Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Tobias Smollett's poetry -- and homophobia, and climate change...

While I've been reading Peregrine Pickle, I've also been taking some quick glances at Smollett's poems, which are helpfully available on PoemHunter.


Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn
Thy banish'd peace - thy laurels torn!
Thy sons, for valour long renown'd,
Lie slaughter'd on their native ground;
Thy hospitable roofs no more
Invite the stranger to the door;
In smoky ruins sunk they lie,
The monuments of cruelty.

The wretched owner sees afar
His all become they prey of war;
Bethinks him of his babes and wife,
Then smites his breast, and curses life!
Thy swains are famish'd on the rocks
Where once they fed their wanton flocks:
Thy ravish'd virgins shriek in vain;
Thy infants perish on the plain.

(from "The Tears of Scotland")

"The Tears of Scotland" was written in London in April 1746, as soon as news came through of the victory at Culloden. Smollett, then 24, was one of a group of wellborn emigrant Scots who witnessed the wild celebrations in London and had to be careful not to let their accents give them away in the streets.

The details are in this interesting article in The Herald:

(I'm assuming this information comes from Alexander Carlyle's autobiography.)

If the April date is correct, it's surprising that Smollett's poem seems to allude both to 'Butcher' Cumberland's battlefield orders to slay the wounded (in marked contrast to Charles' humane treatment of the government wounded after Prestonpans), and to the aftermath in May 1746 when his troops scoured the glens to kill all potential rebels and to destroy their homes.

Did the classical motifs of Smollett's lament horribly anticipate what would really come to pass?

Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, was the youngest son of George II. Handel composed the oratorio Judas Macabeus to celebrate Cumberland's victorious return from Scotland. It includes the evergreen chorus "See, the conqu'ring hero comes!"


Also in 1746, Smollett wrote "Advice: A Satire". (A sequel, "Reproof", was written the following year.)

The poem is in the form of a dialogue between the virtuously indignant Poet and a devil's-advocate Friend who proposes various degrading ways in which the Poet might get on in the world.

Clearly the Friend is being blackly ironic, and it's he who delivers the most memorable passage:

Go then, with every supple virtue stored,
And thrive, the favour’d valet of my lord.
Is that denied? a boon more humble crave.
And minister to him who serves a slave;
Be sure you fasten on promotion’s scale,
Even if you seize some footman by the tail:
The ascent is easy, and the prospect clear,
From the smirch’d scullion to the embroider’d peer.
The ambitious drudge preferr’d, postilion rides,
Advanced again, the chair benighted guides;
Here doom’d, if Nature strung his sinewy frame,
The slave, perhaps, of some insatiate dame;
But if, exempted from the Herculean toil,
A fairer field awaits him, rich with spoil,
There shall he shine, with mingling honours bright,
His master’s pathic, pimp, and parasite;
Then strut a captain, if his wish be war,
And grasp, in hope, a truncheon and a star:
Or if the sweets of peace his soul allure,
Bask at his ease, in some warm sinecure;
His fate in consul, clerk, or agent vary,
Or cross the seas, an envoy’s secretary;
Composed of falsehood, ignorance, and pride,
A prostrate sycophant shall rise a Lloyd;
And, won from kennels to the impure embrace,
Accomplish’d Warren triumph o’er disgrace.

Smollett's control is a bit wayward but his assault on abject social climbing has some great moments, for instance the comic progress from postilion-rider to personal link-boy (who would guide the sedan-chair after dark) to brawny footman to Her Ladyship.

A "pathic" is a submissive sexual partner, i.e. the supplier of anus rather than penis. In Roman sexual morality that made a difference. A gentleman might engage with either sex without raising any eyebrows, so long as he was the active participant. But to be a pathic was to play the part of a slave or servant or woman, and was thus socially humiliating.

Smollett is evidently taking off from Juvenal's Satire II,  which is quoted in his epigraph (see below). Juvenal was concerned about foreigners (which pathic servants often were) acquiring undue influence over native Romans. But Smollett, probably conscious of being a foreigner himself, wasn't interested in that aspect of the matter.

On the other hand Smollett has his own era's outspoken revulsion at all homosexual activity whatever.

The Poet comments:

Eternal infamy his name surround,
Who planted first that vice on British ground!
A vice that, spite of sense and nature, reigns,
And poisons genial love, and manhood stains!*
Pollio! the pride of science and its shame,
The Muse weeps o’er thee, while she brands thy name!

(I had the thought that "Pollio" means Sir Francis Bacon, but I'm probably mistaken; most likely the veiled name refers to someone still alive.)

... and he laments the prevalence of the vice at Oxford University and within the Church:

Let Isis wail in murmurs as she runs,
Her tempting fathers, and her yielding sons;
While dulness screens the failings of the Church,
Nor leaves one sliding Rabbi in the lurch:  ...

