The Political Print: On David Francis Taylor’s “The Politics of Parody”

August 15, 2018   •   By Jake Fuchs

The Politics of Parody

David Francis Taylor

IN The Politics of Parody: A Literary History of Caricature, 1760–1830, David Francis Taylor considers an impressively large number of satirical prints produced during the late Kingdom of Great Britain and the early United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In this golden age of parody, printmakers lampooned political figures domestic and foreign, often delivering their satiric messages with the help of canonical literary texts. The prints Taylor discusses allude to William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Jonathan Swift, among others, by both depicting them and quoting from their works. That this allusiveness makes the prints literary is Taylor’s major premise, and he goes about reading them in just that way, as texts.

This was a time when printmakers had unprecedented power. Their prints both reflected current affairs and influenced them. While the relation between print and event is often complex, Taylor does a good job of disentangling the threads. Consider, for example, four differing representations by Tory printmakers of the Whig statesman Charles James Fox as Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (1667), all appearing between December 1782 and May 1784. The earliest of them, the work of the celebrated James Gillray, shows Satan newly arrived in the garden; undetected as yet, he gazes at Adam and Eve gripped by, in Taylor’s phrase, “an acute sense of envy.” The relevant lines from Book IV of Paradise Lost are quoted to make sure readers register the reference. These readers could be trusted to understand the implication, for they were what Taylor calls the “cultural elite,” rather than the undereducated masses who simply “look[ed] at” the prints rather than “read” them.

Thus nudged into alertness, the selected reader, aware of current political infighting, recognizes Adam and Eve as stand-ins for the then prime minister, Lord Shelburne, and his ally William Pitt the Younger, with Satan as a persona for Charles James Fox, their archrival. But this Satan (or “Fox-Satan,” as Taylor christens him) is hardly terrifying or repulsive. Taylor’s description is accurate: “Fox-Satan […] cuts a forlorn and even benign figure.” In this way Gillray signals that the king’s party finds Fox, at this particular moment, no great threat to their power.

Gillray was not alone in depicting Fox as Satan. Taylor also discusses a print entitled Pandemonium, the work of James Sayers. This Fox-Satan “positively glowers with menace.” In the realm of events, meanwhile, Fox, by attaching himself to Lord North, had become a “genuine threat to the king and his parliamentary allies.” The connection is obvious. Ten days later came another print, this one anonymous, showing a “cloven-hoofed Fox rallying […] his rebel army.” Remembering Satan’s legions, the reader is liable to think the Whig leader even more of a threat.

The fourth print, by Thomas Rowlandson, is the most effective, for Fox-Satan here is not just menacing; he is genuinely repulsive. Rowlandson renders him as a slimy toad whispering sedition into the ear of an effeminate Prince of Wales, who appropriates the role of Eve in Milton’s garden. At this point in Paradise Lost, the archfiend is discovered:

Squat like a Toad, close at the eare of Eve;
Assaying by his Devilish art to reach
The Organs of her Fancie, and with them forge
Illusions as he list.

Readers — the cultural elite again — who were able to recall these lines would have noted an interesting contrast with the visual image. In the poem, Satan is squat like a toad, while Rowlandson pictures a real toad of startling ugliness. But while the print differs from the alluded-to text, it doesn’t conflict with it so much as build upon it. The horror of the pictured toad transfers itself to Milton’s lines, which, thus vivified, redouble the effect of the image.

My reading of Preceptor and Pupil, this print’s title, is somewhat different from that of Taylor, who finds this Fox-Satan, or Fox-Toad, to be more comically contemptible than horrible. His reader laughs, mine shudders; either way, the reader’s response is palpable.

