Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 1. Light, Short, Satiric Verse

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 1. Light, Short, Satiric Verse

THE GROWTH and improvement of the daily newspaper, in itself not a strictly literary event, had a natural and marked effect on political literature. In some ways, that effect was merely temporary. The supersession of the weekly essay, of The North Briton type, by the effusions of the letter writers of 1760–75 in a genuine newspaper was soon cancelled; for the newspapers introduced a daily essay, the leading article, and letter-writers sank into the subordinate rôle they have held ever since. But, in political verse, a more permanent effect of the new conditions is noticeable In 1760, we have still the pamphlet poem and the decadent ballad. Some twenty years later, beside these there flourishes an almost new form, that of light, short, satiric verse, altogether slighter in immediate purpose and more playfully teasing in its objects and manner than its predecessors. It has flourished in the nineteenth century and has been marked by an ever-increasing attention to form, ending in a lyric precision surpassing, in some cases, that of serious poetry. For long, however, this new kind of verse was barely aware of its own existence, and wavered tentatively in methods and in choice of models; and, as often happens, in its careless youth it possessed a virility and fire not to be found in the perfected elegance of a later day.

Its rise seems traceable to the year 1784. At that time, the whigs were smarting under their utter rout in the recent general election. The king, their enemy, was victorious: the youthful Pitt was triumphant master of parliament; and revenge, though trifling and ephemeral, was sweet. The whig lampooners, indeed, were not without a serious object. The nation had ratified the king’s choice of an administration. The whigs were concerned to show that the choice was wrong; and, in default of evidence derived from the acts of Pitt’s ministry, they were reduced to merely personal mockery of him and his followers. Ministers were to be discredited by whig satire, if not by their own actions. And a number of brilliant devotees of Fox formed themselves into a club, Esto Perpetua, with the intent to mar the king’s success.