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Definition: satire from Collins English Dictionary


1 a novel, play, entertainment, etc, in which topical issues, folly, or evil are held up to scorn by means of ridicule and irony

2 the genre constituted by such works

3 the use of ridicule, irony, etc, to create such an effect

[C16: from Latin satira a mixture, from satur sated, from satis enough]

Summary Article: SATIRE from The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
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Satire is both a mode and a genre of verse and prose lit. that adopts a critical attitude toward its target with the goal of censuring human folly. Satire is an eminently versatile form whose structure, style, tone, and subjects vary across a wide spectrum, but generally intends, as Jonathan Swift states, "to mend the world" ("A Vindication of Mr. Gay and The Beggar's Opera").

In terms of its purpose, satire is polemical, contentiously attacking its victims with the hope of dissuading readers from vice and persuading them (to greater and lesser degrees) toward virtue. In terms of structure, satire is primarily a borrower of literary and rhetorical forms, using other genres to support its didactic agenda (see Guilhamet). As Paulson describes it, satire explores the lowest range of potential human actions within a framework or fiction that best serves its ridiculing function (Fictions of Satire). Some of satire's favorite housing fictions include diatribe (the outraged declamations of Lucilius and Juvenal);

Socratic-style dialogue (the s ermones or conversations of Horace and the more cynical dialogues of Lucian); epic (Lucian's True History, which parodies the works of Homer and Herodotus; Nicolas Boileau's *mock epic Le Lutrin and Alexander Pope's The Dunciad and The Rape of the Lock, which parody the works of Virgil and John Milton); romance (Petronius's Satyricon, Voltaire's Candide, Samuel Butler's Hudibras, Lord Byron's Don Juan); burlesque (e.g., the ridiculing of Homer in.he Battle of the Frogs and Mice); the encomium (the ironic praises of Erasmus's Praise of Folly and John Dryden's "MacFlecknoe"); beast fable (Apuleius's The Golden Ass [or Metamorphoses], the med. tales of Reynard the Fox, Edmund Spenser's "Mother Hubberds Tale"); epistle (Pope's "To a Lady" and "To Dr. Arbuthnot"; Mary Wortley Montagu's "An Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband"); religious complaint (cf. the parodies of the med. Goliard poets; the dream vision of William Langland's Piers Plowman, Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale," T. S. Eliot's "The Hippopotamus"); pastoral (Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment," Swift's "A Description of the Morning" and "A Pastoral Dialogue"); civic poetry (Samuel Johnson's London, W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen, e. e. cummings's "next to of course god america"); treatise (Swift's deeply ironic A Modest Proposal and A Tale of a Tub, and Pope's Peri Bathous); travel narrative (e.g., Swift's Gulliver's Travels); and drama (the Gr. Old Comedy of Aristophanes, the humor plays of Ben Jonson, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera). In fact, there are few if any genres that the satiric mode cannot adopt with effects that range from the richly comic to the devastatingly tragic. Similarly, there are few if any media that satire cannot inhabit, including mod. favorites such as film (Dr. Strangelove), television, and the Internet. Since the focus of the present article is on poetry and poetics, many major artistic, dramatic, and novelistic satires are beyond its scope, such as the paintings of William Hogarth; select dramas of Molière, Henry Fielding, William Congreve, W. S. Gilbert, G. B. Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Caryl Churchill; the novels of George Orwell (Animal Farm, 1984), Charlotte Gilman (Herland), and Joseph Heller (Catch-22); the satiric writings of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce; the satiric cartoons and essays of the magazine Punch; and so on.

Although satire can call upon a long hist. of formal conventions and rhetorical tropes such as irony, personification, and hyperbole, satire is distinctive for its overt engagement (at varying levels of critical distance) with its immediate historical context ("all the things which men do … is the hodge-podge of my little book"; Juvenal, Satires 1.85-86), a fact that often makes the colloquial lang. and topical subjects of satiric verse obscure. Because satire criticizes the contemp. world, the satirist is frequently compelled to employ an array of self-protective structures, including a range of personae, apology, allegory, and claims of innocent comedic intent; however, such gestures are belied by the satirist's bold assertion that his work alone offers "antidotes to [the] pestilential sins" of a morally diseased society (Everard Guilpin's Skialetheia, Prelud. 70). The satirist serves as self-appointed prosecutor, judge, and jury, exposing and condemning the worst excesses of human behavior, sometimes, like Horace, with the intention of improving the wicked through humorous moral instruction, and sometimes, like Juvenal, with the object of provoking the wicked to guilt, shame, rage, and tears (Horace, Satires 1.4.103-29 and Juvenal, Satires 1.166-68). Despite satire's standard defensive claim to employ only "feigned [i.e., fictitious] private names to note general vices" (John Marston's "To Him"; The Scourge of Villanie 8-9), the perception of libelous lampoons in satire has often drawn the attention of the authorities and has frequently provoked censorship, from the Roman Twelve Tables outlawing libelous verses (Cicero, De republica 4.12; Horace, Epistles 2.1.152-54) to Emperor Augustus's edict against "defamatory little books" (in Suetonius, Life of Augustus 55) to England's 1599 prohibition against the publication of satire, as well as the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737.

