The Art Of The Insult


Nobody does an insult better than Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in this attack on his bitter enemy Lord Hervey:

Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys,
Yet wit ne’er tastes and beauty ne’er enjoys:
So well-bred spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the game they dare not bite.
Eternal smiles his emptiness betray,
As shallow streams run dimpling al the way.
Whether in florid impotence he speaks,
And as the prompter breathes, the puppet squeaks;
Or at the ear of Eve, familiar toad!
Half froth half venom, spits himself abroad
In puns, or politics, or tales, or lies,
Or spite, or smut, or rhymes, or blasphemies.
His wit all see-saw, between that and this,
Now high, now low, now master up, now miss,
And he himself one vile antithesis
Amphibious thng! that acting either part,
The trifling head or the corrupted heart;
Fop at the toilet, flatterer at the board,
Now trips a lady, and now struts a lord.

Alexander Pope, Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot.

Hervey was a high-society fop, famous for his elaborate clothes, his white makeup and his bisexuality (so lord/lady, master/miss, vile antithesis). In spite of his liking for young men, it’s said that one of Pope’s reasons for hating him was that he married a woman Pope himself fancied. As well, Hervey referred publicly to Pope’s “wretched little carcase”: Pope suffered from Potts Disease and was under 5 feet tall and hunchbacked. In addition, Hervey was politically powerful and close to the Prime Minister Walpole and George 11, both targets of Pope’s satire.

The reference to spaniels “mumbling” points to Hervey’s wearing of false teeth made out of jasper.


5 thoughts on “The Art Of The Insult

  1. I have an anthology in German “Dichter beleidigen Dichter” (Poets insulting Poets) which contains hundreds of…how can say it…delightful insults of authors dedicated to other authors. Envy, mischievousness, jealousy, hatred, arrogance, and a lot of other unpleasant character traits are also quite widespread among our favorite authors. They are like the rest of us, just better with words, I am afraid…

  2. You sent me off on a search for something similar in English but I wasn’t able to find one.
    Her’s something nice I came across while searching, in an article in ‘Slate’:

    Paul Engle’s epigram on the Duke of Alba as painted by Goya:

    This is the kind of face that sheep
    Must count at night, when they can’t sleep.

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