The intention of satire is to criticise by ridicule. A satirical poem is one that makes fun of some example of vice, foolishness, injustice or moral failing.


Medieval satire

Chaucer's fourteenth century Canterbury Tales is a poem about a group of travellers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, to whom stories are attributed. Some of his tales clearly have a satirical intent. He presents human failings typical of the time e.g. the Pardoner selling holy relics, and those that are universal human weaknesses e.g. the Wife of Bath's desire for status.

Literary satire at its height

The most important age of satire in English poetry was the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the outstanding satirical poets of the time were John Dryden (1631-1700) and Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

  • John Dryden pioneered the use of the heroic couplet in which every two lines rhyme. Occasionally a triplet of three lines is produced. The verse form used was iambic pentameter.
    Dryden's most important satirical poem was Absolom and Achitophel. This was a political satire concerning the royal court of the monarch, Charles II and the political intrigues surrounding his illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. It took allegorical form using the Old Testament story of King David and his son, Absolom.
  • Alexander Pope wrote a number of important satires, in particular The Rape of the Lock. This was a mock-heroic poem about the theft of a lock of hair from the heroine, Belinda. This was based on a true-life petty squabble between two noble families, which he mocked by comparing it to the world of the classical gods. The humour arises from this trivial event being treated as though it were an event from Homer's Iliad.
    Pope's other satires include The Dunciad and The Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot. In both these poems Pope ridicules other writers and public figures of his time. Pope's fellow writer Joseph Addison was criticised for his harmful influence on the contemporary literary scene and this part of the poem gave us the phrase that has become a common saying, ‘damn with faint praise'.

Modern satire

Examples of satirical poetry have become rare in modern times. Some of the anti-war poems written in the First World War could be considered satirical, particularly those of Siegfried Sassoon. An example would be The General.

Rather than poetry, satire has flourished in popular media such as radio and television. In the 1980-90's Spitting Image employed political satire, as do the contemporary satirists Rory Bremner, John Bird and John Fortune.

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