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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

X. Writers of Burlesque and Translators

§ 1. The Underworld of Letters and its Vagabond Inhabitants

AS the seventeenth century drew to its close, there came into being a strange underworld of letters, an inferno inhabited by lettered vagabonds, who matched, in scholarship and scurrility, the heroes of Petronius. Beggar students, tavern keepers, idlers from the inns of court, adventurers who had trailed a pike in Holland, flocked thither with spruce young squires who “knew the true manage of the hat,” and loungers fresh from the universities. Thus, in the coffeehouses, there grew up a new public, for whose amusement a new literature was invented. The old days of dignity and leisure were passed. The wits of the town wrote, not to please themselves, but to flatter the taste of their patrons, and many of them succeeded so well as to echo in prose or verse the precise accent of the tavern. A familiarity of speech and thought distinguished them all. They were ribald, they were agile, they were fearless. They insolently attacked their great contemporaries. They had, indeed, as little respect for high personages in life or letters as for the English tongue, which they maltreated with light-hearted ribaldry. The slang which they used—and they were all masters in this kind—was not the curious slang of metaphor, such as is enshrined in the pages of Cotgrave’s Dictionary; rather, it was composed of the catch words which seemed worth a smile when they were heard in the coffee-house, but which instantly lost their savour when they were put in print, and which to-day defy the researches of the archaeologist. As they aimed, one and all at the same mark—popularity—they exhibit in their works no subtle differences. The vanity of individual expression was not for them. They admitted that the booksellers, who paid the piper, had a perfect right to call the tune, and they sang and danced in loyal obedience to the fashion of the moment. They wrote the slippered doggerel, the easy prose, the flippant plays, that were asked of them, and their names might be transposed on many title-pages without any violation of justice or probability.

In spirit and ambition, they were true cockneys. They readily shook off the influences and associations of their childhood. Though Tom Brown went to Christ Church from Shifnal, though Ned Ward was a loyal son of Oxfordshire, though Peter Motteux first saw the light at Rouen, London was their paradise. They saw through her eyes, they spoke with her tongue. Most intimately at home in Will’s or Ned Ward’s, they dragged their muse, as they would still have called her, down to the level of sawdust and spilled wine. Before all things, and at all times, they were anti-heroic. Their jests never sparkled more brightly than when they were aimed at authority. No poets, living or dead, were sacred in their careless eyes. It seemed to them a legitimate enterprise to ridicule Vergil, or to trick Homer out in the motley garments of the age. Aeneas and Ulysses, esteemed heroes by many generations of men, were for them no better than those who frequented Grub street or took their pleasure in the Mall. And they found in travesty or burlesque an admirable field for the exercise of their untidy talent.