What Is the Role of Satire in Poetry?

Christina Hall

Satire, commonly defined as a literary, performed, or constructed work that holds common human follies and vices up to the light for the reader or observer to ridicule and scorn, holds a prominent place in the art of constructing prose. Some writers see the role of satire in poetry as two intertwined intellectual processes that sometimes lead to the intense expression of subconsciously repressed feelings. The first release is often seen as mania, or in other words, having a “good laugh” while reading or hearing about the village drunk, for example. Then, the second release is that of scorn, which is present when the audience laughs and belittles the village drunk himself, either in the reader’s mind or out loud during a stage play. Derwent Hope, a modern and well-renowned poet from Australia, reiterates the role of satire in poetry by discussing its use as a fiercely intellectual and morally enthusiastic tool that lends itself to highly effective creative writing.

Some writers see the role of satire in poetry as two intertwined intellectual processes.
Some writers see the role of satire in poetry as two intertwined intellectual processes.

In comparison with the use of other literary templates, like novels and plays, satire in poetry retains its “gritty” characteristic more prominently than the aforementioned formats and has been described by some critics as “undignified” or “obscene” when not tempered. One reason why the role of satire in poetry is so pronounced is due, in part, to poetry being a precise, constrained, and relatively short discourse. In other words, the irony and satirical content in a well-written poem sticks out like a sore thumb. This is in contrast to longer literary compositions that maintain a number of “straight” humorous themes that keep the audience in a light and non-judgmental mood.

The goal of satire might be to cause laughter in the reader.
The goal of satire might be to cause laughter in the reader.

If satire is overdone in any genre, the majority of literary critics conclude that the piece becomes too “preachy” and predictable. The concept of cynicism can be thought of as being related to satire and can be seen in many poems, especially if the subject matter is related to government, church, or politics. More lighthearted poking, however, can be seen in Dorothy Parker's poetry during the 1920s and 1930s. Some of her most well-known subject matter involved the timeless humor of the miscommunication between men and women and the woes of parenthood.

In earlier times, like during the Greek and Roman empires, satirical poetry and drama were largely directed towards the aristocratic populace. In these instances, satire provided a release for men and women, who maintained an air of nobility and generosity, to let go emotionally. Another social concept, beginning around the same cultural period and continuing into modern poetry writing and reciting, says that satire in poetry functions as a type of living social commentary. It is in the business of expressing truths that are difficult for the audience to emotionally engage in and relate to.

For example, news that exudes the corruption of a country’s governmental structure could induce contention. If recited in a crowd, it could incite a riot, but tempered with laughter and shared understanding through satire, the audience’s reaction is deflated, helped also by the abstract language of poetry, from fear and mistrust to humorous social banter. Though the tone of a poem may be light, most maintain a tenuous balance between being jovial and serious, adding dimension, depth, and an interesting juxtaposition of language for the reader.

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Discussion Comments


@browncoat - Even that form of satire was too subtle for some people. They thought he was serious and it was enough to get him into trouble.

That can be the problem with satire. There are plenty of examples where poets have written poetry mocking modern forms by exaggerating and have been taken completely seriously.

In some ways I almost think that satire is kind of pointless, because if your audience is able to understand it, then they probably already agree with your point of view. If they aren't able to understand it, then they are probably going to just think that you're agreeing with them, even if the opposite is true.


@KoiwiGal - It's a very subtle form of satire, which I don't think many people would necessarily read that way. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the original intentions of a poet, although I suppose someone like Wordsworth was studied enough to know what he probably meant.

I always think of satire as being more like what Jonathon Swift wrote, mocking the rich by suggesting that they could solve poverty by using poor children as food.


I was quite surprised when I studied a Wordsworth poem as an adult and realized that he often used satire in his work. I can remember reading him in high school as an assigned topic and thinking that his poems were pretty, and maybe somewhat reflective, but not particularly sharp or necessarily intended to provide commentary on issues of that day.

But reading them again as an adult, I can see that he often makes somewhat gentle fun of particular people, and expresses his opinion of things through wordplay.

I guess the most famous example is where he said of London in the morning that "all that might heart is lying still", which could be read that it is either peaceful, or that its visage is a facade.

I guess this makes a kind of satire of people who glorify the city, as opposed to nature.

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