In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Verse Satire from the Renaissance to the Romantic Period

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Surveys
  • Anthologies
  • Verse Satire and Print Culture

British and Irish Literature Verse Satire from the Renaissance to the Romantic Period
Clare Bucknell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0123


Satiric poetry has existed in some form since the Ancient Greek period, but the Romans were the first to categorize it as a genre in its own right. The 1st-century rhetorician Quintilian claimed that satire was a distinctively Roman achievement, originating in the verse satires of Lucilius and becoming progressively refined by the poets Horace, Persius, and Juvenal. From the Renaissance to the Romantic period, satirists and commentators continued to look to the classical heritage of the genre in order to provide an authoritative basis for their enterprise. Elizabethan writers on satire argued that the genre was rough, wild, and vituperative, originating in the misanthropic “satyr” figure of Greek drama. This image suited the group of angry young men who wrote verse satires in English in the 1590s, modeling their attitudes on the “biting” satiric rage of Juvenal and Persius. During the 17th century, French and English critics such as Isaac Casaubon, Nicolas Boileau, and John Dryden selectively rewrote the history of satire to emphasize the Roman basis of their neoclassical culture. In his Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693), for instance, Dryden claimed that verse satire had emerged in England during the Restoration as a literary art in the direct tradition of Horace, Persius, and Juvenal. In doing so, he deliberately skirted around the rich corpus of satiric texts produced in English that had little or nothing to do with classical models. Vernacular English satire flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries both in open and clandestine forms: as political libels, invectives, or lampoons and as scurrilous verses or irreverent ballads or bases for social shaming rituals. From the early 18th century onward, the significant broadening of the public sphere and the commercialization of print meant that a larger-than-before cross section of people were able to express their grievances and hold their superiors to account by publishing satires. In the hands of cultural elites such as Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson and William Gifford, satire was still preeminently a mode of neoclassical imitation, albeit turned to oppositional political purposes as well as conservative ones, but radical satirists such as Peter Pindar and William Hone were able to draw on vernacular literary models, nursery rhymes, journalism, and even commercial advertising for their critiques of the cultural and political establishment. The survey article that follows is necessarily highly selective but attempts to provide a representative overview of satiric theory and practice during the Early Modern period, and the major lines of inquiry that modern critics have traced through it.

General Overviews and Surveys

Ogborn and Buckroyd 2001 is an accessible student introduction to key satiric texts and contexts. There are a number of excellent shorter overviews of the range and development of satiric writing during particular historical periods. Burrow 2005, Gillespie 2012, and Pursglove 2010 all consider the growth of satire in the Renaissance in its relation to Roman models, as well as exploring the intellectual conditions that made it possible for contemporary writers to compare their historical circumstances with those of imperial Rome. Hooley 2012 is a concise, untheorized overview of formal verse satire in the Restoration and early 18th century. Prescott 2001 takes a less traveled path by surveying the range of vernacular satiric genres that operated alongside or at odds with the major Roman models during the Renaissance, mapping out the development of very different satiric energies in Menippean satire.

  • Burrow, Colin. “Roman Satire in the Sixteenth Century.” In The Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire. Edited by Kirk Freudenburg, 243–260. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521803594.015

    Insightful survey of the earliest European engagements with Roman satire. Particularly useful commentary on Thomas Wyatt’s courtly Horatian epistles and their Italian predecessors, while also covering more-familiar ground with the Juvenalian satires of the 1590s and the return to a more polished Horatian idiom in the verse of John Donne and Ben Jonson.

  • Gillespie, Stuart. “Imperial Satire in the English Renaissance.” In A Companion to Persius and Juvenal. Edited by Susanna Braund and Josiah Osgood, 386–408. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World: Literature and Culture. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118301074.ch17

    Wide-ranging study of the reception of Persius and Juvenal from the early 16th to the mid-17th century, stressing the relative importance of Persius (frequently subordinated to Horace and Juvenal in historical accounts) and the social or religious ideas that both Persius and Juvenal could be used to convey. Surveys translations as well as creative imitations.

  • Hooley, Dan. “Roman Satire and Epigram: Horace, Juvenal, and Martial.” In The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Vol. 3, 1660–1790. Edited by David Hopkins and Charles Martindale, 217–254. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Overview of the presence of Horace, Juvenal, and Martial in Restoration and early-18th-century satire. Salutary attention to the abundance of literary epigrams on the model of Martial produced during the 18th century. Much of the survey is devoted to separating out strands of Horatian and Juvenalian influence in the early 18th century (here Hooley engages combatively with Weinbrot 1988, cited under Restoration and Early-18th-Century Satire).

  • Ogborn, Jane, and Peter Buckroyd. Satire. Cambridge Contexts in Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Straightforward student introduction to satire, focusing on generic, stylistic, and contextual aspects and outlining some key 20th-century critical approaches.

  • Prescott, Anne Lake. “Humour and Satire in the Renaissance.” In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 3, The Renaissance. Edited by Glyn P. Norton, 284–291. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Sets the development of Renaissance satire in the context of humanist ideas about laughter and humor, surveying vernacular satiric forms such as jest books and beast fables as well as formal verse satire and epigram. Concludes by discussing the appeal of Menippean satire for contemporary critics and writers.

  • Pursglove, Glyn. “Moral Kinds.” In The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English. Vol. 2, 1550–1660. Edited by Gordon Braden, Robert Cummings, and Stuart Gillespie, 201–211. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    For those interested in the reception of the Roman satirists in translation rather than imitation, this provides an overview of important complete and partial translations of Horace, Persius, and Juvenal from the mid-16th century to the Restoration. Some of these are major works of imaginative literature in their own right, as in the case of Ben Jonson’s Poetaster (1601).

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