Satirical poetry has a long pedigree in English literature, from the verse satires of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to contemporary poems satirising modern life. In this post, we select and introduce ten classic satirical poems in English, from the genre known as ‘the verse satire’ to more contemporary examples of poetry which satirises a position, an attitude, or a situation.
1. John Donne, ‘Satire III’.
Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids
Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids;
I must not laugh, nor weep sins and be wise;
Can railing, then, cure these worn maladies?
We begin this selection of satirical poems with an early poem by Donne, written when he was still in his early twenties and a practising Roman Catholic. His more famous religious poems would be written later in his life, following his conversion to Anglicanism, when he wrote a series of Holy Sonnets; but this early satire shows Donne treating the topic of religion, advising the reader to seek religious truth at any cost.
2. John Dryden, ‘Mac Flecknoe’.
All human things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young
Was call’d to empire, and had govern’d long:
In prose and verse, was own’d, without dispute
Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute …
Speaking of Catholicism and Anglicanism, this poem from almost a hundred years later, written by the late seventeenth century’s greatest English satirist, was written by the Catholic Dryden (1631-1700) about the Protestant Thomas Shadwell, the poet who was appointed Poet Laureate when Dryden was dismissed from the post for being a Catholic.
Shadwell – identified as ‘T. S.’ in the poem’s prefatory line – is a king of ‘Non-sense’, a bad poet whom Dryden relentlessly satirises in this entertaining Augustan poem.
3. Jonathan Swift, ‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we’re told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
’Twas time in conscience he should die
This world he cumbered long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that’s the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a stink …
Satirical poetry continued to thrive in the century following Dryden, and the Anglo-Irish poet, author, and clergyman Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was one of its finest exponents. Aside from his satirical poetry, he is also best-remembered for Gulliver’s Travels (a great early novel and a satirical fantasy), ‘A Modest Proposal’ (a short satirical skit in which he advises the poor people of Ireland to eat their own babies, mimicking and skewering the indifference of those in power), and even coining the girls’ name Vanessa.
This poem is a short and amusing satire on the death of the most famous military man of his day, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, for whom Blenheim Palace was built. Swift pokes fun at how the general lived to a ripe old age and therefore it was fitting that he should shuffle off this mortal coil.
4. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘Verses Addressed To The Imitator Of The First Satire Of The Second Book Of Horace’.
Horace can laugh, is delicate, is clear,
You, only coarsely rail, or darkly sneer;
His Style is elegant, his Diction pure,
Whilst none thy crabbed Numbers can endure;
Hard as thy Heart, and as thy Birth obscure …
Many of the best-known satires in English poetry were written by men, but one of the greatest satirical poets of the eighteenth century was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who, among other things, pioneered a new smallpox inoculation when she wasn’t busy skewering contemporary society with her pen.
In this poem, Montagu addresses Alexander Pope, who had recently translated Horace’s satires. The two poets had been friends and associates but (as so often happened with Pope) they had fallen out, and when Pope included a snide reference to Montagu in his translation of Horace, Montagu bit back, proving she could give as good as she got …
5. Alexander Pope, The Dunciad.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire Chaos! is restored:
Light dies before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all …
Arguably Pope’s masterpiece, The Dunciad is his long satire against ‘dullness’ among eighteenth-century literature and society. As the title implies, the poem is mock-heroic, its title playing on epic poems of antiquity like The Iliad or The Aeneid. Pope (1688-1744) directs his satirical ire against the royal court and the hangers-on and mediocre writers who curry favour there, such as Colley Cibber, who was the subject of a long feud with Pope. Follow the above link to read the first book from this longer work.
6. Percy Shelley, ‘Fragment of a Satire on Satire’.
If gibbets, axes, confiscations, chains,
And racks of subtle torture, if the pains
Of shame, of fiery Hell’s tempestuous wave,
Seen through the caverns of the shadowy grave,
Hurling the damned into the murky air
While the meek blest sit smiling; if Despair
And Hate, the rapid bloodhounds with which Terror
Hunts through the world the homeless steps of Error,
Are the true secrets of the commonweal
To make men wise and just …
Romantic poets are less known for their satirical poetry than their Augustan forebears, but in poems like this, Percy Shelley (1792-1822) shows us that satire didn’t entirely die out during the age of Romanticism. His more famous satires, such as the long poem in response to Peterloo, The Mask of Anarchy, are satirical only to a point, but this poem addresses the topic of satire more directly.
Indeed, as the title shows, this poem takes as its satirical target satire itself, arguing that satire would be all well and good if it actually managed to act as a ‘scourge’ against vice, folly, humbug, injustice, and the rest of it. But does it? How effective is satire? Shelley ponders this question in this provocative fragment.
7. Dorothy Parker, ‘Resumé’.
One of the wittiest people ever to have lived, Dorothy Parker is, like Mae West and Oscar Wilde, often quoted for her memorable one-liners, especially her clever insults. In this short poem, she considers one of the darkest topics of all, itemising the various problems with the usual methods used to end it all – but she handles it with her usual wit and irony.
8. John Betjeman, ‘Slough’.
This poem is among Betjeman’s most famous, but also his more notorious (especially to many people who actually live in Slough!). He takes aim at the crude modernity of the Berkshire town, with its women with their hair dyed with peroxide and their painted nails, the uncouth men who belch rather than look up and contemplate the stars, and so on. Clearly Betjeman had his tongue in his cheek when calling for bombs to fall upon the town (he wrote this poem just a few years before the Germans would actually be dropping bombs on many British towns and cities), so we think this poem earns its place on this list.
9. Louis MacNeice, ‘Bagpipe Music’.
Louis MacNeice (1907-63) was one of the leading British poets of the 1930s, associated with W. H. Auden (and, until recently, eclipsed by Auden’s star). In this poem, written in the 1930s following a visit to Scotland, MacNeice celebrates the cultural life of the Highlands and Islands while also satirising the vanishing aspects of that culture, as modern-day commercialism and tourism take over the place and threaten its authenticity.
10. Simon Armitage, ‘Thank You for Waiting’.
One of the wittiest poets writing about contemporary life is the current UK Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. In this poem, Armitage satirises the world of commercialism through the motif of a flight announcement, as the announcer tells successive groups of people ‘thank you for waiting’ before allowing the various classes and strata of people (who have paid for various upgrades or club cards) that they can now board the plane.