teaching satire?

Chris Vilmar (of Perplexed with Narrow Passages) posted recently about the difficulties of teaching satire to undergraduates, which got me wondering about what it is about this genre  that makes teaching it such a difficult task.  My first thought is that satire is fundamental to understanding many of the writers we teach in the long eighteenth, and so everything we say will be dominated by our own sense of its importance.  Our undergraduates, though, when they hear our lectures will have little concrete sense of how much better Swift or Dryden were at the job than many of their contemporaries, or why scholars and critics have long deemed satire to be one of the literary “dominants” between the era of Butler and Swift.

The Poems on Affairs of State is a fascinating anthology, especially in its most recent, monumentally annotated scholarly edition, but a little of it goes a very long way for even the most experienced scholarly reader, and it’s hard for me to imagine a class in which students would really get to swim around in the thing.  So difficulty number one for teaching a genre like this would be the lack of corroboration in our students’ minds when they discuss the term: students have not been exposed, and probably never will be exposed, to the full range of this  genre, as important as it is to understanding the literary and political culture of this era.  So why should they care about all this strange and brutal stuff?  And how could they ever know the history behind things like the Warming Pan Baby poems, without doing specific investigations into those episodes up front?

The next difficulty is the delicate one of students’ “sense of humor,” which is just another way to talk about the contingencies of taste.  Will students ever find a famous piece of satire funny in their first reading?  Or will some find it funny and others find it offensive?  Of course someone will be offended; if they’re not, it means they’re not keeping up with the reading.  But this gap in responses has its own pedagogical use, because it helps show students the divisive or polarizing effects of such writing, which I think is one of the characteristic effects, if not the ultimate goal, of this genre.

The way that I attack these problems in my Swift class is to begin the semester with a simple question: what is satire?  And I collect their responses and especially their examples, which I insist initially that they make completely contemporary.  And then we start to generalize as a class from about 10-20 of their examples about the larger characteristics that emerge from our sampling: exaggeration; offensiveness; politics; parody; and so forth.  And after we talk about the inevitable Jon Stewart or Colbert examples, I pose them a question: it’s 200 years from today, and someone has uncovered a “tape” of a show by Steve Colbert, and scholars are tasked with the job of discovering what this strange performance is all about.  Someone suggests that it’s supposed to be funny, but no one can  tell very well which parts are funny and which parts are not.  So how would the 22nd century literary historian begin to annotate and explain what these “shows” were about, and why people liked them?  What would be the hardest part of that kind of job?

Now we’re ready to talk about Swift.  We do know that Swift as a satirist has “targets,” but we’re often unsure which ones are intended, and how broadly we need to construe them.  We also know from the formal definitions of satire that it involves “ridicule” of both “vice” and of the more mundane absurdities or foibles of the people around him.  But even if we are not sure of the precise targets, we do know that a satirist has some purpose in what he represents and how he represents it.  So that prepares us to begin seeing descriptions of people and places as satirical, though we need to continue refining our understanding of who and what Swift’s potential targets were, by looking in places like biography, history, and literary criticism.

This kind of patient, incremental discussion doesn’t necessarily bring laughter into the classroom, at least not right away, but it does address head-on the differences between their own uses of the term (I find that many students are very unclear what “satire” even means, though they will use it in all sorts of contexts) and the eighteenth-century understandings I know about.  And it leads them toward the historical through their own understanding of at least the purposes of such writing in the present.  What they learn is that they need to know more, more about Swift’s own attitudes, but also about the attitudes of those around him whom he liked to ridicule, so they can orient themselves better when they encounter satirical writings (or writings that might possibly be satirical).  They need to be able to distinguish the joker from jokee, and sometimes supply the explanations that Swift and his audience would have tacitly understood.  As always, it is a recursive process, a series of returns to the text, to begin to see where its first audiences found their pleasures, and themselves, in it.  Only when students  are able to do that work for themselves, and in a similarly tacit, almost unconscious manner, will they be prepared to laugh in the right places.  And sometimes not even then.



23 responses to “teaching satire?

