The Legacy of Antiquity

The word satire comes not from the Greek satyr but from the same root as ‘saturate’, ultimately meaning a ‘medley’ of different ingredients. In truth it has broken from its etymological base to become a catch-all term like ‘revue’, mélange, or ‘farce’. Attacking notorious fools in power in order to cleanse society of their idiocy exists in almost every culture – the most prominent Greek equivalent is the Old Attic Comedian Aristophanes. Fusing comic drama with the street-preaching style of the Cynics and Sceptics, the Romans fused serious poetry, obscene jokes, and slang phrases to come out with a literary form all their own. A satire can be summed up by the following flow of words and translations: σπονδογϵλοιον or ridentum dicere uerem or ‘joking in earnest’. The form may now be broad, but it was Roman in origin. It is to this Roman origin we look to first. In Latin there emerged two main branches:

  1. The Satiric Poets: Writing in hexameter verse, they dealt with invective language against thinly disguised personalities, whose clear real-world equivalent was understood by the audience. Beginning with Lucilius ( 150 B.C. – 102 B.C.), whose works unfortunately perished in the Dark Ages, the satire was picked up by Horace (65-8 B.C.), whom we have already met when considering the ode in lyric poetry. Satire was used as poetic form by Horace in his younger years, when he was full of bite and vigour, later to be abandoned for the more introspective form of the Epistle.

After Horace comes Persius (34-63 A.D.), a notable admirer of Stoicism, and eventually Juvenal (c. 55-130 A.D.). Juvenal produced the bitterest and most eloquent satires of the Roman group, publishing from 100 A.D. until his death. Most often-imitated are his 3rd Satire on the horrors of megapolitan life, his 6th Satire attacking women, and his noble 10th Satire on the vanity of human hopes. The Roman satire closes with the Epigrams of Martial, modelled off the Juvenal style.

Manners of Men
The Manners of Men as satirised by Juvenal
  1. The Menippean Satirists: Writing in prose interspersed with parodic verse, the style emanated from the Greek-Syrian Cynic philosopher Menippus of Gadara (290 B.C.). Used as a tool for philosophical deflection, it was brought into Latin by Cicero’s friend Varro (116-27 B.C.), whose work on Menippean Satire is now lost. The only whole Menippean Satire from the Roman age that has reached us is Seneca’s Joke on the Death of Claudius  (Pumpkinification). We do have, in the Satyricon of Petronius (27-66 A.D.), a considerable fragment of a huge Epicurean satire written in the time of Nero. Unfortunately is was not discovered until 1650, and hence had little impact on the development of modern satire.

The satire invaded Greek literature of the Roman Age along with Roman conquering and occupation. Lucian, writing in the 2nd century A.D, was the chief satirist of the Eastern Mediterranean at the time. We have already seen Lucian as having a distinct impact on the works of Rebelais. He takes the negative criticism of the Roman satirists and combines it with elements of Platonic dialogue and Aristophanean fantasy. In the Baroque age, the work of Lucian can be seen in Cyrano de Bergerac’s novels and Jonothan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

The Middle Ages had left its mark on the development of satire, though it was often joltingly inserted into otherwise foreign poetical forms, such as the love-story in Romance of the Rose (dealt with in France and the Middle Ages), the anecdote of Tyl Ulenspiegel, and the animal-fable Reynard the Fox. When satire of the invective type did occur, most notably Bernard of Morval’s On the Contempt of the World (c. 1150), it is passed down to us in the strange form of the hymn (a passage of the satire is contained in Jerusalem the Golden). Where Middle Ages satire suffered was from its failure to distinguish the itself from didacticism. A satire is not a sermon, and it is only later that this was grasped accordingly.

