Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift are two of the greatest satirists in literature because they capture elements of truth that force us to look at ourselves as a society. While both authors reflect on political and economic conditions of the eighteenth century, their work is timeless because their topics ultimately return to humanity. Their achievements lie in the fact that they depict man in circumstances that are both thought provoking and amusing. Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" and "The Dunciad," along with Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Gulliver's Travels demonstrate how satire takes its best form when its target is human nature.
The satirist is quite lucky in that he has many varieties of subjects when it comes to human nature M.H. Abrams observes that in most instances the satirist considers "prevalent evils and generally observable human types, not with particular individuals" (Abrams 2211). This is certainly true with Alexander Pope. In his later years, he used fictional creations to describe someone specific he had in mind. Pope also created the first-person narrator in some of his satires, which were noble characters somewhat detached from life. They were in favor of peace and morality, and truth. Abrams claims that The Rape of the Lock is a "heroi-comical poem" (2213) because it is a comic poem that treats trivial material in an epic style" (Abrams 2213). "The familiar devices of epic are observed, but the incidents or characters are beautifully proportioned to the scale of mock epic" (Abrams 2232). With this poem, Pope not only illustrates his gift for lyrical style but he also demonstrates his knack for satire.
Part of the success of "The Rape of the Lock" is the fact that even though Pope "laughs at this world and its creature... he makes us very much aware of its beauty and charm" (Abrams 2232). The poem is also one of the best illustrations of a mock epic poem in literature. This poem's achievement lies in the fact that is not what it appears to be. The poet tells us, "This to disclose is all they guardian can:/Beware of all, but most beware of man!" (Pope The Rape of the Lock 1:113-4). From the beginning, we must be careful with what we believe and because we see ourselves in these characters, it becomes more difficult to do so. Pope satirizes man's vanity with Belinda fussing over her looks. We are told:
And now, unveiled, the toilet stands displayed,
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.
First robed in white, the nymph intent adores,
With head uncovered, the cosmetic powers. (1:119-32)
The image of Belinda sitting before her mirror reinforces how society is much too concerned with looks and therefore exposes one of our biggest weaknesses. Belinda is so committed to her "heavenly image" (1:125) that she constructs an alter to herself. The cross she wears around her neck is nothing more that a decoration that "Jews might kiss and infidels adore" (2:7-8). Other than revealing Belinda's obsession with herself, this scene also illustrates how religion has grown insignificant in society. Pope's sentiments regarding society can be seen when he tells us:
Resolved to win, he mediates the way,
By force to ravish, or by fraud betray,
For when success a Lover's toil attends,
Few ask, if fraud or force attain'd his ends. (2: 31-4)
This scene suggests that battle is viewed with the same seriousness as a card game. This notion is reinforced when battle scenes are seen as trivial. For example, we are told:
The Knave of Diamonds tries his wily arts,
And wins (oh, shameful chance!) the Queen of Hearts...
An Ace of Hearts steps forth" the King unseen
Lurked in her hand, and mourned his captive Queen. (3:87-9, 95-6)
The metaphor Pope uses here proves his point, which illustrates how the social consciousness of his day had reached a new low. Instead of fighting great wars for significant causes, the people are now concerned with petty matters such as card playing.
The male ego is also a target of Pope's satire. Men in "The Rape of the Lock" are presented to be just as shallow as the women are. The Baron invents new "stratagems" (3:120) for his own gain. When he finally has the lock of hair he declares that the "glorious prize" (3:162) is his. This scene illustrates how men have lost their strength of character and live only to serve their own desires.
The Dunciad" is another one of Pope's works that operates as a satire on many levels. Abrams notes that these can be seen as political, social, educational, and religious. In this epic many critics point out that Pope had intended victims for his fictional creations. Additionally, the nature of man is Pope's object of scrutiny. For example, we read that "Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,/Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more" (Pope The Dunciad 643-5). Furthermore, there seems to be no hope for mankind as he says:
Lo! The dread Empire, Chaos is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All. (652-55)
The Dunciad" illustrates Pope's ability to hone in on his subject and expose their weaknesses.
We see the same type of satire directed at the depravity of man in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," albeit not so harsh. In this stinging satire, social issues are a primary concern. Swift focuses on British hypocrisy as he sees it in regards to treatment of the Irish. Swift's solution to the social ills of poverty and overpopulation is clever and engaging. One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the how Swift almost convinces us that his idea might be possible. His style of combining compassion with reason is very compelling until we realize that he is speaking about the sale of children.
Part of the proposal's achievement is Swift's approach to the subject. He begins by appealing to our reason by focusing on the negative aspects associated with women and their hungry children on the streets. He begins them by calling them "beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms" (Swift A Modest Proposal 2174). He also claims that are a " melancholy object" (2174) for those who have to look at them every day. In addition, their children are burdens like their mothers. Swift sees no hope for these individuals and maintains that they will only grow up to be beggars or thieves. These children are reduced to nothing but an "additional grievance" (2174) for everyone. By introducing the mothers and children negatively at the beginning of his argument, Swift is establishing a solid foundation for his proposal. If he can pursued us that they are indeed nothing but a burden, he is that much closer to convincing us that his proposal will work.
The satire continues by proving that there are no other solutions for these problems. Swift places the British government in a negative light by pointing out that its has failed in its responsibility of solving these problems. Furthermore, he calls attention to the fact that no one else has been able to tackle these problems successfully. Swift provides statistics that indicate how many children will be born into poverty. These statements build up Swift's credibility. He asks us how these children will be cared for, noting that "under the present situation of affairs" (2175), caring for them "is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed" (2175). These statements work together to convince us that Swift is smart and has obviously given the subject much thought. We also see how Swift balances compassion and satire at the same time. His hope is to have us in agreement with him before he actually mentions the sale of children so that the mention of this is not so shocking.
Swift must draw attention to the benefits of selling children. He argues that by selling off their children, the poor can afford their rent and will be contributing to economic growth because they will have money to spend. As a result, merchants in the area will also have the luxury of providing finer choices of food to eat, which will in turn earn them more money. Swift also asserts that:
the propagation of swine's flesh, and improvement in the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables; which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well grown, fat yearly child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor's feast, or any other publick entertainment. (2179)
This passage demonstrates Swift's sentiment regarding how people are treated. This macabre idea forces us to think about how we treat others.
Swift also illustrates his satiric genius in his proposal by being open to suggestions. These suggestions, which he declares must be…