English Satire and Satirists

English Satire and Satirists

English Satire and Satirists

English Satire and Satirists

Excerpt

It is never easy to frame precise definitions of literary genera, and the attempt to do so is rarely profitable; for one form shades off into another. We know well enough what we mean by a lyric, but we are sometimes puzzled to determine whether a given poem should be called a lyric or not. Still more is this the case with satire. The Romans claimed to have invented satire, and in the sense in which they meant it the claim was justified. Most of their literary forms they borrowed from the Greeks, but not the satire. For satire the Greeks had no specialised form. Yet of course the thing itself, the spirit, is present in Greek literature. There is satire in Homer, and there have been few, if any, satirists greater than Aristophanes. There is satire even in the Bible: "No doubt ye are the people, and wisdom will die with you," is satirical. In short, satire is almost as old as literature; and each people in turn that develops a literature develops a satire also.

According to a view recently prevalent, it ought to follow from this that the true nature of satire is to be found by searching back to the beginnings of literature. Freeman saw practically the whole of the English constitution in the primitive laws and customs of the Teutons. The same spirit dominated Rousseau when he thought to find the natural state of man in his primeval condition. But another view is possible, and has been held by a man greater than either Freeman or Rousseau--Aristotle. He taught that we must look to the end of a process of development, and interpret the beginning by the end, rather than the end by the beginning. We do not get the true "natural man" until we arrive at the perfect political form--the city state. The Athenian of the age of Pericles is more "natural" than the naked savage, for "Nature implies complete development." The view which will be taken in this book is that this is as true of literature as it is of politics. Homer is an excellent exemplar of the epic, just because he is far from being . . .

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