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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

III. Political and Ecclesiastical Satire

§ 2. Denham and Marvell

It was in the years 1666–7, when the unpopularity of Clarendon was at its height, and when the disasters of the Dutch war brought into strong relief the faults and failures of the men in power, that Sir John Denham began the series of Caroline political satires. However little merit his four Instructions to a Painter, dour travesties of Waller’s adulation which bore the same name, might possess, they started a fresh genre. Recent events, fact or fable, were narrated in the heroic couplet with malign distortion or biting veracity. It “made my heart ake to read,” says Pepys of the fourth satire in the series, “it being too sharp, and so true.” Andrew Marvell, who had begun as a lyric poet, followed in Denham’s wake with his last Instructions to a Painter in 1667, the most powerful of these satires, and, from that date until his death in 1678, remained the ablest satirist opposed to the court. Farther Instructions to a Painter, An Historical Poem, Advice to a Painter, and the dialogue Britannia and Raleigh were all from his pen; and, before he died, imitators, such as the author of the grimly-humorous Dream of the Cabal, were springing up.

The common characteristic of these compositions was their journalistic nature. They were riming pamphlets professing to give actual events and court secrets, in the form either of rambling narratives or of descriptions of persons taken seriatim. For them, art is a subordinate factor, and their rough couplets show very little of it. The ways of Charles II’s court and government gave them only too much opportunity for scurrilous obscenity. Vigour, wit and humour in a high degree are to be found in them. Marvell had a real knowledge of affairs and statesmanlike insight. Not personal resentment, but a strong conviction of the evils of the day urged him on to his vituperative satire, and he stabs home with a scientific precision. In satires of this class, however, moral indignation, although it is not absent, frequently makes but a poor show, owing to the abundance of the very filth which is brought forward as justification for it. Of their contemporary influence, we can hardly doubt. So they reached their aim, which was political and not at all poetic.