The word satire derives from the Latin satira, meaning "medley." A satire, either in prose or in poetic form, holds prevailing vices or follies up to ridicule: it employs humor and wit to criticize human institutions or humanity itself, in order that they might be remodeled or improved. Satire as an English literary form derives in large part from Greek and Roman literature. Aristophanes, Juvenal, Horace, Martial, and Petronius all wrote satires of one kind or another, and the tradition maintained a tenuous existence in England down through the Middle Ages in the form of the fabliau and the Beast-epic. The eighteenth century, however, in which poetry, drama, essays, and literary criticism were all imbued with the form, was the golden age of English satire. Dryden, Swift, Pope, Addison, Steele, and Johnson were all great satirists, and self-described heirs of the Roman poets Horace and Juvenal. Horatian satire tends to be gentler and more sympathetic than the more biting and bitter Juvenalian satire, in which the author‹Swift is the great example‹frequently rails savagely against the evil inherent in man and his institutions. Byron and Thackeray, in the nineteenth century, maintained and refined the satiric tradition, as did T. S. Eliot in the twentieth.
Alex Derwent Hope, the contemporary Australian poet, agrees with Pope that satire
has a social function that places it on a level with Religion, Law, and Government. Though its tone may be light, its function is wholly serious; and as for passion, it is actuated by a fierce and strenuous moral and intellectual enthusiasm, the passion for order, justice, and beauty. . . . It keeps the public conscience alert, it exposes absurdity for what it is and makes those inclined to adopt foolish or tasteless fashions aware that they are ridiculous. It shows vice its own feature and makes it odious to others. . . . Satire is an aristocratic art. It is not afraid to tell unpopular truths, but its habit is to tell them with the assurance and detachment of ridicule, and ridicule is the weapon of contempt. (pp. 62, 66-67).
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000