Known as the “Augustan age,” the first half of the eighteenth century saw an explosive rise in literary production. Due to the influence of Enlightenment thought, literary works during this period often focused on explicitly political and social themes, allowing for an increase in the production of political writings of all genres. Among the most popular genres were both moral works (sermons, essays, dialogues, etc.) and satire. Satire in particular flourished in a variety of forms: prose, poetry, drama. Some of the satires produced during this period commented on the general flaws of the human condition while others specifically critiqued certain individuals and policies. All, however, were transparent statements about the greater political and social environment of the eighteenth century.
Drawing on the neoclassical impulse of the period, eighteenth-century satirists described themselves as the heirs of the Roman poets Horace and Juvenal. Horatian satire tends to take a gentle and more sympathetic approach towards the satiric subject, which it identifies as folly. Augustan examples of Horatian satire include Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). By contrast Juvenalian satire identified the object of its satire as evil, launching a contemptuous invective to ridicule it. Characterized by irony and sarcasm, this satiric mode rejected humor in favor of moral outrage. Eighteenth-century examples of Juvenalian satire include Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729) and his misogynist poems such as “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” (1731), “The Progress of Beauty” (1719-20), and “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732).
One of the most popular satiric modes during the Augustan period was the mock epic, a literary form that creates a burlesque of the classical epic. The satirist imports the formula characteristic of the epic—the invocation of a deity, supernatural machinery, etc.—to discuss a trivial subject. The use of classical epic devices thereby establishes an ironic contrast between the work’s structure and its content, exposing the triviality of the satirical subject. The best-known mock epics in the English language are John Dryden’s MacFlecknoe (1676), an attack on Thomas Shadwell and Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. Pope’s The Dunciad (1728, 1742) also took mock-heroic form and drew on Dryden’s satire on Shadwell to attack Lewis Theobald (1728) and, later, Colley Cibber (1742).
Several like-minded Augustan satirists formed the Scriblerus Club, founded in 1712. Its members included Jonathan Swift; Alexander Pope; John Gay; John Arbuthnot; Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke; and Thomas Parnell. Their professed object was to satirize the abuses of learning, which led to the publication of The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741). Both Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Pope’s The Dunciad grew out of projects for this group.