Chesterton & Pope on Satire

it is immeasurably easier to pretend to have imagination than to pretend to have wit

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and his wife Frances

Extracted from Twelve Types, chapter: Pope and the Art of Satire

The general critical theory common in this and the last century is that it was very easy for the imitators of Pope to write English poetry. The classical couplet was a thing that anyone could do. So far as that goes, one may justifiably answer by asking anyone to try. It may be easier really to have wit, than really, in the boldest and most enduring sense, to have imagination. But it is immeasurably easier to pretend to have imagination than to pretend to have wit. A man may indulge in a sham rhapsody, because it may be the triumph of a rhapsody to be unintelligible. But a man cannot indulge in a sham joke, because it is the ruin of a joke to be unintelligible. A man may pretend to be a poet: he can no more pretend to be a wit than he can pretend to bring rabbits out of a hat without having learnt to be a conjuror. Therefore, it may be submitted, there was a certain discipline in the old antithetical couplet of Pope and his followers. If it did not permit of the great liberty of wisdom used by the minority of great geniuses, neither did it permit of the great liberty of folly which is used by the majority of small writers. […]

There is, of course, an idea in our time that the very antithesis of the typical line of Pope is a mark of artificiality. I shall have occasion more than once to point out that nothing in the world has ever been artificial. But certainly antithesis is not artificial. An element of paradox runs through the whole of existence itself. It begins in the realm of ultimate physics and metaphysics, in the two facts that we cannot imagine a space that is infinite, and that we cannot imagine a space that is finite. It runs through the inmost complications of divinity, in that we cannot conceive that Christ in the wilderness was truly pure, unless we also conceive that He desired to sin. It runs, in the same manner, through all the minor matters of morals, so that we cannot imagine courage existing except in conjunction with fear, or magnanimity existing except in conjunction with some temptation to meanness. If Pope and his followers caught this echo of natural irrationality, they were not any the more artificial. Their antitheses were fully in harmony with existence, which is itself a contradiction in terms.

Pope was really a great poet; he was the last great poet of civilization. Immediately after the fall of him and his school come Burns and Byron, and the reaction towards the savage and elemental. But to Pope civilization was still an exciting experiment. Its perruques and ruffles were to him what feathers and bangles are to a South Sea Islander – the real romance of civilization. And in all the forms of art which peculiarly belong to civilization, he was supreme. In one especially he was supreme – the great and civilized art of satire. And in this we have fallen away utterly.

Political and social satire is a lost art, like pottery and stained glass.

We have had a great revival in our time of the cult of violence and hostility. Mr. Henley [infamous for posthumously debunking R.L. Stevenson’s reputation after the latter’s death, DW.] and his young men have an infinite number of furious epithets with which to overwhelm any one who differs from them. It is not a placid or untroubled position to be Mr. Henley’s enemy, though we know that it is certainly safer than to be his friend. And yet, despite all this, these people produce no satire. Political and social satire is a lost art, like pottery and stained glass. It may be worthwhile to make some attempt to point out a reason for this. It may seem a singular observation to say that we are not generous enough to write good satire. This, however, is approximately a very accurate way of describing the case.

To write great satire, to attack a man so that he feels the attack and half acknowledges its justice, it is necessary to have a certain intellectual magnanimity which realises the merits of the opponent as well as his defects. This is, indeed, only another way of putting the simple truth that in order to attack an army we must know not only its weak points, but also its strong points. England in the present season and spirit fails in satire for the same reason that it fails in war: it despises the enemy. […] whereas when the enemy is strong every honest scout ought to praise the enemy. It is impossible to vanquish an army without having a full account of its strength.

It is impossible to satirise a man without having a full account of his virtues. It is too much the custom in politics to describe a political opponent as utterly inhumane, as utterly careless of his country, as utterly cynical, which no man ever was since the beginning of the world. This kind of invective may often have a great superficial success: it may hit the mood of the moment; it may raise excitement and applause; it may impress millions. But there is one man among all those millions whom it does not impress, whom it hardly even touches; that is the man against whom it is directed. The one person for whom the whole satire has been written in vain is the man whom it is the whole object of the institution of satire to reach. He knows that such a description of him is not true. He knows that he is not utterly unpatriotic, or utterly self-seeking, or utterly barbarous and revengeful. He knows that he is an ordinary man, and that he can count as many kindly memories, as many humane instincts, as many hours of decent work and responsibility as any other ordinary man. But behind all this he has the real weaknesses, the real ironies of his soul: behind all these ordinary merits lie the mean compromises, the craven silences, the sullen vanities, the secret brutalities, the unmanly visions of revenge. It is to these that satire should reach if it is to touch the man at whom it is aimed. And to reach these it must pass and salute a whole army of virtues.

If we turn to the great English satirists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, we find that they had this rough but firm grasp of the size and strength, the value and the best points of their adversary. Dryden, before hewing Achitophel in pieces, gives a splendid and spirited account of the insane valour and inspired cunning of the: “daring pilot in extremity,” who was more untrustworthy in calm than in storm, and “steered too near the rocks to boast his wit.” The whole is, so far as it goes, a sound and picturesque version of the great Shaftesbury. [reference to Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel (1681), DW]

Alexander Pope