The Baroque in English Neoclassical Literature

By J. Douglas Canfield | Go to book overview

14
Gay and Fielding: Absurdly Meant

THE APEX OF THE BAROQUE IN THE NEOCLASSICAL IN ENGLAND AND, indeed, all over Europe may have been the opera, with its ubiquitous classical subjects and settings and its baroque music. The Hanoverians brought Händel to the Haymarket. Like Pope and Swift before them, who objected in this new fad to what they viewed as sound without sense, the fellow Scriblerian John Gay (who wrote the libretto for Händel’s Acis and Galatea) and the Scriblerian wannabe Henry Fielding parodied this baroque/neoclassical mix with a delightful and absurd mix of their own, their ballad operas of the late 1720s and 1730s. In The Beggar’s Opera and The Author’s Farce, especially, by means of absurdity they satirized not only the degeneracy of taste but the deleterious effects of incipient capitalism upon cultural production and consumption.

When at the end of The Beggar’s Opera the Player complains to the Beggar that the intended ending of the play will violate the “Taste of the Town” (3.16), he sets in motion a baroque reflexive intervention that has profound consequences for the interpretation of not only Gay’s masterpiece but at least one of its imitations, Fielding’s Author’s Farce. Both plays present a strident critique of emergent Whig political economy, that is, of incipient capitalism, a critique that masquerades as “mere” or “sheer” entertainment. But the absurdly baroque reflexivity of Gay’s ending and of Fielding’s entire third act force us to reconsider the significance of that which has lulled us into the complacency of comic catharsis.


IF IT AIN’T BAROQUE… : THE BEGGAR’S FINAL
FIX IN THE BEGGAR’S OPERA

Gay’s seriousness is questionable: everything is undercut so
playfully and rapidly that the targets blend and the barbs fuse
into a general, seemingly tongue-in-cheek cynicism.

Richard W. Bevis, 1988

-174-

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The Baroque in English Neoclassical Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 7
  • Foreword 9
  • Acknowledgments 13
  • Introduction 15
  • List of Abbreviations 21
  • 1 - Milton: Mysteriously Meant 25
  • 2 - Cavendish and Philips: Metaphysically Meant 34
  • 3 - Waller and Etherege: Materially Meant 42
  • 4 - Dorset and Sedley: Mischievously Meant 50
  • 5 - Buckingham and Rochester: Reflexively Meant 63
  • 6 - Behn: Paradoxically Meant 77
  • 7 - Dryden: Cryptically Meant 91
  • 8 - Killigrew and Finch: Ventriloquently Meant 107
  • 9 - Rowe and Pope and Tonson/Gildon and Curll: Parasitically Meant 117
  • 10 - Pope: Metaphorically Meant 125
  • 11 - Pope: Mockingly Meant 143
  • 12 - Montagu: Surrogately Meant 154
  • 13 - Swift: Eccentrically Meant 164
  • 14 - Gay and Fielding: Absurdly Meant 174
  • Concluding Meditation 188
  • Appendix Poems Less Readily Available 193
  • Notes 217
  • List of Secondary Works Cited 235
  • Index 243
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