Satirical Pre 19th century Poetry
How have poets over the centuries used satire to comment on their times?
John Skelton, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope wrote three of the most satirical poems of the period before 1914, they have become renowned for their poetry and for deriding people and societies of their time. Satire is the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices or a literary miscellany, especially a poem ridiculing prevalent vices or follies. A mock epic is a form of that adapts the elevated heroic style of the classical epic poem to a trivial subject. The methods utilised to satirise people, places and communities have changed over the centuries and the texts have become more satirically obvious.
Numerous literary devices are applied to create the satirical poem called Speke Parott by John Skelton in 1521. Personification is literary technique utilised to ridicule Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the character whom Skelton has directed all derision. Personification is shown in line 43, ‘My lady masters, Dame Phylology,’ which is incarnating the study of language as a grand woman. This gave the illusion that intelligence made people higher is social hierarchy; thereby being adept at a number of different languages people may be of an elevated rank. However, as Skelton portrays recurrently throughout the poem, this ostensibly intellectual person may in truth be rather foolish, as has been written about Wolsey during Speke Parott. Another literary device that was employed was the use of macaronic verse. Macaronic verse is language consisting of a mixture of words containing of two or more languages. Macaronic doggerel is used frequently throughout the poem, this is shown in line 58, ‘”que pensez-voz, Parrot? What meneth this besynes?”’ This is effective use of satire to comment on John Skelton’s period because he wrote Speke Parott to mock Thomas Cardinal Wolsey and Wolsey spoke a number of languages, therefore the parrot is declaring that despite understanding the myriad languages, Wolsey was unwise and ridiculous. There were additionally several hidden meanings and double connotations to certain words and phrases. One particular area which included various concealed realities was the reference to the Royal Family, especially Queen Catherine of Aragon. This is revealed in line 36, ‘With Kateryne incomporabyll, owur royall queen also,’ when Skelton indicates praise about the Royal queen, however five lines later he mocks Catherine of Aragon, ‘Mole rui sua, whose dictes ar pregnaunte –‘ which insinuates Catherine of Aragon purpose is to become pregnant and birth Henry the eighth a male heir. However, she had failed him and at the age of thirty six she was considered elderly, she had only produced Princess Mary in 1916 and John Skelton taunted Catherine of Aragon by intimating that she was not able to create any more children.
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Speke Parott consists of satirical language devices for instance; alliteration is a commonly practiced technique. Alliteration is the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words, line 30, ‘Pronownsying my purpose after my properte,’ is an example of alliteration. This extract describes Wolsey as a person who was more concerned with what he received, rather than his own sense of purpose. Alliteration also makes language seem more nonsensical, which would be easier for John Skelton to disguise his insults. Another example is line 60, ‘Melchisedeck mercyfull made Moloc mercyles.’ In this extract, ‘Milchisedeck’ represents Henry VIII, ‘Moloc’ is a false God, which exists in the form of a bull, which is again referring to Wolsey and ‘mercyfull’ to ‘mercyless’ the better Henry VIII was, the worse Wolsey grew. If John Skelton was caught being disrespectful towards the royalty, he could have been beheaded for treason. There are also numerous references to Woolsey’s past, attributes and characteristics. Line 59, generates a specific connection to a bull, ‘Vitulus in Oreb troubled Arons brayne;’ from this Catherine of Aragon’s distrusted Wolsey’s raven – like persona. Vitulus highlights the notion of a bull, which reminds the readers that Wolsey was a butcher’s son and therefore originated from lowly origins. Furthermore, Wolsey’s actions at the Calais Conference have been included in this poem, line 57, ‘Besy, besy, besy, and besynes agaynes!’ This is irony as John Skelton is referring to the disgraceful example of business that the Calais Conference set to Britain.
The Lady’s Dressing Room written by Jonathan Swift comprises of a number of different linguistic techniques that provoke satirical humour within the poem. Jonathan Swift was a misanthrope and he did not accept the view that human nature was essentially good. One literary device was the utilisation of mock epic traditions, such as using classical pastoral poetic and romantic names. Line 2, ‘By haughty Celia spent in Dressing;’ and he also uses ‘Betty’ the generic name for a maidservant by applying these names within the poem, the illusion of romance and love is created, which is very shortly wholly contradicted. However, Strephon is not a true hero and this is made truly clear by connoting Strephon as a dog. ‘Or greasy Coifs and Pinners reeking,’ is a example of when Strephon comes across a smell he does not enjoy, this quotation is informing the audience that Celia’s nightcaps are so oleaginous that they are beginning to have a disgusting odour. In The Lady’s Dressing Room, Jonathan Swift revealed human imperfection and cosmetic vanity as the evil he would attack in The Lady’s Dressing Room. He chooses intentionally crude humour in an attempt to force the ‘truth’ upon his readers as he wished for his audience to understand the vain state of the world they subsisted within. His style reflected the intensity of his social criticism and his disregard for his surrounding environments customs and beliefs. Jonathan Swift commonly utilises the indication of layering within The Lady’s Dressing Room. This idea creates the illusion of revulsion much more comprehensibly in the reader’s mind. ‘Begumm’d, bematter’, and beslim’d … With Dirt, and Sweat, and Ear- Wax grim’d.’ Alliteration and the semblance of contributing nastiness are seen in this quotation. Alliteration particularly of line 45 is effective use of satirical alliteration because it is repetition of the same type of word, so Jonathan Swift is reinforcing the disgust factor of Celia.
