by Mark English
The bluntness and ruthlessness of childhood interactions is well known and name-calling is a favorite ploy in childish struggles for social dominance. Such behavioral patterns persist – albeit usually in muted or more subtle forms – in adult contexts.
The field of politics can be relied upon not only to exert a disproportionate attraction for narcissists and psychopaths (who were probably playground bullies in their early years), but also to bring out the worst in all but those with the very highest levels of integrity and self control. Naked power games are not restricted to politics proper, however: they are evident in virtually every area of human life.
In fact, we are increasingly seeing adults behaving in straight-out childish ways, even in academic contexts. On this site, Daniel Kaufman has talked a lot about the childish antics of some philosophers and other academics working in the humanities.
I want to say something about writers and writing. The field of letters has its own (sometimes ruthless) politics, as all areas of life do. But good writing somehow transcends its social matrix. It can even turn the crude or crass or childish into something elegant or clever.
Childish, of course, is not the same as child-like. There are some aspects of childhood behavior from which positive lessons may be learned. And the practice of writing has – like other forms of artistic practice – deep and intimate links with one very positive aspect of childhood life.
I recently noted that the activities which we normally see as constituting the arts could be seen to involve an extension into the adult world of aspects of the childhood practice of play. With a few exceptions (e.g. traditional crafts), artistic activities are detached from mundane reality and, though they may be psychologically beneficial, they are not “useful” in the normal sense of the word. Just as children’s play (at its best) creates an imagined, self-sustaining world, so too do various artistic activities. In both cases there is an implicit understanding that the imagined world (though it may reflect the real one and may stir deep emotions) is quite distinct from quotidian reality.
This distancing creates a kind of freedom, a sense that normal rules and standards – which are essential in ordinary life to provide a sense of safety and security – need not apply. All hell can break loose on the stage or on the page, but the audience remains aware that this is not life. (Very young children are different, of course, as they lack the ability to distinguish clearly and definitively between the real world and fictional worlds.)
Greek tragedies, gory murder mysteries and horror movies can all be cathartic to some extent, providing a way of dealing with extreme – and often repressed – emotions without the dangers with which they would normally be associated. Comedy, on the other hand, tends to be more concerned with loosening the constraints of etiquette and manners. But in all these cases there can be a sense of (temporary) liberation, mental cleansing and renewal.
Satires and parodies are unusual amongst literary forms in a number of ways. For one thing, satirical works necessarily take an activist stance whereas mainstream fiction need not. Most of the best fiction (or theatre or film) is, in my opinion, quietistic. But satires and parodies necessarily – by their very nature – take a stand. And such works take their targets from the real world of the time. Precisely because of this topicality they are not as self-contained as other literary genres.
Satires and parodies often incorporate insults and sarcasm, but good writing rises above the lower levels of wit. (An old colleague of mine characterized the plays he wrote as a young man as “sarcasm verging on satire.”) As the early 18th century is generally seen to represent the golden age of English satire, I thought it appropriate to say a few words about a couple of figures from that time.
Henry Carey is little known today. He was a gifted satirist, librettist and writer of songs. In 1725 Carey wrote a parody of the writing style of one of his contemporaries, Ambrose Philips. The latter had pioneered a simple and direct verse style utilizing a seven-syllable line. Philips was (in the efficiently dismissive words of Ian Lancashire) “a minor poet not highly regarded then or now.”
The issues at stake were primarily aesthetic but there were also political undercurrents. Carey’s parody of Philips’s poetic style was entitled “Namby-Pamby: or, A Panegyric on the New Versification.” ‘Namby-Pamby’ is a play on Philips’s first name. The nickname was picked up by Alexander Pope and others and soon became firmly embedded in the language.
Carey’s parody begins as follows:
All ye poets of the age,
All ye witlings of the stage,
Learn your jingles to reform,
Crop your numbers and conform.
Let your little verses flow
Gently, sweetly, row by row;
Let the verse the subject fit,
Little subject, little wit.
Namby-Pamby is your guide,
Albion’s joy, Hibernia’s pride.
Rhimy pimed on Missy-Miss;
From the navel to the knee;
That her father’s gracy-grace
Might give him a placy-place.
Now the venal poet sings
Baby clouts and baby things,
Baby dolls and baby houses,
Little misses, little spouses,
Little playthings, little toys,
Little girls and little boys.
As an actor does his part,
So the nurses get by heart
Namby-Pamby’s little rhymes,
Little jingle, little chimes,
To repeat to little miss,
Piddling ponds of pissy-piss…
Some of Carey’s wordplay verges on nonsense, but it is highly charged and nothing like the later tradition of gentle nonsense-for-its-own-sake exemplified by the likes of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. Carey’s critical engagement with contemporaries and with specific cultural and political issues marks and motivates his writing. The rivalries and controversies in question have faded into history, but the emotional energy they generated is still evident, even to the casual reader.
I conclude with a few remarks about Alexander Pope who was a master of subtle and civilized satire. When I studied 18th-century English literature as an undergraduate, I still had strong Romantic prejudices and was initially unimpressed. Heroic couplets, I have to say, are an acquired taste. But the personality of some of the writers showed through, especially (for me) Pope and his circle. I came to love Pope as a person and to admire him as a writer, for his warmth and wit and moral clarity.
Unfortunately, given the barriers that the verse form which he employed creates for today’s readers, he is no longer widely appreciated and never will be. Foreign and ancient authors can be translated and live again. But what Pope and other poets of that period said was not only closely tied to the preoccupations and personalities of the time but also inextricably bound up with a particular style of versifying. Form and content formed a fragile and contingent whole.
Those who have the patience to immerse themselves in Pope’s verse will come to realize that the technical constraints which he willingly adopted and embraced suited the tenor of his mind and allowed him to express serious moral and aesthetic judgments without sounding ponderous or pretentious. Poetic conventions also gave him more freedom than prose would have allowed to give voice to the deep affection which he felt for his friends, both men and women. (See, for example, the “Epistle to Miss Blount, On Her Leaving the Town, After the Coronation.”)
The more combative aspects of his writing, the skewering of his attackers and other enemies (as in The Dunciad), may hold some interest for literary and intellectual historians but hardly for the general reader.