Thursday, April 17, 2008

Topical satire

Topical satire is the stuff that no one gets 20 years after the event. Like the Richard Nixon impression on the fourth season of The Simpsons that my kids didn't react to (Bart taped a long nose to his butt, mooned someone, and said "I am not a butt." For those of you who didn't react, the original word in that sentence was "crook."

I love topical satire. I love it enough to dig up the history so I can get the jokes. Then I will try to explain both the history and the joke to anyone who will listen, which is a time-honored way of spoiling a joke. Don't ask me why I do this. It's my life's work. I wrote a 584-page dissertation on it.

You can't include this stuff in a list of great poems. Although it bothered me (enough to write this today), I left out one of my favorite poets, a late-eighteenth-century satirist whose real name was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, but who wrote under the cheeky penname of Peter Pindar. There is actually a Peter Pindar poem included in the Norton Intro. to Poetry, and a fairly typical one, as it makes fun of the king. But it's not as fun as most of his other poems. So I left it off.

The fun ones are pretty much only available in my dissertation and in "The Age of Johnson, Vol. 8," which includes my article entitled "Self-Praise and the Ironic Personal Panegyric of Peter Pindar." Why? Because no one reads this stuff anymore, and if you want to do it, you have to dig up the originals at the Library of Congress and the Folger Library. The good parts version is that the King of England at the time, George III, the one we Americans revolted against (and the subject of the movie "The Madness of King George"), was an object of fun to those at home and abroad who thought he was middle-class and boring for being faithful to his wife, being earnest about his religion, and taking an interest in farming methods. One of the peers of his realm, the Earl of Rochester, was the primary reason that he became such an object of fun to his subjects.

One of my favorite Pindar poems is Instructions to a Celebrated Laureat, which attacks the poet laureat's praise of George III by pretending to offer even more "heroic" stories of the king and illustrating his "noble" character more effusively than had been done before. So he starts out by saying "How canst thou seriously declare/ That George the Third/ With Cressy's Edward can compare,' Or Harry?" Instead, "George is a clever King, I needs must own,/ And cuts a jolly figure on the throne." Pindar writes a sample birth-day ode to show how the thing should be done, and his is based on what the King had actually done on his most recent birthday, visited Whitebread's brewery with the Queen: "Clearly we must, must, must see Whitbread brew;/Rich as us, Charly; richer than a Jew." While Pindar describes the king's actions at the brewery as "noble," he depicts them as undignified:

And now his curious Majesty did stoop
To count the nails on every hoop;
And lo! no single thing came in his way,
That, full of deep research, he did not say,
"What's this? hae, hae? what's that? what's this? what's that?"

Pindar pretends that the King has to take notes, and he reproduces them in the poem:

To remember to forget to ask
Old Whitbread to my house one day.
Not to forget to take of Beer the Cask,
The Brewer offer'd me, away.---
Now having pencil'd his Remarks so shrewd,
Sharp as the Point indeed of a new Pin;
His majesty his watch most sagely view'd.

Yes, it's very broad satire. That's why I like it, okay? I'm neither a fan nor a practitioner of the subtle, dry kind of humor. In fact, my favorite Pindar poem is entitled The Lousiad. In proper epic style, it tells the story of the time George III found a louse that "got into [his] house." At any rate, the dry little epigraph available in the Norton Intro. to Poetry just isn't good enough to give you the full flavor of this very minor, but entertaining poet. While The Simpsons does include a bit of topical and political humor, the real modern-day successors to poets like Peter Pindar are the writers for Saturday Night Live and South Park. Do you know any others that I would enjoy???


Anonymous said...

This is only tangentially related to the gist of your post, but have you read Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller? A complete satire of Bond, and breathtakingly funny.

lemming said...

Much of what I know of the 1960s comes from Tom Lehrer.