Satire in 18th Century British Society: Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift
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The 18th century was one in which exaltation of wit and reason came to the forefront of literature in the form of both Horatian and Juvenalian satires, which, through keen observation and sharp nimbleness of thought, exposed the superficial follies and moral corruption of society during the neoclassical period in Britain. Underneath the enlightenment ideals of rationality, order and knowledge, society embraced a pervasive obsession with “decorum,” a façade of established traditions and vanities, as well as an innate sense of moral and political supremacy. Satires during this period aimed to point out the shortcomings of society through ridiculing accepted standards of thought, exposing Britain’s flaws and chastising the hypocrisy of the time. Enlightenment writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift used different mediums of satire, different types of logic, and different targets of ridicule in order to shine a light on separate aspects of British society, providing much-needed criticism of the profuse moral corruption of a society that sometimes seemed to forget the true ideals of its age.
Pope and Swift, well known for their sharply perceptive works, both looked to rhetorical masters of the rational, classical past and their separate satirical archetypes for inspiration. Pope, in his The Rape of the Lock, is Horatian in tone, delicately chiding society in a sly but polished voice by holding up a mirror to the follies and vanities of the upper class. Pope does not actively attack the self-important pomp of the British aristocracy, but rather presents it in such a way that gives the reader a new perspective from which to easily view the actions in the story as foolish and ridiculous. A gentle mockery of the upper class, more delicate and lyrical than his brutal counterpart, Pope nonetheless is able to effectively illuminate the moral degradation of society to the public. Swift’s A Modest Proposal, however, is a quintessential Juvenalian satire, shockingly revealing an often-overlooked dimension of British colonialism with regards to the Irish through savage ridicule and disdainful contempt. A bitter attack, Swift’s morbid tale delineates an immoral and perverse solution to Ireland’s economical woes using bizarre yet brilliantly clear logic and a detached tone in order to attack indifference to the poor. Swift’s satirical tone, relying on realism and harshness to carry its message, is much more acerbic than his counterpart, perfectly displaying Juvenalian satire’s ability to shock and ridicule.
The Rape of the Lock assimilates the masterful qualities of a heroic epic, yet is applied satirically to a seemingly petty egotistical elitist quarrel. During this time of literary prosper, epic poems such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost were held in high regard, due to their significant subject matter, compelling heroes, and rich text. Pope follows this grand form in The Rape of the Lock, ultimately achieving a whimsical mock epic through his mélange of the trifling and timeless. Despite the likeness to historical epic pieces, this work displays a light and playful tone, which illuminates the idiosyncratic nature of the poem’s central conflict, the Baron stealing, or “raping”, Belinda’s illustrious lock of hair. “The meeting points the sacred hair dissever from the fair head, forever and forever! Then flashed the living lightening from her eyes, and screams of horror rend the affrighted skies” (Pope 153-156). This embellished and exaggerated quotation is representative of the fundamental elements of Horatian satire used in this mock epic. Personification is employed to place emphasis on the seemingly transcendent effects of Belinda’s terror, as her screams “rend the affrighted skies.” As read, this example makes a mockery of the traditional epic, suggesting that the removal of Belinda’s lock has detrimental and almost divine implications. Pope uses personification extensively throughout, to add to the heroic colouring of the poem and in general elevating the subject matter.
In contrast to Pope’s epic style in The Rape of the Lock, Swift models his A Modest Proposal after a traditional staid economic proposal for the purpose of inclusion in British governmental policy. Swift, however, spins the standard on its head, shaping his daring proposal on the basis of ruthless, uninhibited economic gain at the expense of the Britain’s Irish colony. When the proposal was published anonymously in 1729, Ireland was in a state of distraught after essentially being “eaten”, or consumed by the British Empire. The protestant British completely suppressed the Catholic Irish population, and utterly neglected to consider the welfare of the significantly large impoverished population. As a result, Swift composed this harsh satirical proposal, suggesting that the Irish sell their children as food, in order to escape their economic despair. “The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders” (Swift 1115). This quotation is demonstrative of Swift’s economist persona, and leads the reader to believe that the proposal is serious in nature, and is meant to be interpreted literally. Other than his use of true Juvenalian satire, and inherent irony, Swift neglects to apply other literary devices to the proposal, due to its formal, academic nature.
Evidently, both Pope and Swift had a motive behind composing their two compelling yet divergent satirical works. Pope fashioned the characters of Belinda and the Baron as representations of Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre, Catholic British aristocrats who possessed an infatuation with decorum during the neoclassical period. These characters represent the facsimile of 18th century British personal ideals, and thus take the roles of pseudo-heroes in The Rape of the Lock. More apparent than Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Pope uses his elaborate mock epic to serve as a metaphor for the vain and superficial period in British history. The poem was intended to grasp the attention of aristocrats and society in general, compelling them to humorously realize their shortcomings, and spark a cultural shift. However, Swift’s A Modest Proposal is politically motivated, and undermined the British Empire’s colonization and treatment of the Irish. The proposal is presented in fine logical sequence and is seemingly well calculated. The “shock value” behind the suggestions and hidden accusations served as a testament to the moral inadequacies and limitless political behavior of the British. The work was deliberately published anonymously so Swift could avoid severe personal implications.
These two works of satire express their authors’ profound dissatisfaction with their society. Literature that pushes for reform of any kind, social or political, acts, along with entrenched tradition itself, as a dialectic force; it is the synthesis of that which is and that which is wanted that nudges society to a certain direction. Both Pope and Swift used their considerable literary talents to illuminate contemporary society, forcing them to acknowledge the shortcomings of the Neoclassical period. Through The Rape of the Lock and A Modest Proposal, Pope and Swift respectively aspired to influence the British mindset of their age and inspire it to move forward into a new era of true enlightenment with regards to social and political morality.
Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” Abrams, M.H., Greenblatt, S. & Stillinger, J. 2000, The Norton anthology of English literature, 8th edn, Norton, New York.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” Abrams, M.H., Greenblatt, S. & Stillinger, J. 2000, The Norton anthology of English literature, 8th edn, Norton, New York.