Dryden on Satire

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The following handout is an abridged version of John Dryden’s A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693). You must read this document carefully.

There has been a long dispute among the modem critics, whether the Romans derived their satire from the Grecians, or first invented it themselves. Julius Scaliger, and Heinsius, are of the first opinion; Casaubon, Rigaltius, Dacier, and the publisher of the Dauphin∗s Juvenal, maintain the latter. If we take satire in the general signification of the word, as it is used in all modem languages, for an invective, it is certain that it is almost as old as verse; and though hymns, which are praises of God, may be allowed to have been before it, yet the defamation of others was not long after it. After God had cursed Adam and Eve in Paradise, the husband and wife excused themselves, by laying the blame on one another; and gave a beginning to those conjugal dialogues in prose, which the poets have perfected in verse. The third chapter of Job is one of the first instances of this poem in holy Scripture; unless we will take it higher, from the latter end of the second where his wife advises him to curse his Maker.

This original, I confess, is not much to the honor of satire; but here it was nature, and that depraved; when it became art, it bore better fruit. Only we have learnt thus much already, that scoffs and revilings are of the growth of all nations; and, consequently, that neither the Greek poets borrowed from other people their art of railing, neither needed the Romans to take it from them. But, considering satire as a species of poetry, here the war begins amongst the critics. Scaliger the father will have it descend from Greece to Rome; and derives the word satire from satyrus, that mixed kind of animal, or, as the ancients thought him, rural god, made up betwixt a man and a goat; with a human head, hooked nose, pouting lips, a bunch, or struma, under the chin, pricked ears, and upright horns; the body shagged with hair, especially from the waist, and ending in a goat, with the legs and feet of that creature. But Casaubon, and his followers, with reason, condemn this derivation; and prove, that from satyrus, the word satira, as it signifies a poem, cannot possibly descend. For satira is not properly a substantive, but an adjective; to which the word Ianx (in English, a charger, or large platter) is understood; so that the Greek poem made according to the manners of a satyr, and expressing his qualities, must properly be called satyrical, and not satire. And thus far ‘tis allowed that the Grecians had such poems; but that they were wholly different in specie from that to which the Romans gave the name of satire.

This is what I have to say in general of satire: only, as Dacier has observed before me, we may take notice, that the word satire is of more general signification in Latin, than in French, or English. For amongst the Romans it was not only used for those discourses which decried vice, or exposed folly, but for others also, where virtue was recommended. But in our modem languages we apply it only to invective poems, where the very name of satire is formidable to those persons who would appear to the world what they are not in themselves; for in English to say satire, is to mean reflection, as we use that word in the worst sense; or as the French call it, more properly, médisance. In the criticism of spelling, it ought to be with i and not with y, to distinguish its true derivation from satura, not from satyrus. And if this be so, then it is false spelled throughout this book; for here it is written satyr; which having not considered at the first, I thought it not worth correcting afterwards. But the French are more nice, and never spell it any other way than satire.

In a word, that former sort of satire, which is known in England by the name of lampoon, is a dangerous sort of weapon, and for the most part unlawful. We have no moral right on...
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