The Anatomy of Satire

SATIRE is a giant Wasp playing in and out of the mouth of a sleeping clown.

It is the humor which stings.

It is a Medusa with mischief in her eye.

It is part Puck and part Mephistopheles; and it is sometimes Isaiah. But it is never Jeremiah, because it never is guilty of feeling sorry for itself.

Satire is the human mind at the very apex of alertness, the very climax of wide-awakeness. It is the very eyeball of comprehension, and its look is thaumaturgic

What was sublime becomes grotesque, what was dignified becomes ridiculous. Titans [69] shrivel to dwarfs. Gods and Cæsars wilt and crumble in the dust. Dogmas vanish like puffballs. Pride cracks into a silly cackle, and Prudery with skinny ribs and sapless look has not where to hide her nakedness.

Great satirists are as rare as great poets. The laughter that slays and the image that creates are twin-born. Satire in Moliere is a heavy wine, in Juvenal it is a knout, in Cervantes a magical tear, in Rabelais a brazen guffaw, in Ibsen it is vitriol, in Swift it is a Fury, in Byron a poisoned dirk, in Aristophanes a murderous sleet that slit the faces of gods and men, in Voltaire it is a bomb, in George Meredith it is a siccant light that brings out the spectral stains and rents and tares in man the social beast.

Satire is primarily the enemy of the sentimental and romantic, those elaborate poses of the human. It rubs the buckram off of our attitudes, passes over our deckle-edged mannerisms, to peer inside at the reading matter. Pose is orthodox. Satire is always heterodox, conscious; a single epithet may turn a Goliath into a dumpy dwarf. Note the trinity of fool words, “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” and the word “Annexation,” and remember what they did.

Ridicule, the brigand, strips the gods of their peacock-plumes and leaves them to strut in their polar skies undone and diswrapt.

Composite Character of Satire

THE frigid smile of disbelief has jostled many a Malvolio out of his reeking complacency. Ridicule is sanitary. The unleavened smile of irony redeems. The profane hand of satire—dirty, knotted, oil-stained from examining the cogs and flywheels in the human soul—rips from its moldy sockets the rotting vegetation of romanticism, and forces into the gullets of sapless sentimentalists a rending purgative.

The satirist has a nose that is a spy, and an eye that is an X-ray. His passion for proportion is deadly. He understands the taciturnity of the Sphinx, and knows that the veil of Isis is merely Death’s drop-curtain. He is a moralist—that is, a destroyer, a breaker of molds, a bespatterer of images. He has the sincerity of Lucifer and the daring of a Cain. Standing on the earth, with his feather-duster he brushes the painted mirages of constructive idealism off the face of the heavens, as a housemaid brushes away a pastel. He routs the world out of its cozy corners and warms his heart under the polestar.

Satire, psychologically, is composite. Its elements are moral rage, contempt, cruelty, skepticism, will-to-power, a reversed idealism, and extreme sensitiveness. It is often only the malicious mask of failure, a kind of frozen anger. It is the crystal armor that the hypersensitive wears. It is the scintillating mica of a broken dream. It is a cold diamond on the finger of Scorn, engraving an epitaph on the glass houses of human folly. This psychologic amalgam, fusion of vapors from a myriad emotional vats, acts differently on different sensibilities.


JUVENAL’S skull was a nest of tarantulas. His deadly knife cut away the fat of pretense and exhibited the bare ribs of Rome. He embalmed a whole world in aid. He was Nemesis-Ideal. The psychological necessity of the appearance of Christ at the moment when he arrived is irrefutably proven by the fact that venal was his contemporary. Rome was a bagnio—and Rome was the world.

Juvenal was an idealist, a descendant of Isaiah, and a distant ancestor of the author of Ghosts. In Juvenal’s time the comedy was what it has always been. Sham is enthroned, and the Pharisee stands on the outposts of success. His satires are giant magnifiers, wherein Reality, hopeless, implacable, sinister Reality, lies stark to the sight. A world of parasites, panders and skulkers. Rome is a rotting corpse that lies germinating under the withering sunlight of Juvenal’s brain. Every sentence is a pike on which is rammed a human head; and after twenty centuries he is ultra-modern, a startling demonstration of the consanguinity of all over-civilized epochs.

Like Carlyle, Juvenal was a satirist because he was a moralist.


ARISTOPHANES and Juvenal were poles apart. Aristophanes’ immortal smile had something of a joyous satanism in its play over men. His irony stood upon the elder peaks of thought, where he, the laughing Nimrod, could wring the necks of eagles. He mocks with the mockery of the gods. His mind sepulchered a thousand ruined hierophants of myth. Socrates lies petrified in his gleaming spite. If Aristophanes was one of the murder[70]ers of Socrates, it is quite conceivable that he never experienced remorse. The satiric spirit picked out in Aristophanes what was most inhuman in the man and made him the Cain of comic writers. It was Heine who called God “a celestial Aristophanes.” His thunders were capped with arctic ice. In the universe of art, Aristophanes is the full moon, the frozen sneer slowly rising on the sundown of Greek philosophy.


DESTROY all books, but leave us Don Quixote! It is alpha and omega. It tells all. It is the epic of Man. Cervantes was the supreme seer of all time—greater than Shakespeare, greater than Æschylus, greater than Balzac. He was the supreme philosopher of all time—greater than Spinoza, greater than Schopenhauer, greater than Plato. He was the supreme ironist of all time—greater than Aristophanes, greater than Ibsen, greater than Swift.

