Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was the greatest English poet of the first half of the 18th century. What I am presenting here is, in my opinion, the most brilliant piece of vituperative satirical abuse in our language. It is taken from Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" (1735), and its target is Lord Hervey (pronounced "Harvey"), a prominent courtier, politician and notorious bisexual of the reign of George II.
What Pope did not know was that Lord Hervey was secretly writing his memoirs. The manuscript was only discovered more than a hundred years later, and in the 20th century Romney Sedgwick edited it for publication. It is all splendidly entertaining, telling us what really went on at George II's court. We can read how the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, considered the King to be “As great a coward as ever wore a crown”, and how Queen Caroline doubted whether her son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, was capable of consummating his marriage with his wife, the Princess Augusta, and what might be done about it (they wondered whether Hervey should impersonate the Prince in bed one night, but in the end decided this would not be advisable). There is a particularly touching scene describing the death of the Queen, who had suffered for years with a rupture, and had endured an unsuccessful operation without any anaesthetic. As the Queen expires, presumably in appalling agony, the King kneels at her bedside and they have a final conversation (which is in French, in Hervey’s account). “My dear”, whispers Caroline, “You must marry again”. “No, no!” sobs George, “I shall have mistresses!” They don’t write lines like that any more! How different, we might say, from the home life of our own dear Queen!
Here is Pope's assault. I have added a few footnotes of my own, indicated by numbers in the text. Note the ease and fluency with which Pope rolls out his couplets, with the result that thenceforth no-one could write poetry in this form without sounding like a feeble imitation of Pope: later poets had to find other means of expressing themselves.
"Let Sporus tremble (1) - What? that thing of silk?
Sporus, that mere white curd of asses' milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? (2)
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt, that stinks and stings;
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys,
Yet wit ne'er tastes, and beauty ne'er enjoys:
So well-bred spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the game they dare not bite.
Eternal smiles his emptiness betray,
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.
Whether in florid impotence he speaks,
And as the prompter breathes, the puppet sqeaks (3);
Or at the ear of Eve, familiar toad (4)
Half froth, half venom, spits himself abroad
In puns, or politics, or tales, or lies,
Or spite, or smut, or rhymes, or blasphemies.
His wit all see-saw between that and this,
Now high, now low, now master up, now miss,
And he himself one vile antithesis.
Amphibious thing! (5) that acting either part,
The trifling head, or the corrupted heart,
Fop at the toilet (6), flatterer at the board,
Now trips a lady, and now struts a lord (7).
Eve's tempter thus the Rabbins have expressed,
A cherub's face, a reptile all the rest (8).
Beauty that shocks you, parts that none will trust (9),
Wit that can creep, and pride that licks the dust".
(1) Sporus was a beautiful boy beloved by the Emperor Nero, who had him castrated in the hope that his boyish beauty would not be ruined by the onset of puberty. Pope would know that his educated readers would grasp the reference, and recognise it as an allusion to Hervey and his notorious bisexuality.
(2) This line was famously quoted, or rather misquoted, in the headline of a "Times" leader in summer 1967, criticizing a prison sentence passed on Mick Jagger for a very minor drugs offence (the sentence was soon quashed). The "Times", for some strange reason, rendered it as "Who breaks a butterfly ON a wheel", which plainly does not scan!
(3) The "prompter" refers to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Hervey is seen as no more than Walpole's mouthpiece in the House of Lords
(4) "Eve" is Queen Caroline, Hervey's particular friend and confidante. This line is a reference to the temptation of Eve in Milton's "Paradise Lost"
(5) "Amphibious" is an imaginative metaphor for Hervey's bisexuality!
(6) "Toilet" means not, of course, a lavatory, but follows the French "toilette", meaning how a lady applied makeup before going out. Hervey was noted for wearing large quantities of makeup.
(7) When Hervey was given a peerage, one of his other enemies, William Pulteney, commented that he had been made "Lady of the Lords"!
(8) "Rabbins" = Rabbis. Many Jewish and Christian theologians were puzzled by the account in the Book of Genesis of Eve's temptation by the serpent: particularly by the aftermath when the serpent is cursed to "go on thy belly", which seems to imply that the serpent had previously some different means of locomotion! There was a Jewish tradition that before this the serpent must have had legs, and perhaps a human face too: hence Pope's analogy.
(9) To say a man had "parts" meant that he had qualities, talents or abilities. Pope does not deny Hervey's abilities, but denounces him for abusing them.
Lord Hervey eventually fulfilled his ambition of becoming a cabinet minister under Sir Robert Walpole, but Walpole's government did not long survive his admission to its ranks....