This essay discusses two categories of eighteenth-century comic verse that were mainstream in their time but are now almost forgotten. They have little or nothing to do with the satiric traditions that dominate critical attention. Part 1 explores a mass of comic verse tales, direct descendants of the medieval fabliau. In the process, it explores a bestselling anthology of them, the Noble brothers’ The Muse in Good Humour (1744–85), and the career of Matthew Prior, the greatest contemporary producer of this genre and by far the most prominent English poet between Dryden and Pope. While often offensive in content, eighteenth-century verse tales remain quick and colloquial, still leaping off the page after 250 years. Their easy tetrameter couplets and plain diction remind us that neoclassical strictures only stretched so far. Part 2 introduces a stranger and lessappealing set of texts: cruel poems about physical defects and disabilities. Few texts could be more alien to current norms about the eighteenth century as an Age of Sensibility. Yet these “deformity poems” were produced in vast quantities and in every conceivable form, from epigrams about squinters, to long and absurdly sentimental tales about hunchbacks in love. Both professionals and amateurs seem to have used them as technical exercises—as a way of amusing themselves and showing off their skill at mimetic versification. As such, deformity poems illustrate the everyday uses of verse in this culture: they were written by everyone, circulated in and out of print, and constantly adapted to new audiences and new occasions.


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pp. 197-230
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