1902 Encyclopedia > Satire


SATIRE. Satire, in its literary aspect, may be defined as the expression in adequate terms of the sense of amusement or disgust excited by the ridiculous or unseemly, provided that humour is a distinctly recognizable element, and that the utterance is invested with literary form. Without humour, satire is invective; without literary form, it is mere clownish jeering. It is indeed exceedingly difficult to define the limits between satire and the regions of literary sentiment into which it shades. The lofty ethical feeling of a Johnson or a Carlyle borders it on the one hand, the witty sarcasm of a Talleyrand, rancorous or good-natured, on the other; but, however exalted the satirist's aims, or amiable his temper, a basis of contempt or dislike is the groundwork of his art. This feeling may be diverted from the failings of man individual to the feebleness and imperfection of man universal, and the composition may still be a satire; but if the element of scorn or sarcasm were entirely eliminated it would become a sermon. That this expression of aversion is of the essence of satire appears from the fact that the literary power which, the more it is exerted upon grave and elevated subjects, removes them further and further from the domain of satire can confer satiric dig-nity upon the most scurrilous lampoon. The distinction between the intellectual form and the raw material of satire is admirably illustrated by a passage in an accom-plished novelist. The clever young lady happening to compare a keen and bright person to a pair of scissors, her unrefined companion is for the moment unable to under-stand how a human being can resemble a piece of cutlery; but suddenly a light breaks in upon her, and, taking up a broken pair of scissors from the table, she imitates the halting gait of a lame lady, declaring that Mrs Brown resembles that particular pair of scissors to the life. The first interlocutor could have been satirical if she would; the second would if she could. The nice and delicate per-ception of the former type of character may be fairly driven into satire by the vulgarity and obtuseness of the second, as in the case of Miss Austen; and it may be added that the general development of civilization, repressing high-handed wrongs against which ridicule is no defence, and encouraging failings which can be effectually attacked in no other manner, continually tends to make satire more congenial to the amiable and refined, and thus exalt its moral tone and purpose.

The first exercise of satire was no doubt sufficiently coarse and boisterous. It must have consisted in gibing at personal defects; and Homer's description of Thersites, the earliest example of literary satire that has come down to us, probably conveys an accurate delineation of the first satirists, the carpers and fault-finders of the clan. The character reappears in the heroic romances of Ireland, and elsewhere; and it is everywhere implied that the licensed backbiter is a warped and distorted being, readier with his tongue than his hands. The verdict of unso-phisticated man on satire is clearly that it is the offspring of ill-nature; to redeem and dignify it by rendering it the instrument of morality or the associate of poetry was a development implying considerable advance in the literary art. The latter is the course adopted in the Old Testa-ment, where the few passages approximating to satire, such as Jotham's parable of the bramble and Job's ironical address to his friends, are embellished either by fancy or by feeling. An intermediate stage between personal ridi-cule and the correction of faults and follies seems to have been represented in Greece by the Margues, attributed to Homer, which, while professedly lampooning an individual, practically rebuked the meddling sciolism impersonated in him. In the accounts that have come down to us of the writings of Archilochus, the first great master of satire (about 700 B.C), we seem to trace the elevation of the instrument of private animosity to an element in public life. Though a merciless assailant of individuals, Archilochus was also a distinguished statesman, naturally for the most part in opposition, and his writings seem to have fulfilled many of the functions of a newspaper press. Their extraordinary merit is attested by the infallible judgment of Quintilian eight hundred years after their com-position; and Gorgias's comparison of them with Plato's persiflage of the Sophists proves that their virulence must have been tempered by grace and refinement. Archilochus also gave satiric poetry its accepted form by the invention of the iambic trimeter, slightly modified into the scazonic metre by his successors. Simonides of Amorgus, about a generation later, and Hipponax, a century later still, were distinguished like Archilochus for the bitterness of their attacks on individuals, with which