As described by Kernan in The Cankered Muse, satire demonstrates a tension between the comic and the tragic strains; however, satire employs both as strategies in the service of its didactic and apotropaic agendas. Horace prefers his ironic mode of satire "to speak the truth with a laugh" (Satires 1.1.24), and Persius admires the comic ability of the "sly rogue" Horace to "touch every fault while his friend stands and laughs" (Satires 1.116-17). Anderson (1982) characterizes the Horatian comic mode as not merely witty but socially "constructive" and "humane" (39), and many Ren., Restoration, and Augustan-era imitators have been drawn to Horace's apparent benevolence and erudition. In his prefatory epistle to The Praise of Folly. Erasmus states his preference for the Horatian principle of delightful instruction and his dislike of Juvenal's "cesspool of secret vice"; in The Defence of Poesy (1595), Sir Philip Sidney, citing Persius's praise of Horace, says satire "sportingly never leaveth until he make a man laugh at folly"; and in An Essay on Criticism, Pope writes that Horace "charms with graceful Negligence, / And without method, talks us into sense" (653-54). The Juvenalian approach is more severe, denouncing the crimes rather than mocking the follies of a society where depravity is the norm. Anderson (1982) identifies the "tragic" character of the Juvenalian mode in its symbolic depiction of Roman degeneracy. Milton claims that true satire is "borne out of a Tragedy, so ought to resemble his parentage, to strike high" (An Apology 6.12-13), a vision shared by the banned group of Eng. Ren. satirists who preferred the Juvenalian tragic mode as a means to expose the moral excesses common at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I: "Satire hath a nobler vein / He's a Strappado, rack, and some such pain / To base lewd vice" (Guilpin). Where the comic satiric strategy employs fools as types of ridiculous behavior that are more instructive than threatening (like "the terrible people" of Ogden Nash's comic poem), the tragic strategy presents a hopeless world inhabited entirely by the wicked, which often includes the satiric speaker himself.

Although both the etymology of the word satire and the historical origin of the concept are equivocal, many of satire's defining characteristics can be traced back to a number of related trads. The word itself is derived from the Latin satura. meaning a "mixture," and is related to the Lat. latur. meaning "full." The Lat. grammarian Diomedes (late 4th c. CE) contends that satura may have derived from the satura lanx, the ritual plate overflowing with offerings to the gods; or from the word for a kind of stuffing made from various ingredients; or from the lex satura, a single legal proposition composed of a number of smaller issues. Diomedes links these separate roots: all, in one way or another, refer to the structure of satire as a miscellany poem, an array of different kinds of verse united by their common intent to ridicule a range of subjects, such as the miscellanies produced by the Roman poets Ennius and Pacuvius (see Keil). As an individual poetic genre, the Roman grammarian Quintilian (ca. 35-100 CE) claimed verse satire as a wholly Roman invention devoid of Gr. influence, with Lucilius as the first Roman to advance the genre (Institutio oratoria 10.1.96-97).

While it is true that the etymology of the word satire is not related to the Gr. word for satyrs ( Lat. satyrus), as demonstrated by Isaac Causabon in 1605 (see De satyrica Graecorumpoesi et Romanorum satira), the form and style of Roman verse satire owe much to the trad. of Gr. invective poetry; Dryden explains in his 1693 work "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire." "And thus far 'tis allowed that the Grecians had such poems; but that they were wholly different in specie from that to which the Romans gave the name of Satire." Horace himself admits to the complementary nature of Gr. and Roman invective poetry, noting that Lucilius modeled his keen and witty satiric style on the Gr. playwrights of Old Comedy, Aristophanes, Eupolis, and Cratinus, changing only their meter while maintaining their freedom to assault the vicious in society by name (Satires 1.4.1-8). Diomedes' position is similar, claiming that Roman verse satire may have been named for the goat-legged companions of Dionysus because Roman satire discusses the same kind of laughable and shameful behaviors practiced by the Gr. satyrs. This idea of complementary stylistic trads. continued well into the Ren., as suggested by the conscious conflation of the two trads. in the spelling of the word as Satyre. Thomas Drant's 1566 definition of satire, e.g., claims that it was named either for the Satyrs or for the "waspish" god, Saturn. Intriguingly, Drant also wonders if the word might have the same origin as the Ar. word for "spear," referring to the satirist's method of skewering his targets. Similarly, Elliott claims the satiric poems of ancient Arabia (the hija) as an early example of satire's conventional use as a magical weapon intended to destroy one's enemies.

