BETWEEN THE LINES – SATIRE

21 Mar

A REVIEW

(The Satire of DEFOE and ROCHESTER)

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            Shakespeare suggests in his play Twelfth Night that it’s “Better [to be] a witty fool than a foolish wit.”  That being said, what would the wit without the fool? The lampooning of society and the natural order is nothing new and the art of satire still remains one of the most popular forms of contemporary social commentary. The craft of satirizing was a literary style, extremely popular during the period of The Restoration and The Glorious Revolution of the 17th century; two proponents of this technique where Rochester and Defoe whose work epitomized both the genre and wit of the age. It’s the intention embedded within their writing which makes them pertinent, and to a modern eye evergreen. Beneath what appears prima facie to be innocuous poetry lurks an undercurrent of bighting criticism whose complaints, in many cases, would not be out of place if directed towards current political cronyism and public mal practice. Both writers skillfully tackle the subjects of identity and national hubris however, from different viewpoints. By comparing and contrasting the employment of dissimilar critical allusions to satirize the issues of the period, a consideration of their effectiveness in achieving a common goal can be made.

            The English flux of the late 17th century was caused by successive regime changes of both monarchy and government. With the forced abdication and ultimate execution of  King Charles I,  after a bloody revolutionary war with the parliamentarian forces under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, England went from being a monarchy to a republic; the first since Rome. There no longer existed a divinity of kingship but instead, an imposed regime led by a self-styled dictatorship or Lord Protectorate. The new republic, despite initial optimism, brought with it not only constitutional change but religious and civil upheaval as well. The societal pendulum had swung from the debauched and the crass to a totalitarian centralization of power. The Stalinist grip held over the people of England can only be compared to the Cromwellian grip that Stalin later held over the Russians. The death of Cromwell precipitated a return to a self-serving monarchy unwilling to work with a parliament of the people and who in all things was autonomous and aloof. Not only was there a restoration in governance but a reformation in religious discord as the incumbent monarch – although subtle – was once again a proclaimer of the Catholic faith. Upon his death the problem was exacerbated by his son James II – an extrovert Catholic – determined to turn the clock back to 1641. An intervention was necessary and King William III of the Netherlands was duly installed in what became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688. To suggest that England was perplexed would be an understatement, as the state of supposed normalcy seemed to change every few years with almost clock-work regularity. It’s little wonder then, that satirists of the day were apt to lampoon both the parliament and the monarchy by waving its dirty laundry in the face of public opinion, through the medium of satirical poetry, for closer scrutiny.

            Satirical topics of the period included everything from the general state of the nation and the ruling classes to the more introspective topics of identity and national hubris. Two such satirists were John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester, a man reputedly, “with the most wit and the least honor in England” and Daniel Defoe, a man better known for his novels, but more notoriously for being in debt to the tune of ₤17000; an extraordinary sum, which today would amount to millions. Through the writings of these two ex-cons – Defoe having been pilloried on numerous occasions, and Rochester who’d been thrown into the Tower of London – we’re illuminated, through their satire, as to the historical state of the English commonwheel.

            Rochester “a man of strange vivacity and vigor of expression,” expresses his disdain for humanity as a whole by utilizing the petri-dish of England for his most caustic revelations. Employing a philosophy of “writing what one knows,” he parodies the state of humanity in his satirical poem “A satire against reason and mankind.” Within the stanzas of his verse he acutely demonstrates the incalculable idiocy of man to both gratify and enlarge himself. His writings eloquently demonstrate man’s hopeless attempts to extricate themselves from the mire and make something of what will assuredly be, he insists, a hopeless life and a wasted opportunity. It’s the richness of his parody that makes one ponder the veracity of his insights.

             Rochester chooses to polarize his reader with the weakness of man and expose him as less than wild beasts in virtue and social interaction; a satirical tool that wasn’t original, but one which he used to great effect.  The poetry begins with his general announcement that if he himself had the choice, which he doesn’t, he’d choose to be anything but a human, “Where I a spirit free to choose…/ What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,” The allegorical comparison of bestial connection in Rochester’s work is simplistic but effective. By asking rhetorical questions we see a list of comparisons that one could easily believe to be true if taken at face value. “Be judge yourself, I’ll bring it to the test / Which is the basest creature man or beast?” It’s man who kills for profit, greed and appointment. It’s man that cheats his fellow man, lies, dissembles and with, “voluntary pains works his distress / Not though necessity but wantonness” One can almost imagine the readership nodding their heads in agreement with his statements as the facts, as they stand alone, are perfectly reasonable. By employing satire the author gives the audience no recourse to argue the point, as his is the only voice and therefore rebuttal is impossible. A basis of truth infused with insinuation and ridiculous reasoning and yet very efficient.

