When many people think of satire, they understand that it is a subversive approach to a certain social or political issue through the use of irony. Works like the Earl of Rochester’s “A Satire Against Reason and Mankind,” Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal or John Dryden’s MacFlecknoe all make fun of some perceived failing of its audience, whether it be the “Satire’s poking fun at rationalism and reason, Swift’s pointing out of the problems facing Ireland as a result of English ignorance, or Dryden’s ridiculing of his contemporaries’ inadequate literary criticism. However, to what end do these works make their points? Supposedly, the idea is to improve society by pointing out its flaws; however, is that the goal of all satirists, or is the point just to acknowledge our shortcomings and move on?
Satire is a mixture of both, all three of the aforementioned authors taking a different approach to satirizing their respective subjects. Swift’s work A Modest Proposal, for example, is a way to point out the ridiculousness of Ireland’s treatment in order to advocate for systemic change. On the other hand, Rochester’s poem “A Satire Against Reason and Mankind” points out the flaw in deciding that we are wholly rational creatures, and that we should simply be more in touch with our irrational sides (or at least not take as much smug superiority over our sense of reason). Dryden, in Mac Flecknoe, points out the dullness of his rival Shadwell as a way to advocate for a more sensible way to conduct poetry and literary criticism. With an examination of these works and others, as well as a basic exploration of the nature of satire, the plurality of purposes that satire has as a means to a sociopolitical end can be found.
Satire’s chief purposes and objectives are often depicted as a plurality, with many variations on a theme of providing subversive, straight-faced mockery of a subject. Seidel defines satire as “a censorious poem, properly distinguished by the generality of its reflection but all too often confused with a lesser form, lampoon, distinguished by the particularly of its reflections” (33). Knight discusses the basic principles of satire, describing it as a conflicts between “words, ideas and actuality.[operating] as both object and vehicle of scrutiny” (270). Great satirists exploit these conflicts, seeing the gaps in relationships as their appropriate targets for satire. Quality satire, it is said, uses pre-existing genres in order to confront the audience with the familiar, while also spinning it to attack its target. Satirists eschew realism or self-consciousness; satire is not self-aware, but must be presented organically and earnestly or it does not work. “Satire is insistently historical in nature,” says Knight, and therefore understanding of satire is placed firmly (but not strictly) within historical context (271). Satire comes from either a “satiric exile” or a “satiric nationalist,” both of whom engage in satire in different ways – there is a social or political boundary that must be crossed between target and satirist (272). Satire, by crossing these boundaries and pointing them out to the reader, makes these differences in perspective known, and allow people to escape the prisons of ideology they may find themselves in.
A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind, written by the 2nd Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, takes a decidedly satiric nationalist tone with its work, as it offers a wry, subversive version of the Earl of Rochester who questions the importance placed on reason by his fellow human beings. Beginning the poem by stating that, if he were “a spirit free to choose” what body he could inhabit, he would be “a dog, a monkey, or a bear” before a human, “that vain animal / Who is so proud of being rational” (lines 3-7). He then goes on to cite reason as the inexplicable leaps of logic that people take in order to justify their own intelligence or vanity, and humor as the humiliating process of self-deprecation that serves no one long, amongst other things. The targets of satire here are the aristocracy and church of the court of Charles II, their decadence and vanity becoming a target of ire for Wilmot, who provides a satirically cynical account of mankind’s folly in chasing reason. By comparing them to animals who do not know they are animals – “birds feed on birds, beasts on each other prey,” while “man undoes man to do himself no good” - Wilmot points out the inherent silliness of all the politicking and self-aggrandizing that occurs within societal and state institutions (lines 129, 133). Unlike other examples of satire, like Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Wilmot’s position is earnest as written, choosing to use the format to straight-facedly insult those he deems worthy of ridicule. This is a far cry from the modern notion of satire, in which the author professes to advocate something earnestly when it is secretly being mocked.
One of the defining features and vehicles of satire in “Satire Against Reason and Mankind” is its form. Rochester’s beauty of satire comes from his use of form and poetry as essential elements of satire, forming philosophical points about truth and inspiration and using rhyme to poke fun at reason. Rochester’s brand of satire is said to be a sobering “chastening of humanity,” as if the understanding or belief that we are superior because of our ability to reason is foolish (Porter 101). The poem has a traditional set of rhyming, metered couplets of ten syllables each. This creates a sense of repetition and sprightliness to the poem, innovating through content rather than changes in form. The use of rhyme and syntax as a strategy for satire allows for more than just content to be satirical; the Earl of Rochester’s command of form in “Satire Against Reason and Mankind” adds extra bite to its established satire of man’s foolish reason by its own measured insults. This is inextricably tied to philosophy, as satire is the stealth expression of an alternative philosophy using the trappings of its target; “Satire”’s command to form is the vehicle by which the chaos of mankind is expressed. By pointing out mankind’s folly through such measured rhythm, Wilmot offers creative and engrossing juxtaposition of order and chaos in relation to man’s slavish devotion to reason.
