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The contrast between theory and practice calls for detailed examination. Scholars who wish to establish the general principles underlying the techniques of creative genius are ill-advised when they draw their evidence from the pronouncements of the artists without an exact analysis of their works. The practice of irony and satire is peculiarly subject to this caveat. Poets of the Restoration and the eighteenth century inherited a tradition of apologizing for satirical thrusts, and they invoked that tradition even when it was inappropriate. During the same period, a standard of lucidity existed which writers normally respected but which they also undermined, covertly, for special purposes.

Dryden liked to define "wit" as "a propriety of thoughts and words"[10] —i.e., lucidity and decorum combined. At least, this is how Swift enlarged a parallel definition: "When a man's thoughts are clear, the properest words will generally offer themselves first; and his own judgment will direct him in what order to place them, so as they may be best understood."[11] It


is in fact fair to say that Lord Kames spoke for his age when he declared that "perspicuity ought not to be sacrificed to any other beauty whatever."[12]

If we doubted these witnesses, we should still find the authors themselves complaining that often when they tried to speak clearly, evil misinterpreters distorted their meaning. "Many an honest, well-meaning text has met with a wicked comment," said John Dennis.[13] In An Essay on Criticism , Pope echoed Dryden and Congreve, blaming those who, "scandalously nice , / Will needs mistake an author into vice " (ll. 556–57). The writer of The Craftsman , no. 2, remarked, "[No] man is safe against the subtleties and finesses of lawyers and state chymists , who can extract poison out of the most innocent things. . . . We have seen, in some reigns, remote allegories , ironical expressions , and the most distant innuendo's explain'd . . . to a man's destruction."[14] So also Gulliver cried out, in blazing innocence, to his cousin Sympson,

[You said] that you were afraid of giving offence [i.e., by publishing Gulliver's Travels ]; that people in power were very watchful over the press; and apt not only to interpret, but to punish every thing which looked like an inuendo (as I think you called it). But pray, how could that which I spoke so many years ago, and at above five thousand leagues distance, in another reign, be applyed to any of the Yahoos, who now are said to govern the herd. . . .[15]

The author of The Doctrine of Innuendo's Discuss'd registered a similar protest. Defending the transparently allusive and polemical history of England by "Mr. Oldcastle," he wrote:

These remarks are laid down in such a plain and ingenuous manner, that one would imagine they could give no offence to


any one; and as they are matters of fact extracted from the best historians, of things transacted some ages ago, how invidious is it in any man to wrest an author's meaning, and draw parallels where none were design'd?[16]

The Doctrine of Innuendo's Discuss'd is a whole pamphlet in which the author plays the game of pretending to be clear, candid, and straightforward while producing implicit condemnations of the persons he claims to be disregarding. His fundamental position is an irony much enjoyed by Swift and Pope:

[That] a person entirely innocent of any crime should be ruffled at the mentioning of any villain who had happened ages before to be in the same post with himself, and construe every reflection upon him as a satyr upon himself, must seem very unaccountable to mankind, and make them imagine that he is conscious to himself of some secret guilt.[17]

Applying the supposed principle to Walpole, the author denies that "all the people in England" read the parallels and allegories of the opposition writers as allusions to the court:

Did they [i.e., the ministerial spokesmen] ever consult all the people in England, to know in what sense they understood these papers? . . . Nay, were they ever inform'd that that upright and incorrupt gentleman, their patron, was imagin'd by the nation to be alluded to, whenever a Sejanus, a Wolsey, a Menzikoff, or a Cascia was mention'd? . . . For my part, I can't conceive how such an absurd notion could enter into their heads, as to think that a person of his uncommon abilities and integrity . . . could be designed under the characters which are the very reverse of him in every particular.[18]

Even the king and queen could be maligned by this trick; so the author laments that whenever The Craftsman , in citing passages from history,

happens to mention a weak or bad prince, or a queen, it is unfairly and basely asserted by his antagonists that he alludes to


our most gracious sovereign and his consort. If this method of construction be allowed, what writer can be safe?[19]

Trustful moderns might presume, from such cris de coeur , that devious intentions were uncharacteristic of the eighteenth century.

Of course, the complaints authors made of being read wrong were often false, and the claim of lucidity was often a blind. Sometimes an essayist would pretend to be misunderstood in order to screen himself from punishment for having hurt the sensibilities of a great man. Sometimes a poet was jocular or sarcastic in his protests, teasing the reader into finding fresh innuendoes among the very disclaimers of old ones. We can learn a little about methods of implication by examining some particular examples of such devices and some general reflections on allegedly false reading. Even an informed modern critic does not always understand how self-conscious eighteenth-century writers were about their techniques of indirection.

