The Nature and Development of Satire

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Satire is the art of holding up to ridicule an individual, or an institution (such as the Church or the government), or a more abstract entity such as "humankind." Early English verse satirists, for example Thomas Lodge, John Marston, and Joseph Hall, writing at the close of the sixteenth century, were not receptive to the idea that satire was an art. Satire's muse, they considered, was a "snarling" muse, fueled by anger and indignation. The satirist's vocation was to pinpoint abuses, identifying immoral individuals and corrupt institutions, and to speak out about them as plainly as possible. Satire is "telling it like it is." Sophisticated rhetorical devices that might transform raw indignation into a verbal art, the play of witty intelligence over a subject, could only obstruct the expression of direct criticism. It is unsurprising that the work of Marston and Hall attracted the notice of the censors, and that it was burnt by the public hangman.

Several factors operated to change this way of regarding satire, perhaps the most important of which was the increasing frequency, throughout the seventeenth century, of translations of the Roman satirists Horace, Persius, Juvenal, and Martial. After the Restoration of 1660, significant versions of some or all of the poems of Horace were published by Alexander Brome, Abraham Cowley, John Wilmot (the Earl of Rochester), John Oldham, Thomas Creech, Alexander Pope, Philip Francis, William Cowper, and Christopher Smart. Persius was translated, notably, by John Dryden and William Gifford. Juvenal was translated in full first by Robert Stapleton in 1647, who revised his text in 1660; thereafter poets returned again and again to selections of Juvenal's satires, with very important versions being produced by Henry Vaughan, John Oldham, Henry Higden, John Dryden, and Samuel Johnson.

Undertaking translations of the Roman satirists taught English poets more about satire than anything else could have done. Translating Horace or Juvenal into English, poets immediately encountered the problem of determining the "spirit" or tone in which the satirist expresses his critique of contemporary Roman society. To compare Horace to Juvenal was at once to perceive the contrast between a good-natured, subtle, ironic, self-deprecating voice and an outrageous, scurrilous, almost pathologically embittered one. At once, then, this suggests to the translator a possible spectrum of positions between hysteria and mild amusement that the satirist can adopt; and it proposes a relationship between the satirist's "true self' and a projected "persona" created for the expression of social critique. Further, it becomes clear that satire is a literary form deeply embedded in contemporary life. Allusive, personal, frequently obscure, Roman satire cannot be translated directly into English that displays similar qualities. Hence the rise of an art called "imitation" — halfway between translation and original composition, as John Dryden described it — the trick of which was to adapt Roman satire to contemporary English mores. Alexander Pope's Imitations of Horace, published in the 1730s, were to be the greatest achievements of this hybrid art form, providing a considerable impetus for the development of vernacular English satire and for the elevation of satire into a respectable genre.

There were other, extra-literary factors that created the conditions for the flourishing of satire after 1660. The Restoration of King Charles II in that year ushered in a Frenchified high society that prided itself on its permissiveness. A society on the change, England after 1660 was defined in large part by the cultural memory of a decade of civil war, religious intolerance, and the subsequent experiments in republican social organization. Charles II was more conscious than any previous monarch of the importance of making concessions to public opinion. Presiding over a skeptical, scientific kingdom increasingly devoting itself to trade and commerce, he had often to work through negotiation and compromise. He was an "easy" monarch, whose venereal behavior with his many mistresses made it impossible for him to take the moral high ground, attracting comment in the public theater and in privately circulated manuscript verse. Coteries of aristocratic wits measured their virility by the degree of outspokenness they could risk on political and sexual matters — an enterprise pushed as far as it would go by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. John Dryden, on the other hand, had a civilizing mission for art, satire included. Dryden's stated aims were to refine the English language and to make witty court conversation the gold standard for literary expression. Satire could develop as the kind of art form that Dryden wished it to be in large part because the King was prepared to tolerate it as an acceptable pressure-valve. Satirical freedom of speech was part of a developing culture of commentary, disseminated in coffee-houses and clubs, in theaters and in public prints. It is no accident, therefore, that one of the central features of verse satire developed in the years from the 1660s to the 1680s: the character portrait. Individuals from the King downwards were singled out for ridicule, though in the verse satires of talented writers like Marvell and Dryden the objective of individual character portraits could be to get behind the individual to some general feature of contemporary living — and even to flatter the pilloried individual by a degree of witty distortion that the victim could enjoy. Late on in his career, in 1692, Dryden translated the great Roman satires of Juvenal and Persius, and the preface he wrote for this, the Discourse concerning the

Original and Progress of Satire, provides the most memorable image of the satirist's art to be found anywhere in the theoretical writing of the period:

How easy it is to call rogue and villain, and that wittily! But how hard to make a man appear a fool, a blockhead, or a knave, without using any of those opprobrious terms . . . there is still a vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place.