the former combined a strong ethical feeling, and the latter a bright active fancy. All three were restless and turbulent, aspiring and discon-tented, impatient of abuses and theoretically enamoured of liberty; and the loss of their writings* which would have thrown great light on the politics as well as the manners of Greece, is exceedingly to be lamented. With Hipponax the direct line of Greek satire is interrupted; but two new forms of literary composition, exceedingly capable of being rendered the vehicles of satire, almost simultaneously make their appearance. Fable is first heard of in Asiatic Greece about this date; and, although its original intention does not seem to have been satirical its adaptability to satiric purposes was soon discovered and turned to account. A far more important step was the elevation of the rude fun of rustic merrymakings to a literary status by the evolution of the drama from tha Bacchic festival. The means had now been found of ally-ing the satiric spirit with exalted poetry, and their union was consummated in the person of a poet who combined humour with imagination in a degree never again to be rivalled until Shakespeare. Every variety of satire is exemplified in the comedies of Aristophanes; and if he does not rank as the first of satirists it is only because he is so much beside. Such affluence of poetical genius could not be perpetual, any more than the peculiar political and social conditions which for a time made such fearless and uncontrolled satire possible. Through the half-way house of mythological parody the comedy of public life passes into the comedy of manners, metrical still, but approxi-mating more closely to prose, and consequently to satire on its own side of the line which it is convenient if not strictly logical to trace between dramatists and ordinary satiric writers. The step from Menander to Lucilius is not a long one, but it was not destined to be taken by a Greek.

A rude form of satire had existed in Italy from an early date in the shape of the Fescennine verses, the rough and licentious pleasantry of the vintage and harvest, which, lasting down to the 16th century, inspired Tansillo's Vendemmiatore. As in Greece, these eventually, about 364 B.C., were developed into a rude drama, originally introduced as a religious expiation. This was at first, Livy tells us (vii. 2), merely pantomimic, as the dialect of the Tuscan actors imported for the occasion was not under-stood at Rome. Verse, " like to the Fescennine verses in point of style and manner," was soon added to accompany the mimetic action, and, with reference to the variety of metres employed, these probably inrprovised compositions were entitled Saturx, a term denoting miscellany, and derived from the satura lanx, " a charger filled with the first-fruits of the year's produce, anciently offered to Bacchus and Ceres." The Romans thus had originated the name of satire, and, in so far as the Fescennine drama consisted of raillery and ridicule, possessed the thing also; but it had not yet assumed a literary form among them. Livius Andronicus (240 B.C.), the first regular Latin dra-matic poet, appears to have been little more than a trans-lator from the Greek. Satires are mentioned among the literary productions of Ennius (200 B.C.) and Pacuvius (170 B.C.), but the title rather refers to the variety of metres employed than to the genius of the composition. The real inventor of Roman satire is Caius Lucilius (148-103 B.C.), whose Satirrn seem to have been mostly satirical in the modern acceptation of the term, while the subjects of some of them prove that the title continued to be applied to miscellaneous collections of poems, as was the case even to the time of Varro, whose "Saturas" included prose as well as verse, and appear to have been only partially satirical. The fragments of Lucilius preserved are unfortunately very scanty, but the verdict of Horace, Cicero, and Quintilian demonstrates that he was a very consider-able poet. It is needless to dwell on compositions so universally known as the Satires of Lucilius's successor Horace, in whose hands this class of composition received an entirely new development, becoming genial, playful, and persuasive. "Arch Horace strove to mend." The didactic element preponderates still more in the philo-sophical satires of Persius, the propagandist of Stoicism, a writer whose intensity, dramatic gift, obscurity, and abruptness render him, like the Browning and Meredith of our own days, the luxury of the few and the despair of the many. Yet another form of satire, the rhetorical, was carried to the utmost limits of excellence by Juvenal, the first example of a great tragic satirist. Nearly at the same time Martial, improving on earlier Roman models now lost, gave that satirical turn to the epigram which it only exceptionally possessed in Greece, but has ever since retained. The