Like Wilmot, Dryden was never one to give literary judgments one at a time, but rather to convey his ideas in a more abstract way, which is where his satire came in – breaking rules of respect and morality in order to illustrate his points. In works like MacFlacknoe, Dryden would create fictionalized versions of himself and his opponents in order to mock them; by using these strategies he could successfully ridicule those whose ideologies he opposed by setting them up as ridiculous strawmen. In the case of Mac Flecknoe, Dryden satirizes and sends up the poet Thomas Shadwell, depicting him as a dull, unimaginative poet in the style of an epic heroic journey. By utilizing sarcasm to eloquently espouse the (negative) virtues of Shadwell’s nonsensical, obtuse writing, Dryden demonstrates his own superior intellect and mastery of words through his satire. “Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he / Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity” (Dryden lines 17-18). By writing in this mock-heroic style, Dryden purports to lift Shadwell up, when he in fact means to poke fun at him; he even rubs salt in the wound by stating that some poets and dunces have flashes of genius, while Shadwell is an unbroken record of dullness: “So Shadwell swore, nor should his vow be vain / That he till death true dullness would maintain” (Dryden).
In many ways, Dryden’s work is similar to Wilmot’s, in that they both use compelling, rhythmic poetic prose to make fun of their targets and insult their intelligence; however, the difference comes within the overt style of the work. Wilmot’s is more of a direct attack on a general group of people, while Dryden’s insults are couched in a deceptively bittersweet language that pretends to honor Shadwell while making jokes at his expense. Here, Dryden employs a further layer of irony not found in Wilmot’s work, as Wilmot is simply writing what he feels about the aristocracy in a particularly poetic way, while Dryden’s insults are phrased in a way that could be theoretically be confused for earnest praise. It is only knowing the emotionally-charged nature of words like ‘stupidity’ and ‘dullness,’ as well as having an understanding of the cultural context of Dryden’s and Shadwell’s poetic rivalry (e.g. Shadwell thought he was the next Ben Jonson, while Dryden disagreed vehemently); by showing Shadwell as a worthy successor to the sham poetry of the poem’s initial figure, fellow bad poet Flecknoe, “Mac Flecknoe gains its greatest strength as satire by insisting that bad art is bad succession” (Seidel 46). Shadwell himself is written in the poem as “Sh_____,” almost as if his name was far too repugnant to even spell out, making Dryden’s feelings on the subject additionally clear. Despite Dryden’s specificity in his targets, however, his reasoning for the selection of these individuals is meant to provide an overall condemnation of “those who would replace the current reign of the Stuarts of England with a tyranny of mass, of number, of mixture, of usurpation” (Seidel 47). To that end, Dryden’s overall goals do overlap with Wilmot’s, in that the specific critiques he levies are equally applicable to broader issues of dullness and lack of imagination in the literary world, looking into the hubris of creativity rather than the hubris of reason.
Perhaps most dissimilar from these other works is A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, a work that more commonly befits the normal conception of satire as it is currently know. The satire in A Modest Proposal stems from his anger at England’s forcing of certain conditions on Ireland so as to make the outlandish suggestion of eating children a reasonable one. People are likened to a source of riches, and the populousness of Ireland stemmed from the false building up of this maxim by others, including England, to set up the terrible economic conditions Ireland found itself in (Landa 161). To that end, A Modest Proposal is said to be a satire against that maxim that ‘people are the riches of a nation,’ taking it to its logical conclusion by reducing the population through cannibalism in order to increase opportunities for them. In this way, the satire is a concrete and coherent expression of Swift’s true desires, instead of a strictly ironic take on the issues being discussed. There is a link between A Modest Proposal’s satirical views and Swift’s earnest belief that populousness in Ireland is a “vicious economic condition,” as evidenced in his other work Maxims controlled in Ireland (Landa 162). Swift used this satire to show that he truly believed in Ireland, according to Landa, and that he wished it to succeed; the eating of children is a smokescreen for his real suggestion of underpopulation to foster more economic opportunity.
Despite these earnest bases for his views, the overall goal of the satirical work is to provide a solution that is so outlandish and so ridiculous that it must be rejected out of hand, which differentiates himself from Wilmot and Dryden quite clearly. Unlike the other two works, this is written in prose, in the form of an instructional pamphlet of the kind that would often be disseminated among the people in earnest at the time – in this way, he sneaks his messages in the form of a normal method of communication by the people, further masking its true intentions by presenting such a situation as realistically as possible. This kind of in-your-face subterfuge is not found in Dryden and Wilmot’s works, which are more overt diatribes against the subject of their ridicule (though Dryden’s contains somewhat more irony than Wilmot’s).
Satire of the kind Swift purveys is meant to confuse the reader into listening; by writing such outrageous demands, the reader is unsettled, which then forces them to reconsider their existing understanding of the world as they know it (Phiddian 619). Satire makes abstractions out of ordinary extreme statements, and Swift’s Modest Proposal works by making the reader vulnerable and uncomfortable, only after lulling them into a false sense of security. Swift does an impeccable job of administering satire in the work by positioning the reader in a certain viewpoint and then pulling the rug out from under them.
In conclusion, the works of Wilmot, Dryden and Swift all portray different elements of satire along the spectrum of literary subterfuge. Wilmot’s “Satire Against Reason and Mankind” is a poetic and witty screed against the foolishness of vanity and reason, while Dryden’s equally poetic work masks its distaste for its subject in mock-heroic grandeur. Swift, meanwhile, uses his cutting prose satire to present a ridiculous situation in a realistic and earnestly-written manner, thus abstracting his message in a way to elicit the horrified reaction from his audience he arguably desired. In these varied ways, the wide spectrum of satire can be traced, from works that merely creatively mock their subjects to ones that abstract them to the point where the subjects (e.g. anyone who might support Swift’s motion or the principles behind it) end up mocking themselves.
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