Other ancient rituals cited by Elliott as conceptual influences on satire include the Gr. phallic songs (iambic verses intended to cleanse society as part of the fertility rites), the invective poetic curses of Archilochus (7th c. bce), and the glám dícindsatiric poems used by ancient Ir. bards to bring infamy and death upon those who displeased them. Dryden mentions two other influential Gr. trads.: the parody-rich *silloi poems, perhaps derived from Silenus, foster-father of Dionysus, and the Gr. satyr play (the only remaining example of which is Euripides' Cyclops), a play performed after three tragedies in which satyrs act as chorus in order to mock issues taken seriously in the preceding plays. Horace describes one other decidedly Roman poetic trad. underlying the conception of satire: the Fescennine ritual. As part of the harvest festivals, participants would hurl humorous rustic abuse at each other in alternating verses. Such liberal verbal freedom was made illegal, states Horace, only after its "cruel tooth" offended honorable families (Epistles 2.1.139-56).

Philosophically, cl. satire owes much to the Cynic and Stoic schools. Much of Juvenal's style is cynical in its iconoclastic perspective, angry tone, and declamatory rhet. Other cynic satirists of note include Menippus and his Roman imitator Varro, as well as Petronius, Lucian, John Marston, and John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. Shakespeare's railing satirists Thersites (Troilus and Cressida) and Apemantus (Timon of Athens) exemplify the Cynic trad. with their incessant barking at fools and hypocrites. Elements of Stoic philosophy, a softened version of Cynicism, are present in the satires of Persius and Juvenal, as when, e.g., Juvenal asserts in Satire 10 the virtues of wishing for a "healthy mind in a healthy body" (356) or as Johnson writes in his imitation titled The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), "Pour forth thy fervors for a healthful mind, / Obedient passions, and a will resign'd" (359-60). However, one should not confuse a satirist's engagement with the institutions of his era with adherence to them; Highet (Juvenal, 93) argues that Juvenal rejected Stoic teachings (as suggested in Satire 13.120-24), a position supported by Coffey. Satirists conventionally present themselves as staunch individualists, the lone voice of reason driven to mock or to decry the wealth of abuses that surround them. With so much evil in the world, writes Juvenal, "it is difficult not to write satire" (1.30).

Structurally, the kind of Roman verse satire practiced by Lucilius, Horace, Juvenal, and later imitators such as John Donne and Pope, has elements in common with dramatic forms such as Gr. Old Comedy and Roman New Comedy. Roman verse satire is often framed as a rhetorical/dramatic debate between the satirist's speaking persona and an adversary, the former taking the position of vituperatio (blame) and the latter taking the position of laus (praise). The vice in question is then, as Randolph describes it, thoroughly examined in the first sect. of the poem, and the opposing virtue is recommended in the final sect. However, even within the confines of this generic structure, formal verse satire is rarely a stable form, flowing easily into congenial genres such as comedy, beast fable, and prose narrative. Horace, e.g., inserts the Aesopian beast fable of the town mouse and the country mouse into bk. 2, Satire 6, and Juvenal inserts an allegorical tale of a giant fish into satire 4.

In addition to formal verse satire, Quintilian mentions another "older type of satire" practiced by Menippus's Roman imitator Varro in which verse satire is mixed with prose (10.1.95-96). Dryden also mentions the influence of the cynical satires of Menippus and their manner of mixing several sorts of verse with prose, as well as their paradoxical tone of spoudogeloioi, or serious-laughter (64-67). In this category, Dryden places the works of Petronius, Apuleius, and Lucian, as well as John Barclay's picaresque novel Euphormionis Satyricon and his own Absalom and Achitophel and "MacFlecknoe." Given their cynical and unorthodox perspectives and despite their heavy reliance on prose, one could also place works such as Thomas More's Utopia, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World under the Menippean umbrella.