Another linguistic device that is applied to The Lady’s Dressing Room is metaphorical language, which is used to help create a sub-language within a common language which provides the basic terms to express metaphors, ‘’As from within Pandora’s Box,’ this refers to mythological tales, another custom of classical pastoral poetry. By refering to Pandora irony has been introduced as Strephon has in truth founded Celia’s toilet, the home of her bedpan. This is ironic as Pandora’s Box was beautiful and a toilet would clearly be the opposite. Inflated language is a key component within The Lady’s Dressing Room, Similarly to Speke Parott. Exaggerated language gave poets an opportunity to provide an underlying truth masked by hyperbole since people would have taken great offense to those who insulted their conduct. ‘Strephon, who found the Room was void,’ this means that Strephon went into the room which described Celia as hollow and stupid. The idealized image of women, promoted equally as strong in Swift's day as it is at present, causing problems for both genders. Women become self-absorbed, and men develop unrealistic notions of what women should be like. Through clever wit, satire and sarcasm, Swift points out the problems with unrealistic expectations in his poem. For example, from the ‘Paste of Composition rare,’ to the ‘Ointments good for scabby Chops,’ the cosmetics of Swift's day largely resemble those in the modern world. Women are the primary consumers of these beauty products. Swift notes, through Strephon's shocked eyes, that women spend an inordinate amount of time using beauty products when beneath it all they are normal, sweaty, stinky human beings. Women have somehow been socialized to expect to be perfect. Moreover, cosmetics are one of the biggest most booming industries in the world today. The industry shows no sign of lagging, which is why Swift's poem appeals equally as well in his time as in ours, and could very well appeal to the future.
In Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, this poem was written in an attempt to make peace between real – life lovers. The incident with the lock of fair actually occurred. The name of the poem describes the main literary technique exactly, hyperbole of the cutting off a lock of hair is described a ‘rape,’ which is taking advantage of someone sexually without their consent. By levelling these two actions, Alexander Pope is satirising his society for inflating little offences when they do not need to be so amplified. Exaggeration is the main satirical literary technique in this poem and can be seen in nearly every line. Exaggeration can be seen in the first, ‘Th’ inferior Priestess, at her Altar’s side,’ hyperbole is observed when describing Belinda’s maid in high hierarchy in religious terms. This is referring to Belinda as a false God or someone of special high worship, which is embellished from her being admired for her beauty. This praise is certainly in some sense ironical, reflecting negatively on a system of public values in which external characteristics rank higher than moral or intellectual ones. Although, Alexander Pope also shows a real reverence for his heroine's physical and social charms, claiming that these are compelling enough to cause one to forget her ‘female errors.’ Certainly he has some interest in flattering Arabella Fermor, the real-life woman on whom Belinda is based; in order for his poem to achieve the desired reconciliation, it must not offend. Pope also exhibits his appreciation for the ways in which physical beauty is an art form: he recognizes, with a mixture of censure and awe, the fact that Belinda's legendary locks of hair, which appear so natural and spontaneous, are actually a carefully contrived effect. In this, the mysteries of the lady's dressing table are similar, perhaps, to Alexander Pope's own literary ability, which he describes elsewhere as ‘nature to advantage dress'd.’ An alternative literary device is the reference to the epic: Iliad, Aeneid, where each epic part has a reference to the mock epic segment. The characteristics of an epic are the invocation of a deity, a regular statement of theme, the division of the work into books and cantos, ostentatious speeches, battles and supernatural machinery; to reveal the absurdity of a certain subject. The main consequence of utilising the style of an epic is, however, not so much to have fun with the epic, but to deflate a subject or characters that by contrast appear exceptionally insignificant. Between Iliad and The Rape of the Lock there are numerous similarities including the arming of the hero with the toilet (dressing) scene; the battle with the card game; the stratagem with the pinch of snuff; the meddling Gods and Goddesses with the Sylphs and Gnomes; the journey to the underworld with the cave of Spleen and the dream with the dream.
The battle references are crucial to the Rape of the Lock, as they establish the idea of exaggeration clearly. The card game is extremely important as it makes reference to battle, the Royals and lads onto the ‘raping of the lock.’ ‘Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms;’ this quotation is an example of prolepsis for the ‘card game’ used earlier in the poem. As Belinda has help getting dressed, the image of someone being surrounded on a battle field can be visualised, this is contradicted by its context use and the idea of insignificance is infiltrated once again. This is reinforced thoroughly during the card game, ‘Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain.’ This quotation is referring to the green felt that covers the card table, which is a hidden classic citation to the green baize of a battle field. Irony within The Rape of the Lock, is applied as only the more intelligent public understood what was being written, therefore Alexander Pope would not be offending as many people. Personification was seen in the Rape of the Lock, ‘Now move to War her Sable Matadores,’ this is referring to the different countries that are ‘hers.’ This is another technique for masking the ridicule that Alexander Pope has written about his society.
From the three poems; Speke Parott, The Lady’s Dressing Room and The Rape of the Lock it is clear that satirical poetry was difficult to write and interpret as poets had to mask their truths, therefore only the more intellectual individuals understood the happenings of these poems. The difference between these three poems is apparent. John Skelton satirises only one specific person; Thomas Cardinal Wolsey and he researches Wolsey’s background and mocks him in a variety of techniques. Jonathan Swift satirises mostly women with a smaller reference to men, he is crude with his satire and was known for such in his other poems. Alexander Pope derided his society as a whole; he ridiculed men and women, attempting to use rhetoric to disguise what he really meant.
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