Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 6. The Needy Knife-grinder

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

§ 6. The Needy Knife-grinder

Even in its own day, The Anti-Jacobin was chiefly notable for its poets’ corner, which contained the best political satire since the age of Dryden. The greater part of these compositions developed their wit in some form or another of parody. Jacobins were supposed to write them—Jacobins, who always preferred the most blatant version of extreme opinions. As usual, the idea was not quite new. The Rolliad had feigned to be the work of a ministerialist, and there was an element of parody in Political Eclogues and in Probationary Odes, although the veil was exceedingly conventional. Now, in The Anti-Jacobin, caustic parody was the essence of the satire. Among the earliest victims was the later tory poet laureate, Southey, who was just recovering from a severe attack of revolutionary fever. His conversion did not influence Canning and Frere, if they knew of it, and to their hostility we owe the verses among which The Needy Knife-grinder stands chief. Southey’s sentimentalism and his halting accentual sapphics and dactylics were mercilessly imitated and surpassed. It was not only parody and ridicule of a particular victim, but humorous mockery of a type of thought, and, as such, has continued to live by reason of its admirable combination of inventive power, metre, phrase and artful contrast:

  • Weary Knife-grinder! Little think the proud ones,
  • Who in their coaches roll along the turnpike-
  • road, what hard work ’tis crying all day “Knives and
  • Scissars to grind O!”
  • The scholarly négligé of the form, the whimsical plight of the unlucky knife-grinder and the comedy of his “hard work” make us indifferent to the temporary politics which inspired this immortal skit.