  1. I’m glad you brought up the “inevitable” Jon Stewart and Colbert Report. I think our students live in a very satiric (and relatedly, cynical) media environment, even if they use the term in numerous ways–the term’s multiplicity and ambiguity, perhaps, suggesting the many ways satire presents itself, from the faux news examples you mention, to the perennial Simpsons & Family Guy, to the smaller scope of a homemade YouTube to the pointed FailBlog.

    I think my problem with teaching eighteenth-century satire is that by the time you explain the joke it isn’t funny anymore. And 18c satire is _so_ layered and rich, it almost defeats itself. For example, just this week my graduate seminar in the novel was discussing Shamela. Now they’ve just read Pamela so they get the big jokes. But of course Fielding is doing so much more than just lampooning Richardson and virtue. To understand the dedications alone (or especially), you have to know Cibber and Middleton, Lord Hervey and Pope, 18c sexual slang, and so on–all seemingly pretty far afield from the novel. After this thorough dissection, I feel like the surgery was successful but the patient died. (Not sure if the patient here is the text or just the class vibe–maybe both.)

    Of course, the only real solution is to make students read everything in the 18c oeuvre before approaching satire! But barring that ideal, judicious thematic pairings of material and then, as you say, a recursive approach that returns to texts even as the semester moves past them (“Remember how Swift said X…here’s a response” or “Here’s one of his targets,” etc.). It’s also useful to remember that not every 18c reader would be in on every joke–sort of the literary version of “you had to be there.” And I’m sure sometimes they “got it” later. Our students’ reactions, then, are not completely /unlike/ many reading experiences of the 18c.

    It strikes me, too, that this process is similar to our complex reactions to contemporary satire. I’ve missed a Colbert joke and went to the New York Times to figure out what the hubbub was about. And I know my son has watched the Simpsons (for example) and sometimes YEARS later said, “I just read this book in English class…NOW I get that joke.” Or perhaps he heard the Weird Al version of a song before the original. I think this complicates the idea that satire is always the secondary response. Instead, its relationship to “primary” events or texts is always actually much more interactive and circular. Student confusion, then, is an opportunity to point how how richly referential–dare I say hypertextual–the landscape of media is both then and now.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Lisa, and thanks for the response.

    What your post points to is the fact that scholars tend to overemphasize the sequence of historical context lecture-primary text reading-spontaneous student response. The recursive model allows students to approach the historicity and topicality of the target or targets through their own knowledge and interests in a more roundabout way.

    My warming pan baby example shows one of the pitfalls of the conventional “context” model: I can’t think of anything less likely to add to foster enjoyment of this kind of goofy yet topical satire than reading vast amounts of “background.” If nothing else, it forecasts the joke, and deadens our potential responses to it.

    One of the breakthroughs in conceptual history was the notion that the meanings of concepts popularly deployed by ideologies are often vague, messy, tacit or otherwise unspecified. The scholarly demand for clarity works against the the popular need for overdetermination or tacit communication. I think that the literature instructor needs to keep that limiting mechanism in sight even while they teach the multiple contexts necessary for understanding Swift or Fielding.

    Any thoughts about different kinds of sequencing of assignments and/or reading strategies that would approach this problem better?


  3. Unfortunately, the conclusion that I’ve arrived at is this: Satire in the 18th is not very entertaining, or rarely so. Forgive me this impropriety. It’s is just my opinion, but one which I think many students share.

    Satire’s bite is a short-lived irritant at best. Except in the case of the best examples, satire’s subjects and critiques are ephemeral curiosities. John Stewart and Steven Colbert are great examples of the evanescent nature of satire (like the news itself). Each day brings new (forgettable) targets who exemplify the 15-minutes-of-fame maxim. The contexts are forgettable. The jokes are forgettable. The reasons why we care are forgettable. Once the witty cuts are made, we move on to the next prey–and human society is replete with game.

    So, expecting our students to laugh, or enjoy 18th-c satire is like asking them to remove themselves from ‘the present,’ the living moments that give satire its verve–to take a walk with the ghost of jokes past. Humor doesn’t work that way.

    Satire is the most esoteric of literary genres. Its meanings are hidden under layers of rubbish, and, “at the end of the day,” most students want to be more than garbage sorters.

