1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Wolcot

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. Dr. Wolcott" The Champion (14 August 1814) 262-63.



It cannot be unfair to assume, what even the gravest philosophers have allowed, that occasional laughter is compatible with the soberest wisdom, and that he who boasts of having never laughed, is merely averring that he is deprived of one of the most pleasurable faculties assigned to man. Laughter is not only one of the most delightful of the sensual gratifications, but is at the same time the least selfish. It disposes us to benevolence, both towards the person who makes us laugh, and towards all those who laugh with us. An amusing writer, therefore, who is able to excite this generous titillation, deserves to be treated, not with contempt as a mere trifler, but with respect as an useful person, whose jokes are more practically efficacious in doing good, than even the most elaborate dogmas of a grim morality. The respect due to such an author will, of course, be proportioned to the means which he adopts for effecting his purpose: if he attempts to raise a laugh at the expence of virtue, or even of virtuous prejudices, he will be despised for that bad taste which leads him to lacerate the most beautiful part of the human constitution; if he exaggerates immoderately the acknowledged foibles of the good and wise, the world will think meanly of the inaccuracy of understanding which can calculate so falsely as to expect to counterbalance a thousand excellencies by a few absurdities. Let not, however, the comic writer despair, as if his field were too contracted by the prohibition of touching the grounds here mentioned: his range will still be as ample as the most excursive imagination can travel: for where is the limit either to the variety or to the extent of human follies? The virtues may be counted, and so may the intellectual energies; but what presumptuous arithmetician ever dreamed of expressing the caprices, the oddities, the whims, the inconsistencies of man, even by the scale of an infinitely increasing series?

It may, perhaps, be matter of surprize, that, under such circumstances, comic writers have not been more numerous; though, indeed, a glance at the annals of literature will shew, I think, that every nation has produced a tolerable crop. The fact is, that the difficulty of writing well on ludicrous subjects is very considerable, owing to the poverty of language; for the pride and self-love of man were too cunning to give names to all his follies, and there are ten thousand eccentricities which can only be expressed by the luckiest combination of words, — a task far beyond ordinary capacities. Again, many have resorted to gross caricature, or savage ill-nature in their delineations; and such portraits perish long before the originals from which they are taken. Others, again, make their attacks on temporary and local habits, instead of the native and inherent qualities of man; and these attacks are forgot as soon as the objects of them vanish from recollection.

Dr. WOLCOTT, or Peter Pindar, as he styles himself, with a humorous reference to his irregular and digressive mode of treating his subjects, may be considered as one of the most popular, if not one of the best of our comic writers. It would be cruel injustice to compare him either with Butler or Swift, the first of whom, from his prodigious knowledge of things, surprizes us with more witty analogues than are to be found in all other writers collectively, — and the latter of whom, from his close and attentive observation of mankind, has been able to detect the most artfully concealed weaknesses of our nature. Peter Pindar has neither the learning of the one, nor the rich experience of the other; but he has one advantage over them, — he is more merry and chearful than either. For a professed satirist, it is hardly possible to name a man who has less gall: he seems more inclined to tickle and to teaze than to wound; and even when he is most profuse of his invective, he appears to heap up his terms of abuse rather from a love of ludicrous exaggeration than from any desire to strike a fatal blow. Frequently, when he is apparently raving at a person with all the turmoil of the most violent imagination, he will drop some odd phrase or ludicrous image, which shews that he is laughing all the while with the most self-possessed good-humour. In one instance, after saluting a Dutchman with some of the most opprobrious epithets which the language affords, he stops short, assumes a sly air of disappointment, and in his characteristic style, tells us, that "At calling names he never was a dab." There is much impudence in this mode of writing, but it is an impudence which amuses much more than it offends. It is not a hardened impertinence, which obtrudes itself into the most unfit places for the mere purpose of insult, but it is rather the intrepid heedlessness of a lively but humoured child, to whom he is most subjected, secure of appeasing their anger by making them laugh. I can, therefore, very readily believe, what has often been asserted, that the king, on whom this author has made the most irreverent attacks, could find considerable amusement in the perusal of his pasquinades, seeing them destitute of all malignity, and being himself too good-natured and too sensible a man to feel violent indignation, because a merry buffoon presumed to laugh at some of his foibles. Mr. West, much to his credit, is said to be equally entertained with the ludicrous effusions of his satirist. But the great merit of Peter Pindar is the originality of his style, consisting in odd turns of expression, curious words, whimsical versification, and a selection of the most grotesque images that ever surprized the imagination. He is said to be a painter of some merit, and he is indebted to his knowledge of that art for his most striking and pleasing peculiarity, — his skill in the ludicrous picturesque. Oslade and Teniers produce no groups so oddly combined and so irresistibly provocative of laughter, as some of the descriptions of Peter Pindar. Ample proof of this is furnished by the "Royal Tour," great part of the "Lousiad," "The Visit to Whitbread's Brewhouse," and almost all his stories. He has another excellence hardly to be expected in a comic poet: besides the whimsical disjointed verse in which, for the sake of odd effect, he relates some of his tales, he frequently adopts the heroic couplet; and this he manages with a skill, variety, and spirit, which would in vain be looked for in Pope. Not content with deserving this various praise, Peter Pindar has attempted to excel in serious poetry, but here he fails, though certainly without disgrace. His songs to Delia, &c. are pretty, and now and then are enlightened with a gleam of fancy: but there is nothing original about them: they never rise above a gentlemanly mediocrity, being neither better nor worse than the effusions of any given youth when he sonnetizes any given lady.

It now only remains to notice two glaring faults which have been ascribed to this author, — indelicacy and blasphemy. As to the first, without attempting to excuse what is inexcusable, I must say that the charge is a good deal exaggerated by his enemies: he violates the rules of decency less than almost any comic writer of note: compared with Swift he is purity personified, nor does he betray any of that prurient licentiousness from which even the page of Pope is not entirely free. He certainly is now and then very coarse, but coarseness is an almost inescapable incident to humour: and those who love the effect must not pretend to be very fastidious about the cause. His blasphemy deserves nothing but the most unmeasured reprobation: it argues a very foolish as well as corrupt mode of thinking. That man must be ignorant beyond the hope of teaching, who does not know that society has never been maintained without the aid of some religious institution, and that the feelings of nine-tenths of mankind will be shocked and disgusted with an assault on what they believe to be venerable. If knowing this, a writer should still persist to blaspheme, he must be a mere savage who delights to trample upon all those uneradicable opinions and even affections, which are to millions the motive of virtue and the source of happiness. I say this without the best reference to the truth or falseness of any particular mode of faith, merely because I think that man a dangerous member of society, who mirthfully, wantonly, and rashly attempts to destroy, by a rude blow, what experience shews has always existed, and what, as far as he knows, may be essential to the very being of a civilized community.