Nothing to Admire: The Politics of Poetic Satire from Dryden to Merrill

Nothing to Admire: The Politics of Poetic Satire from Dryden to Merrill

Nothing to Admire: The Politics of Poetic Satire from Dryden to Merrill

Nothing to Admire: The Politics of Poetic Satire from Dryden to Merrill

Synopsis

Nothing to Admire argues for the persistence of a central tradition of poetic satire in English that extends from Restoration England to present-day America. This tradition is rooted in John Dryden's and Alexander Pope's uses of Augustan metaphor to criticize the abuse of social and political power and to promote an antithetical ideal of satiric authority based on freedom of mind. Because of their commitment to neoclassical conceptions of political virtue, the British Augustans developed a meritocratic cultural ideal grounded in poetic judgment and opposed to the political institutions and practices of their superiors in birth, wealth, and might. Their Augustanism thus gives a political meaning to the Horatian principle of nil admirari. This book calls the resulting outlook cultural liberalism in order to distinguish it from the classical liberal insistence on private property as the basis of political liberty, a conviction that arises within the same general period and often stands in adversarial relation to the Augustan mentality. Dryden and Pope's language of political satire supplies the foundation for the later and more radical liberalisms of Lord Byron, W.H. Auden, and James Merrill, each of whom looks back to the Augustan model for the poetic devices he will use to protest the increasingly conformist culture of mass society. Responding to the banality of this society, the later poets reinvigorate their predecessors' neo-Horatian attitude of skeptical worldliness through iconoclastic comic assaults on the imperial, fascist, heterosexist, and otherwise illiberal impulses of the cultural regimes prevailing during their lifetimes.

Excerpt

If obliged to name the defining theme of Byron's poetry, a reader would have good reason to choose the problem of legitimacy or literary authority. the poet evokes the theme at the beginning of his career in the diatribe of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), where with all of a twenty-one-year-old's ham-fisted self-importance he declares: “But now, so callous grown, so changed since youth, /I've learned to think and sternly speak the truth. ” and he voices it at the end in “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year” (1824), where by laying claim to a “soldier's grave” in the fight for Greek independence he proposes to write his own epitaph and thus take au- thorship of the public record of his life.

I will start this chapter with the observation that Byron achieved his most daring response to the problem in his satiric masterpiece Don Juan, which, along with his earlier poems Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 4 and Beppo, suggests a reinvention of Augustan skepticism toward social convention. Taken to- gether, these poems discredit the accepted interpretation of history in early nineteenth-century England and Europe. Moreover, they do so most con- vincingly at the moments when they deny having any privileged knowledge or objective truth-value of their own. It is by articulating bathetic, indeco- rous, or impertinent points of view that Byron's satires bring to light the re- pressions of “polite, ” bourgeois discourse and thereby begin to articulate something like a sustained political argument against the public sphere in which they participate. Significantly, they present this very polemic as a self- conscious modernization of the Augustan project, albeit in a highly idiosyn- cratic sense. For Byron may be said to interpret the enterprise as an effort of mediation between ancient and modern historical frames of reference in order to arrive at a new and more open horizon of social interchange. Yet, in undertaking the effort, his satires mockingly demonstrate the impossibility of such a synthesis. the loss of a certain foundation of cultural renewal en- forces in turn a sharpened sense of the historicity of culture per se. Precisely because poetry no longer can affirm a unifying Pax Augustana, it helps to en- vision an ambivalent state of truce between rival moral vocabularies.

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