New Additions to the Canon of Maritime Satire
Narrative Verse Satire in Maritime Canada 1779-1814, edited
and with Introductions by Thomas B. Vincent. Ottawa: The Tecumseh Press, 1978. 194 pp.
The clash of deeply-felt political and social
views often provides a rich soil for the growth of literature, particularly of satire. The
work of Haliburton and McCulloch was clearly nourished by such conditions; it is one of
the virtues of Thomas B. Vincents collection that it casts light upon the satirical
spirit at work in the very earliest stages of the same society. With bitter memories of
their recent past, and confronted with an uncongenial mixture of pre-Revolution Yankees,
British officials and British-born gentry, the Maritime Loyalists evidently felt a need
both to define themselves and attack their rivals through satire. Their writings represent
a fascinating effort to adapt British and American literary and social traditions to the
circumstances of their new home.
Professor Vincents edition of seven
verse satires is an impressive achievement in research, annotation and commentary. At a
time when most early Canadian poets are suffered to appear before their readers naked, or
at best provided with a few fig-leaves of brief introduction, Vincent is very generous in
supplying both helpful background information and shrewd literary analysis; his only,
minor, flaw is that he sometimes overwhelms a slight poem with the profusion of his
None of the poems have been published since
the period in which they were composed, and some have never been previously published at
all. Over half of the space in the volume is devoted to three manuscript poems by Jacob
Bailey, a Loyalist Anglican minister. Selections from Baileys journal have appeared
in recent anthologies, but his astonishing indefatigability as a poet has largely gone
unnoticed. Baileys first major effort, America, was a trifling 4,100 lines;
his more sustained work, The Adventures of Jack Ramble, the Methodist
Preacher, is over 9,200 lines in its extant version, and much of it has been lost.
Baileys remarks about his poems raise
intriguing questions about the relationship of the Maritime verse satirists to their
audience. Like many satirists before and since, he feels compelled to defend his acerbity.
In a private letter, he admits that he is partly motivated by a wish to revenge
myself upon the fathers of rebellion, but adds:
This you will remark does not exhibit a
Christian spirit it is a private revenge without any view to redress and reform, it
discovers a faulty disposition but a proper resentment upon certain occasions may
be attended with public utility.
Presumably, though, such public utility is achieved only if the work
itself is made public. Professor Vincent suggests that Bailey was apparently content
with the approbation of his friends, but if so his self justification loses its
point. Perhaps he was compelled to content himself with the admiration of his private
Vincent notes elsewhere that at this
time in Maritime literary culture, very little locally written poetry was ever
published. It would appear that there was an audience, even a relatively
sophisticated audience, for poetry, but that it was very limited in numbers. Bailey points
to another factor that has always worked against the publication of satirical writing when
he complains about the extreme caution of our printers.
The printers reluctance to insert
anything which tends to expose the guilt and madness of rebellion apparently
provoked one of Baileys first satirical poems (and the first in Vincents
edition), The Character of a Trimmer. The poem chronicles the tribulations of
a trimmer or fence sitter who is regarded with suspicion and harshly treated
by both revolutionaries and loyalists. The editor is right to point out that the trimmer,
Pelted and damnd by every coward
With kennel mud, dead cats, and cow t--d
becomes too much of a pathetic, rather than satirized, victim, and that
the poem suffers from contradictions when Bailey attempts to attack trimmers and
revolutionary fanatics simultaneously. The poem is lively, however, and the demagoguery of
the chief revolutionists speech is effectively, if not subtly, undermined.
On Renaming Port Roseway after Lord
Shelburne is a brief outburst of indignation, rising to biting irony by its
conclusion, against the British sell-out of the Loyalists American interests. A
passionate indictment of folly also characterizes the extended selections (73 pages) from Jack
Ramble, the enormous anti-Methodist satire already mentioned.
Baileys model, in both America and
Jack Ramble, was clearly Samuel Butlers Hudibras, which was given
to Bailey by a friend in 1779. Bailey found in Butler not only an appropriate comic verse
form, but also a congenial subject, satire of evangelical religion. Bailey is no match for
Butler in inventiveness and wit, but it is evident, nevertheless, that Butlers
influence helped to make Jack Ramble a spirited and entertaining work.
The success of Jack Ramble results,
as Professor Vincent points out, from the skill with which Jacks grotesque failings
as a character are shown to be necessary consequences of the Methodist view of life.
Spoiled as a child and encouraged in lawlessness by the Revolution, Jack takes up
evangelical preaching in preference to more honest work. His spiritual tutor is one Parson
Og who assures Jack that his previous career of vice constituted a positive recommendation
for his new profession:
He that the paths of vice hath trod
Can others teach to shun the road;
The candidate must not refrain
But give to every lust the rein,
Freely indulge his youthful fires
And taste whateer his soul desires.
Let him at taverns oft get drunk,
Swear like a piper, keep a punk.
Jack faithfully obeys both this injunction and Parson Ogs advice
to play the solemn hypocrite. In each subsequent episode, Jacks
self-conceit, his sanctimoniousness and his easily aroused lust lead to
ignominious catastrophes: he loses control of his bowels when some sardonic wits
masquerade as the devil, is caught at a disadvantage in a brothel, and finally is ravaged
by venereal disease. But he never remains abashed for long. The pattern of
expectation-humiliation-recovery is never varied, and Jacks resiliency is somewhat
reminiscent of his namesake in the box. Yet his ability to absorb punishment and
rationalize it away (I can assert with resolution/My claim to bitter
persecution) has a certain dramatic interest in reminding the reader of the
seriousness of the Methodist danger. If, as Vincent remarks, from Baileys
point of view . . . error must expect to be inevitably punished, each rebound of
Jacks proves that error endures.
