Satire, in general, means a literary composition, in verse or prose, the function of which is to expose the vices or follies of some person or persons, with the purpose of ridiculing or bantering him or them. But strictly speaking, satire is a poem, aiming at the expose the prevalent vices or follies of a society or a section of society. The objective of satire is critical, but a good satire, as noted by John Dryden, has clinical and corrective effects, too. In his language, “The true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction. And he who writes honestly is no more an enemy to the offender than the physician to the patient when he prescribes harsh remedies to an inveterate disease.”
The inclusion of satire only in the poetic composition is, however, no more acceptable. There are to-day more forceful prose satires than poetical. Hence, the range of satire cannot be kept confined now to poetry alone.
Satire may, thus, be described as a literary form, which is designed to incite contempt, fun, or disgust at what is ridiculous or unseemly. The word has come from the Latin term ‘satura’, which originally meant a medley or miscellany. In its earliest form, satire probably meant a farce or parody.
The origin of satire is, however, found in the history of Roman literature. It has been claimed that the only literary form, invented by the Romans, is satire. This contention, however, is not very accurate. There has been a clear indication that the early Greek writers indulged in the composition which now goes after the name of satire. There is sufficient evidence in early Greek literature to show how the Greek masters used invectives to correct and improve general and public morals. Even in the early Greek drama-in Greek comedy-, the element of satire is not found absent. A fine blending of satire and poetry characterizes the mighty works of Aristophanes, perhaps the greatest name in the classical Greek Comedy.
But satire, as a particular form of literature and a potent influence on the later European writers, is mainly a creation of the Latin masters. The inventor of satire, as a characteristic poetic form, was Caius Lucilius. He was followed by a more brilliant figure Horace. Horace wrote several realistic, humorous, and satirical poems, in which he investigated and castigated social abuses. Horace’s satire, however, is not merely personal. It bears a certain note of universality and philosophy. Next to Horace comes the name of Persius, who has displayed both philosophical outlook and literary originality in his satirical works. But, perhaps, the greatest Roman satirist is Juvenal. His originality is found to lie particularly in his introduction of a rhetorical strength and a tragic grandeur into verse satires.
In the first half of the 18th c. there flourished the two greatest satirists in the history of literature; namely, Swift and Pope. Swift excelled in prose, Pope in verse. The Dean’s principal works were A Tale of a Tub (1704), The Battle of the Books (1704), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729). He was also an accomplished verse satirist, as he showed, for example, in Verses on the Death of Dr Swift (1739). Pope’s main works were The Rape of the Lock (1714), miscellaneous Satires, Epistles and Moral Essays published during the 1730s and The Dunciad (1728, 1729, 1742 and 1743). Other notable instances of satire in English literature from the mid-18th c. onwards were Fielding’s burlesque play Tom Thumb (1730) – burlesque was a particularly favoured means of satire at this time – his Shamela (1741) and his Jonathan Wild (1743). To these examples one should add Johnson’s great poems London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), Charles Churchill’s Rosciad (1761) and The Prophecy of Famine (1763) and other works, and the anonymous Letters of Junius (1769-71). In France the greatest prose satirist of the period was unquestionably Voltaire. Minor verse satirists of the later 18th c. were John Wolcot, Christopher Anstey, Allan Ramsay and Robert Burns.
Most of the major poets who flourished at the turn of the century and during the Romantic period wrote satire occasionally. Crabbe, for instance, in his narrative poems; Shelley in Masque of Anarchy (1832); Keats in his unfinished The Cap and Bells (1848). However, the major satirist of this period was undoubtedly Byron, who was outstandingly successful in the satiric mode in Don Juan (1819–24) and The Vision of Judgment (1822).