- English Clandestine Satire, 1660-1702
Lawrence Lipking once quipped that "literary history used to be impossible to write; lately it has become much harder" ("A Trout in the Milk," Modern Language Quarterly 54 , 7). For Lipking, surveying the scene in the early 1990s, the traditional forms of historiography had proved themselves incapable of producing a satisfactory account of how literature worked in time: all they could do was to sketch out various contexts into which presumptively timeless works of art would be set in the hope that they would somehow thereby be illuminated. But if literary history in this sense has come to seem impossible, many of us still hold out hope that we can write the history of literature (as an institution, as a force in the world). With English Clandestine Satire, 1660–1702, the late Harold Love offers an exhilarating glimpse of where such a history might ultimately take us.
Love is interested first and foremost with reconstructing the place of the manuscript lampoon in late Stuart English culture. As most scholars now know (thanks largely to Love's earlier work and the pioneering Yale edition of Poems on Affairs of State), there were thousands of these rude, often venomous poems circulating in the late seventeenth century, many of which have been lovingly preserved in huge anthologies assembled for aristocratic patrons by commercial scriptoria. Yet beyond Dryden's, Marvell's, and Rochester's ventures into the form, almost none of these texts have received any kind of sustained critical attention, in large part because they seem so relentlessly of their time (and not even the most appealing or protomodern aspects of that time). Consider only "Advice, or an Heroic Epistle to Frank Villiers" [Figure 1], which jauntily catalogs the alleged adulteries of several members of a prominent noble family, probably none of whom are household names for even the most antiquarian of scholars, all to a tune that few of us would recognize, much less be able to hum. Why then should we care? In part, Love implies, because we have at least fourteen extant copies of this song (and far more must have perished), which collectively suggest that, however ephemeral or trivial the text might seem to us, it was of sufficient interest in the 1680s and 1690s to be repeatedly collected, transcribed in beautiful calligraphy, and sold for a significant sum. These acts of collecting immediately shift the question to the far more interesting issue of "why did late Stuart readers care" about such an apparently passing squib, the aristocratic equivalent of a schoolyard taunt?
Love's answer is that lampoons served a crucial function in late Stuart high society and so are far better understood as social tools than as individual stand-alone texts. At court (especially during the reign of Charles II), the lampoon was "an instrument of factional warfare" (29) in an environment in which "to shine . . . required not only personal virtuosity but the ability to unsettle others" (33). Among "the Town" (the emerging public for the genteel pleasures of London's West End), lampoons operated as a form of gossip through which codes of acceptable behavior were promulgated and questions of relative status were resolved: because Town sociability was far less hierarchical than that of the Court, with its ritualized levees, it helped "to be assailed in a lampoon," since that "confirmed that one was a recognized object of public envy" (93). In so doing, of course, such gossip helped constitute the Town "as a document-based culture" in "which the procurement, exchange, and discussion of lampoons provided both an integrating social ritual [End Page 433]
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and a badge of identity": "those without access" to lampoons were, by definition, infra dig. For the political nation as a whole (especially...