Don Quixote is the comic Œdipus Rex. The shimmer of all the tears of men had condensed in the light of Cervantes’ eyes—and it was not unlike a smile. His book is the danse macabre of Ideals. It is the tale of the starved Heart that migrates to the Brain and spins its Cockaynes and Elysiums on the air. It is the saga of the race. It is the legend repeated for all future time of man’s adventure in that hell which we call Reality. Its metaphysic is one’s self—the elemental illusion. Its moral is, What is not absurd is not true. Rosinante is the nag we all bestraddle.

The shivering bareness of Reality we thicken and hide with the feathers of Hope.

And still Rosinante is not the Pegasus of our will!

The divine frivolity of Cervantes! His starlit mockeries! The whipped waters of his magical fancy! Don Quixote is a thing done once for all time, and those who lived before Cervantes’ birth lived without mirrors. The Knight of La Mancha riding furiously in the wake of half-remembered images, the Troubadour of the Ideal singing his passionate songs to the eternal Jezebel-Dulcinea, the mournful eye of the Seeker bruised and blackened by muscled circumstances—that is all of life, all of you and me, the ridiculous earth-gods flourishing paper swords.

Don Quixote is the human mind rubbing the dreams out of its eyes.


A JAVELIN from the quiver of an immedicable bitterness—a javelin that smoked in its passionate flight toward its throbbing target, the human heart—that is the satire of Jonathan Swift. In the sunlight he hollowed a monstrous hole, and packed the race into it. His genius was like a black mist rent by a thousand lightning-strokes. The North wind had pierced him to the marrow. Man exiled, the huntsman of a grave, was the Dismal Vision. Man, the palace with the dungeon at the top, was, to Swift, merely an obscene accident whose heart was the parade-ground of all the villainies of life. He is the satirist of satirists. His art is the most perfect. He is so great that he has to hide himself behind triple veils. His misanthropic passion is so deadly, his corn of the race so overwhelming, that he invents a comic narrative while he puts you to death. His spleen is anarchic. Behind his books stands a diabolist, a baffled Fury, a glittering Eye whose lights are frozen hells. Swift was the Dante of satirists.


MOLIERE conceived in the living flesh; the satiric spirit in him pulsates with the life of every day. He undresses Society and exposes its comical nakedness. But his eyes droop forgivingly. He was a riant Ibsen. He unmasks convention, scolds hypocrisy, castigates insincerity with the enormous reservation of his incurable humanity. His satire ridicules, but never condemns. He was the spiritual father of Thackeray, Tartuffe, Danden, Don Juan, Bill Reedy and Ed Howe. Society is at fault. Social usage and social necessity are the criminals—and you can not indict an abstraction.

Moliere’s touch is as sure as Shakespeare’s, and as impersonal. The brute granite of Circumstance is his metaphysic; Man turning topsy-turvy on the slippery pavements of the contingent. Well, let us smile! Light, negligent, mischievous, his misanthropy flowed from red corpuscles. He is the soul of the concrete. The sweet alloy of earth is in all he created. What his characters lose in infinite sweep they gain in clarity, suppleness, familiarity. Moliere was the golden bee of literature.


POETS pay their debts in stars and are paid in wormwood. This is true of Heinrich Heine, whose irony slashed German [71] complacency, and whose poetry marked an epoch. his was  a colossal head diademed by a thousand blazing contradictions. His satire was born of a gigantic internal strife. Many of his poems begin with the song of the nightingale and end with the hiss of the scorpion. Dreams of alabaster he pedestaled on blocks of ebony.

Heine was a monastic sybarite, a connoisseur of flagellations. Eternal fermentation and recrudescence of the Ideal; sudden, inexplicable tears that turned to streams of acid on his cheek. From his violin he struck a maddening mournful note while leaning over that gigantic trough—the grave. He wept like Lucifer; he mocked like God.

He was born in Zion and was christened on the slopes of Parnassus. He was the pixy of ironists, a sentimental imp. He was half Hamlet, half Pierrot. In his pages everything vibrates, everything quivers, sings and stings. He wrote with phosphorus; glimmer and gleam and infernal twilights; whirling fireflies pricking the dark of an unquenchable melancholy. He was an Orestes pursued by the demons of the comic, for there is a laughter that is fatal and a smile that slays him unto whom it is born.

And Heine had that dreadful dower. His wit was tragic. He himself played jester to his discrowned ideals. His brain crashed against his heart, and there flashed forth a burst of laughter that killed him.

The Expert Witness of Life

HOW well and how sanely the satirists are hated by Conformity, that Goliath who is a eunuch!

Voltaire blew out the lights of a thousand fagots and ripped the earlaps from Belief. Byron, whose fist of iron, like a murderous club, split the skull of British conformity. Victor Hugo, who quartered kings and popes on his steeds hurtling through empyrean heights. Ibsen, who had knuckles of steel. Thomas Hardy, whose irony and satire indict Life itself. Read Tess!

With Juvenal, Aristophanes, Swift, Cervantes, Moliere and Hiene, they are cleansers and regenerators. They traffic in gods, they retail thrones, they are the auctioneers and the parcel-wrappers of ancient diadems and modern shams.

The Satirist is the supreme expert witness of Life.


Source: The Fra, June 1912, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 68-71



Although unattributed, this article was later edited and published under De Casseres’ name as “Satire: the Humor that Crucifies” in the March 1923 issue of Shadowland (Vol. VIII, No. 1), pp. 35, 74.