English 100

The Seminar on Criticism: Satire

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
3 Fall 2022 Blanton, C. D.
MW 5-6:30 Social Sciences 180


Satire is a corrosive and uncomfortable mode, designed to lacerate, to excoriate, to deplore, scorn, and disdain. But it selects its objects carefully and measures them precisely. Satire does not usually undertake to represent the world accurately; but it does seek to represent its world truthfully.
    That difference between truth and accuracy will guide much of our exploration of this strange mode, of the attitudes that it makes possible and the cold world that requires such chilling attitudes. That world tends, historically speaking, to be a ‘society’ rather than a ‘community’, urban and urbane, with all the shallow anonymity and public posturing, even decadence, that such an ‘advanced’ or abstract social order enables and implies. Satire is a late form. Even its ancient origins are late ones, dating to the early decades and centuries of imperial Roman power, with its steady concentration of wealth and a cynically brutal avarice, after the collapse of classical republicanism. From the beginning, satire is both a critical and an oppositional mode.
    This course, then, is an examination of the logic of satire: both its social logic (the ways in which it strives to cast a larger social reality in a recognizable symbolic shape) and its formal logic (the ways in which it goes about securing the truthfulness of its representations). We will explore satire’s historical origins as a distinct figural mode and critical problem, scanning the gentler moral inflections of poets like Horace and Persius alongside the more contemptuous tones of writers like Juvenal and Petronius. But we will then spend more of our attention on the two eras in which satire flowered most powerfully and (sometimes) most poisonously in English letters, in London in particular.
    The first of these emerges (roughly) through the first half of the eighteenth century, with the work of (among others) John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and Samuel Johnson. The second comprises the interwar decades of the twentieth and includes writers ranging from T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, Mina Loy and W. H. Auden, to Henry Green and Evelyn Waugh.
    Throughout, we will be concerned with both the critical problem of satire and satire’s own practice of criticism.

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