Literary commentators have sometimes analyzed the differences in style between Pope and Swift by alluding to the Latin poets upon whom they modeled their work. Pope, we are often told, patterned his style after Horace, and Swift, after Juvenal. This observation implies that Pope's satire, like Horace's, is relatively ...
Literary commentators have sometimes analyzed the differences in style between Pope and Swift by alluding to the Latin poets upon whom they modeled their work. Pope, we are often told, patterned his style after Horace, and Swift, after Juvenal. This observation implies that Pope's satire, like Horace's, is relatively light-hearted and gentle, while Swift's, like that of Juvenal, is much more acerbic and angry.
There is some truth in this, but unfortunately for most of us who do not read Latin (including myself), it's difficult to judge how close in style and technique the two English poets are to their ancient models. Before we talk about style per se, it's probably a good idea to look at the genres Pope and Swift used. Pope, except for the prose prefaces to some of his works, wrote exclusively poetry. Swift did write poetry, but almost all of it consists of occasional pieces and jeux d'esprit which do not represent him at his best. His major satires are in prose, the most important being the novel-like Gulliver's Travels and shorter pieces such as A Modest Proposal and the now much less read Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books.
If we look at the style of all these works, it's true that Pope's The Rape of the Lock, probably his most widely read work today, does not express the kind of anger and bitterness that Swift's satires generally exhibit. Both A Modest Proposal and Book IV of Gulliver's Travels have a shocking intensity in their condemnation of, in the former, the English ruling class and its insensitivity to the Irish, and in the latter, mankind in general, who are depicted as the savage, animal-like Yahoos ruled over by intelligent, benevolent horses. In Gulliver's Travels Swift implies that humans, judged by their behavior, are in reality more beast-like than animals are. None of Pope's satires make this kind of scathing, slashing attack, except perhaps for The Dunciad, in which Pope ruthlessly derides his enemies in the literary world, especially the playwright Colley Cibber. The Dunciad, however, shows us a more fundamental difference between Pope and Swift. Pope's satires are aimed at specific people and their behavior. In The Dunciad, he attacks incompetent writers. In The Rape of the Lock, the vanity and superficiality of the upper classes are his target. Swift, on the other hand, has a broader target: human nature in general.
Partly because of this, many commentators have judged Swift's satire to be more universal in its implications than that of Pope or others of the neoclassical period, such as Pope's predecessor Dryden. However, Swift's very intensity and negativity raise another issue. Satire, as some commentators have defined it, is a genre which holds folly up to ridicule but simultaneously at least implies that there is, or should be, a positive opposite to the negative side of human nature. This is the view of the early twentieth-century critic F.R. Leavis, who in an essay on Swift acknowledges that Swift is a great writer, but asserts that his greatness consists only in the force of his attacks, and not in their effectiveness as satire. If a writer seemingly denigrates everyone or everything, his work, Leavis implies, is merely a kind of invective and is not true satire. Probably no one could credibly make this assertion about Pope. In understanding the nature of Pope's and Swift's work and the differences between them, you might also take a look at the poetry or prose of other satiric writers of the eighteenth century, such as Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" and Voltaire's Candide. These writers knew the work of Pope and Swift well, but of the two, you might ask who was the more influential upon Johnson and Voltaire, or upon other writers who followed them?