During the Restoration and the eighteenth century, satire became a tool of writing poetry, drama and even prose. Satire is an artistic form, chiefly literary and dramatic, in which human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or short comings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody, caricature, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to inspire social reform.
What is Satire?
Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement (Wikipedia). The great English lexicographer Samuel Johnson defined satire as “a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured”, and more elaborate definitions are rarely more satisfactory. In literary works, satire can be direct or indirect. With direct satire, the narrator speaks directly to the reader. With indirect satire, the author’s intent is realized within the narrative and its story. As funny as satire is, the purpose of satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.
The Nature of Satire
A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm, but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, analogy are all frequently used in satirical writing. This irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of the very things the satirist wishes to attack.
The word satire comes from the Latin word ‘Satur’ and the subsequent phrase ‘lanxsatura’. Satur meant ‘full’, but the juxtaposition with lanx shifted the meaning to ‘miscellany or medley’: the expression lanx satura literally means “a full dish of various kinds of fruits”.
For its nature and social role, satire has enjoyed in many societies a special freedom license to mock prominent individuals and institutions. The satiric impulse, and its ritualized expressions, carries out the function or resolving social tension. Institutions like the ritual clowns represent a safety value which reestablishes equilibrium and health in the collective imaginary which are jeopardized by the repressive aspects of society.
Satire in the 18th Century England
The 18th century was one in which exaltation of wit and reason came to the forefront of literature in the form of both Horatian and Juvenalian satires, which, through keen observation and sharp nimbleness of thought, exposed the superficial follies and moral corruption of society during the neoclassical period in Britain. Underneath the enlightenment ideals of rationality, order and knowledge, society embraced a pervasive obsession with “decorum”, a façade of established traditions and vanities, as well as an innate sense of moral and political supremacy.
Satires during this period aimed to point out the shortcomings of society through ridiculing unaccepted standards of thought, exposing Britain’s flaws and chastising the hypocrisy of the time. Enlightenment writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift used different mediums of satire, different types of logic, and different targets of ridicule in order to shine a light on separate aspects of British society, providing much needed criticism of the profuse moral corruption of a society that sometimes seemed to forget the true ideals of its age.
Pope and Swift, well known for their sharply perceptive works, both looked to rhetorical masters of the rational, classical past and their separate satirical archetypes for inspiration. Pope, in his “The Rape of the Lock”, is Horatian in tone, delicately chiding society in a sly but polished voice by holding up a mirror to the follies and vanities of the upper class. Pope does not actively attack the self-important pomp of the British aristocracy, but rather presents it in such a way that gives the reader a new perspective from which to easily view the actions in the story as foolish and ridiculous.
A gentle mockery of the upper class, more delicate and lyrical than his brutal counterpart, Pope nonetheless is able to effectively illuminate the moral degradation of society to the public. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” however, is a quintessential Juvenalian satire, shockingly revealing an often-overlooked dimension of British colonialism with regards to the Irish through savage ridicule and disdainful contempt. A bitter attack, Swift’s morbid tale delineates an immoral and perverse solution to Ireland’s economical woes using bizarre yet brilliantly clear logic and a detached tone in order to attack indifference to the poor. Swift’s satirical tone, relying on realism and harshness to carry its message, is much more ascorbic than his counterpart, perfectly displaying Juvenalian satire’s ability to shock and ridicule.
These two works of satire express their authors’ profound dissatisfaction with their society. Literature that pushes for reform of any kind, social or political, acts along with entrenched tradition itself, as a dialectic force: it is the synthesis of that which is and that which is wanted that nudges society to a certain direction. Both Pope and Swift used their considerable literary talents to illuminate contemporary society, forcing them to acknowledge the shortcomings of the Neo-classical period and to move forward into a new era of true enlightenment with regards to social and political morality.
Most of the Neo-classical works most especially poetry was based on satire. Nevertheless, the poetry of Neo-classical period was also based on reason and wit. Satire then became an important tool during the Neo-classical period when the upper class had set itself pompously on the affairs of England, poets used satire to deflate the pomposity.
In this article, we have been able to see the meaning of satire, its nature and how it was being used in the 18th century England.