "moribund literary mode" (127). The final chapter of Dyer's British Satire reinforces this conclusion by examining the "comic benignity" (146) of works by Combe, Taylor, and Reynolds and Hood. Punning, realism, the force of economic influence (the popularity of poetry declined), cultural imperatives implied by middle class ascendancy and religious earnestness all were factors in this shift to Victorian concerns.

The select bibliography that concludes the book quantifies the argument for the significance of satiric writing in the period. It is described as a supplement to J. R. de J. Jackson's Annals of Romantic Verse, 1770–1835: A Preliminary Survey of the Volumes Published (New York: Garland, 1985) and could itself contribute to the widening investigation of Romantic satire which Dyer wishes to encourage. It is understandable that he was unable to identify many authors of the satires since so many were either anonymous or pseudonymous. Nor was he was able to include in the bibliography any of the satiric verse that was published in newspapers or magazines. But this latter fact underscores the need to continue the probe since those kinds of publications harbour a large mass of work needing exhumation. It is also unfortunate that, with perhaps a few exceptions (see 220), brief annotations were not possible in this bibliography. (At some point evaluative judgments will be needed to discriminate between the good and the bad writing amongst the bushels of recovered satiric material, though Dyer would obviously deem such an undertaking now as much too premature.) The bibliography demonstrates how Romantic satiric writings form clear continuities with eighteenth-century satire, and the recurring topics (fashionable life, the Regent, the theater, etc.) and writers (John Agg, C. F. Lawler, N. T. H. Bayly, etc.) point to preoccupations and authors needing further analysis. Nevertheless, examining more closely the entries on William Hone (in whom I have an interest), I became somewhat perplexed about the rationale for the selection. While some of the imitations of, or responses to, Hone's works such as Non Mi Ricordo are included (The Radical Ladder; or, Hone's Political Ladder and His Non Mi Ricordo Explained and Applied. . . .), the Hone original seems to be absent, as are his parodies on the Book of Common Prayer and one of his most effective satires, The Political Showman—at Home! Furthermore, Dyer includes several works that may have once been attributed to Hone but which he himself disowned (e.g., The Man in the Moon) or of which he is no longer thought to be the author (e.g., Plenipo and the Devil, The House Queen Caroline Built, or The Queen That Jack Found).3 Evidently, recovering the precise bibliographical facts around the many anonymous or pseudonymous works in this listing will itself be challenging research.

Dyer's book is an important beginning to a needed reappraisal of Romantic satire. His mapping of the field establishes benchmarks from which future studies will profit. If "taxonomy" is too ambitious a term to describe the methodology of British Satire and the Politics of Style 1789–1832 (3, 21), this book does effectively outline highlights of the topography, and it shows convincingly that much additional work is needed if we are to appreciate and understand the importance of satiric writing within Romantic literature.


1 Steven Jones, Shelley's Satire: Violence, Exhortation, and Authority (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1994); Marcus Woods, Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790–1822 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

2 See Jones, 93–94. One of the titles included by Dyer is Lucubrations of Scriblerus: A Satirical Medley (Birmingham: William Cooper, 1827).

3 For Hone's disavowal of The Man in the Moon, see Facetiae and Miscellanies (1827), vii. The most thorough analysis of Hone's canon is Ann Bowden, "William Hone's Political Journalism, 1815–1821," Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, 1975.

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: