Introduction | Revolution | Romantic Satire  | Censorship  | Irish Uprising of 1798 | The Storming of the Bastille  | The Reign of Terror

Romantic Satire

Romantic Satire"The plumb-pudding in danger or State epicures taking un petit souper." This political cartoon by James Gillray (1757-1815) portrays Prime Minister William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte as carving up the globe between them. Gillray was known as one of the premier cartoonists of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries.
Satire in itself is not typically regarded as a particularly Romantic form of poetry, since the majority of satire produced in the Romantic period exhibits a strong inheritance of Augustan and classical modes. Late eighteenth-century satire such as William Gifford's Baeviad and Maeviad and early nineteenth-century satire such as Lord Byron's English Bards and Scotch Reviewers borrow heavily from the style of Pope's Dunciad in order to critique emerging (and therefore perceived as inferior) poetical schools like the Lake Poets, based on their deviation from and rejection of classical modes of poetry. Yet satire of the Romantic era becomes progressively more involved in political themes even as its rhetoric adapts to the increasingly stringent censorship laws in place in Britain, as well as to public shock regarding the "The Terror" as the outcome of the French Revolution.

In addition to historical context, the satires produced by these and other poets in the first part of the nineteenth century demonstrate the difficulties of expressing anger in print after the French Revolution, specifically the complexity of negotiating the polar extremes of uncontrolled rage or artificiality. As Andrew Stauffer describes in Anger, Revolution and Romanticism, anger is "a violent passion that relies on tone, gesture, and facial expression for its communication to others" yet "How does one perform anger without a body, voice, or an established dramatic context? One answer is to write very strongly worded imprecations and curses" (5). Satiric indignation unloosed without mediation, such as the inclusion of rhetoric which makes the author appear sympathetic, veered too closely to the irrational mania exhibited by the French during the Reign of Terror; yet the very act of mediating this rage ran the risk of being reduced to insincere theatricality (Stauffer). Traditional forms of satire, the Horatian and the Juvenalian, proved somewhat insufficient to meet the demands of the multifaceted political arena, necessitating the development of a style of satiric discourse which combined elements of both traditional forms in an "angry playfulness" (Dyer 41) in order to express seditious political leanings while avoiding prosecution.

Shannon Heath

Select Bibliography

Dyer, Gary. British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789-1832. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Stauffer, Andrew. Anger, Revolution, and Romanticism. Cambridge University Press, 2005.