Item: in 1684, there appeared John Oldham’s posthumous Remains in Verse and Prose, with a prefatory elegy by John Dryden, ‘Farewell, too little and too lately known’. Dryden’s poem has been much admired and praised – but not by Claude Rawson, who calls it variously ‘pompous’, ‘self-serving’, ‘overrated’, ‘unctuously self-exalting’, ‘self-promoting’, ‘pontifical’ and ‘patronising’
Item: in a chapter on Richardson (wittily called ‘Richardson, alas’ after ‘Hugo, hélas’), Rawson quotes a curious letter in which the novelist asks a friend to come to Tunbridge Wells, where she will be able to see a figure more ‘grotesque’ even than Beau Nash or Colley Cibber, ‘a sly sinner, creeping along the very edges of the walks, getting behind benches ... afraid of being seen ... Come and see this odd figure!’ – who is of course Richardson himself. Rawson’s comment: ‘The specialist in our time of this species of histrionic self-oregrounding, with its teasing delusion of enhanced objectivity and its opportunities for a smirking inwardly directed irony, is Norman Mailer.’
Item: examining Oldham’s effort to replicate ‘the postures of the Rochesterian rakes’, Rawson detects in Oldham an occasional ‘note of hoity-toity tu quoque’.
Item: and, examining Boswell’s habit of draining every rhetorical situation to the lees, Rawson likens the Boswellian manner to that of ‘a hyperactive puppy on a benzedrine diet’.
I begin with this bill of particulars because Rawson, by any standard a powerful interpreter of the 18th century, can only be got at through the antechamber of his altogether individual style. You may love it, you may hate it, but you cannot overlook it. Reading Rawson, you’re forever being reminded of who it is you’re reading. What can be discovered, then, from the examples thus far?
First, he delights in the unexpected shock, both rhetorical and judgmental. Somebody else might have come up with the image of Boswell as hyperactive puppy (well, it’s possible), but on a ‘benzedrine diet’? Not for Rawson the cautiously self-protective. Where others would embed a renegade judgment on Dryden’s ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’ in the reassuring civilities of academic-speak (‘While most readers have judged it a triumph, it is in fact self-serving, even pompous’), Rawson opens his chapter on Oldham by letting you have it between the eyes – ‘“Farewell, too little and too lately known,” Dryden wrote in a pompous, self-serving poem.’
As for Richardson and Mailer, who else could have thought up such an odd couple – and so long held off the moment when Mailer’s identity as Richardson’s modern counterpart is revealed? Who else would have joined the insistent slanginess of ‘hoity-toity’ to the self-conscious tu quoque? Rawson insists on being attended to. You could even call him ‘uppish’ – one of his favourite epithets – and he would probably not mind.
Second, he loads up on attributives in order to establish tonalities: ‘pompous’, ‘pontifical’, ‘patronising’, ‘histrionic’, ‘teasing’, ‘smirking’ – and, among many others, ‘bossy’, ‘coy’, ‘festive’ and ‘genial’. For him, tonal precision, and precision about tone, matter hugely.
Third, he hates anything that smacks of pomposity and will go to lengths to detect it, to punish it, and on his own part to avoid it. Another of his favourite words is ‘demotic’, because demotic speech, whether his own or others’, is one of his favourite things; it is the antithesis of the hieratic. This is one reason why he loves mock-heroic.
Fourth, he likes to detect analogies, often defined as prolepses, between 18th-century and later writers. Flaubert and Yeats are frequent presences, and Mailer turns up in the index four times. Rawson’s past is definitely prologue.
In a writer so self-consciously uppish, so concerned with tonalities, so in love with the demotic, and so free-ranging in his associations, suspicion of academic conventions comes as no surprise. The book is ‘a sequence of linked chapters’, which is to say something of a mélange. ‘Several’ chapters have appeared earlier in different form – i.e. nine out of 11. Of these, some have footnotes, some don’t. Of three ‘extended chapters’ on mock-heroic and war, ‘which in a sense form the core of the book’, two (‘approximately half the book’) are largely new and elaborately documented. The purpose of this disjointedness: to ‘capture and analyse stress points’ in a design better adapted to nuance, it is Rawson’s claim, than any ‘simplifying coherence of outline’. The title of the book is mirrored in its bipartite division, two-thirds on ‘satire’, one-third on ‘sentiment’, the first part being unexceptionally about satire, the second part less restrictively about what we think of as 18th-century ‘sentiment’. Recurring themes force Rawson into the awkward stitchery of cross-reference, e.g. ‘the classic put-down discussed in earlier sections of this book’.
The ducks in his gallery include Rochester, Oldham, Swift, Pope, Byron, Shelley, Dryden, Burke, Addison, Steele, Richardson, Boswell, Thomas Moore and Jane Austen. Rochester to Burke come under the rubric of satire; Addison and Steele to Austen, under that of sentiment. The question, what is Rawson up to, might then be rephrased: what is the link between satire and sentiment, as exemplified in these writers? And what accounts for the prevalence of satire in the early century and of sentiment later?