In his "Apology" for A Tale of a Tub , Swift requested that his faults should not be "multiply'd by the ignorant, the unnatural, and uncharitable applications of those who have neither candor to suppose good meanings, nor palate to distinguish true ones."[20] As a clergyman (though anonymous) he protested furiously against the interpretations of three or four passages "which prejudiced or ignorant readers have drawn by great force to hint at ill meanings; as if they glanced at some tenets in religion"; and he insisted that he "never had it once in his thoughts that any thing he said would in the least be capable of such interpretations."[21] So he complained that irony had been mistaken for straightforward speech.[22]

Yet in the body of the Tale itself the author anticipated the perils he had finally to endure. "Nothing is more frequent," he said, "than for commentators to force [interpretations], which the author never meant."[23] Given such warnings, and accus-


tomed as one is to Swift's practice of subtlety and indirection, a critic must believe that Swift really hoped to shock readers by his rash language in the body of the Tale , but that he also refused to accept responsibility for his boldness. It is hardly credible that a man so deeply aware as Swift was, of the import that might be found in his words, would use dangerous expressions unwittingly.

Political themes fed the same equivocation as the religious themes. In the fifth Drapier's Letter , Swift declared bitterly that a judge had misinterpreted one of his essays as "reflecting" on George I and the royal ministers, and as trying to "alienate the affections" of the people of Ireland from those of England.[24] Yet we know that the Drapier was working toward precisely those ends, and that Swift simply dodged the legal consequences of his rhetoric.

Pope's work glitters with hypocritical complaints of being misunderstood. The Dunciad alone is a storehouse of specimens. Here when the poet describes his hero as supperless, a note reproaches "former commentators" for idly supposing that Cibber lacked a supper (I, 115). When the poem alludes to Hoadly's notorious sermon on "The Nature of the Kingdom of Christ," a note insists that the reference is to a "public orator," and not a clergyman (II, 368, in the 1729 edition). When a line implies that collaboration with Broome in translating the Odyssey was a painful ordeal, a note declares that the irony represents a "stroke" against Pope himself (III, 328, in the 1729 edition). Yet all of these together do not come up to the pseudonymous defense that Pope composed for his Epistle to Burlington . There he goes over the censorious, ironical lines following the denunciation of Timon's Villa—

   Yet hence the poor are cloath'd, the hungry fed;
Health to himself, and to his infants bread
The lab'rer bears: What his [i.e., Timon's] hard heart denies,
His charitable vanity supplies—


and interprets them not as accusing Timon's extravagant bad taste but as making an apology for it: "'Tis an innocent folly and much more beneficent than the want of it," says the poet.[25] Clarity and explicitness were not the only virtues to which Pope aspired.

A special mark of the awareness these authors had of their indirections is the way they apologized for satires or censures that seemed to strike at identifiable individuals. (So-called "general" satire was commonly acceptable; "particular" was not.) As P. K. Elkin says, when authors of the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries wrote as critics, they advocated general satire; but when they were reproached for writing personal satire themselves, they felt obliged to offer a defense, "or to insist that they had been misinterpreted, that they had not for one moment intended slighting anyone in particular."[26] So also when an author used pseudonyms or initials for identifiable persons, "he could plead with some plausibility that he meant to hurt no one, and at the same time privately congratulate himself on having bagged . . . a brace of victims."[27]

Thus The Craftsman , no. 31, offers us two, mutually inconsistent replies to the charge of disingenuousness.[28] One defense is that the writer was being not devious but straight-forward, in the passages singled out for condemnation. The other is that a political journalist must be devious when exposing the crimes of men in power.

So the Craftsman opens the topic by mentioning an objection to his style of blaming public officials, viz.

that I am guilty of disingenuity and a mean design of calumniating men in high stations under feigned characters , and by other indirect methods, such as ironies, allegories, parallels, and remote innuendoes ; which are called low arts. . . .


The accusers (he reports) say that an honorable critic of the government would name his targets and produce verifiable evidence of misdoings. In reply, the Craftsman offers his pair of ill-matched statements. First he claims that in his discussions of politics he has no specific persons in mind. His aim is to "expose vice in general":

But if two cases happen to be so much alike, that the generality of the world will compare what I relate of former times to the present; or any great men will apply bad characters to themselves, I do not think my self answerable for such applications . . . .

(Readers who take this remark seriously will not be challenged by me.)

