Tag Archives: satire

Voltaire v Johnson

15 May


Candide – Rasselas

Voltaire’s “Candide” is a wild, improbable, picaresque that takes an innocent protagonist of the same name around the world, exposing him to a multitude of dangers and extraordinary experiences. The novel is a satirical pilgrim’s progress, containing a catalogue of happen-stance meetings, unlikely friendships and coincidences. Although a work of fiction it contains allusions to much of the period in which it was written and would’ve been viewed as topical reading in its day. The deadly earthquakes that occurred in Lisbon in 1755 killing thousands of people would have been the equivalent of a 20th century tsunami disaster, having the same repercussions on a modern internet browsing audience as they did on Voltaire’s 18th Century readership. Voltaire didn’t just write a novel, he wrote about his world; its quotidian minutia as well as its major events.

               The satire lavished throughout the novel is cutting in context and although one might suppose that present day society differs greatly from Voltaire’s, it would seem that modern inhabitants differ little from those of two hundred thirty years ago. The satirical characters Voltaire introduces us to and the heinous crimes they commit are still to be found in what we laughingly call the civilized world. The excesses of the vice-ridden priests in Lisbon and their penchant for whores can be equated to the excesses of the “modern” Catholic Church and their sexually deviant priests. Alternatively the historical abuse of international resources by gunpowder savvy nations is equivocal to the Western imperialism perpetrated on third world nations today. In fact, it would be fair to say that if it involves sex, money or power, humanity hasn’t progressed at all and Voltaire, if resurrected, would very easily adjust to the antique vice of our modern society. “Candide” is a contemporary novel which, with only the names changed to protect the innocent and its author from libel, could be published succesfully today. Nothing has altered and as “Pangloss” reminds us, “There are no effects without cause,” and no matter what, “this is the best possible of all worlds.”

               Voltaire’s novel is juxtaposition from Samuel Johnsons “Rasselas,” an apologue that leads from one insipid adventure to another without ever discovering perfect happiness; a clichéd “grass is always greener on the other side” tale and nothing more. It contains none of the spurious adventures or miraculous resurrections of “Candide” and is only comparable in vintage and a tenuous nod to satire. The tale is weak, predictable, and without depth; the characters created by Johnson, two dimensional.

               Rasselas, a young Prince dissatisfied with what he considers imprisonment is forced to live in the “Happy Valley” where all is in abundance, no wars or conflicts occur and all nature is in concord. Despite being heir to the throne of Abyssinia he believes that there’s more to life, and with his sister and his faithful poet “Imlac” – a man of the world who considers that he’s already found happiness in the valley, and who pities Rasselas for his ignorance – decide to dig a hole to escape the valley after observing rabbits burrow through the same earth. When comparing this to Candide who’s abducted and forced to endure the horrors of war by marauding armies, sails to foreign countries narrowly avoiding death, and eventually travels half way around the world to discover Utopia, there really isn’t any comparison.

               Given that Johnson wrote “Rasselas” in a week to garnish funds for his mother’s funeral, there’s little wonder that comparisons are few and far between. Voltaire develops a thesis of discovering “Pangloss’s” better world, whilst Johnson, through “Rasselas,” pursues the possibility of human happiness. Both novels describe the adventures of young men accompanied by companions in search of a better life and there, unfortunately, the comparison ends. “Candide” endures because of its insight into the human condition, the wit of Voltaire and its merits as a satire. “Rasselas” survives onlybecause Johnson was more noted for his other works as a novelist, essayist, lexicographer and biographer. Unfortunately it isn’t an example of his finest work and represents the lesser end of a broad satirical, literary spectrum.





Humphry Clinker- Tobias Smollett

13 May




“Humphry Clinker” begins in disharmony and ill health, a collection of travelers who for the perceived betterment of themselves undertake a circuitous progress through Britain. The journey takes them from their home in Wales through England and onto Scotland. Their dissimilar experiences are related in an epistolary, where their varied descriptions and shared adventures juxtapose one another. The novel is a didactic quest; a journey filled with new experiences and self-realization. Smollett’s underlying insinuation is the application of modern thinking, with the inclusion of tried and tested wisdom in order to achieve the “best of all worlds.”

             Mathew Bramble, the principle letter writer, initially complains of the gout and ineffective medication and upon the the advice of his doctor seeks the antidote that fresh air and exercise will hopefully provide. To his horror the town of Bath, rather than a center of well-being and purification, displays all the characteristics of modern excess and a stark realization that the pastoral sublimity of Wales is now far behind him. Bramble, just as progress and society, must move forward – there’s no going back. In contrast his fellow family members are charmed by the expanding city, of it extravagances and entertainments, representative of a generation growing up in the modern era. Even Tabatha, the man-hungry sister, is charmed by the excesses of the city, or rather the men it contains. Smollett cleverly shows divided opinion and therefore doesn’t state that modernity is an evil to be avoided; rather it brings both good and bad in its wake.

               London is expanding beyond its ancient boundaries and the lucrative trade with the colonies is detrimental to Bramble’s experience of the English way of life. Class is hardly recognizable, quality unavailable and the experience intolerable. Despite this Bramble recognizes innovation and comments on the quality of streets, squares, lights and buildings and even marvels at Westminster Bridge. Everywhere there is disharmony and this is the crux of Smollett’s treatise; the creation of a harmonized society with all the benefits and none of the problems. This idea is introduced to us incrementally through the character of Clinker, who although initially taken on as a beggar turns out to be the son of Bramble himself; a diamond in the rough, not unlike the England of the eighteenth century. Smollett intentionally alludes to disharmony through the search for husbands, the star-crossed lovers, and the appreciation of Scotland and distaste for England. Scotland is an Arcadia where the old ways are still practiced, where Edinburgh is the seat of all genius, and yet even Bramble recognizes that the Scots are lagging in progress. Smollett describes via his picaresque the benefits of unity, and in particular intimates to the possibility of union between England and Scotland that eventually occurred in 1707.

                             Through husbandry – a clever pun – and various marriages, nations and societies are brought together. Tabatha marries the Scot Lismahago, demonstrating international union. The Dennisons move from the city, to farm the North, bringing with them the necessary farming practices whilst incorporating the pre-existent ideals of communal living. Bramble’s daughter marries into the Dennisons, implying an international and generational union as well as a move towards modernity. Baynard’s adoption of Dennison’s husbandry alludes to societal division, the benefits of unification, and therefore the betterment of each. Bramble, initially alienated from family, health, and even society, by the end of the novel achieves personal satisfaction through the happy marriages of his sister and niece as well as good fortune thanks to Clinker’s revelation, and even an improved constitution.

               Smollett denigrates England with his descriptions of filth, avarice and all that modernity brings with it, and by comparing it to a retarded, pristine, pastoral of Scotland is able to showcase the best and worst of both societies. His employment of marriage as an international unifier and the use of husbandry to exemplify social change, although amusing, is didactic. The journey taken by Smollett characters is really a progression of British society undergoing great change and espouses the myriad problems facing an emerging nation. Bramble’s health and that of the nation are intertwined.



21 Mar


(The Satire of DEFOE and ROCHESTER)


            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.