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The Parson’s Revels by William Dunkin (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 46, Number 1, Autumn 2013
pp. 55-57 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0041

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An erstwhile member of Swift’s circle of bright young men in Dublin, William Dunkin has long attracted biographers and historians. In recent years, prominent readers of Irish literature, most notably Andrew Carpenter and Terry Eagleton, have emphasized Dunkin’s wide literary range on his own terms. Seamus Deane, after all, once called him “the most underrated poet of eighteenth-century Ireland.” However, the stark fact remains: until now The Parson’s Revels—perhaps Dunkin’s most accomplished poem—has not been reprinted in full since 1774. As Ms. Skeen suggests, the length and scope of this piece, a 1560-line mock-mock-epic of sorts, fell afoul of the broader interests of nineteenth-century anthologists. Perhaps the concerns of The Parson’s Revels are too specific to be of interest beyond its historical milieu, even now. Ostensibly the three lengthy cantos depict a raucous party given by an Irish country squire and attended by the local parson (a relatable enough event, no doubt), but Dunkin freely veers into often highly obscure, and frequently glib, discussions of contemporary politics and local religious tensions. Indeed, despite its manifest simplicity—as a seemingly straightforward burlesque of eighteenth-century Irish society at large—it is nigh on impossible securely to categorize the work. Scholars have tended to group the poem with The Dunciad, even if the major point of comparison is at best superficial: both poems revel in the comic potential of pushing pedantry to its limits. In the tradition of the Martin Scriblerus’s prefaces, a thirty-page “Fragment of Perpetual Notes, Illustrations, and various Readings, taken from the best Critics, Commentators, and Grammarians, and collated with the most authentic Manuscripts” precedes The Parson’s Revels. The editor persona quotes many spurious sources, in English, Greek, Latin, and Irish, and the pages abound with ingenious parodies of Dryden, Milton, and Pope. But how integral are Dunkin’s Notes to the poem proper? And what does one do with them?

The 1774 version of the text, located in the second volume of The Poetical Works of the Late William Dunkin, D.D., presents an uncluttered page with Notes at the very end of the book, after reams of unconnected poems. The 1769 Dublin collection Select Poetical Works of the Late William Dunkin, D.D., by contrast, places them ahead of the text itself. In this new edition, Ms. Skeen relegates the Notes to Appendix III, after a highly useful biographical list of revelers and a four-page list of substantive variants. She overwhelms the poem with detailed (but only rarely extraneous) footnotes to explain Dunkin’s references. A smidge of this information might have been better served in the first Appendix, such as the entry on Faulkner, or even cut entirely (after all, “Grub Street” is a familiar enough gloss), or at least incorporated into the rather excellent Introduction instead. There would be little consensus on the right way to present this or any other multitextual work, of course. Ms. Skeen provokes anew perennial discussions about editing practices in our period.

A reappraisal of Dunkin also allows us to refresh our reading of eighteenth-century verse. Like most of his work—indeed, like a lot of poetry in the period more broadly—the joke at the heart of The Parson’s Revels lies in the jarring juxtaposition of fusty learning and the bawdiness of modern behavior. However, his choice of rhyme and rhythm could not be more different from that of his peers. The poem follows a highly unusual pattern, one that Eagleton found in a lively Restoration piece called “The Ramble” by the poet Alexander Radcliffe, who Byronically rhymes “clitoris” with “Tell stories.” The Parson’s Revels uses deliberately inept rhymes (“scurvy”/“topsy-turvy,” “from it”/“vomit,” “dead aunt”/“pedant”), such as we find in Swift, but the reader feels the full comic effect here from the way the first three lines of each verse (which are iambic tetrameters) set up a pattern that is suddenly disrupted each time by the final, lamely tacked-on phrase. And so each stanza shudders to an anti-climax that is at once integral to the stanza’s meaning but also awkward and lifeless; the speaking...

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