Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Two Satirical Poems About One Man

Jonathan Swift's A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General and Robert Southey's After Blenheim both take a satirical approach to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. One of Winston Churchill's ancestors, he served as a general in the British Army, most notably in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) where he famously won the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.

Both poems give interesting comments on war and warmongering contrasting the glory and skill of soldiering with the death and devastation of war. They both exhibit the tone which would appear more prominently in war poets such as Wilfred Owen two hundred years later.

A few notes...

A Satirical Elegy

  • The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. In English, heroic verse, a form traditionally used in epic and dramatic poetry, is iambic pentameter. The missing iamb, then, signifies a lack and reflects the satirical content in form. The rhyme is masculine end rhyme in couplets (aabbccdd...)
  • The elegy as a poetic composition usually laments and pays tribute to someone who has died. However, Swift does the opposite, making this the second formal reflection of satirical content. For my post on the mock-epic, click here.
  • Swift's satires were, in general, Juvenalian ones. These are opposed to Horatian satires, which are gently mocking folly. Named after Horace, the Horatian satire is fairly sympathetic while Juvenalian satire, named after Juvenal, takes a more scornful view of its target, which is evil rather than folly. Juvenalian satires are more likely to use dark humour and sarcasm and see no hope where Horatian satires do. Swift's comments on Marlborough here are distinctly Juvenalian.
  • A few explanatory notes:
    • Swift takes a scornful view of the life and achievements of Marlborough which is shown amongst other things in the lines mentioned below.
    • Line 6-8: This refers to the final judgement. According to Swift, Marlborough will not do well at the last trump.
    • Line 16: Swift emphasises the physical and unpleasant for satirical effect. This he commonly did, perhaps most notably in The Lady's Dressing Room. For my discussion of this satire, click here.
    • Line 17-22: Nobody grieves for him because he caused enough grief "in his day".
    • Line 26: The praise of the general is like a bubble; seems substantial , but is hollow and easily undone.
    • Line 32: This line refers to Genesis 2.7 albeit with a twist. While Genesis states that "[...]God formed man of the dust of the ground [...]", Swift claims that Marlborough sprung from dirt, which has slightly different connotations. See my note on line 16 in relation to this.
After Blenheim
  • The poem is written in alternating iambic tetra- and trimeter. The final couplet consists of two lines of iambic tetrameter, decisively ending the stanza but also disrupting the metric pattern. The masculine end rhyme follows an abcbdd pattern in all stanzas, except the second which plays a disruptive role. Here, the word found is repeated in the fourth and fifth line, adding tension and changing the rhyme pattern to abcbbb.
  • The ballad was originally sung, which accounts for the first four lines, corresponding to the four line ballad stanza. This, coupled with alliteration, also accounts for the relatively harmonious feel of the poem.
  • Where Swift uses the properties of the elegy to create a sense of the uncanny and grotesque, Southey does so with those of the ballad. Incidentally, Freud's "uncanny" is discussed in these three posts.
  • The effect of the poem stems largely from the combination of the peaceful, sunlit setting, the violent events discussed and the old farmer's repeated insistence that the victory was supposedly great and famous.

What do you think? 

In both these poems, structure is used as much to produce an emotional response as content. What do you think of this strategy? Is it a necessity of satire? Does it help the satire along or does it obscure the message of the poems and mar their content? On a slightly different note, do the reader have to be aware of standards of structure to be affected by the form of the poem? If so, how much awareness or literary competence is required?
The Tale of Sir Bob appreciates your input!

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