Old-Fashioned Satire

THE GREAT ENLIGHTENMENT. By Lee Wilson Dodd (Harpers).

FOR some years now it has been the height of fashion to be nothing if not ironical, and there is some reason for suspecting that Time, being a gentleman, as the Chinese say, may decide that our more “advanced” critics of life have succeeded pretty well in being both. Already there are indications that even our own day may be growing a little weary of the fad for disillusionment, and it seems probable that good old honest satire in the interest of fundamental sanity may come into rouge. Surely there never was a more propitious moment for such a revival, for could there be any greater illusion than the prevailing persuasion to the effect that at last we have become disillusioned, since we have been through human nature and the cosmos with our strictly scientific lanterns?

May there not be some hope in the fact that during the present publishing season two poets of extraordinary powers have published extended satirical poems of the sort indicated, both of which bid fair to reach a large public? The first of these is Leonard Bacon’s “The Legend of Quincibald” and the second is listed above.

In “The Great Enligtenment” Lee Wilson Dodd, a veteran poet, distinctly undervalued thus far, considers much of the more loudly touted through that passes in our moment as profound, and takes some vigorous sideswipes at certain of our more conspicuous social phenomena. Something of the poem’s mood and purpose may be gathered from the author’s “Preliminary Blurb.”

“It was all very fitting, as it was unexpectedly profitable,” writes Mr. Dodd, “for Mr. Durant to write his spirited studies of outmoded philosophers, but what is needed here and now is the story of philosophy a la mode. And not merely of philosophy, but ofscience, religion, and literature a la mode – the wisdom of yesterday [ ? ight ] being, in this era of progress, but the foolishness of tomorrow come Thursday. What the modern reader should want and, as I believe, does want, or may at the very least through the subtleties of advertising be induced to want in some account (in simple but accurate terms, suited to the apprehension of hard-boiled virgins, culture-seeking pugilists, retired movie stars, or the legislators of triumphant plutocracy), of the best, because latest, thoughts of our best, because latest, thinkers. Why, for example, bother about Plato? He has been dead far too long to be really important. He had his day, and his day is over. Or why read Milton, when one can read all the Sitwells? But can one?”

The following passages, addressed to the spirit of Alexander Pope, are typical:

“Our wits now swarm from Bedlam, and our Wise
Stare on each other with a wild
While furious Propaganda, with
her brand,
Fires the dry prairies of our wide
Waste Land:
Making the Earth, Man’s temporal
station, be
One stinking altar to Publicity,
Touts from the housetops bawl
their wares abroad,
From Sex to Service, Cigarettes to
These bang the drum and those the
cymbals clash
For Righteousness and Comfort,
Christ and Cash:
While, crowding through dull
booths for trade designed,
All dead to Shame, and moribund
to Mind,
Science and Art turn mountebanks
and shriek
“This way for Beauty! Truth is
cheap this week!”
“Where none is ever silent, no
one’s heard:
Where most are frantic, all appear
Itching Publicity defeats its all,
For who’s conspicuous where all
scratch the same?
Thus Peacock, Rat and Rabbit,
Fox and Ass
Wail ‘Look at me,’ and vanish
the mass.”
Only about a third of the volume
is given over to satire, and lovers
of genuine poetry will find many
fine lyrics in this collection. The
following, entitled “Creation,” re-
veals something of the vision upon
which the satire is based:
“Let them unlock all secrets, let
them show
How grass came grass, or step
by step reveal
How man came man; but if we
do not feel
Within our breasts a Music that
must glow
Like live coals breathed upon,
when Beauty’s breath
Is wafted near us from a weed
or star—