            Daniel Defoe was able to adapt to the mutability of the period; whether through writing, affiliation, or business, and was successful where others failed. Despite some very close calls with imprisonment, bankruptcy and misfortune it would appear that it was ultimately his wits that preserved him. Defoe through his own satirical poetry chooses a dissimilar route to Rochester, although he incorporates many of the same ideas. Instead of railing on the ineffectuality of the human he picks as his target the Englishman. Rather than anthropomorphic symbolism he chooses national hubris with which to expose and denigrate his chosen target. The poem entitled “A true born Englishman,” lampoons what it is to be English, or rather what is imagined as the English ideal and the genus of Englishness itself.

            National identity is the amalgam that binds all nations together and it’s this trait that Defoe satirizes. He suggests, and rightly so, that to identify with a pure bred, divinely empowered race is ridiculous. Preservation of nationality was a particularly tenuous topic given the social pressures the English had endured during a period of major upheaval. The push and pull of religious faction was still fresh in the minds of the public and a legacy that’d been retained well within living memory. Papism was regarded as something alien and had for the longest time been associated with foreign cultures. One only had to go back to the reign of the Tudors to revisit the horrors of regnal imposition. Due to the religious evolutions through which England had passed from Popes to Protectors of the Faith, Anglicanism was a stamp of Englishness. The republic of the civil war had certainly been non-conformist and the ideas that it has ushered in did not wither and die under the restoration, just as Catholicism never really left the islands either. With Scottish kings on English thrones and Dutch usurpers replacing them, it was self-evident that the blood that ran through the veins of the English was of no discernable pedigree, despite widespread cognitive dissonance. A “mongrel half bred race” is how Defoe describes the indigenous population who stem from the loins of foreign invaders, roving bands and invading armies. That which was nationally purported to be true is destroyed in his observation, “That het’rogenous thing an Englishman:/  In eager rapes and lust begot/  Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.” Rather than compare, Defoe contrasts the improbability of racial purity “A true born Englishman is a contradiction/ In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.”  His bitter use of irony throughout drives his point home, just as Rochester utilizes every comparison available to denigrate and debase. In order to broach the subject of a xenophobic nation towards a Dutch King, Defoe incorporates satire to formulate his argument. William was invited to England to rid that which was considered most English; a generational monarchy. The fact that the new king was a Dutchman, he suggests, can be forgiven, as in his attitudes and lineage he is not dissimilar to the indigenous peoples of the land. In point of fact he is, according to Defoe, in all probability as English as any of those who decried his electability.

            Rochester continues to needle his audience by offering mitigating circumstances to explain the irrational behaviors of men that are more hindrance than help. By rationalizing he hopes to compound his argument and force an affirmative reaction, “Men must be knaves it’s their only defence /…Who dares be a villain less than the rest?” Although dripping with irony the narrator strives to find an affinity and pretend and understanding. This is the beauty of the satirical method as the true message is repressed below the author’s imagery; a subliminal chastisement, if only one would take the time to read and understand.

            At the beginning of Defoe’s poem he goes on a cultural diatribe describing the ills and vices of other nations. The Germans drinks, the French are lascivious and so on; national traits and cultural stereotypes that are very easily to identify and recognize. His methodology is to trick his audience, just as Rochester does, into accepting the dichotomy that stereotypes may be as poignant to the Europeans as they are to the English. This then poses the question, how are the English perceived by others? By holding up a mirror of foreign traits he offers absolution through self-reflection. Consequently it’s ironic that an Englishman would willingly accept the differences in others but not in himself.

            As with modern satire the writings of Defoe and Rochester were a reflection of the age. In the satirical writings of the 17th Century, it appears to the contemporary reader, that there’s a blatant overstatement of point even to the point of obviousness. The use of satire during this period, although not new, was increasingly on the rise and becoming more common place. Improvements in printing and social integration in the coffee shops and chocolate houses coupled with increased enrolment at universities meant that books and pamphlets were beginning to be regarded as a staple. The flow of information and quotidian topic was only available through the medium of print and therefore whoever had access to the press could coin both opinion and politic.

            Although they employ different satirical methods both authors are able to ably make their point, through the comparison of instinctive animal behavior, which one can recognize easily in Rochester’s treatise, or in the absurdity of national identity and superiority of race in Defoe’s. Through the use of allegory and irony they create a uniform persona that can be held up to scrutiny; a polarized figure that’s easily identifiable and which can be manipulated to transfer the author’s message. Rochester shows us a “beast” that isn’t as competent or as clever as it may consider itself to be and suggests that there’s room for improvement in everything it is, and does. This reflects on society, manner, governance and everything that conceivably involves human interaction. Likewise Defoe is sending a message which suggests that as different or as English as we are, there’s no reason for disharmony and social disparity. Both messages are equally pertinent and yet both are argued from different points of view. In order to focus public attention and achieve a common aim, it’s the methodology of satire, rather than the vehicle, that solidifies the message.

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