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Poems of the Week: Satire

 

So far we have considered mostly lyric forms, particularly the sonnet, but verse is used for many purposes--narrative, didactic, and satiric.  Perhaps in this political season we should consider social and political satire, both in the broadest and in its stricter sense.

Even used in the broadest sense, satire is not comic parody or even mere raillery.  Satire has a serious purpose--to hold up to ridicule the foibles and follies of the time and to cause the reader to use the satire as a mirror in which to glimpse his own foolishness.  I am not, at least at this time, to bore you by tracing the history of Satire back to Juvenal, Horace, Lucilius, and their Greek inspirations (though the Romans did quite rightly claim the genre as wholly their own).  Let us instead go to a satiric poem that is not really a satire in the strict sense.

This is Lady Psyche's song, from Gilbert's Princess Ida, in which she expounds both Darwinism and feminism.  When E.C. Kopff and I once attended a performance in Boulder, the program advised us that the work was only being performed as an historical artifact because they were committed to producing all the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.  Under no circumstances was anyone to find it funny.  I fear we both laughed so hard we almost got ejected.

 

A Lady fair, of lineage high,

Was loved by an Ape, in the days gone by.

The Maid was radiant as the sun,

The Ape was a most unsightly one –

So it would not do –

His scheme fell through,

For the Maid, when his love took formal shape,

Expressed such terror

At his monstrous error,

That he stammered an apology and made his ’scape,

The picture of a disconcerted Ape.

 

With a view to rise in the social scale,

He shaved his bristles and he docked his tail,

He grew mustachios, and he took his tub,

And he paid a guinea to a toilet club –

But it would not do,

The scheme fell through –

For the Maid was Beauty’s fairest Queen,

With golden tresses,

Like a real princess’s,

While the Ape, despite his razor keen,

Was the apiest Ape that ever was seen!

 

He bought white ties, and he bought dress suits,

He crammed his feet into bright tight boots –

And to start in life on a brand-new plan,

He christened himself Darwinian Man!

But it would not do,

The scheme fell through –

For the Maiden fair, whom the monkey craved,

Was a radiant Being,

With brain far-seeing –

While Darwinian Man, though well-behaved,2

At best is only a monkey shaved!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.

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