A particularly well-known satiric print is Gillray’s The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, reproduced in full color on the cover of The Politics of Parody. A large man, dressed in military garb, holds a very tiny man in the palm of his hand and gazes at him through a spyglass. This homunculus, also in uniform, grasps a sword, but, given its size, is unlikely to do any damage with it. The year of publication is 1803. The large figure is the king of Brobdingnag, standing in for King George III; the little one is Lemuel Gulliver, cast as a persona for Napoleon Bonaparte. Based upon a drawing by an army captain, the print is meant to raise the spirits of the British, faced at this time with the prospect of a French invasion. The subject of domestic political squabbling is, for the moment, a thing of the past.

As for the print’s allusive source, it was apparent to a broader audience than those familiar with Paradise Lost or even with Shakespeare’s plays, for Gulliver’s Travels (1726) was more widely read than either. Nor would Swift’s numerous readers be likely to forget the scene to which the print refers, the dialogue of Gulliver and the wise Brobdingnagian king in chapter six of “A Voyage to Brobdingnag.”

There, intending “to celebrate the praise of my own dear native country,” Gulliver glorifies a variety of English institutions, but the king is easily able to penetrate in each case to the disgraceful truth. He recognizes Gulliver’s “historical account” as “only an Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments.” Finally the king declares, “I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” This crushing judgment would seem sufficient to thwart Gillray’s intention of picturing Napoleon as a contemptible weakling, for the king is talking about a contemptible England and to a representative Englishman, blind to his nation’s flaws. But the print was popular and seems to have been read as Gillray wanted it to be read. Gulliver became Napoleon. Taylor tackles this puzzle.

The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver “was produced,” Taylor says, “under conditions of acute cultural alarm.” It seems reasonable to conclude — although Taylor isn’t quite this explicit — that at this urgent juncture, the English tended to retain only as much as they needed to sustain morale. It seems clear that Gillray helped the process along by selecting and altering the words of the king in the quotation included in the print. This begins as in the original: “My little friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon yourself and Country.” It then leaps ahead, omitting some 160 words, to

but from what I can gather from your own Relation & the answers I have with much pains wringed & extorted from you, I cannot but conclude you to be one of the most pernicious, little odious reptiles that nature ever suffer’d to crawl upon the surface of the Earth.

Taylor explains that the omission is important, because in the excised words, the king “details the problems of the English [italics mine] polity that has been described to him.” Thus, the caption deflects the king’s aim a significant distance from his intended target.

Quotation and original differ in two other respects. Swift’s Brobdingnagian king “conclude[s] the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered.” Gillray’s “conclude[s] you to be one of the most pernicious, little odious reptiles that nature ever suffer’d.” The emphasis falls from the English “race” to descend upon “you,” the individual Gulliver, from whom it more easily may be transferred to the person of Napoleon. The other difference is the print’s substitution of “reptiles” for Swift’s “vermin.” Here Taylor calls upon his intensive knowledge of his subject to argue that “reptiles” alludes to the Battle of the Nile (1798), a French defeat after which “caricaturists cast Bonaparte as a crocodile.”

This reptilian gloss should give readers a good sense of Taylor’s staggering erudition. The book’s style, however, may be a bit too academic for most. He could have referred less frequently to other print scholars. The effect is occasionally that of a roundtable discussion among specialists, from which more general readers are excluded. This is a pity, because Taylor usually takes pains to include detailed historical material that allows nonspecialists to follow his often complex readings of the prints. He might also have refrained from mentioning, as often as he does, what he’s doing, or has done, or intends to do. On just three consecutive pages we find “I want to suggest,” “I offer a sustained analysis,” and “as we’ll see.” But these are minor failings. The Politics of Parody is a valuable study that shows how these satires were read, and may still be read, and also demonstrates their importance as cultural signifiers.


A former professor of English, Jake Fuchs has written scholarly books, short fiction, two satiric mysteries (Death of a Dad: The Nursery School Murders [1998] and Death of a Prof: The Nursery School Murders II [2001]), a send-up of academe (Welcome, Scholar [2017]), and the semi-autobiographical novel Conrad in Beverly Hills (2010).