Part of Rawson’s answer, if he did not have such a dread of an oversimplifying coherence, would be class; or maybe ‘class’, in the inverted commas he himself used when alluding recently to Lionel Trilling on the novel: ‘he also wrote finely on the importance of “class” for the novelist in a more conventional sense.’ More conventional, that is, than the sense of ‘class’ that interests Rawson most and that comes into play at moments when it is everything and nothing, the very ground of human experience, on the one hand, and just an atmospheric condition, on the other. That the book begins with Rochester is not just a matter of chronology but of rank: being the real aristocratic thing, Rochester is ‘lordly’ (another favourite word in Rawson’s armoury) – the greatest of the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease, more ease than Dryden or Pope, could master in a lifetime. ‘That Rochester was both a lord and a courtier, as Pope was not, is one of the paradoxes which surround the English Augustan style and its curious patrician pretensions.’ Rochester isn’t uppish for the simple reason that he is already up, above the ‘strong coupleteering summations of Dryden or Pope’ and, as a poet of ‘metrical dislocations’ and calculatedly ‘colloquial stumbles’, above the demands of a simplifying coherence – a very lordly lord indeed.
For those who come after Rochester, uppishness (which includes the harbouring of ‘curious patrician pretensions’) becomes both a problem and a habit. The age worried about it – and worried, too, about the word ‘uppish’, which offended against verbal propriety. Swift didn’t like the word, at least not officially. On 25 January 1711-12, he put on his peevish face in his journal to Stella: ‘I find Dingley smelt a rat; because the Whigs are so upish; but if ever I hear that word again, I’ll uppish you.’ But Swift the verbal jester, unlike Swift the custodian of linguistic and other proprieties, adored the demotic; he relishes the taste of ‘uppish’ on the tongue.
When Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, defines ‘uppish’ as ‘proud; arrogant’ and ‘a low word’, so low as to deserve no illustration in the Dictionary, he conceals no secret yearning – and also delimits the range of a characterisation both supple and useful. It is one of Rawson’s skills to hit on so right a word, full of an 18th-century resonance. The transition from satire (Rochester aside) to sentiment is one from wilful uppishness, thumbing your nose in the direction of hierarchy while at the same time mimicking your betters, to something quite else.
That something else is ‘sentiment’, a phenomenon that in many ways poses a bigger challenge to the understanding than satire. Certainly we come away from Rawson on ‘sentiment’ with a less secure sense of knowing exactly where we’ve been than is the case with ‘satire’. This is not a failing so much as the consequence of how much the idea of sentiment was, or in Rawson’s treatment is, ready to embrace.
Rawson takes no easy way out: not only is there no entry for ‘sentiment’ or ‘sentimentalism’ in the index (there is none for ‘satire’ either), but the words are seldom on view (looking back through the text, I discover only ‘sentiments’ and ‘sentimentalised’); ‘satire’ and ‘satirical’, by comparison, appear with some regularity. Sterne, the high priest of sentimentalism in one of its manifestations, is just a supporting player; Tristram Shandy is a fairly frequent point of reference, but the Sentimental Journey never. Like so much in Rawson’s universe, sentiment is atmospheric, pervasive, tonal, but like class, with which it is associated by its levelling embourgeoisement of social feeling, not something to be easily grasped or casually named: that would be to lock it into (again) an oversimplifying coherence. Here, however much one may sometimes yearn for a more conventional ordering, there’s no serious arguing with Rawson’s underlying proposition, as I take it to be, that ‘sentiment’ really was everything and nothing, a condition of experience rather than a separable attribute of behaviour or a particular kind of feeling. All that can be done is to consider some endemic features of the condition
Of Rawson’s examples and exemplars, it is the hyperactive puppy on a benzedrine diet, the tormented James Boswell, who may offer the best avenue to understanding; for whatever Boswell was, he was certainly a hypertrophied case. Two of Rawson’s chapters deal with Boswell, one with his life and journals, the other with the Life of Johnson, and both with a sharp eye for what made him Boswell – and for the undefined, barely-able-to-be named condition that pervasively characterised late 18th-century life. If one were to give ‘sentiment’ some other name, what might it turn out to be in the light of the Boswellian example?
Maybe, to quote Rawson, a mode, even the mode, of ‘modern self-consciousness’. This aperçu comes in the course of a three-way comparison between Swift, Sterne and Boswell: ‘Boswell is Shandean not as the Sterne who invented Shandy and structured his doings was Shandean, but in the sense of being an expression of the modes of modern selfconsciousness which Swift perceived and derided before Sterne was born, and which Sterne also derided, partly by Swiftian means.’ And in this vicinity, we come upon the surprising but exemplary Norman Mailer once again: ‘the genial torrents’ of parodic egomania that pour from the speakers in Swift’s Tale anticipate ‘a modern self-consciousness which runs, in progressive escalation, from Swift’s dunces through Sterne and Boswell and Lamb to Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself’.
To submit Rawson’s account to what (I concede) is an oversimplification, it looks much like a Tory interpretation of history as decline and fall, seen as a progressive escalation, from an Augustan age to a Byzantine climacteric in the Mailer of Advertisements for Myself. If that is the right reading, and if the story were to be thought accurate, then these are the dark and latter days of empire. But whatever master narrative may lie beneath the resolutely anti-narrative performance of Satire and Sentiment, one can only be grateful for Rawson’s long-standing attention to the 18th-century past as prologue.
To be sure, Classicists think the modern world began in the Ancient World, medievalists think it began in the Middle Ages, and so on; these readings are all liable to perfectly reasonable objections that every age is not only prelude but postlude and that the present is the sequel to an entire past. But 18th-century English studies were long plagued by a blinkered backward-lookingness that attributed to the age an uninteresting ‘neoclassicism’, a left-over ‘humanism’, or a merely conventional religious orthodoxy. If we have largely got over such stuff, Rawson’s work during the past three decades and more has had a lot to do with it. In the long run Rawson heeds the things that matter most.