    When I teach satire, I prefer to use non-humorous examples. I find that students understand and respond better to texts that expect nothing from them. They are not nostalgic for some golden age of humor and they are stingy with their laughs.

  4. Andrew Banecker

    Dr. Mazella,

    Matt just turned my attention to this blog (I’m an LSU Ph.D. candidate in English, as well) working on satire and humor. Every time I’ve taught satire (Swift, Pope, and contemporary satirists mostly) I always present a series of articles from The Onion (I’ll email you the list of ones I use if you want) at the outset. It seems your trouble is in broaching the subject of 18th century attack/Juvenalian satire without situating them in the historical particularities of the period–hence, they don’t “get” the jokes. I applaud your instinct to open up discussion about the two most prominent TV satirists, but Colbert is primarily a parodic send-up of Bill O’Reilly, and Stewart–though a personal favorite–is aided immeasurably by photoshopped quips-as-graphics. The Onion relies a bit less on the one note (Colbert) humor style, or the ever-present graphics, and, I find, allows them to appreciate the rhetorical and linguistic gymnastics of proper satire (and even absurdist humor) so they have those skills in their toolbag before attempting to unpack 18th century satire. Secondly, I usually start with contemporary attack satire (ex: “Columbine Jocks Safely Resume Bullying” [’99]) but augment that with the more absurdist and/or silly pieces (ex: “4th Grader’s Button-Making Privileges Suspended Indefinitely” and “Ancient Race of Skeleton People Discovered”) and have them compare the moves the authors are making in both Juvenalian attack satire and absurdist/silly humor. This is just a suggestion, but it’s opened my students up to studying humor (and seeing the seriousness of it all) and eases the transition to satire which attacks subjects they’re not familiar with. Hope this helps.

  5. Too busy to write up a proper response, but here’s one thing I can point out quickly before heading off to bed: if you teach the history of satire, you discover that there’s only so many ways you can accuse people of being greedy, self-centered, stupid, and so on.

    Or, to put it another way, for all of its vaunted historical particulars, satire can get pretty monotonous and non-particular in terms of the foibles or crimes it takes to task. Juvenal accuses Rome of having become decadent, and it becomes a trope so often repeated as to be virtually self-parodic.

    One thing I try to do when I teach satire is to point out how similar satires are, as a way of clearing aside the repeated tropes and getting down to the meat of the actual gripe involved. For example, once we get past Pope’s accusation that Hervey is effeminate or offensive to good taste, what’s his real beef with him? A little time with Horace, Juvenal, and Persius can do wonders for such an approach.

    And yet I still find myself pretty radically dissatisfied with most of my attempts to teach satire. I’ll try to get at some of those issues in a later post (once spring break begins: at 1:45pm tomorrow, baby!).

  6. Dave Mazella


    I understand that there’s no accounting for taste, but I’m not sure how to limit your argument about students’ absolute distance from the past. We ask students to remove themselves from the present all the time, whether we’re talking about Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims or Jude the Obscure. So I honestly don’t know why we would consider satire, at least in its more powerful instances, as more ephemeral than other genres that also require contextualization. Topicality is an issue, but I suspect that there is more going on when we get to practitioners like Swift or Fielding.


    Thanks for the advice. I’ve actually done this course lots of different ways over the years, and my initial impulse was very close to what you describe: situating them in historical particularities of the period, etc. The problem is that students in my experience don’t enjoy it any better when it’s prefaced with a potted history beforehand, and they don’t retain the potted history when they go on to do their own research. I think the key is starting with whatever humor or satire they’re familiar with, then steadily refining and generalizing the definition of the genre to the point where they can recognize both the satire and the purposes of the satire. But, as I mentioned to LMaruca, the sequencing of the contextualizing work in relation to primary texts like GT is the real challenge. But my students tend to tell me that they only start “getting” GT after they’ve done quite a bit of reading and returning in and around the text. And whether “getting” satire=”enjoying” satire is a whole ‘nother question. I’ll settle for “getting.”

  7. Dave Mazella

    Hi Chris,

    Looking forward to your response. One question, though: to what extent does this monotony you describe result from reading satirists at face value, and as moralists responding to circumstances around them, from some self-proclaimed distance?