brevity, pregnancy, and polish of the Latin tongue were never more felicitously exemplified than by this gifted writer. About the same time another variety of satire came into vogue, destined to become the most important of any. The Milesian tale, a form of entertainment probably of Eastern origin, grew in the hands of Petronius and Apuleius into the satirical romance, immensely widening the satirist's field and exempting him from the restraints of metre. Petronius's " Supper of Trimalchio " is the revelation of a new vein, never fully worked till our days. As the novel arose upon the ruins of the epic, so dialogue sprung up upon the wreck of comedy. In Lucian comedy appears adapted to suit the exigencies of an age in which a living drama had become impossible. Lucian's position as a satirist is something new, and could not, from the nature of the case, have been occupied by any of his predecessors. For the first time since the origin of civilization society felt apprehensive of impending dissolution, and its fears found an interpreter in the Sophist of Samosata, " the Voltaire of paganism," an universal censor and mocker, devoid of the Christian's hope of general renovation, and unable to foresee the new social order which the barbarian conquest was destined to create. Next to his wit, Lucian's special note is his sturdy love of truth and demand for genuineness in all things. With him antique satire expires as a distinct branch of literature,—though mention should be made of the sarcasms and libels with which the population of Egypt were for centuries accustomed to insult the Roman conqueror and his parasites. An exceedingly curious specimen, a denunciation of the apostate poet Hor-Uta—a kind of Egyptian " Lost Leader "o—composed under Augustus, has recently been published by M. Revillout from a demotic papyrus.

It is highly interesting to remark how, after the great deluge of barbarism has begun to retire, one form of satire after another peeps forth from the receding flood, the order of development being determined by the circumstances of time and place. In the Byzantine empire, indeed, the link of continuity is unbroken, and such raillery of abuses as is possible under a despotism finds vent in the pale copies of Lucian published in Ellissen's Analelcten. The first really important satire, however, is a product of Western Europe, recurring to the primitive form of fable, upon which, nevertheless, it constitutes a decided advance. Reynard the Fox, a genuine expression of the shrewd and homely Teutonic mind, is a landmark in literature. It gave the beast-epic a development of which the ancients had not dreamed, and showed how cutting ridicule could be conveyed in a form difficult to resent. About the same time, probably, the popular instinct, perhaps deriving a hint from Rabbinical litera-ture, fashioned Morolf, the prototype of Sancho Panza, the incarnation of sublunar mother-wit contrasted with the starry wisdom of Solomon; and the Till Eulenspiegel is a kindred Teutonic creation, but later and less significant. Piers Ploughman, the next great work of the class, adapts the apocalyptic machinery of monastic and anchoritic vision to the purposes of satire, as it had often before been adapted to those of ecclesiastical aggrandizement. The clergy were scourged with their own rod by a poet and a Puritan too earnest to be urbane. Satire is a distinct element in Chaucer and Boccaccio, who nevertheless cannot be ranked as satirists. The mock-heroic is successfully revived by Pulci, and the political songs of the 14th and 15th centuries attest the diffusion of a sense of humour among the people at large. The Renaissance, restoring the knowledge and encouraging the imitation of classic models, sharpened the weapons and enlarged the armoury of the satirist. Partly, perhaps, because Erasmus was no poet, the Lucianic dialogue was the form in the ascendant of his age. Erasmus not merely employed it against supersti-tion and ignorance with infinite and irresistible pleasantry, but fired by his example a bolder writer, untrammelled by the dignity of an arbiter in the republic of letters. The ridicule of Ulric von Hutten's Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum is annihilating, and the art there for the first time fully exemplified though long previously introduced by Plato, of putting the ridicule into the mouth of the victim, is perhaps the most deadly shaft in the quiver of sarcasm. It was afterwards used with even more pointed wit though with less exuberance of humour by Pascal, the first modern example, if Dante may not be so classed, of a great tragic satirist. Ethical satire is vigorously represented by Sebastian Brant and his imitator Alexander Barclay ; but in general the metrical satirists of the age seem tame in comparison with Erasmus and Hutten, though including the great name of Machiavelli. Sir Thomas More cannot