Secondly, the Craftsman does not agree that one ought to accuse great men only in a judicial manner. When handling charges against private persons, the law—he says—can operate normally. But public figures resist the process:

. . . Great men have frequent opportunities of screening themselves, in such a manner, by cabals, alliances, corruption , or the favour of an indulgent prince, that it is commonly very difficult to bring them to condign punishment, even when they are guilty of the most notorious oppressions, and are publicly complained of as the nuisances of their country.

Since everyone knew The Craftsman was established to oppose Walpole's government, and since the words "great" and "screen" were familiar expressions for the prime minister, an ironic innuendo is palpable here. But the general argument remains significant:

[It] has always been a practice, under the most corrupt administrations, to quote examples and draw parallels out of history, in order to prove what effect the same male-practices have had on different states, or on the same states in former ages; nor can this be looked upon as disingenuous or a libel on the present ministers of any kingdom, any more than a comment on the ten commandments can be called a libel on every notorious sinner in the parish.


I grant, indeed, that it would be more honourable, as well as more useful, to write without disguise , provided it were equally safe . But would not any man be esteemed a lunatick , who should, in plain terms, attack such a monster as Wolsey or Buckingham, in the plenitude of their power; especially, if he has any parallel instances at hand, or can throw the same thoughts under shades and allegories ?

About the time this number of The Craftsman appeared, Swift was composing similar remarks about an attack he had made on a dead judge who behaved himself unpatriotically and illegally. Some people, Swift said, thought the author had been too severe on the reputation of a man who after all was dead. The satirist replies to them with an argument like that of The Craftsman :

What an encouragement to vice is this! If an ill man be alive and in power, we dare not attack him; and if he be weary of the world or of his own villainies, he has nothing to do but die, and then his reputation is safe. For these excellent casuists know just Latin enough to have heard a most foolish precept, that de mortuis nil nisi bonum ; so that if Socrates and Anytus his accuser had happened to die together, the charity of survivors must either have obliged them to hold their peace or to fix the same character on both.[29]

Although it was conventional to declare that the only legitimate form of satire was general satire (i.e., attacks on types of men or kinds of vice, rather than on identifiable individuals), nevertheless, personal satire remained a common practice of disinterested writers; and their grounds for using it, as well as their methods of attack, were traceable to arguments like those offered by Swift.

So the place we arrive at seems almost an inversion of our first position. If clarity is accepted by one's readers as the mark of an excellent style, a subtle writer may convey eccentric meanings by affecting plainness and candor when he is in fact complex and indirect. The appeal to clarity then becomes a


method of teasing the reader into thinking dangerously. As we have seen, a clever rhetorician will declare that obviously personal attacks are aimed at no individual, that thinly screened allusions are not allusions. After bringing out a passage that bristles with veiled, mutinous meaning (an allegory, a bit of parallel history), he may offer to explicate it, but then do so by giving an absurdly remote interpretation which still manages to point at the true sense.

A refinement of the scheme is a mock-defense. One opens with solemn, if misleading, apologies, supports these with unpersuasive reasons, and ends with a burlesque of the process of self-defense—in effect, showing off one's real animus. Thus Swift repudiates the view that Gay's fables point at living courtiers; but in developing his statement, he arrives at the ironic admission,

[Although] it be highly probable, he [i.e., Gay] meant only the courtiers of former times, yet he acted unwarily, by not considering that the malignity of some people might misinterpret what he said, to the disadvantage of present persons and affairs.[30]

In the opposite way, a literary critic could deliberately miss the point of an allusive passage in order to insinuate the dullness of the author. Thus John Dennis has a long argument demonstrating that in Prince Arthur , Blackmore did not refer to William III. Of course, the poem is a transparent allegory of William's career; and Dennis is only concerned to reveal how badly the poet has misrepresented the character of the king.[31]

Craftsman 75 provides an elaborate instance of consciously false explication.[32] In an earlier paper the author had given an account of how "R——e" established himself as the corrupt governor of a city. Now the author proceeds to explain the dark story. To start, he discusses "allegories, allusions and fables,"


and how "the learned" hide important meanings under such devices. He then moves on to an illuminating declaration:

As therefore this allegorical way of writing is certainly the most learned as well as the most antient , so I hold it likewise to be the safest in all modern performances ; especially if an author is, in any wise, addicted to writing on political subjects .

So he now undertakes to give the "whole meaning" of his allegory of the R——e.

In the explanation the Craftsman never mentions Walpole, who is certainly the "rogue" alluded to. Instead, he refers the allegory to the Knez Menzikoff (i.e., Alexander Menshikov, a favorite of Peter the Great, disgraced in 1727). Most people, he says, "discovered easily enough that the Knez Menzikoff was the person, whom I had in view; though possibly they might not understand every particular hidden stroke of satire that I intended." To elucidate these hidden strokes, he goes through the allegory of R——e point by point, treating each detail as an allusion to "the Knez Menzikoff," but employing expressions that direct us to Walpole. Once more, the pretence of lucidity has become a means of being covert and ambiguous.

