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Designs on Truth: The Poetics of the Augustan Mock-Epic.

Designs on Truth: The Poetics of the Augustan Mock-Epic, by Gregory G. Colomb. Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1992. Pp. xxi + 228.

In this book Colomb pursues two primary goals. Firstly, he tries to provide a useful summary description of the Augustan mock-epic. Secondly, he wants to shed light on the poetics of the genre. He is especially concerned to explain how the mock-epic uses satiric fictions to compel readers to adopt its judgmental "pieties" (xii), a feat that seems remarkable since its representations often utterly conflicted with contemporary readers' more empirically grounded knowledge of the historical counterparts. These objectives are, of course, commendable. Colomb might have produced a valuable study of a genre we would all like to know more about. But his book is not such a study.

To begin with, Colomb does not present his materials cohesively, and his stance is pretentious. His book is "arrayed in two parts" (xvii): one focusing on mock-epic settings, the other on satiric portraits. An initial section, though, focuses on the mock-epic fable. In his preface Colomb states that he develops arguments about how the mock-epic "isolates its individual persons in terms of a wealth of particulars arrayed in a diagnostic network of metonymic (and causal) relations" (xvi), about how the mock-epic "is fascinated by language, its powers of social control, and its frightening--and thrilling--malleability" (xvi), and about how the genre maintains "a complex relation to law" (xvii).

Many other plans are announced in this preface and in the course of the book. Some are taken up, but never for very long, and none are sufficiently developed. Colomb is, however, reliable, if no less profusive, in his statements about what his book does not do: "not a story of influence .... Nor is it a genetic story" (xi); "I do not attempt a comprehensive account of these poems"; "I will show little interest in tracking down epic sources of this or that mock-epic detail"; "I will not, unfortunately, have much to say about how mock-epic changes when it becomes a poem about a woman" (xvii); "I leave to posterity the question of whether The Dispensary can become again a work of intrinsic interest" (xix). "Part One" of Designs on Truth follows the "Preface," an "Introduction," and a "Prologue." "Part Two" is framed by another prologue and an epilogue. The postmodern--or "Modern"--mode of this study reminds this reader of nothing so much as the delirious energies of Swift's Tale, but without the intentional parody.

There is, though, little that is innovative about Colomb's sense of what constitutes an Augustan mock-epic, a theory he sets forth piecemeal in the first half of his book. Four traits are seen as crucial: (1) a "strong, if caricatured resemblance to the epic fable" (1-30), (2) a sprawling contemporary urban landscape (33-58), (3) satire (59-77), and (4) a moral precept that shares with the epic a concern with the social order (79-116). With the exception of the trait of imitating the epic fable, Colomb has borrowed his formulation wholesale from theorists of satire of the 1950s and '60s, notably, Maynard Mack, Alvin Kernan, and Ronald Paulson. But no case is made for the more appropriate application of their theory to the genre of mock-epic. In fact, Colomb does not even acknowledge his debt here.

Nor does he position his formulation in relation to longstanding modern commentaries on the mock-epic, such as those by Courthope, Tillotson, and Bond. He does not, moreover, show any evidence of having read a number of more recent commentaries. This is a crucial omission since these accounts have downplayed the role of satire in defining the genre, stressing instead its ability to elevate present-day subject matter (Michael Edwards, "A Meaning for Mock-Heroic," YES [1985]), to mock the epic (Jacob Fuchs, "Knowing and Remembering: The Resources of Mock-Epic," PQ [1990]), and to give rise to a frivolous and playful, rather than harshly satirical, art form (Ulrich Brioch, The Eighteenth-Century Mock-Heroic Poem [1990]).