be accounted a satirist, but his idea of an imaginary common-wealth embodied the germ of much subsequent satire. In the succeeding period politics take the place of literature and religion, producing in France the Satyre Ménippêe, elsewhere the satirical romance as represented by the Argenis of Barclay, which may be defined as the adaptation of the style of Petronius to state affairs. In Spain, where no freedom of criticism existed, the satiric spirit took refuge in the novela picaresca, the prototype of Le Sage and the ancestor of Fielding ; Quevedo revived the medi-aeval device of the vision as the vehicle of reproof ; and Cervantes's immortal work might be classed as a satire were it not so much more. About the same time we notice the appearance of direct imitation of the Roman satirists in English literature in the writings of Donne, Hall, and Marston, the further elaboration of the mock-heroic by Tassoni, and the culmination of classical Italian satire in Salvator Rosa. The prodigious development of the drama at this time absorbed much talent that would otherwise have been devoted to satire proper. Most of the great dramatists of the 17th century were more or less satirists, Molière perhaps the most consummate that ever existed ; but, with an occasional exception like Les Précieuses Ridicules, the range of their works is too wide to admit of their being regarded as satires. The next great example of unadulterated satire is Butler's Hudibras, and perhaps one more truly representative of satiric aims and methods cannot easily be found. At the same period dignified political satire, bordering on invec-tive, received a great development in Andrew Marvell's Advices to a Painter, and was shortly afterwards carried to perfection in Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel ; while the light literary parody of which Aristophanes had given the pattern in his assaults on Euripides, and which Shakespeare had handled somewhat carelessly in the Midsummer Night's Dream, was effectively revived in the duke of Buckingham's Rehearsal. In France Boileau was long held to have attained the ne plus ultra of the Horatian style in satire and of the mock-heroic, but Pope was soon to show that further progress was possible in both. The polish, point, and concentration of Pope remain unsurpassed, as do the amenity of Addison and the daring yet severely logical imagination of Swift; while the History of John Bull and the Pseudologia place their friend Arbuth-not in the first rank of political satirists. The 18th century was, indeed, the age of satire. Serious poetry had for the time worn itself out; the most original geniuses of the age, Swift, Defoe, and Richardson, are decidedly prosaic, and Pope, though a true poet, is less of a poet than Dryden. In process of time imaginative power revives in Goldsmith and Rousseau; meanwhile Fielding and Smollett have fitted the novel to be the vehicle of satire and much beside, and the literary stage has for a time been almost wholly en-grossed by a colossal satirist, a man who has dared the universal application of Shaftesbury's maxim that ridicule is the test of truth. The world had never before seen a satirist on the scale of Voltaire, nor had satire ever played such a part as a factor in impending change. The parallel with Lucian is in some respects very close. Toleration was Voltaire's idol, as truth was Lucian's; and thus, aiming more than his predecessor at the practical reformation of manners and institutions, his work was less purely negative. He was nevertheless a destroyer, and as utterly out of sympathy with the positive spirit of science for which he was preparing the way as Lucian could possibly be with Goths or Christians. As a master of sarcastic mockery he is unsurpassed; his manner is entirely his own; and he is one of the most intensely national of writers, notwithstanding his vast obligations to English humorists, states-men, and philosophers. English humour also played an important part in the literary regeneration of Germany, where, after Lkcow and Rabener, direct imitators of Swift and the essayists, Lessing, imbued with Pope but not mastered by him, showed how powerful an auxiliary satire can be to criticism,—a relation which Pope had somewhat inverted. Another great German writer, Wieland, owes little to the English, but adapts Lucian and Petronius to the 18th century with playful if somewhat mannered grace. Kortum's Jobsiad, a most humorous poem, innovates suc-cessfully upon established models by making low life, instead of chivalry, the subject of burlesque. Goethe and Schiller, Scott and Wordsworth, are now at hand, and as imagination gains ground satire declines. Byron, who in the 18th century would have been the greatest of satirists, is hurried by the spirit of his age into passion and description, bequeathing, however, a splendid proof of the possibility of allying