- English Satire. An unsigned review of English Satire and Satirists, by Hugh Walker
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 593 English Satire An unsigned review of English Satire and Satirists by Hugh Walker London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1925. Pp. x + 325. Times Literary Supplement, 1247 (10 Dec 1925) 854 This book is the most recent addition to a series entitled “Channels of English Literature,” each volume of which undertakes the history of a genre in English literature from earliest times to the present.1 Literary history of this type has peculiar limitations. The history of any genre within the limits of one language is liable to be no more than a chronicle; for the reason that the really interesting and fruitful generalizations can hardly be drawn within such boundaries. Generalization will probably trespass beyond the limits of language – the development of satire, for instance, is a European, not a local affair – or outside the boundaries of the genre in question. And there is no more difficult subject to treat in such a scheme than the subject of satire. For it has not – as has the drama, for instance – any definite technique . And the authors of satire have often occupied themselves with other literary activities as well; or like Chaucer, have not been primarily satirists at all. If we remind ourselves of the peculiar difficulties and peculiar limitations of the task, we must affirm that Professor Walker has succeeded.2 His book has in the first place the merits of a good chronicle; it is complete, well-proportioned and orderly. In detail it exhibits a judgment which is sound and independent; on several authors Professor Walker is so interesting as to make the reader regret that his subject prevents him from considering the whole of their work. The simplest method of testing such a book is to examine its treatment of a major and of a minor author in each of several periods. We have found no opinion or judgment in his book which need be called into question. On the great – Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, Byron, – Professor Walker may have said nothing very new, but he has said everything very well. Of the small, he raises many to their proper places. To Churchill he is just.3 To Dunbar, neglected even by many readers who can admire Skelton, he awards his proper dues.4 He is certainly correct in 1925 594 ] emphasizing the derivative mediocrity of Johnson’s London, and in insisting that Johnson as satirist and as poet must be judged by the wonderful Vanity of Human Wishes.5 Few persons who read this book attentively will fail to discover some opinion of their own to be revised, or some author to be examined whom they had previously neglected. The satirical verse of Canning, for example, should certainly be better known: But French philanthropy; – whose boundless mind Glows with the general love of all mankind; Philanthropy, – beneath whose baneful sway Each patriot passion sinks, and dies away . . . No – through the extended globe his feelings run As broad and general as th’ unbounded sun! No narrow bigot he; – his reason’d view, Thy interests, England, ranks with thine, Peru! . . . A steady Patriot of the World alone, The friend of every country – but his own.6 To another class of writer also, and that the most unfortunate, Professor Walker renders justice: to the small men who have invented or adapted a form made perfect by the great who have eclipsed and superseded them. The most difficult part of the task is the latter half of the nineteenth century, where verse satire is rare, but where the mood of satire is widely diffused. But on the most conspicuous satirical figure of the close of the century, Samuel Butler, Dr. Walker is not only sound but new; and his opinion marks a sane reaction against the exaggerated applause which followed complete neglect. The Way of All Flesh commits greater offenses against literary taste than does the often reprehended “Voyage to the Houhynyms.”7 For the profession of Butler’s prodigious novel is realism, and realism collapses if there is the slightest suspicion of prejudice or petulance . And Dr. Walker shows that Butler sometimes loaded his dice. Swift employed the form of extravaganza which allows much greater artistic licence to the passions. And Swift, after all – though this is a purely biographical defence – was fulfilling that destiny of his nature which slowly and inevitably led to madness; but there is no such extenuation for pure crankiness and eccentricity. Satire, Dr. Walker sadly admits, is “a relatively [ 595 English Satire low form of literature” [119...