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Horatian Satire

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English Literature

It's often difficult to distinguish between light-hearted and scathing satire. Is the writer gently mocking the characters' faults, or do they condemn their actions? Identifying whether a satire is Horatian or Juvenalian can help us answer these questions. Horatian and Juvenalian satires are treated as two opposites in literature, but the distinction isn't always so clear. Ultimately, it is up to audiences to decide whether a satire is light-hearted or serious, Horatian or Juvenalian.

Two of the greatest Horatian satires in the English language are Alexander Pope's 1712 mock-heroic poem 'The Rape of the Lock' (rape meaning stolen) about an aristocratic lady who has a lock of her hair stolen by her suitor; and Oscar Wilde's satirical play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), about two men who adopt different names in the country to avoid their social duties.

Satire

Satire

In literature, satire is a mode of writing that aims to ridicule, expose and critique flawed traits, behaviours and actions. This is often done implicitly through the clever use of techniques such as wit, humour, irony, exaggeration and incongruity.

Satire is both a literary genre and a literary device. Satire can be directed at individuals, groups, institutions, society, and even humanity as a whole. By exposing folly and vice, satire seeks to bring about change in the world.

Literary history of Horatian satire

Horatian satire is a type of satire that originated with the ancient poet Horace (65–8 BCE). During the Augustan Age, Horace wrote one of the greatest periods of Latin literature, which lasted from around 43 BC to 18 AD. Horace's satires were light-hearted and indulgent. His satires were more about being clever and witty than about conveying a serious moral message. In The Satires (published circa 35-33 BC), Horace lightly mocked defects such as greed and lust.

The eighteenth century had its own 'Augustan period', as writers such as Alexander Pope, Johnathan Swift, and Joseph Addison adopted the term. Pope and others called themselves Augustans because they were trying to emulate the greatness of the original Augustan poets in their own works.

The Augustan Age

1. The period of around 43 BC to 18 AD produced many key works of Latin literature from Virgil, Orvid, and Horace.

2. The first half of the eighteenth century is also known as the Augustan Age because writers like Pope, Swift, and Addison imitated Roman authors.

Pope's adoption of Horace's light-hearted and indulgently clever approach to satire in his own satirical poetry contributed greatly to Pope's success. His satirical poem, 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712), is a satire written in the style of Horace's satires.

The eighteenth century is known as the golden age of satire. The other type that became popular was Juvenalian satire, named after the Ancient poet Juvenal, whose satires aimed to evoke indignation and contempt for the satirised subjects.

Juvenalian satire

Scathing and serious satire that condemns human flaw and folly as evils, rather than indulging the absurdity of human folly.

Definition of Horatian satire

Horatian satire

Horatian satire is a light-hearted and tolerant type of satire that gently mocks folly and vice.

The light-hearted and tolerant satirical intent and tone of Horatian satire set this type of satire apart from others.

Horatian satire is often aimed at:

  1. A public figure or institution: the flaws and follies of a public figure or institution are gently criticised and mocked.
  2. Humanity: Horatian satire is often broadly aimed at "humanity", its vices and follies. For example, greed and hypocrisy are almost universal vices that humans across time and place unfortunately share.
  3. Society: Horatian satires also target "society" to which the satirist belongs. Horatian satire mocks society's excesses in the hopes of reforming it.

Alexander Pope's poem 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712) and Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) are both Horatian satires of their societies.

Satire puts its audience and readers on the spot; the audience must assess whether they share the flaws and vices depicted in the satirical work. If this is the case, in a Horatian satire, they are invited to laugh at their own folly.

The purpose of Horatian satire is to amuse the reader or audience and inspire change in society.

Characteristic differences between Horatian and Juvenalian satire

We can best understand the characteristics of Horatian satire by contrasting them to the characteristics of Juvenalian satire.

Horatian satire is indulgent and playful. In contrast to Juvenalian satire, it is meant to be enjoyed. The reader is encouraged to adopt the tolerant attitude of the satirist. On the other hand, Juvenalian satire seeks to evoke indignant laughter - like a scoff - in the reader, and outright anger. Horatian satire wants to make the reader laugh, but laughter also holds a moral purpose for the Horatian satirist: this laughter serves the function of absolving humanity and society of its flaws.

As with other types of satire, Horatian satire is disciplinary - it is like a slap on the wrist, whereas Juvenalian satire is more like a slap across the face.

Horatian satires are also defined by their comical absurdity. Satires, in general, have an element of absurdity, but in a Horatian satire, absurdity is used to make the audience amused, rather than to evoke disdain. Absurdity is primarily created through the technique of exaggeration.

Identifying a satire's tone as either Horatian or Juvenalian helps us to better grasp its meaning.

Techniques of Horatian satire

The most prominent technique in Horatian satires is exaggeration, which is used with a comical purpose to create a light-hearted satire.