satire with sublimity in his Vision of Judgment. Moore gives the epigram a lyrical turn; Beranger, not for the first time in French literature, makes the gay chanson the instrument of biting jest; and the classic type receives fresh currency from Auguste Barbier. Courier, and subsequently Cormenin, raise the political pamphlet to literary dignity by their poignant wit. Peacock evolves a new type of novel from the study of Athenian comedy. Miss Edgeworth skirts the confines of satire, and Miss Austen, the most refined and delicate of all observers of manners, seasons her novels with the most exquisite satiric traits. Washington Irving revives the manner of The Spectator, and Tieck brings irony and persiflage to the discussion of critical problems. Two great satiric figures remain,—one representative of his nation, the other most difficult to class. In all the characteristics of his genius Thackeray is thoroughly English, and the faults and follies he chastises are those especially charac-teristic of British society. Good sense and the perception of the ridiculous are amalgamated in him; his satire is a thoroughly British article, a little over-solid, a little wanting in finish, but honest, weighty, and durable. Posterity will go to him for the humours of the age of Victoria, as they go to Addison for those of Anne's. But Heine hardly belongs to any nation or country, time or place. He ceased to be a German without becoming a Frenchman, and a Jew without becoming a Christian. Only one portrait really suits him, that in Tieck's allegorical tale, where he is repre- sented as a capricious and mischievous elf; but his song is sweeter and his command over the springs of laughter and tears greater than it suited Tieck's purpose to acknow- ledge. In him the satiric spirit, long confined to established literary forms, seems to obtain unrestrained freedom to wander where it will, nor have the ancient models been followed since by any considerable satirist except the Italian Giusti. The machinery employed by Moore was indeed transplanted to America by Russell Lowell, whose Biglow Papers represent perhaps the highest moral level yet attained by satire. In no age has the spirit of satire been so generally diffused as in the 19th century, but many of its eminent writers, while bordering on the domains of satire, escape the definition of satirist. The term cannot be properly applied to Dickens, the keen observer of the oddities of human life; or to George Eliot, the critic of its emptiness when not inspired by a worthy purpose; or to Balzac, the painter of French society; or to Trollope, the mirror of the middle classes of England. If Sartor Besartus could be regarded as a satire, Carlyle would rank among the first of satirists; but the satire, though very obvious, rather accompanies than inspires the composition. The number of minor satirists of merit, on the other hand, is legion, and but few can be mentioned here. Poole, in his broadly farcical Little Pedlington, has rung the changes with inexhaustible ingenuity on a single fruitful idea; Jerrold's comedies sparkle with epigrams, and his tales and sketches overflow with quaint humour; Mallock has made the most of personal mimicry, the lowest form of satire; Samuel Butler holds an inverting mirror to the world's face with imperturbable gravity; Courthope reproduces the airy grace and sonorous melody of the Attic comedy; and the anonymous writer of the "Barnum " Christmas number of Truth has resuscitated with equal effect its reckless fun and personality. One remarkable feature of the age is the union of caricature with literature to a degree incon- ceivable before the improvements in wood-engraving. All large capitals now have their comic illustrated journals, destined for the most part to be the marvels and stumbling- blocks of posterity. Punch, however, has become almost a national institution, and has fostered the genius of two pictorial satirists of the first rank, Leech and Tenniel. The present tendencies of the civilized world seem highly favourable to the influence of satire as a factor in human affairs, but unfavourable to the production of satiric masterpieces. Satire is the inevitable concomitant of freedom of speech, which must continue to prevail and diffuse itself unless checked by military or socialistic despotism. But as the privilege of the many it is less likely to be the resource of the few; and it may happen that the press, dealing with follies of the day as they arise, will more and more forestall the satire that springs from meditation and study. The principal security is the originality and robust- ness of true satiric genius, which, having defied prisons and scaffolds in the past, may find the means of eluding public impatience and satiety in the future. (E. G.)

The above article was written by: R. Garnett, LL.D.

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