How did the satire of the 18th century grow and develop?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The British have always been well-known for their dry sense of humor, often misunderstood by outsiders and found to be offensive.

In 18th century Britain, there was a need to move away from bible stories or classical literature in order to try and shame the aristocracy and to make it more real by focusing on actual and current issues pertinent to the true ideals of the age. It wasn’t uncommon for the deeper meaning of tales or stories to escape the very people it was aimed at. Satire, whilst in keeping with the British humor and quick wit, was able to do this.  

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) hoped that by ridiculing the shortcomings of the aristocracy in Rape of the Lock, he would encourage them to shift their obsessions and indeed their infatuation with decorum, mocking situations rather than individuals and exposing flaws; thereby chastising the hypocrisy of the time. Satire was sufficiently removed as to not be personal but sufficiently real as to prompt a reaction  and even a mind-set change.  

Jonathan Swift( 1667 – 1745) found a different means by which to do this and his choice of satire was far more shocking.  A Modest Proposal was published anonymously to avoid repercussions. He intended to expose the flaws regarding poverty in Ireland and the overwhelming and suffocating influence of the British government.   

Through The Rape of the Lock and A Modest Proposal, Pope and Swift respectively aspired to influence the British mindset of their age and inspire it to move forward into a new era of true enlightenment with regards to social and political morality.

At the same time, and using another unique tool, William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) an artist also contributed to the development of the contemporary satire of his time.  In 1743–1745 Hogarth painted six pictures of Marriage a-la-mode in order to demonstrate how miserable and indeed tragic an ill-considered marriage for money could be and highlighting the twisted view of upper-class 18th-century society. Its moralistic standpoint was clear.

Satire became well-entrenched into society and even Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility (1811) used it to great effect.