Where the middle ages were confused about form, the Renaissance and subsequent ages were dumbstruck with awe. They acknowledged in Juvenal a standard never surpassed in the craft of etching on the human heart with pure acid. It was he who created many phrases which are now household words, such as ‘bread and circuses’ – panem et circenses. When John Donne  writes ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ in The Relic (1633), he is rearing up the spirit of Juvenal. Swift wished Juvenal to haunt the readers of his epitaph:

Hic depositum est Corpus
Hujus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit

Compare this to Juvenal 1.79:

si natura negat, facit indignatio uersum

The over-riding emotion is indignation, against nature, the world and the way of things. Housman would embellish such indignation in his Shropshire Lad:

All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain;

Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation-

Oh why did I awake? When shall I sleep again?

Swift’s Epitaph in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Satire’s Modern Form

Modern satires written in prose have usually adopted the form of some other branch of literature, and injected satiric matter and spirit into it, just as Lucian had done in Roman Age Greece. Swift’s Battle of the Books, mentioned while discussing The Classical Dilemma, was meant to mock the translation of heroic epic, and his Gulliver’s Travels is a parody of the popular traveller’s tale. Voltaire, in his Candide, injected satire into the travel-romance (a form earlier discussed in Pastoral and Romance). Rabelais took on Lucian’s satirical elements. By the nineteenth century authors were not producing satires as stand-alone prose, but sprinkling satiric elements into a broad enveloping plot – such is the case in Bleak House of Dickens and Bouvard et Pécuchet of Flaubert.

Satire could be fused with Christianity, as was the case with Abraham a Sancta Clara (1644-1709), a barefooted Augustinian of German extraction, who became court preacher to the Court of Vienna. He was not as Bossuet was in France – solemn, learned, orotund. Abraham reserved being serious for only those most serious of moments. Otherwise he was the laughing philosopher of ancient Greece. His audience must have been constantly amused and stimulated, and yet they were being edified all the time: perhaps that is the only way to teach Austrians. The main strand of German classicism in literature we shall see later, emerging as it does in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Safe to say until then that there are elements of him in Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager (1798), a work Francesco Maria Piave would later take as inspiration for his libretto in the Verdi opera Forza del Destino (1862).

The Evolution of Verse Satire in the Renaissance

Satire became an eccentric and opaque form as it developed over the centuries, to the extent that modern prose satire owes little to the form’s Roman origins. By the early seventeenth century, Isaac Casaubon was publishing an elucidation of the history of satire alongside his edition of Persius. The earliest verse satire that emerged after the Middle Ages were those of Antionio Vinciguerra (1440-1502), closely followed by Luigi Alamanni (1495-1556) in his work Opere Toscane (1532). Italy now had a taste for the satirical tongue, and wanted more – Ludovico Ariosto, who we encountered in Renaissance Epic for his Orlando Furioso, also tried his hand with satire, writing seven satiric discourses on social corruption between 1517 and 1531. He was followed by his namesake Ludovico Paterno, who utilised satire through blank verse. The most successful Italian satirist was Francesco Berni (1498-1535) who mainly worked of the templates of the Middle Ages rather than any classical author.

Brueghel the Elder: Capturing the Essence of Renaissance Satire

So satire was still much a mixed bag in the sixteenth century – some were working on medieval models, others on classical frameworks. Some contained elements of both, such as Sebastian Brant (1458-1521), who stood Rabelais-like, with one foot in the Middle Ages, the other in the Renaissance. His chief work was the Ship of Fools (1494). It is Pieter Brueghel in literary form – dozens of little figures and groups engaged in ceaseless activity. Brant, an Alsatian by birth, is key because it was an Alexander Barclay translation of his Ship of Fools that brought the satire into England in 1509. 1509 was also the year of Erasmus’ Latin satire Praise of Folly, which, being written in the international language, would also have had an effect on English satirist. Sir Thomas Wyat (1503-42) was perhaps England’s greatest poet of the early 16th century. It was he who introduced the Petrarchan sonnet into England (which would later effect Shakespeare and Spenser). In satire he was inspired by Erasmus, Brant, and Alamanni to write three satires on court life, published posthumously.

