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

§ 2. The Rolliad

Someone hit on the happy idea of a mock review of a mock epic, and thus Criticisms of the Rolliad began. The successive numbers of this production appeared, from time to time, in The Morning Herald, and won instantaneous popularity; when collected in book-form, they ran through twenty-two editions. Each number professed to be a commentary on a new epic that had just appeared. This mythical composition, The Rolliad, took its name from one of the chief butts of its wit, John Rolle, M.P. for Devonshire, whose stolid toryism had latterly found vent in an attempt to cough down Burke. He was provided with an ancestor, the Norman duke Rollo, whose adventures were a burlesque version of the Aeneid, and who, in due course (in the sixth book), is shown by Merlin in the House of Commons amid his party friends. The contemporary House of Lords, on the other hand, is revealed to Rollo by the dying Saxon drummer whom he has mortally wounded at Hastings. With the advent of fresh matter for ridicule, fresh editions of the epic were feigned to appear, and the topical insertions its author was supposed to make were quoted in prompt reviews, till, at last, even the dying drummer is allowed to die:

  • Ha! ha!—this soothes me in severest woe;
  • Ho! ho!—ah! ah!—oh! oh!—ha! ah!—ho!—oh!!!
  • Although their vivacity and wit, very different from Churchill’s solemn tirades and the steely passion of Junius, had captivated the public, the authors of The Rolliad were too wise to overdo a happy invention. After a while, they transferred their efforts to another style of railing. This took the form of Political Eclogues, where prominent ministerialists lament or strive in rime after the fashion of the outspoken, yet literary, shepherds of Vergil. The new vein, in its turn, was worked out, and was succeeded by a series of Probationary Odes for the laureateship, vacant by the death of Whitehead in 1785, and filled by the appointment of Thomas Warton. The victims thus made to submit specimen odes to the lord chamberlain were by no means chosen from purely literary circles. Politicians and divines are burlesqued together with poets of lesser rank. To be a supporter of Pitt was a sufficient ground for the fathership of an ode, in which the peculiarities of “the author” were gaily ridiculed. All these compositions had to submit to some sort of plan, epic, or collection of eclogues and odes; but, naturally, were accompanied by a number of scattered jeux d’esprit which had no such bond of connection between them. They were afterwards republished as Political Miscellanies, and, never very amusing, grew duller and feebler as the zeal of The Rolliad clique declined.

    Not many of the members of the Esto Perpetua club, who took part in this baiting, were of the first rank of politicians. Two of them, and two only, were ex-ministers: general Richard Fitzpatrick, man of fashion and intimate of Fox, whose “cheerful countenance” and “gay voice” are curiously apparent in his printed page, and Lord John Townshend, less jovial but quite as witty. Of higher literary eminence was the antiquary George Ellis, a harbinger, in his way, of the so-called romantic movement. Other members were journalists, of whom Joseph Richardson was the chief; while French Laurence was professor of civil law at Oxford, and Richard Tickell a librettist of repute. The names now appeal to few; the importance of The Rolliad’s creators, in spite of their ability, was as fugitive as their verses; but, working in unison, they obtained a collective interest otherwise denied them.

    Nice respects and good-nature were not to be expected and not called for in the rough and tumble of political battle; but the vindictive feelings of the ousted whigs spurred them on, sometimes, to venomous railing and, sometimes, to scurrility, and it is characteristic of The Rolliad that personalities and barbed gossip not only abound but form nearly the whole of its matter. One and all of its authors are irresistibly diverted from the public demerits of their quarry to his mannerisms, his oddities and his private life. Pitt’s continence and the dissoluteness of Dundas, the piety of one minister, the profanity of another, anything personal, in fact, form the staple of the jokes. Yet it is impossible not to relish the humorous satire of Ellis’s critique on Pitt’s style of eloquence or the similar squib by Laurence:

  • crisply nice
  • The muffin-toast, or bread and butter slice,
  • Thin as his arguments, that mock the mind,
  • Gone, ere you taste,—no relish left behind.
  • A whole gallery of caricatured portraits comes before us, each touched with party malice and etched with cynical knowledge. On one occasion, for instance, Richardson explored the kitchen of the parsimonious duke of Richmond:
  • Whether thou go’st while summer suns prevail,
  • To enjoy the freshness of thy kitchen’s gale,
  • Where, unpolluted by luxurious heat,
  • Its large expanse affords a cool retreat.
  • It is one of the merits of The Rolliad to have abandoned the tragedy airs and desperate wrath of the political satire that immediately preceded it. Severe and rasping as are its flouts, they seldom lose the tone of club-room pleasantry, and its rimed heroics recall Gay’s Eclogues rather than the polished verse of Pope. Being so much concerned with the personal foibles of forgotten men, its lines, for the most part, fall flat on a later generation, since they lack the finish which would make them interesting. The exceptions, like Fitzpatrick’s couplets on the bishops,

  • Who, still obedient to their Maker’s nod,
  • Adore their Sov’reign, and respect their God—
  • are few and far between. Very seldom is any squib complete in the verse alone; they are supported by a less epigrammatic raillery in the prose comment; which, however, for humour and sly fun, not infrequently surpasses the satire it is supposed to criticise.

    To nothing more, perhaps, was The Rolliad indebted for its success than to the high spirits of its authors. They were gay; they seem to accompany their jokes with an infectious laugh. In consequence, the longer we read them, the more we fall into their humour; and their thin voices seem to gather volume as one after another takes up the theme and adds his quota to the burlesque. This may be one reason why the five Political Eclogues, in continuous verse and isolated in subject, have lost their savour, with the exception of Fitzpatrick’s immortal Lyars, where two of Pitt’s henchmen strive for the prize of mendacity. But, in The Probationary Odes, all ringing changes on the same caricature, they regain audience, whether it is George Ellis scoffing:

  • Oh! deep unfathomable Pitt!
  • To thee Ierne owes her happiest days!
  • Wait a bit,
  • And all her sons shall loudly sing thy praise!
  • Ierne, happy, happy Maid!
  • Mistress of the Poplin trade!
  • or another of the club penning an Ossianic duan:
  • A song shall rise!
  • Every soul shall depart at the sound!!!
  • The wither’d thistle shall crown my head!!!
  • I behold thee, O King!
  • I behold thee sitting on mist!!!
  • Thy form is like a watery cloud,
  • Singing in the deep like an oyster!!!!