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An Essay On Satire, Particularly On The Dunciad
by [?]


Since the first publication of Walter Harte’s An Essay on Satire, Particularly on the Dunciad,[1] it has reappeared more than once: the unsold sheets of the first edition were included in A Collection of Pieces in Verse and Prose, Which Have Been Publish’d on Occasion of the Dunciad (1732), and the Essay is also found in at least three late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century collections of poetry.[2] For several reasons, however, it makes sense to reprint the Essay again. The three collections are scarce and have forbiddingly small type; I know of no other twentieth-century reprinting; and, perhaps most important, Aubrey Williams claims that “the critical value for the Dunciad of Harte’s poem has not been fully appreciated.”[3] Its value can best be substantiated, or disputed, if it is rescued from its typographical limbo in the collections and reprinted from its more attractive first edition.

Probably the immediate reason for the Essay was Harte’s admiration for Pope, which arose in part from personal gratitude. On 9 February 1727, Harte wrote an unidentified correspondent that “Mr. Pope was pleased to correct every page” of his forthcoming Poems on Several Occasions “with his own hand.” Furthermore, Harte may have learned that Pope had petitioned Lady Sarah Cowper, in 1728, to use her influence to obtain him a fellowship in Exeter College, Oxford.[4]

But however appealing the Essay may be as an installment on Harte’s debt to Pope, there must obviously be better reasons for reprinting it. Harte himself doubtless had additional reasons for writing it. To understand them and the poem, we must also understand, at least in broad outline, the two traditional ways of evaluating satire which Harte and others of his age had inherited. One of them was distinctly at odds with Harte’s aims; to the other he gave his support and made his own contribution.

One tradition stressed the “lowness” of satire, in itself and compared with other genres. This tradition, moreover, had at least two sources: the practice of Elizabethan satirists and the critical custom of assigning satire to a middle or low position in the hierarchy of genres.

From the time of Piers Plowman, it was characteristic of English satirists “to taxe the common abuses and vice of the people in rough and bitter speaches.”[5] This native character was reenforced by the Elizabethan assumption that there should be similarities between satire and its supposed etymological forebears–the satyrs, legendary half men, half goats of ancient Greece. Believing that the Roman satirists Persius and Juvenal had imitated the uncouth manners and vituperative diction of the satyrs, Elizabethan satirists likewise strove to be as rough, harsh, and licentious as possible.[6] Despite the objections to the satire-satyr etymology stated by Isaac Casaubon,[7] scurrilous satire, especially as a political weapon, was a recognizable subspecies in England at least to 1700. The anonymous author, for instance, of A Satyr Against Common-Wealths (1684) contended in his preface that it is ” as disagreeable to see a Satyr Cloath’d in soft and effeminate Language, as to see a Woman scold and vent her self in Billingsgate Rhetorick in a gentile and advantageous Garb.” But as Harte certainly realized, The Dunciad differed greatly from unvarnished abuse, and thus required different standards of critical judgment.

Harte also rejected the critical habit of giving satire a relatively low rank in the scale of literary genres. This habit can be traced to Horace, who belittled the literary status of his own satires,[8] and it was prominent in the Renaissance. The place of satire in a hierarchical list of Julius Caesar Scaliger is perhaps typical: “‘And the most noble, of course, are hymns and paeans. In the second place are songs and odes and scolia, which are concerned with the praises of brave men. In the third place the epic, in which there are heroes and other lesser personages. Tragedy together with comedy follows this order; nevertheless comedy will hold the fourth place apart by itself. After these, satires, then exodia, lusus, nuptial songs, elegies, monodia, songs, epigrams.'”[9] Similar rankings of satire frequently recurred in the neo-classical period,[10] as did the Renaissance supposition that each genre has a style and subject matter appropriate to it. This supposition discouraged any “mixing” of the genres: in Richard Blackmore’s words, “all comick Manners, witty Conceits and Ridicule” should be barred from heroic poetry.[11] The influence of the genres theories even after Pope’s death may be shown by the fact that Pope, for the very reason that he had failed to work in the major genres, was often ranked below such epic or tragic poets as Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton.[12]