- Reviewed by
Satire has long been regarded as a distinct genre of literary and artistic expression, said to have flourished in a “Golden Age” in England from the end of the Commonwealth to the deaths of its best-known practitioners, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, in 1744/45. Its antecedents are thought to be the Roman poets Horace, Juvenal, and Persius, and its purposes to be the correction, through laughing at vice, lashing the vicious, or lamenting lapses of decorum, of faults that may be cured in one generation or avoided in the next. While some comic plays and early novels include scenes that perform these functions, the great satires of the Augustan age are (always excepting Gulliver’s Travels) generally thought to require the wit or formal diction of tetrameter or pentameter verse. That all of these suppositions are more or less wrong is an assumption shared by both of the books under review.
Elizabeth C. Mansfield and Kelly Malone, the editors of Seeing Satire in the Eighteenth Century, propose in their introductory essay that “seeing was akin to knowing for Enlightenment thinkers” (1), a stance that privileges both vision and visual satire. Vision was an empirical path to knowledge, but it was also (as Swift feared) a means by which some “illustrious Moderns have eclipsed the weak glimmering lights of the Ancients” (3). The act of seeing, especially when the manner of seeing “apes accepted cultural and social conventions in order to reveal their essential flaws” (3), is here considered as an interpretive gesture with broad cultural manifestations. Thus, while Seeing Satire includes the discussions of Pope, Swift, Hogarth, Gillray, and Isaac, Robert, and George Cruikshank that one might expect to find in a book on satire, one also finds in it essays on painting, embroidery, masculine muffs, peepshows, sculpted busts, and chapbooks from Russia. Two chapters are given to the Livre de caricatures, a 387-page manuscript of drawings by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin produced between circa 1740 and 1775. The drawings in the Livre de caricatures may not be satires at all, but visual “puzzles and riddles” for the entertainment of a small circle of readers who guessed at the identities of the exaggerated figures represented with emblems of their characteristic follies. In some [End Page 160] cases, “seeing satire” is a matter of finding satiric intent in objects whose cultural meaning may be ambiguous or merely humorous, such as John Singleton Copley’s portrait of a Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765) or Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Signboard of Gersaint (1720). A virtue of Seeing Satire is that it includes reproductions of about eighty of the works under discussion, so the reader can see what is found to be “satiric” in each case. A list of the illustrations, with their sources, a collective bibliography, and an index make the book useful as a finding guide for information about visual satire.
Rather than broadening the definition of satire to include all cultural artifacts that seem to reflect ambiguously on their own times, Ashley Marshall deepens the base of texts thought to be satirical by reading some three thousand works from the “thick sludge of hell-broth” (xi) that underlies the more famous satires by Dryden, Swift, Pope, Fielding, and Johnson. Much of this material is anonymous, “crudely executed, coarse, and not very literary” (xi), and Marshall admits that knowledge of it will probably not substantially change the more recent readings of the canonical satires. Nor does this thick mass of matter yield a new, uniform definition of satire; rather, it complicates the definition by multiplying the examples which it must fit. Instead of defining satire in terms of its conventional literary components, Marshall takes a taxonomic approach, seeking to classify all of the works, however diverse, that are identified as...