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Satire, Friendship, and Masculinity

Our reports from the Humanities Research Seminar continue.  Here, Dayne Riley, a doctoral student in English, reflects on the role of satire in eighteenth-century Britain.


Alexander Pope, by Michael Dahl (circa 1727)

For the famed satirical poets of Augustan Britain (1700-1745), humor and friendship mixed to create a unique and still unsettling kind of humor. In his “An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” Alexander Pope discusses his life as a satirical poet. As he does so, he defends himself, his friends, and his relatives; he explains his censure of those poets whom he deems morally or poetically inferior; and, he releases his pent-up anger about his position and life as a writer. In “Some Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift D.S.P.D,” Jonathan Swift imagines how he will be remembered after his death. Even while painting a morbid picture, he still finds room to praise himself in a melancholy way. Like the classical satirists Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, Pope and Swift defend the value of staire. However, these poets also reveal a very important aspect of the genre in the Augustan age: the importance of masculine friendships to their creative yet often abrasive endeavors.

Pope uses a fictitious conversation with his friend and fellow writer, Dr. Arbuthnot, as a rhetorical device in his poem. By developing this fictive voice, Pope is able to show how well he understands his own satirical goals. Through Arbuthnot’s cautionary voice, Pope underscores his own zealous pursuit of poetic honesty, while also making his close friend look somewhat meek. Swift’s ironic use of his friends is even more radical. He uses them to examine the fleeting aspects of human friendship, stating that none of his friends will think of him longer than a month: “Poor Pope will grieve a month, and [John] Gay / A week, and Arbuthnot a day” (ll. 207-08). Swift, pointing out even his friends’ transient thoughts of other people, establishes how we are truly remembered after death, as opposed to what we might like to believe.

In both works, the poets use personal friendships to achieve deliberate satirical ends. In the urban environment of London and the poetry it spawned, masculinity was fluctuating in response to the changes within the culture. In this period of literature, when irony had become such a prevalent part of society, even the authors’ friendships were treated satirically. Furthermore, in these poems, both Pope and Swift illustrate how friendships between male writers in this time period fluctuated between close friendship and professional rivalry. As British culture began to shift away from affectionate—and oftentimes homoerotic—male friendships, it is important to note how both Pope and Swift posit their personal friendships as appropriately masculine by mocking their closest male friends.