Exaggeration

Exaggeration, in Horatian satire, comes in the form of:

Ridiculously over-the-top, improbable scenarios

The use of highly unlikely plot points is also known as farce.

For example, in the final act of the satire play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde, the protagonist discovers that he is actually the son of the brother of the mother of the woman he wants to marry. What are the odds, right? Well, when you are satirising the ridiculous obsession with class and status in late Victorian Britain, the odds of this happening are increased.

Exaggerated depiction of trivial events

This is known as inflation. Inflation is the act of exaggerating a trivial event and ironically giving it more importance than it deserves. Inflation mocks the triviality of the real events or real behaviours they depict.

Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' is based on the real event of an aristocratic woman, Arabella Fermor, having a lock of her hair stolen by her suitor, Lord Petre. The cutting of this lock led to a feud between the two aristocratic families. In the poem, the trivial event's excesses are satirised through Pope's use of exaggerated, over-the-top language to depict the incident.

In the first canto of the poem, the event is immediately satirically exaggerated:

Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel

A well-bred Lord t' assault a gentle Belle?

- Alexander Pope, Lines 7-8, 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712)

Diminution

Diminution

Diminution is when the significance of events or behaviours is massively downplayed.

Diminution boils down events and behaviours to a few basic elements to make them ridiculous.

When Gwendolen finds out Jack has been lying about his identity, she doesn't at all care that he has shown himself to be deceitful. This is a downplaying of the importance of telling the truth. She even asks him to continue lying:

JACK.

Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?

GWENDOLEN.

I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.

(Act Three)

Wit

Indulgent uses of wit are common in Horatian plays.

Wit

Wit refers to clever uses of language and logic to create humour.

The consistent use of wit in the narration or dialogue of satires distinguishes this type of satire, as it adds an indulgent element to the satire. Horatian satirists delight in the clever ways they have managed to satirise their subjects and the ridicule they are subjected to.

Examples of Horatian satire

Let's take a deep dive into two famous examples of Horatian satire.

'The Rape of the Lock' (1712) by Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is known as one of the greatest poets and satirists. 'The Rape of the Lock' by Alexander Pope was the first mock-epic poem.

Mock-epic poetry

A form of satirical poetry that parodies the lofty ancient form of the epic poem by adopting its style to deal with trivial subjects.

Pope's poem is a parody of Homer's epic poem 'The Iliad' (written in the 8th-century BCE), which is about the last year of the Trojan War. Pretty lofty subject matter. Pope adopts this lofty form to mock a feud between two aristocratic families. The poem is a Horatian satire because it does not condemn the aristocrats' behaviour, but instead comically exaggerates the severity of the incident. For example, in the second canto, the suitor is described as performing a ritual, lighting an altar on fire, and praying to the gods to obtain a lock of Belinda's hair in the second canto.

By the end of the poem, Belinda's lock of hair is lost and has risen to the heavens and become a star. Nothing odd about that!

When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,And all those tresses shall be laid in dust,This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame,And 'midst the stars inscribe Belinda's name.

- Lines 41-46, 'The Rape of the Lock'

Now that the lost lock of hair has become a star, Belinda's beauty will forever be immortalised in the night sky. This ending is very ludicrous and comic - truly Horatian.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde

The importance of Being Earnest is a Horatian satire play, as it is a play that indulges in its own cleverness. It presents a clever mockery of Victorian upper-class society that aims to make the uptight Victorians sitting in the audience laugh themselves out of their folly and vices.

In the play, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff lead double lives, using their real names in the city and made-up names in the country to escape their social duties. The action revolves around the comical problems caused by their double identities. Jack, for example, wants to marry the aristocrat Gwendolen, but her mother objects as Jack doesn't belong to the aristocracy. In the end, Jack discovers that he was of aristocratic rank all along and is finally able to marry Gwendolen.

One way in which Wilde constructs a self-indulgent Horatian satire is through the indulgent over-use of witty statements, which often take unexpected turns of logic. This indulgent wit keeps the tone of the play light-hearted and also serves the moral function of satirising the shallowness of his upper-class characters and of the British upper-classes which they represent.

Some examples of witty lines of dialogue from the play are:

‘Gwendolen.

In matter of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing’.

Act Three, Scene.

'Lady Bracknell.

Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone’.

Act One, Scene.

'Gwendolen.

I never change, except in my affections.'

(Act Three)

- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

Considerations on the possible limits of Horatian satire

By lightly mocking the behaviour of upper-class Victorians, does Wilde uphold Britain's outdated and flawed class system and other repressive institutions? Should Wilde's satire be more scathing and Juvenalian? The difficulty with satire is that it is a dangerous art form: because it challenges societies and institutions, satirical texts were often at risk of being censored.

