"Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it." Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish satirist. The Battle of the Books, Preface (written 1697; published 1704).
Satire is known as the literary style which makes light of a subject, diminishing its importance by placing it in an amusing or scornful light. Unlike comedy, satire attempts to create humor by deriding its topic, as opposed to a topic that evokes laughter in itself. Satires attempt to give us a more humorous look at attitudes, advances, states of affairs, and in some cases ( as in Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal ) the entire human race. The least offensive form of satire is Horatian satire, the style used by Addison and Steele in their essays. A much more abrasive style is Juvenalian satire, as used by Jonathan Swift in the aforementioned essay A Modest Proposal. To better understand satire as a whole, and Horatian and Juvenalian satire in particular, these essays can provide for further comprehension than a simple definition of the style alone. Horatian satire is noted for its more pleasant and amusing nature. Unlike Juvenalian satire, it serves to make us laugh at human folly as opposed to holding our failures up for needling. In Steele's essay The Spectator's Club, a pub gathering is used to point out the quirks of the fictitious Sir Robert de Coverly and his friends. Roger de Coverly is an absolute character. His failure in an amorous pursuit have left him in the past, which is shown through his manner of dress, along with his somewhat dubious honor of justice of the quorum. This position entails such trying duties as explaining Acts to the commoners. Also present is a lawyer who is more versed in "Aristotle and Cognius" than in "Littleton and Coke"(Norton, 2193), indicative of lawyers more interested in sounding learned than being capable of practicing actual law. Near him, a wealthy merchant whose concerns lie mainly in the wealth of England and himself, and who views the ocean as his marketplace. Captain Sentry is an old military man well practiced in the art of false modesty, a trait he detests in others. Also there is a clergyman who is so frail that he would sooner wait until the Lord sees fit to smite him than get on with the business of leading his life.(Norton, 2192-2195). All of these characters present traits present in all humans, but their presentation in such a silly and hypocritical context makes them humorous. In this way, Steele points out the reader's faults in an acceptable fashion.
Addison's Sir Roger at Church is a humorous account of Sir Roger de Coverly and the members of his parish. He gives books to his poorly read parishioners, "will suffer no one to sleep in [church] besides himself" (Norton 2196), lengthens the Psalms, and pronounces his Amens repeatedly. At one point he stands and warns "one John Matthews to mind what he is about"(Norton, 2196), and stop tapping his heels lest he disturb the congregation. The irony here, of course, is that Sir Roger has caused an even greater disturbance by standing and calling attention to this poor man (Norton, 2195-2197). An obvious poke at overly zealous churchgoers and clergymen, this work makes light of the entire situation. By doing so, readers find their own faults in a more humorous medium, rather than being affronted by a scathing attack.
The Juvenalian satirist approaches his work in a more serious manner and uses dignified language to attack erroneous thinking or vice. In this way Juvenalian satire evokes feelings of contempt, shock, and righteous indignation in the mind of the reader. It is this form of satire used by Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal. The irony is at once very subtle and very simple; Swift's proposal is not at all modest. In order to ease the economic burden of his countrymen, he proposes to eat surplus children in the populace, thereby creating a new food market and reducing overpopulation. He even suggest to sell these people by poundage. He uses stern logic to earn the reader's approval even before the reader knows of that which he is approving. This is done by taking the standpoint of a concerned humanitarian and patriot, when in fact his proposal is rather ghastly and inhumane. By ignoring the obvious immorality of his plan and speaking out of sheer benevolence, Swift makes this absurd proposition all the more outrageous (Norton, 2181-2187). The style he uses is quite serious and troubled, but the humor is easily appreciated in the far fetched jibe directed at those who always seem to have a plan for the common good and always have a logical explanation to justify their plan. While caustic and bitterly ironic, the selection exhibits a clever, albeit dry and weird, sense of humor.
Although satire, whether of the jovial Horatian style or the pitiless Juvenalian, can be affronting, there seems to be no malice in its mischief. Addison and Steele's intentions were only to improve the morals and intellect o their audience by challenging them to change. Thomas Swift even wrote in his "prehumous" work Verses on the Death of Mr. Swift :
"Yet malice was never his aim
He lashed the vice but spared the name...
The satire points to no defect
But what all morals may correct...
He spared a hump, or crooked nose
Whose owners set up not for beaux..."(Abrams, 187)
In this verse we can see that the true aim of satire is not to ridicule faults of which a person is not aware or responsible, but to correct them.
1) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume I; Copyright 1993 W.W. Norton and Company, pp.2181-2197
2) A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams; Copyright 1993 Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, Inc., pp. 187-190