Wednesday, April 30, 2014

`His Pompous Art'

John Wolcot (1738-1819) was an English physician, rector and deservedly forgotten poet who specialized in satirizing writers whose gifts outshone his own, including Dryden, Dr. Johnson and Boswell. Wolcot, using the pseudonym Peter Pindar, makes fun of Johnson’s biographers in Bozzy and Piozzi, or, The British Biographers, a Town Eclogue (1786). In 1813, in The Monthly Magazine, he published “On the Style of Dr. Johnson”: 

“I own I like not Johnson’s turgid style,
Who gives an inch th’ importance of a mile!
Uprears the club of Hercules, for what?
To crush a butterfly, or brain a gnat;
Creates a whirlwind from the earth to draw
A goose’s feather, or exalt a straw;
Sets wheels on wheels in motion, such a clatter,
To force up one poor nipperkin of water;
Bids ocean labour with tremendous roar,
To heave a cockle-shell upon the shore;
The same on every theme his pompous art,
Heaven’s awful thunder, or a rumbling cart!” 

Satire must be laser-guided to remain lethal beyond its day, and attempting to satirize satirists is a risky business. Wolcot is more like a hooligan than a satirist, a vandal with a can of spray paint. His spirit is anarchic and utterly irreverent. He confuses loutish bad manners with satire, the goal of which is, according to Dryden, “the amendment of Vices by correction.” Wolcot has no interest in retooling the nation’s morals. The moral of the poem above is simply stated: Johnson wielded big weapons against little targets. Each couplet rewords the identical point, reiterating that Johnson was, in effect, a bully. Of course, it was Johnson who dismissed Gulliver’s Travels by saying, Boswell reports: “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.” Some of Wolcot’s verbal touches are cartoonishly effective – “To crush a butterfly, or brain a gnat” (reminiscent of Pope’s “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”) and “Heaven’s awful thunder, or a rumbling cart!” – though none changes our judgment of Johnson. One line puzzled me: “To force up one poor nipperkin of water.” 

What’s a “nipperkin?” The previous line offers a clue. “Wheels on wheels” refers to a water mill moved by a river’s current. The OED gives us “a small vessel used as a measure for alcoholic liquor, containing a half-pint or less.” And, metaphorically, “a small quantity of ale, wine, spirits, etc.” Another source defines a nipperkin as one-eighth of a gill, with a gill in the U.S. measuring four fluid ounces – hardly enough to slake a thirst. The dictionary cites Hardy’s “The Man He Killed” (1902): 

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!” 

Hardy hinges his poem on an easy, unearned antiwar irony: “Nothing personal.” He, too, wields “the club of Hercules.”

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