January 22, 1995
In the works of Alexander Pope, specifically in his formal verse satires “To Fortesque,” “Dialogue II,” and “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” the satirist takes on several significant roles with concomitant responsibilities. While other, less serious reasons are stated early on in these poems (e.g. writing to be able to sleep, writing is his “thing,” writing exposes his true soul, he was born to write and encouraged to publish, and writing to defend himself) they progress from less serious to the true raison d’être of the satirist as the defender of Virtue and the friends of Virtue: “not for Fame, but Virtue’s better end” (A 342). The defense of Virtue is paramount to the satirist, above all other considerations, even death: “Welcome for thee, fair Virtue! all the past: / For thee, fair Virtue! welcome ev’n the last” (A 358-9).
Even though satire has caused Pope misfortune in his past, and may cause him death, he is still compelled to write:
Could Laureate Dryden, Pimp and Fry’r engage,
Yet neither Charles nor James be in a Rage?
And not I strip the Gilding off a Knave,
Un-plac’d, un-pension’d, no Man’s heir, or Slave?
I will, or perish in the gen’rous Cause.
Hear this, and tremble! you, who ’scape the Laws.
Yes, while I live, no rich or noble knave
Shall walk the World, in credit, to his grave.
To virtue only and her friends, a friend. (f 113-21)
Since the satirist himself is a friend of Virtue; the satire is integral in defending the satirist from those who are being satirized and those who seek to cause harm to Virtue. Ironically, it is because of the satirist’s compulsion to write the truth as he sees it that threatens his physical person and ideal character.
The satirist, explains Pope, must be proud, proud that he has the strength to uphold Virtue:
So proud, I am no Slave:
So impudent, I own myself no Knave:
So odd, my Country’s Ruin makes me grave.
Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me:
Safe from the Bar, the Pulpit, and the Throne,
Yet touch’d and sham’d by Ridicule alone. (d 205-11)
The satirist’s pride springs from the fact that he is not a victim, or perpetrator, of flattery, and the other corruptions that have replaced the law, the church, and the king. These members of the Mob are no longer afraid of anything but the truth — the mordant truth of the satirist’s pen. These flatters and flatterees are contemptuous in the eyes of Pope and are likened to insects, howling beasts, and rabid dogs, in the general portrayal of the scribblers vying for Pope’s attention and the portraits of Atticus, Bufo, and Sporus in “Arbuthnot.” Pope states, “A Lash like mine no honest man shall dread, / But all such babling blockheads in his stead” (a 303-4).
Unlike these “babling blockheads,” the character of Pope’s satirist values anything true and has no regard for the social hierarchy of knaves:
Who-e’er offends, at some unlucky Time
Slides into Verse, and hitches in a Rhyme,
Sacred to Ridicule! his whole Life long,
And the sad Burthen of some merry song. (f 77-80)
A Knave’s a Knave, to me, in ev’ry State. (a 361)
Pope’s satire will immortalize the folly of all dunces just as it will cherish friends in the lines of his verse, “Happy my Studies when by these approv’d! / Happier their Author, when by these belov’d!” (A 143-4). Pope implies that he is vulnerable by making reference to his physical condition in “Arbuthnot” ll. 115-24, and also suggests that he is really soft-hearted, like his father, who knew only “the Language of the Heart” (A 399). Like his father, simple and truthful, Pope personally aspires to be as a satirist, nothing more or less.
The satirist also represents a golden mean for which he uses satire as a weapon to defend Virtue:
My Head and Heart thus flowing thro’ my Quill,
Verse-man or Prose-Man, term me what you will,
Papist or Protestant, or both between,
Like good Erasmus in an honest Mean,
In Moderation placing all my Glory,
While Tories call me a Whig, and Whigs a Tory. (F 63-8)
In addition to not representing any particular class, the satirist is “Not Fortune’s Worshipper, nor Fashion’s Fool, / Not Lucre’s Madman, nor Ambition’s Tool” (A 334-5). Pope offers this description of himself as the ideal satirist:
Envy must own, I live among the Great,
No Pimp of Pleasure, and no Spy of State,
With Eyes that pry not, Tongue that ne’er repeats,
Fond to spread Friendships, but to cover Heats,
To help who want, to forward who excel;
This, all who know me, know; who love me, tell. (f 133-8)
Basically, to Pope, the satirist is one who defends Virtue and attacks Vice whatever the consequences; he is one who supports friends and attacks those who are enemies of the truth no matter what their social position or seeming importance. The satirist is one who cares for his country, its people, and their way of life. Dunces affect us all, and “When Truth or Virtue and Affront endures, / Th’ Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours” (D 199-200).