In Wilde's play, order is restored in the end and the characters are rewarded for their folly, rather than punished. But the happy ending with marriage can in itself be seen as a satire on the Well-Made Play genre. A reading of the overtly Horatian tone of Wilde's play as concealing a Juvenalian message is certainly valid.

Well-Made Play

A genre of plays that emphasise a concise plot structure over detailed characterisation.

Pope's light-hearted satire of two real aristocratic families was also likely to not bode well with them if it had been Juvenalian.

Perhaps Horatian satires' emphasis on light-heartedness and comedy reduces its political efficacy, as it lets flawed individuals get away with their prejudices and wrongdoings. On the other hand, Horatian satire may pose a meaningful challenge to society's evils beyond its light-hearted surface.

Identifying a satire's tone as either Horatian or Juvenalian helps us to better grasp its meaning. But in cases where a satire doesn't fall into either of these categories, it might be impractical to try to shove them into these opposing categories. It may be better to ask other questions of a satire: does it have overt political intent? What is the political function of satire in literature?

Horatian Satire - Key takeaways

  • A text can be considered a Horatian satire if its tone is light-hearted and tolerant. The purpose of Horatian satire is to amuse the reader and/or audience and inspire change in society through gentle mockery.
  • Horatian satire is characterised by its self-indulgent cleverness. The main techniques used to create Horatian satires are exaggeration and wit.
  • Horatian satire originated with the ancient poet and satirist Horace, whose satires were distinguished by their good-humoured tone. The 18th century was the golden age of satire, and as such more Horatian satires were written.
  • The main difference between Horatian satire and Juvenalian satire is that Horatian satire's primary purpose is to amuse, whereas Juvenalian satire does not seek to amuse, but to evoke contempt and indignation for the satirised subject.
  • Two examples of Horatian satire are Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

Horatian Satire

Horatian satire is a light-hearted and tolerant type of satire that gently mocks folly and vice. The purpose of Horatian satire is to amuse the reader and/or audience and inspire change in society.

An example of Horatian satire is Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a satire of upper-class British society in the Victorian era. The play is about two dandies who adopt double identities to escape the confines of country life. Horatian satires are characterised by the use of self-indulgent wit and a light-hearted, tolerant tone. The play is a Horatian satire, as it is full of indulgently witty dialogue, and it maintains a light-hearted tone throughout.

The different types of satire are Horatian, Juvenalian, and Menippean. Horatian satires are light-hearted satires that gently poke fun; Juvenalian satires, on the other hand, are all about conveying a serious moral message through satire. Menippean satire criticises mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or groups.

The ancient poet Horace is credited with inventing light-hearted, tolerant satire, and he used this approach in his Satires. The most influential writer of Horatian satire in the eighteenth century was Alexander Pope, whose 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712) is a Horatian satire of an aristocratic family's feud. Oscar Wilde also used Horatian satire in his comedy play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

Horatian satire is light-hearted and gentle, and Juvenalian satire is critical and scathing.

Final Horatian Satire Quiz

Question

Why is the early 18th century known as the Augustan Age?

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Answer

Pope and others called themselves Augustans because they were trying to emulate the greatness of the original Augustan poets in their own works.

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Question

What is Horatian satire?

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Answer

A light-hearted and tolerant type of satire that gently mocks folly and vice. 

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Question

What are some words to describe the tone of Horatian satire?


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Answer

Tolerant, witty, light-hearted, gentle.

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Question

To whom is Horatian satire aimed?

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Answer

  • A public figure or institution
  • Humanity
  • Society

Show question

Question

What is the purpose of Horatian satire?

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Answer

The purpose of Horatian satire is to amuse the reader or audience and inspire change in society.

Show question

Question

How does Horatian satire involve the reader/audience?

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Answer

The audience must assess whether they share the flaws and vices depicted in the satirical work. If this is the case, in a Horatian satire, they are invited to laugh at their own folly.

Show question

Question

Horatian satire invites the reader/audience to be tolerant, wishing to inspire laughter. Juvenalian satire...

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Answer

... wants to inspire anger in the reader/audience and make them scoff.

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Question

What is the moral function of laughter in Horatian satire?

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Answer

The laughter induced by Horatian satires serves the function of absolving humanity and society of its flaws.

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Question

Horatian satire is disciplinary, as is Juvenalian satire. But Horatian satire is like a slap on the wrist, whereas Juvenalian satire is like a...

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Answer

... slap across the face.

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Question

What are the key techniques used in Horatian satire?

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Answer

Exaggeration and wit.

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Question

What kinds of exaggeration do you usually find in Horatian saitres?

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Answer

  • Ridiculously over-the-top, improbable scenarios
  • Exaggerated depiction of trivial events
  • Diminution

Show question

Question

What are two key examples of Horatian satire?

Show answer

Answer

Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712).

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