The critical hist. of satire in the 20th and early 21st cs. is an uneasy stalemate between formalist and historicist perspectives. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, the formalist or New Critical methodology recommended a mode of inquiry that rejected the historicists' concerns with literary origins in favor of exploring the conscious "artifice" of the poetry, i.e., the recurrent rhetorical and dramatic conventions of satire (see FORMALISM, HISTORICISM, NEW CRITICISM). One particularly innovative formalist study of the period is Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, in which satire is categorized among the four interrelated pregeneric mythoi (specifically, the mythos of winter). Frye argues that satire is a kind of "militant irony" whose structural scheme is the ironic application of romantic conventions to realistic contents. Some half-century later, the debate over the "historicity" of satire, meaning the nature and extent of satire's contact with its social context, continued, with scholars such as Bogel, Griffin, and Knight attempting to find a balance between historical conditions and formal traditions. In this context, the sociolinguistic theories of Mikhail Bakhtin are especially relevant for their ability to reconcile the dialogue between form and context in satire. Bakhtin argues that cl. "serio-comical" lit., which includes both formal verse and Menippean satire, is a precursor to the mod. novel, a form intended to provoke "the permanent corrective of laughter" that familiarizes and debases the loftier genres. Another of Bakhtin's contributions is his conception of "carnivalistic literature," a humorously profane remnant of folk culture and ritual that is deliberately contrasted against the usual hierarchical relationships of everyday life; another is his exploration of the ideological nature of Menippean satire as a carnivalized genre that combines topical and fantastic situations in order to test conventional truths, the effect of which is a challenge to all forms of orthodoxy.



A Treasury of Satire. ed. E. Johnson (1945); Poems on Affairs of State. ed. G. deF. Lord et al., 7 v. (1963-75) —Eng. satirical verse, 1660-1714; English Poetic Satire, ed. G. Rousseau and N. Ruden- stine (1972); Oxford Book of Satirical Verse, ed. G. Grigson (1980); An Anthology of 18th-Century Satire, ed. P. Heaney (1994); The Malcontents, ed. J. Queenan (2002).

Criticism and History

J. Dryden, "A Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire" (1693); Essays of John Dryden, ed. W. P. Kerr, 2 v. (1926); M. C. Randolph, "The Structural Design of the Formal Verse Satire," PQ 21 (1942); M. Mack, "The Muse of Satire," Yale Review 41 (1951); I. Jack, Augustan Satire (1952); G. Highet, Juvenal the Satirist (1954); J. Peter, Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature (1956); Frye; A. Kernan, The Cankered Muse (1959); R. Elliott, The Power of Satire (1960); G. Highet, The Anatomy of Satire (1962); J. P. Sullivan, Satire (1963)—Roman lit.; W. S. Anderson, Anger in Juvenal and Seneca (1964); A. Kernan, The Plot of Satire (1965); R. Paulson, The Fictions of Satire (1967), and Satire and the Novel in 18th-Century England (1967); H. D. Weinbrot, The Formal Strain (1969); Tudor Verse Satire, ed. K. W. Gransden (1970); R. Paulson, Satire (1971); W. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony (1974); R. Seldon, English Verse Satire1590-1767 (1978); E. A. Bloom and L. D. Bloom, Satire's Persuasive Voice (1979); T. Lockwood, Post-Augustan Satire (1979); M. Seidel, The Satiric Inheritance (1979); M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (1981); W. S. Anderson, Essays on Roman Satire (1982); N. Rudd, The Satires of Horace, 2d ed. (1982); H. D. Weinbrot, Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire (1982); V. Carretta, The Snarling Muse (1983); M. M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. ed. and trans. C. Emerson (1984), and Rabelais and His World. trans. H. Iswolsky (1984); F. Nussbaum, The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660-1750 (1984); L. Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody (1985); E. Pollack, The Poetics of Sexual Myth (1985) —Swift and Pope; L. Guilhamet, Satire and the Transformation of Genre (1987); H. Javadi, Satire in Persian Literature (1988); Eighteenth-Century Satire, ed. H. D. Weinbrot (1988); K. Freudenburg, The Walking Muse (1992); Horace Made New, ed. C. Martindale and D. Hopkins (1993); J. Relihan, Ancient Menippean Satire (1993); D. Griffin, Satire (1994); L. Hutcheon, Irony's Edge (1994); C. Rawson, Satire and Sentiment 1660-1830 (1994); M. Wood, Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790-1822 (1994); Cutting Edges. ed. (1995) —postmod. crit. on 18th-c. satire; R. Zimbardo, At Zero Point (1998); F. Bogel, The Difference Satire Makes (2001) — from Jonson to Byron; K. Freudenburg, Satires of Rome (2001); J. Ogborn and P. Buckroyd, Satire (2001); C. Knight, The Literature of Satire (2004); The Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire, ed. K. Freudenburg (2005); J. Scott, Satire (2005); H. D. Weinbrot, Menippean Satire Reconsidered (2005); C. Keane, Figuring Genre in Roman Satire (2006); R. Rosen, Making Mockery (2007).

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