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satire

The Golden Age of Satire

From the beast fables, fabliaux, and Chaucerian caricatures to the extended treatments of John Skelton, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Erasmus, and Cervantes, the satirical tradition flourished throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, culminating in the golden age of satire in the late 17th and early 18th cent. The familiar names of Swift, Samuel Butler, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Richard Steele, Henry Fielding, and William Hogarth, in England, and of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, La Fontaine, Molière, and Voltaire, in France, suggest not only the nature of the controversies that provided a target for the satirist's darts in both nations, but also the rediscovery and consequent adaptation of the classical models to individual talents. Pope, for example, wrote The Rape of the Lock (1714), a mock epic about the crisis that occurs when a lock of Lady Belinda's hair is snipped off by a suitor as she sips her coffee. The poem is based upon an actual happening, and Pope's Horatian tone gently castigates the frivolous life of London society. Swift, on the other hand, echoes Juvenal's "savage indignation." In Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift exposes humanity in all its baseness and cruelty. Throughout his encounters with the inhabitants of imaginary lands, starting with the Lilliputians and ending with the Houyhnhnms—the latter are horses endowed with noble attributes, while their servants are bestial, filthy humanoids called Yahoos—Gulliver's (and Swift's) misanthropy grows, culminating in his refusal, once he is reunited with his family, to eat with creatures so closely resembling Yahoos.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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