This week, as we explore The Humourist’s essay of March 5, 1754, we see him once again as a master of sarcasm as he continues—and, thankfully, finishes—his mock literary analysis of the dreadful combat between Moore of Moore Hall and the Dragon of Wantley. You might want to re-read the ballad: “The Dragon of Wantley.”
As I noted last week, as a classicist The Humourist knew that the poem was not great literature and that it was hardly worthy of the nearly 700 words that he devoted to it initially. Even so, he resumes his task on March 5, 1754, devotes his entire essay to his ongoing mock analysis, and does so with such exquisite sarcasm that what is ridiculous already becomes even more so.
I am intrigued. Why would The Humourist be so interested in this nonsensical 1685 ballad? To answer my question, I decided to do some quick research just to see how popular the poem was during The Humourist’s lifetime. I am surprised by my findings! The poem was wildly popular not only as a satirical ballad but also as a burlesque opera!
Here’s what Nick Adams has to say about “The Dragon of Wantley”:
The publication history of the ballad itself is intriguing. It was first published in 1685, although there is an undated edition presumed to be earlier (though possibly dating to earlier in 1685), and there are ten subsequent editions before its appearance in a mid-eighteenth century anthology, Thomas Percy’s Relics of Ancient Poetry of 1767. By this time, the reference to Rotherham is removed and the text is bowdlerised; so excising the local colour along with the rude bits. This is a lot of editions. Moreover, the ballad is included in published edition of Henry Carey’s The Dragon of Wantley (1737). This is perhaps the most improbable manifestation of them all. It is a burlesque opera, satirising the operatic conventions of the time, but tellingly also attacking the taxation policies of the Whig government of the time, led by Robert Walpole. Some of Carey’s burlesques are appealing, but it is pretty hard to say this of The Dragon of Wantley. Nevertheless, it was hugely successful, running for 69 performances (more even than The Beggar’s Opera, the big stage hit of the time). The play was similarly popular in printed form.
“The Dragon of Wantley” as a burlesque opera! Well, of course! Burlesque opera! As a musical virtuoso, The Humourist would have been more than interested in this ballad!
Oh my goodness! I think I just dropped a major clue!
I am aware, fully, that there is absolutely nothing in this essay—or, for that matter, in any of The Humourist’s essays—that points in the direction of The Humourist being a musical virtuoso! However, I know enough about his life that I can make that statement! You’ll find out all the details on August 8.
So let’s move on quickly, lest I reveal more than I should right now! Let’s move on quickly to that which I can reveal: the Curious Challenge of this week’s post! Continue reading