Of course I'm not reading 18th-century satire to judge, or even learn about, 18th-century society. What I'm really thinking about is our own time and its ills, and why satire doesn't work when there are so many fit topics.

Satire musters the values of the tribe to attack social deviance (I confess I accept this more easily from the pen of crusty old Juvenal than from crusty young Smollett).

But in our time it's precisely the values of the tribe that are our greatest danger -- I'm talking about the human-caused environmental catastrophe, which we seem powerless to do anything about. It's pointless, isn't it, to shame prominent individuals who are shameless themselves and whose denigration leads to no social consensus?

The satiric focus on powerful individuals is astray in this case. Our danger comes from a system, which we can label capitalism but is merely a formalization of human nature. The most dangerous things we do are reasonably perceived as tribal norms; buying ourselves a new car, doing up our homes, having another baby, booking a long-haul flight, going for a better-paid job. Far from feeling ashamed by such projects, they make us feel more alive. Our conception of living involves a restless drive towards change. It's these all-too-normal drives, repeated by millions, that are melting the ice-cap.

Satire, it's true, is often directed against drives. In this Smollett passage, for instance, we're struck by the energetic activity of the sycophants and social climbers; as often in satire, the reader is meant to feel the threat of massed social activity.

Satire assumes that its targets are moral beings, susceptible to shame. So it doesn't patronize them. But here are several differences from the situation today.

First, booking a holiday isn't actually morally reprehensible. Ordinary people aren't preoccupied with abstract questions of the planet; conveniently, but also undeniably, it's actually pretty difficult to assess the full spectrum of consequences of a trip abroad. And if some technical breakthrough in the future meant that our high living no longer impacted the natural world, I wouldn't have a problem with it either. That unfettered human living and its drives, the kind of energetic intervention we're programmed for, destroys the natural environment -- this isn't a moral judgment but an economic one: the impacts don't need to be preached up because they can be measured.

Second, we all do these things. Smollett could be virtuously indignant because he himself wasn't guilty of the acts he castigates (all the easier, if they concern sexual behaviour that one isn't tempted to partake in).

Thirdly, morals change over time: for example, most Europeans today don't think homosexuality is a "vice".  Morals change like tastes change, because morals are an aspect of social self-organization, like class. And in fact we are already changing our views, and even our morals, to adjust to climate change. Already, we're getting quite used to the idea that species diversity is only a historical phenomenon, like language diversity; nature is prettier and more convenient with less species. Besides, isn't human experience already far removed from a direct involvement with nature itself? Icebergs may as well join dinosaurs and gruffaloes in the flourishing realm of the virtual from which nearly all our imaginative experience now derives. To subjugate nature isn't only natural to humans, it's a responsible use of God's gifts.... And so on...


The pretentions of "Advice" to being Juvenalian satire are explicit in its epigraphs:

——Sed podice levi
Caeduntur tumidæ, medico ridente, mariscæ.
O proceres! censore opus est, an haruspice nobis?


[Satire II, lines 12-13

"but the doctor grins when he cuts into the growths on your shaved buttocks" (G. G. Ramsay)


"but your arsehole is smooth when the laughing doctor lances your swollen 'figs'" (Susanna Morton Braund in the recent Loeb edition; according to her note, piles were thought to be caused by anal intercourse.)

followed by line 121.

"O ye nobles of Rome! is it a soothsayer that we need, or a Censor?" (G. G. Ramsay)]

——Nam quis
Peccandi finem posuit sibi? quando recepit
Ejectum semel atteritâ de fronte ruborem?


[Satire XIII, lines 240-242.

"For who ever fixed a term to his own offending? When did a hardened brow ever recover the banished blush?" (G. G. Ramsay)]


*Roderick Random quotes Smollett's own lines in Ch LI, where he gives his stoutly homophobic views in response to Lord Strutwell's defence of Petronius' taste. [The latter much recalling Herr Aue's conversation at Odessa in Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.]

Smollett takes up the "vice" of homosexuality again in Peregrine Pickle, Ch XLIX (first version). The doctor's classical banquet, in Paris, ends up with the guests getting very drunk, mainly to purge their memories and stomachs of the dreadful food (no author is fonder of the phrase "discharge its contents"). The Italian Count and the German Baron now start to enjoy each other's company, a spectacle that disgusts Peregrine, "who entertained a just detestation for all such abominable practices". But shy of incurring the consequences of his own interference, he arranges for the landlady to discover the pair and to execute the "vengeance on the offenders" that he himself wished on them.

Here as throughout the evening (and the whole novel) Peregrine justifies his cruel tricks by reference to the moral or social failings of his victims. Smollett himself doesn't approve all, or even most, of Peregrine's behaviour. Impossible to say whether in his heart of hearts he entirely shared his hero's homophobia; publicly, at any rate, he did. What's interesting is that he chooses to represent it.

But it was a topic that was being talked about a lot. Rictor Norton's site has a surprising wealth of 18th-century material.

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