The whigs are off

17th January 2003 at 00:00
How did Mervyn Lebor enthuse his pupils about heroic couplets?.

My A2 Lit group were sickened when they saw Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" in the Edexcel anthology. Brought up on Simon Armitage, films of Macbeth and short, modern plays, the prospect of formidable blocks of text without breaks, paragraphs or pictures was daunting. Nine pages of densely packed, long uniform lines did not exemplify the Romantic "creativity" to which most English teaching is attuned.

The anthology's "Verses on the Death of Dr Swift" was slightly more accessible. In a remarkably modern piece, Swift reconstructs his life through a series of ironic masks of self, friends and foes. His poem is brisk, polished and humorous:

The time is not remote, when I

Must by the course of nature die

When I foresee my special friends

Will try to find their private ends:

Though it is hardly understood,

Which way my death can do them good:

Concise language pressed into neat octosyllabic couplets is undercut by the stark reality of Swift's demise. Cliches such as "course of nature" parody the sententious, while teasing raillery against friends is part of a complex strategy of self-irony and moral criticism, satirising the structural inadequacy of human delight in others' discomfort.

Self-interested, brutal speakers greet Swift's imagined death:

O, may we all for death prepare

What has he left? And who's his heir?

I know no more than what the news is,

'Tis all bequeathed to public uses.

To public use! A perfect whim!

What had the public done for him?

Neurotic questioning as to where Swift's money will go undermines self-righteousness. The speaker is outraged because he is not a beneficiary, yet is attacking the public's lack of appreciation for Swift, whose failed ambition was to become a bishop. In a complex act of compassion and satiric attack on Irish politics, the money goes to building an insane asylum in Dublin.

A supposedly neutral Dubliner, outlining Swift's satiric methods and memorable literary and political confrontations, delivers the coda. Is this self-irony or a fictionalised vehicle for attacking the Whig early capitalistHanoverian establishment and its sycophantic supporters? Several interpretations are feasible.

Students found Sarah Egerton's theme in "The Emulation" more familiar. A 40-line proto-feminist subversion of patriarchy, written in Augustan couplets directed at a female audience, wittily challenges male supremacy in religion, academia, literature and the tyranny of marriage. Husbands...

Can have ill manners justified by law

For men all join to keep the wife in awe.

Moses who first our freedom did rebuke,

Was married when he writ the Pentateuch.

The civilised decorum of the couplet reflects neo-classic rationality, rejecting superstition, wars of religion and the turbulent earlier Cromwellian period. Yet disruptive energies shimmer beneath the surface.

The A2 group now faced Pope's "Epistle". Numerous entertaining social situations are compressed into single couplets. Pope's strategy of retreat from public life to his Twickenham grotto before the crazed onrush of poetic wannabes has a modern resonance. Listening to dull poets, Pope feels

To laugh were want of goodness and of grace,

And to be grave exceeds all power of face.

The letter form involves chatty conversation. Addressing "Dr" Arbuthnot implies a medical solution to the age's madness, while Augustan attitudes suggest differentiating between Roman, Augustus Caesar and a contemporary, unheroic leadership. Pope's defence of his personal dignity and satiric stance is a format for his classic attacks on "Atticus", "Sporus" and the Whig establishment.

Beneath the dense lines are lively jokes and fascinating, crazed worlds of excess, sophistication and corruption. For my students, the attractions of Augustan literature began to accrue.

Mervyn Lebor teaches English literature at Dewsbury College, West Yorkshire

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