Poetry and Humour from Cowper to Clough

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Publisher Description

An obituary writer in 1819 commemorated one of England’s poets with this anecdote:

When the Duke of Kent was last in America, he took a stroll into the country, and entering a neat little cottage, saw a pretty girl with a book in her hand; ‘What books do you read, my dear?’ said his Royal Highness. The girl with the most artless innocence replied, ‘Sir, the Bible and Peter Pindar!’

There had been a time, thirty years before this, when Peter Pindar had been a household name in England; it is rather typical of the transitional nature of the period in which he lived and died that he should be remembered in this coyly sentimental fashion. Such a response, whilst helping to explain at least partially his initial appeal and whilst looking ahead to some of the softnesses of the Victorian age, neglects some of the strengths of late eighteenth-century satire. It is salutary to be reminded that Peter Pindar died in the year that saw the publication of Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (and its parodies), the year before Keats’s volume of 1820 (which was to sell only 500 copies, and those none too quickly). Peter Pindar (and Alexander Walcot’s chosen nom de plume says quite a lot about the man and his age) was one of many poets in the eighteenth century who turned to comic verse as an outlet for their muse. The list of such writers is almost endless; Peter Pindar was really the last such figure, before the emergence of Thomas Hood, to make a name for himself. He represents a particular type of poetry that we need to be aware of, existing under the surface of English letters – but sufficiently near that surface for someone with as many problems of literary adjustment as John Clare to know his work, and to be able to make critical and appreciative comments on it. It is as though there is a whole sub-culture of satiric poetry, often burlesque or parody, the fag-end, perhaps, of the great age of Augustan satire, but still with some life in it.

In his book on the origin of the Lyrical Ballads, John Jordan has commented on one aspect that in 1798 would have struck many readers as strange, and that was the almost complete lack of satire in this avowedly experimental volume.2 As Jordan shows, satire was still a force to be reckoned with. The work of mid-eighteenth-century writers such as Charles Churchill and Christopher Anstey (even Cowper had allowed himself to be satirical) was continued by a group of writers who composed a mock-epic poem, The Rolliad, which appeared in book form in 1785 – a much harsher view of the world than that exhibited in Peter Pindar’s Lousiad of the same year. The Rolliad is very much an in-joke, an imagined poem with an imagined body of criticism already attached to it (on the lines, rather, of The Dunciad): it is witty and astringent, committed against Pitt’s government and Pitt’s minions. The perpetrators of this immensely elaborate performance were a group of pranksters, each with his own axe to grind, each well qualified in some or other profession: George Ellis, the antiquarian, for example (later to comment intelligently on Byron), French Laurence, a successful lawyer, Richard Tickell likewise. After the success of The Rolliad, other works followed: Probationary Odes for the Laureateship, Political Miscellanies. Then in 1797, the mantle of this group seemed to fall squarely on the shoulders of a new journal, The Anti-Jacobin.

Fiction & Literature
March 1
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group

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