The Accents of Satire: Comic and Tragic Voices in the Poetry of Pope and Swift

Weber, Harold Morton , Department of English, University of Virginia
Ehrenpreis, Irvin, Department of English, University of Virginia
Damrosch, Leo, Department of English, University of Virginia

Students of satire, at least since the Renaissance, have regularly defined their subject in terms of polarities-- polarities that have remained remarkably constant over the centuries. The distinctions between tragic and comic, Juvenalian and Horatian satire without doubt define the most important of these polarities. Almost every important commentator on satire, from Scaliger to Frye, has found comedy and tragedy, Horace and Juvenal, necessary terms in analyzing the form, though the reasons one uses the terms and the contexts in which they appear have changed.

What these polarities meant for the eighteenth century, and how they were used, are the two questions which frame my own study. No other age has found these polarities quite so important and no age devoted quite so much attention to developing the tension that exists between their opposing terms. The eighteenth century encompassed the Golden Age of English satire, and the use of these polarities in the critical theory of the time can shed light on both why and how Augustan satire achieved its success.

As theoretical devices, the polarities helped the defenders of satire answer some of the more important questions raised about the nature and morality of the genre. Whether a satirist should aim to correct or inspire, whether a satirist should rail or rally, whether satire should be general or particular, whether satire helped to protect the social fabric or to destroy it, were all questions which occupied Augustan satirists and critics. The appropriation of dramatic terminology, and the models provided by the two Romans, allowed satire to claim the highest purposes and greatest scope for its practitioners.

Yet, not surprisingly, there are wide and important divergences between the theories of the critics and the works of writers like Pope and Swift. If the distinction between Juvenal and Horace, tragic and comic satire, provided the eighteenth century with public masks through which the satiric view of the world could take recognizable form, it did so by imposing certain fictions and necessary evasions on the satirist. We will look in vain for public admissions by Pope and Swift that writing satire was a pleasure, or that attacking personal enemies, holding them up to ridicule and scorn, was a prime object of their work. Today we accept it as given that at least part of the impetus of satire arises from the pleasure we take in deriding men we despise and fear; behind satire as a literary art lurks the primitive curse, the desire to annhiliate an enemy through the magical powers of language. For Pope and Swift such a public admission was difficult--satire was a duty, a responsibility wholly public in its origin and effect.

If eighteenth-century satiric theory defined public roles for satire, if it provided identifiable personae for satirists to adopt--personae which implied certain ways of perceiving and responding to the world--it also forced satirists into public evasions and hypocrisies which disguised the very personal nature of their undertaking. This tension marks a poem like The Dunciad and is partly responsible for the greatness of Augustan satire, which created out of ordinary men of clay the most affecting and compelling figures of universal disorder and evil.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Pope, Alexander,1688-1744 , criticism and interpretation, Swift, Jonathan,1667-1745, Satire, English , History and criticism
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