Baileys hostility towards the
Methodists, Professor Vincent makes clear, was based on both immediate personal
circumstances (Methodists and other sects were making damaging inroads in Baileys
own parish of Annapolis Royal) and a broader objection to the spread of evangelical
emotionalism, egalitarianism and irrationality throughout Nova Scotia. Since the
foundations of Baileys world seemed about to crumble, it is not surprising that his
response should be indignant rather than even-tempered. Vincent seems somewhat disturbed
by the deliberate harshness and viciousness of the satire, but to this reader
the poem does not appear to go beyond the bounds of good, dirty, 18th century fun; indeed,
its distinctly unclerical bawdiness is one of its most intriguing aspects.
The other noteworthy poem in the collection is
just as vitriolic as Jack Ramble and had the added charm, for contemporaries, of
naming names. The Inquisition, by Alexander Croke, is a genuinely blistering
attack upon the licentiousness of upper-class Halifax society at the turn of the
nineteenth century. Apparently Maritimers like satire with a bite to it, as several copies
of the manuscript have survived, three complete with identifications of Crokes
targets. The poem deals with the fate of Bella, accused of adultery and forced to endure
trials of virtue. She successfully eats a cake designed to cause agony to sinners, and for
an encore walks blindfolded on eggs. It is only a slight blemish on her triumph that the
eggs are nicely formed in Statuary Stone, and the mystical baker formed
his harmless spell of new baked crumb because
He thought it cruel to destroy a Sinner.
And though, no doubt, the Ladys Soul was pure,
Twas best from Accidents to be secure.
Bella is a close relative of Belinda, and in
general Croke is an enthusiastic and skilful imitator of Pope. Despite Professor
Vincents remarks to the contrary, however, I cannot feel that Croke shares
Popes delight in the glitter of an artificial society. Crokes poem seems more
akin in spirit to the Moral Essays or even The Dunciad than to The
Rape of the Lock. Take, for example, Crokes portrait of a lawyer, Villicus:
Of these was Villicus, of restless mind,
Who shakes his head, to no one place confined;
With wit, some learning, some small love of gain,
Parboild and jumbled, in a shattered Brain;
In all things like a Pendulum he swings,
Midst Law, Religion, Colleges and Kings,
Till interest fixes firm his wavering soul,
Interest, the guide star of the northern pole.
So turns a Weather cock to every blast,
Till, stiff with rust, it points one way at last.
Neither Bella nor her accusers emerge with any credit from Crokes
ordeal of satire. Bella is brazen rather than heroic in her martyrdom; her defiance at the
trial is ridiculed by means of a mock epic simile:
So when some black eyed Heroine of the Strand,
Holds up at Justice Hall her unwashd hand,
Inspired by Ale, Tobacco, Gin, and Fury,
She damns Judge, Witness, Counsellor and Jury.
Those who condemn her are no more virtuous themselves: Strumpets
swore that Bella spoild their trade. When forced to capitulate to Bella, the
gossips merely turn their slander in another direction:
Virgins unnumberd, blooming and divine,
Their Mothers [character] immolate at Bellas shrine.
Church of England clergymen, of whom Bailey remarked, You
cant with all your base reflection / Against their morals form objections are
dismissed by Croke as This Venal, Prostituted Crew. The author of the portrait
of Sporus might have smiled his influence to see had he read Crokes icy condemnation
of a certain Captain Inglefield, who apparently at one time prudently deserted a sinking
ship ahead of his crew:
See his rich board with cheapened dainties spread,
Whilst hungry servants call in vain for bread;
The starving footmen ranging round the seats,
Grudge every mouthful that the stranger eats
. . .Was it for this, that Heavens transcendent care
Closed oceans mouth, and bade the tempest spare?
When from the shipwrecked vessels side he flew,
A bright example to the sinking crew,
And taught old tars, who every danger brave,
That precious thing, a Captains life to save.
The first lines of the preceding quotation refer to a Victory Ball,
thrown by the gallant captain in honour of the chaste Bella, and attended by Great
Fools, Great Knaves . . . Great Harlots into honest Women made. Despite a dozen
lines devoted to the splendour of the occasion, the irony of the account as a whole seems
to me to run counter to Professor Vincents view that the fun-loving vitality
and natural vigour of this society emerge from Crokes poem. It is, I think,
its intensity of revulsion, as well as its technical skill, that makes The
Inquisition one of the most powerful and remarkable of all early Canadian poems.
The three remaining poems in the collection
are of lesser interest. Samuel Denny Streets Creon is a versified
account of a Parliamentary crisis in New Brunswick by one of its central participants.
Jonathan Odells The Agonizing Dilemma parodies an American
generals version of the battle of Queenston Heights. Vincent is ingenious in his
efforts to find merit in the satiric portrayal of the general, but the poem still seems a
slight, casually written piece. The anonymous The Times. A Squabble is a brief
but pompous and humourless account of the prevailing situation towards the end of the War
Though only two of the poems included in the
edition are of superior literary merit, the collection as a whole has the unity and
strength derived from the presentation of a distinctive cultural outlook, expressing
itself in a single art form. As Professor Vincent proves in his illuminating commentary as
well as his choice of selections, these satires reveal an underlying uniformity of
perspective: they share a vision of human civilization which manifests itself in
particular political, social, moral and religious terms. If I have quibbled with
Vincents analyses now and again, I should in fairness repeat that on the whole his
interpretations are well-informed, detailed and sound. He has furnished a notable document
for the study of early Canadian poetic traditions.
Thomas E. Tausky