Comparisons of 18th Century Satire: Alexander Pope vs. Jonathan Swift

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

This article compares the satirical styles of popular 18th century authors, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Their satire varied markedly in style but both criticized government and society.

Comparison of the Satirical Works of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift

18th century English authors, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, were friends and rivals, and while they wrote on similar topics, their styles of satire were markedly different. Satire, the use of humor, irony, or embarrassment to criticize a situation or person(s), was extremely popular during the 18th century.

Alexander Pope's Satirical Style

Alexander Pope

Pope's satirical works were light in tone, especially compared to Swift's, and were often misread as supportive of what he was criticizing. Pope's most well-known work, The Rape of the Lock, is an excellent example of how he wrote in a more gently mocking style than Swift. In The Rape of the Lock, he uses a well-known incident involving a stolen lock of hair between two lovers (kept from marrying due to laws restricting Catholicism) and compares it to the kidnapping of Helen of Troy. This created a poem that evokes heroism and includes sylphs and other Romanesque themes, while criticizing the laws in place in England at that time which placed restrictions on all religions except Anglicanism.

Pope's style of satire often involved heroic elements and reflected the influence of epic poets such as Homer (Pope was not only prominent due to his satirical works but also his translations of ancient writings such as The Iliad).

Pope's satire is often written in the form of banter or a light-hearted style, lulling the reader into a false sense of complacency with the ridiculed subject.

Jonathan Swift's Satirical Style

Jonathan Swift

Swift is best known for Gulliver's Travels, which is a satire on British imperialism and colonialism. While Gulliver's Travels is often treated as a children's story due to the fantastic worlds Gulliver visits and experiences, Swift wrote it as an indictment of British society, and each place Gulliver visits is a satirical criticism of an aspect of British government and society. For example, Liliput, the most famous of the places (as everyone who has heard of Gulliver's Travels tends to remember the diminutive people and Gulliver being a giant amongst them), has an emperor who chooses his ministers by how well they walk a tightrope. Swift used this metaphor to criticize the way British political leaders had to walk a thin line between doing what the king wanted and doing what they felt was right.

Swift's satirical style is sharper and bolder than Pope's. While Pope's could be considered gently chiding and subversively mocking, Swift tended towards the outrageous and shocking. His work, A Modest Proposal, is an excellent example of his propensity towards biting, scathing satire.

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