    I also wonder to what extent we can talk about continuous generic “conventions” of satire, if we take seriously Said’s idea of Swift’s writing as “occasional”?

    Enough. I’ll let you sleep, and I’ll get back to my grading. DM

  8. David,

    18th-c satire requires the reader to engage in a level of cultural contextualization that makes its enjoyment, or even a simple understanding of the text, a matter for specialized investigation. Such unique archeological efforts go well beyond the more casual task of reading a plot-driven text from the period, like Joseph Andrews.

    A good example of what I’m arguing can be seen in Smollet’s History and Adventures of an Atom–a nearly unreadable text, except by the most knowlegable of scholars, and even then not enjoyable. Such texts require too much ‘work’ from the reader, whose distance from the historical contexts is more noticeable and more insurmountable. In my opinion, satire is a different animal entirely (with regard to students overcoming historical distance).

    Perhaps you will agree that Swift is one of the easier satirists to read. This does not mean that students feel less disconnected. Swift is genuinely funny at times, which helps considerably. I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching satires. My only point is that we might consider lowering our expectations. In my experience, students do not enjoy the texts. They are relieved when we get back to the relative fluff.

    I should mention that satire is my favorite intellectual genre.

    –sent from my iPhone. Please forgive my uncharacteristic brevity and multiplied typographical errors.

  9. Another problem is the referential density of some satires, the plots of which are little more than arthritic skeletons attempting to support the flabby, monstrous weight of endless reference and cross-reference. Of course, this type of satire is the favorite of some august scholars, who are provided an opportunity to ‘show off’ their Dan Brownesque ability to unravel the satirists code, finally revealing the true identity of Jesus’ mistress. Or something like that.

  10. Dave Mazella

    Hi Matthew,

    I think in we’re in agreement on many points, but we seem to be ending up in different positions. Satire is often hard to teach, because of its referential density, and hard to enjoy in one’s first readings, because feeling comfortable with those references takes a lot of time and effort. (by its nature, most undergrad instruction is about introducing students to famous texts that most college-educated people have heard about, if not read) There are also differences between narrative and non-narrative satire, but I won’t address that here.

    I’m not sure I would call Swift easier than Smollett, because my suspicion is that Swift’s accessibility is very conscious and hard-won. He wanted those readers at certain points in his career, and that was a major factor in his success as a political writer. Smollett, though employed for that purpose at one time, really had very little patience or talent for such things, and the issues he argued over seem more topical, more trivial.

    I’m glad that you’re teaching satire, but I don’t think we should preempt responses by deciding that certain people are genuinely funny and others are not. That just means that Swift has passed our humor test, but not our students’. Teaching is about letting the students find out what does or does not meet their humor test, IMHO.

    I understand what you’re getting at when you talk about lowering expectations, which I’d call lessening the prescriptive pressure on students to laugh. But I think that there are certain forms of intellectual labor, and laborious reading, that can be fun, if a student is pursuing her own curiosity and intellectual interests. That’s how we got here, right?

    So last year I taught a research-intensive course featuring Humphry Clinker, and one of my undergrads became very interested in writing his research paper on the political background of the Adventures of an Atom, because it documented to some extent Smollett’s alienation from politics in those decades. He never called it funny, but he did say that it was a very weird and interesting text, when read alongside things like straight political histories. So my counter-argument is that sometimes work can provide students with pleasure, provided that they are pursuing questions that they themselves are genuinely interested in.

  11. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks for this interesting post. I too started adding a “what is satire” talk to my drama course. Before, I would ask them what is being satirized in ‘The Man of Mode’ and they would say ‘Sir Fopling Flutter.’ But I think the satire in Restoration comedy is a little easier to get at because there is a lot of satire directed at the very world that the play represents and you can figure out many of the social anxieties from what is actually going on in the play. Swift is so much harder, I think, in part because Gulliver is not really a character in the same way and there aren’t particular human relationships being explored in quite the same way. It’s so much more abstract and, yes, context-dependant. I don’t have a solution, but when I do teach GT I spend a lot of time on the prefatory letters establishing G’s state of mind (off his rocker! sleeping with horses!) which creates some interest for them in how G sees the world and then they become alert to how that changes.