It came to be understood in the later seventeenth century that the etymology of the word "satire" was not the Greek saturos, the mythological wood-demon or satyr who was the half-human and half-bestial companion of the god Bacchus (the word being later applied to the chorus of satyrs in Greek drama who were supposed to speak "satirically"), but rather the Latin adjective satira or satura, which qualified "lanx" meaning "plate" or "full dish" or medley of food composed of different ingredients. Satire was not, therefore, a rough form of goatish, libidinous exclamation (as sixteenth-century practitioners had thought); rather it was a varied, digressive mixture of different humorous ingredients as developed by Dryden and the writers of King Charles's court.

The political environment of both the Restoration and the subsequent "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 which placed William of Orange on the throne stimulated greater freedom of speech. The bitter factional warfare during the last years of Stuart rule, between those who insisted that a rightful monarch could not be deposed and those who considered that he could if he failed to observe the fundamental terms of the English constitution, would later develop into what came to be recognized as legitimate political parties. The rise of party politics generated vast amounts of satirical writing, driven initially by the desire to destroy one's political opponents, then later merely by the wish to render them absurd as society grew more tolerant and began to understand the importance of institutionalized parliamentary opposition. [See ch. 1, "Poetry, Politics, and the Rise of Party"]. In the absence of other sources of news, public events were commented upon in satirical broadsheets hawked about the streets or provided in coffee-houses. Manuscript poems were eagerly collected and bound into volumes. A modern seven-volume edition of such material is available under the title Poems on Affairs of State; and a brief glance at this monumental work shows how the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis of 1677—81, the trial and death of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Monmouth's rebellion, the trial of the Seven Bishops, the birth of James Il's son, the Williamite wars, and the Act of Union between England and Scotland — indeed, all the salient political events of the period 1680—1710 — gave rise to poems, prose treatises, and pamphlets.

But William III was a monarch of a very different stamp from his Stuart predecessors, and the reign of William and Mary was characterized by a moral crusade, a "clean up the streets" campaign that, while its main target was satire as expressed in the theater, sowed the seeds of a developing anti-satirical manifesto that would gain ground as the eighteenth century progressed. When in 1695 the Licensing Act was permitted to lapse, and when in the early years of the eighteenth century a copyright act was passed that for the first time protected literary property, a very considerable impetus was given to the emerging literary and journalistic professions; and those men and women of the "middling sort" who came to regard writing for a living as a possible and legitimate career aspiration did not usually find satire a congenial mode of expression. Writers of a predominantly Whiggish persuasion such as Daniel Defoe (who could be devastatingly satirical on occasion), Richard Blackmore, Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, John Dennis, and Nicholas Rowe, on the whole distrusted wit and satire. It was not kind, it was not humane, it was ungenerous; it was elitist because it relied on there being people who were its victims or who did not get the joke. Satire depends on the creation of a bond between author and reader against some third party. In their influential periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator, Addison and Steele opposed the indiscriminate deployment of wit and downgraded satire as an artistic form of expression. They sponsored "sublime," awe-inspiring writing that, whatever its worthwhile qualities, certainly did not exhibit a sense of humor. The growing influence of benevolist psychologies based on sympathy, on the belief that the existential gap between one isolated human being and another could be overcome by exposing oneself to feel what the other feels, generated anti-satirical manifestos. What would later come to be called the cult of sensibility, with "sentiment" or feeling as one of its central terms, privileged sincerity and benevolence as valuable attributes of the individual. Those were not the attributes that characterized satirists. Even more than men, women, who might have had aspirations toward developing a satirical voice in poetry, were caught by this changing taste almost before they got off the blocks. Women did write occasional satire — the second section of this essay will show that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu could use it to devastating effect and that other female poets developed quiet, autobiographical, and self-scrutinizing satiric cadences — but the moves that satire required a writer to make were entirely inimical to the developing ideologies of femininity and sentimentality. Women were not supposed to laugh at their fellow creatures or to have opinions strong enough to lead them into ridiculing institutions or concepts. [See chs. 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm"; 9, "Poetry, Sentiment, and Sensibility"; 32, "Whig and Tory Poetics."]

The window of opportunity for verse satire that opened in the Restoration period turned out, therefore, to be relatively short-lived. Although the first half of the eighteenth century is often regarded as the "golden age" of verse satire, it was always inoculated with its own antidote, so to speak, and the great satiric achievements of Matthew Prior, John Gay, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift were accomplished to a considerable extent against the grain of developing taste. Satire is an art of public involvement. It depends on being outspoken about abuses, corruptions, crimes, and deviations from the moral law. At its best, satire depends on a quasi-utopian impulse to analyze what is wrong in society, and to imply that the ridicule of those wrongs is the first step toward reform. Far more an urban than a rural form, satire depends for its detail on intimate knowledge of cliques, clubs, associations, allegiances, slang, trade-talk, gossip. All of the above-listed features are epitomized in the career of Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

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  • massawa
    What are the development of satire?
    2 years ago
  • Inigo Bolger
    Why is William poems satirical in nature?
    3 days ago

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