Later English satirists include George Gascoigne, who wrote a blank verse satire in The Steel Glass, and more famously, one John Donne. In 1593 Donne wrote three grotesquely warped and wry-mouthed works which helped shape the voice of English satire at the close of the Elizabethan Age. Other works in this lively time for English literature include Joseph Hall’s Virgidemiarum and John Marston’s Scourge of Villainy. Again the classical authors on display were Horace, Persius, and Juvenal. Such was the fervour with which satires were now being printed in England that it came to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1599 to issue that ‘no satires or epigrams be printed hereafter’. The first wave of English satire was at an end.

In France the greatest satirical writer was Rabelais, who we have already discussed. Unsurprisingly in this fractious period for French religiosity, satires were often targeting the Catholic Church, as was the case with the Menippean Satire (1594) which supported Henri IV against the Catholic League. In 1616 we see the publication of Les Tragiques by Agrippa d’Aubigné, which attempted the blend the satire with the higher spirit of epic heroism.

Baroque Satire

The figure that bridges Renaissance satire to Baroque is Mathurin Régnier (1573-1613). Taking the gentlemanly liberal philosophy of Montaigne, he created portraits of fops, bores, and hypocrites which resonate in the comedies of Moliere. When Régnier writes of court life

I do not know the courses of the planets

I cannot guess another courtier’s secrets

he is channelling his inner Juvenal.

There was no gap between Régnier and his formidable successor Nicolas Boileau, called Despréaux. Boileau was accompanied by voices such as Furetiere and Gilles Boileau, Nicolas’ older brother. Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux was the most prominent. His considerable achievements were his Horatian Art of Poetry and The Lectern (1674), the latter of which we discussed during the Classical Dilemma, but Boileau had built his way to these peaks on the foundation of earlier satires, which grew his fame. The French public in the seventeenth century were fans of satires unremitting zest, seemingly getting a thrill out of its undertone of threatening violence. It was the reprieve, if not the antidote, to their structured lives.

If France was had cultural predominance on Baroque Europe, England had the moral and intellectual vigour, and the superior gusto. As with other forms (the ode, the tragedy), some of the best satire of the age was created by John Dryden. He was in his middle-age by the time he produced his satires of note – Absalom and Achitophel (Part1) appearing in 1681 with part 2, largely by Nahum Tate, appearing a year later. These were followed by The Medal and MacFlacknow in 1682. He was following in the footsteps of Juvenal, whom he would later translate, and in more temporal proximity Boileau. Absalom and Achitophel and MacFlecknoe are mock epics, which Dryden admitted owed much to Tassoni’s Ravished Bucket and Boileau’s Lectern (both mentioned within the context of the Classical Dilemma).

The character-portrait, evident in Donne, Dryden, Pope, and Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1684) came from the humour of the late Middle Ages and are a part of the complex fusion of classical and non-classical elements comprising the baroque satire. It would find its greatest manifestation in the psychological essay, best exemplified in England by John Earle’s Microcosmography (1628) and in France by Jean de La Bruyere’s Characters (1688). Again, what set these essays apart was their correct fusion of medieval humour with classical senses, notably touches of Theophrastus. Yet some satire of the baroque age would be uniquely its own – think Dryden’s Og (a character-sketch of Thomas Shadwell) in Absalom and Achitophel and Pope’s Sporus (a character-sketch of John Hervey) in the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot (1743).

Scene of Satire
The Scene of a Typical Baroque Satire

By the time Alexander Pope was producing The Rape of Lock in 1712 a new generation of satirists were arriving on a changing political, and hence satirical, landscape. Louis XIV’s long reign ended in 1715, a year after the Hanoverians’ reign began in England under George I. Pope, like Dryden before him, would turn to mock-epic with his Dunciad, released in three different versions from 1728-1743. At the same time, he would keep busy with short-form satire with his Imitations of Horace during the 1730s.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) would be to Juvenal what Pope was to Horace. London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) were both adapted from Juvenal’s 3rd and 10th satires respectively.

