Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Satire 1: Byron

Bob Southey! You’re a poet--Poet Laureate…

So begins Byron's "Dedication" to Don Juan, which he continues by lancing most of the literary lights of the period, and establishes Byron as the master satirist of his era - and, perhaps ever.

…and representative of all the race;
although 'tis true that you turned out a Tory at
last--yours has lately been a common case

…and Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
but like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
explaining Metaphysics to the nation--
I wish he would explain his Explanation.

And Wordsworth, in a rather long "Excursion"
(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
has given a sample from the vasty version
of his new system to perplex the sages;
'Tis poetry--at least by his assertion,
and may appear so when the dog-star rages--
and he who understands it would be able
to add a story to the Tower of Babel.

Some would say that this is not poetry, but versified prose - if so; it is at least excellent verse, masterful prose…and unmatched satire.

It is a critical commonplace to opine that Byron suffered for lacking the integral vision of the immediately preceding Augustan generation…that he lacks something obtained in Dryden and Pope.

Bullshit, mostly, I think.

Dryden was a social climber and chameleon. He changed his religion three times in a lifetime, and his politics at least twice as often. If Dryden represented the emerging Augustan epoch, it was in the sense that he was a habitual parasite, and necessarily a cultural sponge.

Pope was a non-practicing Catholic in a low-church England, a tradesmen's son with all the bad habits and bad manners of the Well Born, a Tory when the kings were Whigs, and without the nerve to back a Stuart pretender. He was "integrated" to a socially-avoidant and nearly solipsistic genius.

But Byron was a Radical born to all the advantages…and temperamentally incapable of being alien to the human heart.

The Augustans were conservatives who; in the wake of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (mistakenly) thought their world was changing.

Byron was a revolutionist who, in the wake of Wellington's victory and Castlereigh's triumphalist European System (mistakenly) thought his world was staying the same.

Mistaken premises - but which made for the better satire?

Where is Lord This? And where my Lady That?
the Honourable Mistresses and Misses?
Some laid aside like an old opera hat,
married, unmarried, and remarried (this is
an evolution oft' performed of late).
Where are the Dublin shouts--and London hisses?
Where are the Grenvilles? turned, as usual. Where
my friends the Whigs? exactly where they were.



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