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. Vincent’s 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 Vincent’s 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 commentary.

     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 Bailey’s journal have appeared in recent anthologies, but his astonishing indefatigability as a poet has largely gone unnoticed. Bailey’s 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.

     Bailey’s 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 circle.

     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 Bailey’s first satirical poems (and the first in Vincent’s 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, who is

Pelted and damn’d 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 revolutionist’s 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.

     Bailey’s model, in both America and Jack Ramble, was clearly Samuel Butler’s 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 Butler’s 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 Jack’s 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 whate’er 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 Og’s advice to “play the solemn hypocrite.” In each subsequent episode, Jack’s “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 Jack’s 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 Bailey’s point of view . . . error must expect to be inevitably punished,” each rebound of Jack’s proves that error endures.

     Bailey’s hostility towards the Methodists, Professor Vincent makes clear, was based on both immediate personal circumstances (Methodists and other sects were making damaging inroads in Bailey’s 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 Bailey’s 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 Croke’s 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 Lady’s 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 Vincent’s remarks to the contrary, however, I cannot feel that Croke shares Pope’s delight in the glitter of an artificial society. Croke’s poem seems more akin in spirit to the Moral Essays or even The Dunciad than to “The Rape of the Lock.” Take, for example, Croke’s 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,
Parboil’d 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 Croke’s 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 unwash’d 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 spoil’d their trade.” When forced to capitulate to Bella, the gossips merely turn their slander in another direction:

Virgins unnumber’d, blooming and divine,
Their Mother’s [character] immolate at Bella’s shrine.

Church of England clergymen, of whom Bailey remarked, “You can’t 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 Croke’s 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 Heaven’s transcendent care
Closed ocean’s 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 Captain’s 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 Vincent’s view that “the fun-loving vitality and natural vigour of this society emerge” from Croke’s 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 Street’s “Creon” is a versified account of a Parliamentary crisis in New Brunswick by one of its central participants. Jonathan Odell’s “The Agonizing Dilemma” parodies an American general’s 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 of 1812.

     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 Vincent’s 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