Satires would close in the Baroque Age where they had begun in the Renaissance, Italy, where Giuseppe Parini (1729-99) produced on of the finest satires of the 18th century in The Day, published in two parts between 1763 and 1765. Parini’s work contains traces of a shift in tone from earlier satires. In it, the loftiest of Baroque is fading, replaced by revolutionary undertones and realist grit. In this sense Parini is to continental Europe in the eighteenth century what George Crabbe would be to late 18th century poetry, or what William Hogarth had already been to English painting.

On Form and Subject-Matter

The Roman satirists wrote in a bold, free-running hexameter, which could only be equalled in range by English blank verse. Yet the verse satirists of the baroque age (except latecomer Parini) wrote not in blank verse but in stopped couplets. This contained form is a significant distinction of the age, limiting the satirist to snipping wit and an airy delicacy which was to be later abandoned by the Age of Revolution. The Romans did use the couplet, notably Martial in his epigrams, but this they did so rarely. When Juvenal wanted to have coarse farce, virtuoso sound, and sombre pessimism in a wide-ranging satire he stuck to hexameter. The baroque stopped couplet had developed form the Latin elegiac couplet common not just to Martial but to well-read authors such as Ovid and Propertius.

This stopped couplet of the baroque led almost naturally to a caesura, or stoppage half way through each line, giving the impression of waves going out and back in, the rhyme confirming its necessary return. Here are examples, first by Dryden, then by Pope, finally in French by Boileau:

  1. Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel:

Not weighed or winnowed by the multitude;

But swallowed in the mass, unchewed and crude.

Some truth there was, but dashed and brewed with lies;

To please fools and puzzle all the wise.

  1. Pope’s Dunciad:

Beeves, at his touch, at once to jelly turn,

And the huge boar is shrunk into an urn:

The board with specious miracles he loads,

Turns hares to larks, and pigeons into toads.

  1. Boileau’s 8th Satire (here the caesura is at the exact half-point of the Alexandrine):

Cet animal, tapi dans son obscurité,

Jouit l’hiver des biens conquis durant l’été.

Mais on ne la voit point d’une humeur inconstante,

Paresseuse au printemps, en hiver diligente.

Another constraint on baroque satire is its refusal to use what they would describe as ‘low’ words. The Roman writers of satire had no such qualms. Boileau claimed that the only inhibition of Moliere was his want to be ‘friend of the people’ – he felt compelled to always add the polite Terence to the farcical Tabarin charlatan, even when it was not required.

The final constraint we will consider is the subject-matter. What would we not give for a mock-heroic description of the contest for Louis XIV’s love, between Montespan and Maintenon – like Ajax and Hector fighting over the body of Patroclus – or an account of the dinner given by Louis Condé in honour of the Sun King, where Condé’s majordomo, who killed himself because the fish was arriving late?

The answer is contained in the words of the satirists themselves. Pope, the most fearless of such satirists, said of Addison that he was ‘willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike’. What was true of Addison was even more true of the England’s French counterparts. Nobody was willing to show Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, grappling with the king’s war minister, the Marquis of Louvois, for the soul of France. The events and subject-matter were there, but ultimately the courage of personality, reserved for the greatest satirists, was not. The aristocratic and authoritarian structure of society in the baroque age made it wise for satirists to avoid the direct attack, those who did so suffered greatly – Dryden was cudgelled by thugs hired by the Earl of Rochester in 1679 and Voltaire was first imprisoned in the Bastille in 1717, then beaten by thugs hired by the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot in 1726, and lived much of his life in the safety of exile.

The heightened reaction to criticism by the nobility was indicative of a social system coming under repeated strain. This would eventually explode in France and ripple throughout the rest of the continent, dawning a new age in literary thought. Until then satire remained witty and snappy but lacking in the punch of a Horace of Juvenal. When that punch came it would not just come from a much larger tract of society, and its blow would level the entire age.