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Napoleon, Hudibrastic Poetry, Doctor Syntax & the Power of Satire

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"The Life of Napoleon- a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos by Doctor Syntax". Given the illustrator is George Cruikshank, the historical context and method of delivery this will be fun to pull some historical strings & see what we find...

The Life of Napoleon...

We know of the man, Napoleon Bonaparte, who became the the first emperor of France. He had a desire for military expansion that would change the world. Enemies ridiculed him as “that Corsican Upstart”, the island of his birth. Napoleon set his aims high as he wished to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar.  Bonaparte’s supporters hail him as the founder of modern France, one of the great conquerors of history. Here is where we note the London publisher, illustrator George Cruikshank and "by Doctor Syntax". I fear this is not going to be good for Napoleon Bonaparte...

Samuel Butler's "Hudibras" published 1674-78

So, what is a “Hudibrastic poem” and what are “cantos”? 

Hudibrastic poetry was created by Samuel Butler who published Hudibras between 1674-78. The work is a satirical polemic starring Roundheads, Cavaliers, Puritans, Presbyterians etc. during the English Civil War, the first one. Butler had much to work with in this era. A "Canto"  is Italian for a “song”, given the Island of Napoleon's birth most appropriate. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a canto as “a convenient division when poetry was more usually sung by the minstrel to his own accompaniment than read” as there is no specific format, construction, or style for a canto is not any one type of poetry. Like the rich pickings of the politics and characters of the English Civil War, this model of poetry suited the protagonist of Combe's Life of Napoleon perfectly.

Doctor Syntax: losing his way

So, Who was Doctor Syntax Character?

In the 1760s an Anglican Cleric, teacher, artist, and author, William Gilpin, embarked on an ambitious quest in search of "the Picturesque" on which he wrote prodigiously. Some 40 years later William Combe, known as a "hack writer", invented a mischievous and satirical character, Dr. Syntax, to make fun of this Mr. Gilpin. This Dr. Syntax character was a poor curate setting forth on a straggly mare, usually to his discomfort, oblivious to the realities of the world around him. From 1809 to 1811 Combe wrote for Rudolph Ackermann's The Poetical Magazine. It was here that he serialized this comic poem The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. The verse was descriptive and moralizing, just like William Gilpin perchance? This character was so well received he wrote two more in the series, the last in 1821. The caricaturist was Thomas Rowlandson to great effect.

The Life of Napoleon-a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos by Doctor Syntax

Combe's Dr. Syntax Model is Put into Service Again!

It would seem this mocking tribute to Gilpin’s quest for the “Picturesque” would be the perfect fit to “have a go” at one you wished to “cut down to size”. We have Doctor Syntax as the interpreter of Napoleon's European Ruler quest by "poetry". We read a most entertaining Napoleon setting off to stumble and bumble his way through the various notable battles as illustrated by the celebrated social satirist George Cruikshank. Now here was a man that was notorious for throwing sand in anyone's face to make social satire sting.

Title page by Caricaturist George Cruikshank

George Cruikshank and the Power of Caricature as Propaganda

From George Cruikshank’s illustrated title page, we see our “hero” leaving the island of his birth, climbing to power over a guillotine holding a bloody sword so he can sit astride the world with the Imperial trappings of that he earlier condemned, but with England just beyond his grasp, before he slides down a lightening bolt losing all his trappings of power, to come to rest on a toadstool like a disgruntled pixie of the island of Elba. All thirty engravings are Cruikshank’s pictorial commentary full of ruthlessness, deceit, mistakes, betrayal, and hopelessness of his journey from the island of his birth, Corsica, to the island of his imprisonment, Elba.


"The Life of Napoleon, a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos by Doctor Syntax" William Combe. Contemporary scarlet-grained morocco gilt, slightly rubbed pg 260 with 30 hand-coloured engravings by George Cruikshank. Dated Nov 10th 1814 and Jan 23 1815. Some offsetting and browning but a nice book.

First Edition for T.Tegg, 1817

©Sandra J.I. Ker, Antiquarian Print Gallery, Adelaide, South Australia, 2016



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