Middle and later portions of Designs on Truth focus a good deal on the nature of satire and fiction in the Augustan mock-epic. Concerning this topic, Colomb makes claims for tendering a "new," "historical, materialist poetics" (xii) that will supercede the "principally tropological" method of the satiric theorists of the '50s and '60s, a method said to have transformed the "cruel and particular pleasures" of mock-epic satire into "emblems and metaphors of eternal truth" (xiv). But the claim to originality is overstated, as is the advertisement of a historical approach. At one level Colomb seems to follow the historicist thinking of Edward Rosenheim, who some three decades ago challenged the prevailing satiric theory of his day by defining the mode as an attack upon "discernible historic particulars." The Augustan mock-epic poets were, Colomb stresses, "above all else ... satirists of the particular" (7); their satire "prefers particular victims" (59-61). But Colomb semantically shifts his terms and offers various explanations of the role of "particulars" in the mock-epic, stating, for example, that the mock-epic poet's particular targets are fictively presented through "poetic particulars (words, images, figures)" (2) which ultimately function to recommend a particular social philosophy--namely, a conservative philosophy that promoted an ideal of a traditional hierarchical class system in the face of the growing influence of early modern capitalist social theories which legitimated self-interest (80-83). If we recall that Mack urged scholars to attend to satiric artifice, that Kernan declared "self-interest" the moral touchstone of Pope's portrayal of a nation lost to duncery ("The Dunciad and the Plot of Satire," SEL [1962]), and that Mary Claire Randolph spoke of the satirist's tendering of "some particular" contemporary philosophic dogma ("The Structural Design of the Formal Verse Satire," PQ [1942]), it becomes obvious that in notable ways Colomb does not radically depart from what he smugly refers to as the mid-century "high humanist reading" of Augustan poetry (xiv).

What is more, his "new poetics," when applied, forwards views that are only asserted, not properly argued. Scholars can only be frustrated by Colomb's assuming that all Augustan mock-epics are essentially vehicles of "cruel and particular" satire, that the genre's primary intended effect is always persuasion, and that its final objective is in all cases the recommendation of a conservative social philosophy. Another unproved proposition of Colomb's is his suggestion that the mock-epic's fictions typically take the form of concrete poetic particulars which preserve, rather than break, an ongoing illusion of realism.

He points out that in The Dunciad Pope proclaims Ned Ward a denizen of alehouses, despite the fact that by 1728 Ward had become a gentleman poet and owner of a fine port establishment. This slur is said to attack Ward "by a single particular" that, within the context of the poem as a whole, brands him a duncical "distressed poet, living in the street from one alehouse to the next," an identity which imaginatively recalled Ward's earlier literary career--the distressed poet having been "a staple of Ward's poetic productions and a fact of his life" (173). Similarly, Pope refers to Bethlehem Hospital's statues of Melancholy and Raving Madness as Cibber's "brazen" brothers, when in fact the statues were stone, and in this way introduces a poetic detail that will help carry out his attack on Cibber's shameless "brass," with its "disregard for all distinction, detail, standards" (195-96). Thus, in Colomb's view, it is for the sake of the mock-epic poet's larger imaginative Truth that his fictions cleverly contort small verifiable truths, all the while remaining tied to "shared experience" (30).

Colomb does not attempt to determine how frequently these clever contortions occur in the genre. But his calling our attention to them is valuable and should stimulate readers to ask whether this poetic strategy has true precedents in pre-Augustan satires or mock-epics, in the Secchia Rapita, for example, where, as we know, just one bit of actual history is altered to "reveal" that the war between the Modenese and Bolognese was caused by the theft of a bucket. To this question, however, Colomb does not provide a clue.

All of the observations and claims of Designs on Truth are based almost exclusively on treatments of The Dispensary and The Dunciad. Colomb does not even cursorily discuss the mock-epics of Tassoni or Boileau. Nor does he deal with lesser known English mock-epics that fall within his chronological parameters (e.g., Ramsay's The Battel, Defoe's Pacificator, Giles Jacob's Rape of the Smock, Whitehead's Gymnasiad). For the most part he ignores Mac Flecknoe because he considers it a mock-panegyric and merely a precursor of the Augustan mock-epic. And he devotes only a handful of pages to The Rape of the Lock, a situation he prepares his readers for in his preface: "When we try to explain The Dunciad so that it fits categories constructed around the solitary instance of The Rape of the Lock, we misjudge both poems. So I here focus on two poems, Garth's long unread Dispensary and Pope's Dunciad, poems that come closest to exemplifying the model of the mock-epic" (xix). In over two hundred pages of text, Colomb will have left readers with commentary about "a narrow genre, almost a nonce genre" (xviii), constituted by just two specimens.


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Author:DeLuna, D.N.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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