So far from suffering unhappy misinterpretation, a polished writer could go even beyond the devices I have analyzed; for he could trick the reader into looking for secrets where there were none. Writing to Pope about the commentary on The Dunciad , Swift wondered whether the mock-editor should not "refine in many places, when you meant no refinement,"[33] and of course both A Tale of a Tub and The Dunciad exemplify this practice.

So also the ingenuity of the author could finally outrun the wit of even his most acute readers. Contemporary "keys" to Gulliver's Travels were inaccurate, clumsy, and dim-sighted. Swift in turn told Gay he had not realized that the quarrel between Peachum and Lockit in The Beggar's Opera alluded to the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius.[34] In an oft-quoted


letter Swift told Pope that he found The Dunciad obscure: "I have long observ'd that twenty miles from London no body understands hints."[35] Meanwhile, his own French translator wrote to Swift that he had suppressed many of the allusions in Gulliver's Travels because "les allusions et les allégories, qui sont sensibles dans un pays, ne le sont dans un autre."[36]

I have been dwelling on political implications. But sexual themes lead us to the same principles. Seldom indeed would an author admit pointblank that he had indulged in pornography. Wolseley was remarkable, in his encomiastic preface to Rochester's Valentinian (1685), for openly describing that noble author's obscene verses as indeed obscene.[37] The normal response to such a charge was to deny it, and to complain that the poet's sense had been distorted. Yet even while engaging in this ritual, the superior genius insinuated new improprieties.

One of the cleverest complaints is Wycherley's, in the dedication of The Plain Dealer (1677). The playwright scolds those who have discovered obscene innuendoes in The Country Wife . That he was perfectly serious one doubts. His real case is against persons proficient in finding and enjoying obscenity elsewhere and hypocritical in sounding disturbed by his comedy. He says that such readers "make nonsense of a poet's jest, rather than not make it bawdy."

A striking feature of Wycherley's discussion is the mixture of lubricity with wordplay. The dedication itself abounds in double meanings, many of them springing from the fact that the dedicatee was a procuress. Having started the infection, Wycherley soon makes it general. Innocent nouns and verbs are contaminated by their corrupt neighbors until the reader's mind exerts itself to invent pornographic hints. This stimulation of wordplay appears to be a special feature of sexual themes. Molière is remarkable for avoiding such wit, while his English imitators practice it.


With sexual themes, then, as with political and religious themes, writers often invited readers to expect an unorthodox or subversive meaning behind a veil of conventionality. And here too they seldom enjoyed being blamed for the accomplishment. When Jeremy Collier denounced Dryden for obscenity and profaneness, the victim said that he did retract all thoughts and expressions truly guilty of those faults. But he also declared that Collier, in many places, had "perverted my meaning by his glosses; and interpreted my words into blasphemy and bawdry, of which they were not guilty."[38] Yet the volume to which Dryden prefaced these remarks included not only "Sigismonda and Guiscardo" but also "Cinyras and Myrrha," in both of which the poet hardly restrained his knack for indecency.

Collier also drove Congreve into the task of defending himself against charges of obscenity and irreligion. In his reply Congreve complained of "malicious and strain'd interpretations." He blamed these upon Collier's own "impurity," and said the condemned passages only contracted their alleged filth by "passing thro' his very dirty hands." Where an expression itself was "unblameable in its own clear and genuine signification," said Congreve, Collier made it "bellow forth his own blasphemies."[39]

It is true that Collier regularly exaggerated the bawdiness and irreligion of his victims' language. But the proper defense (if a modern critic wants one)[40] is—as Congreve also says—that one cannot represent vicious and foolish characters without making them speak viciously and foolishly. This principle goes back to Aristotle and was expounded by Dennis.[41] Nevertheless, the question how far Congreve's works sanction the amorality they display remains an issue for his admirers.[42]


I have illustrated the gap between theory and practice so profusely because it demonstrates the deep awareness these writers had of their methods of implication. A reader not familiar with their deviousness might underestimate their subtlety. I hope my range of examples will sharpen such a reader's expectations.

Besides, even a careful scholar sometimes leans too heavily on the generalizations which eighteenth-century authors give us concerning their aims and techniques.[43] In my view they are often least direct when they sound direct, and most artful when they sound artless. In the studies that follow, I generally trust the poet's text rather than his commentary on it; and I try to show that the four talents examined here deserve the closest attention to their secondary meanings.


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