chapter  1
26 Pages

Mock-Heroic in the English Augustan Era

The genre of mock-heroic spread to England from Italy and France: the earliest instance of the kind is probably Alessandro Tassoni's La Secchia Rapita, published pseudonymously (and under a slightly different title) in 1622, and depicting a feud, fomented by the seizure of a bucket, between two thirteenth-century Italian peoples: the Modenese and Bolonians. The poem went through numerous editions in the next century and a half, and was translated into English in 1710 by John Ozell, who inserted into his long title the annotative detail: 'A Mock-Heroic Poem, The First of the Kind'. The earliest work to capitalize on Tassoni's seems to have been the French poet Boileau's heroi-comical poem Le Lutrin (from 1674), which recounts a feud between the priest and choir-master of a French church, in which the former tries to reinstall an old reading-desk expressly so as to obscure his rival from the sight of the congregation. There were several early translations into English: an incomplete one by N.O. in 1682; a loose rendering by John Crowne entitled Daeneids, or the Noble Labours of the Great-Dean ofNotre-Dame in Paris (1692); and a full translation by Ozell in 1708.1

The translation into English of these early mock-epics was accompanied by a recognition of the newness of the kind of writing which they exemplified. Sir William Temple's essay 'Of Poetry', for example, identifies La Secchia Rapita as the fountainhead of a type of writing that has 'helpt to Corrupt our modern Poesy', seeing its English exponents as consisting of the likes of Sir John Mennes, Samuel Butler and Charles Cotton.2 A critical discussion of mock-heroic by Nicholas Rowe appended to Ozell's translation of Le Lutrin also emphasizes the relatively recent inception of the form, with Rowe expressing reluctance to attempt a 'Critical Account' of a mode of writing 'that is so new in the World, and of which we have had so few Instances'. Moreover, like Temple before him,

what instances there are he sees as standing in a direct line of descent from La Secchia Rapita, which is 'the first of this Sort that was ever written'.3 The foreign extraction of the mock-heroic kind forms the basis of a rather self-serving anecdote recorded by Francis Lockier (later Dean of Peterborough) about his first brush with the famous poet Dryden. As a seventeenyear-old, Lockier was in the habit of visiting Will's coffee house so as to rub shoulders with the literary eminences who gathered there. Happening to hear Dryden injudiciously talking up his Mac Flecknoe as 'the first piece of ridicule written in heroics', the young Lockier summoned up the pluck to object that Boileau's Lutrin and Tassoni's Secchia Rapita better deserved the title of originals, being poems from which Dryden had himself borrowed. "Tis true', replied Dryden, 'I had forgot them'.4