  12. Dave Mazella

    Hi Laura,

    I think one of the pedagogical problems is our teaching them to identify the “targets” of these satires, but then finding that this kind of instruction can lead to a reductive, one-to-one correspondence model of reading (Sir Fopling Flutter!) that eliminates the more interesting forms of reference. Alternatively, we ourselves often encounter pieces of satire, when doing primary research, where we simply have no clue who or what is being satirized or why. This is one of the reasons why I think scholarship like the annotations on the Poems on Affairs of State edition or the California Dryden becomes so important: they give you a very important, irreplaceable view into the period and its textures, its ephemeral debates and social networks, not just insights into those poems. But this feeling of just feeling lost is worth remembering when we think about teaching the student who is encountering GT for the first time.


  13. Dave, that’s a point well taken. If I may revise, I’d probably emphasize that in my teaching experience satire tends to be gritty and historical, but also fairly general. As scholars we would certainly insist on the differences between Horace and Pope’s imitations of him, but I bet that even relatively sophisticated readers would tend to minimize those differences in favor of finding a lot of common ground between the two.

    (As an aside: as an undergraduate I remember thinking that Pope’s Dunciad seemed relevant to the world around me. And I even liked the footnotes. If that isn’t a sign of someone bound for graduate school, I don’t know what is.)

    But I’d like to take the discussion in a slightly different direction, wondering how people’s approaches tend to differ when they teach satire to different levels of student. I teach Gulliver differently in a largely gen ed Satire course than I do in an Eighteenth-Century Literature course aimed at majors. And it’s mainly the history that I insist on in the upper-division class. For lower-level students I am fairly content if they can parse the nature of the attacks being made. It’s not that I refuse to tackle the history with the non-majors, just that I let their interest and the discussion push out from the text a bit.

    Perhaps a more specific example would help. When I teach Part III to non-majors, I am satisfied if they see that Gulliver’s attacks on the Academy are a satire on science. In response to questions I might briefly explain the Royal Academy (and some of its false starts toward knowledge) and what Swift might have found ridiculous about the whole enterprise. With majors, on the other hand, I insist that they read the footnotes, perhaps a smidge of contextual material, and then discuss the nature of Swift’s attacks more concretely.

    Is this the best way to proceed, though? I’m not really sure. I think that the absence of a good satire anthology speaks volumes about the difficulty of teaching it.

  14. Dave Mazella

    Hi Chris,

    This is all well-taken, and I think you’re right about the different things that different level students can take from satire, but one of the arguments I am making here is that you could put some of the burden of the contextualization on them, by “letting their interest and the discussion push out from the text.” This means focusing less on deciding which content you want them to get, and focusing more on how they could acquire this knowledge through their own brief, directed research forays into topics like the Royal Society etc.

    I developed this approach because I’ve been teaching Swift in a class whose purpose was preparing students entering the major for the research they’d be expected to do in the major. But I think it could work in other courses, even if scaled down.

    And there is a larger issue about satire itself, about whether satire is better taught as a continuously evolving genre with its own independent conventions, or whether perhaps it is deeply referential in a way that, say, tragedy or romance or not? These assumptions about the continuity, independence, or referentiality of the genre determine how teach it to our undergraduates.

  15. Dwight Codr

    Dear Mazella and Mazella-Fans,
    In truth I offer a mix of historical information and formal analysis when I teach satire, but if I may share a personal experience of teaching Gulliver’s Travels that worked quite nicely for my class last semester surveying from Horace to Sterne:

    Simple question to the class: how big is Gulliver? There are lots of calculations in the Oxford Edition — as I recall — that work out just how big the Brobdingnagians are relative to Gulliver, and how small the Lilliputians are to him as well, but the fact is that in the reading experience, in the actual moment of textual encounter, Gulliver’s size is extremely difficult to envision, and that engenders moments of pause in the reading process. At one point he seems utterly tiny to the Brobdingnagians (small enough to sit astride a nipple) at other times not quite so small (the size of a mouse to cat, say). Similarly, the giants seem often tremendously large, and at other times slightly less so. I asked the students to take me through what they imagined when they thought about Brobdingnagian-Gulliver encounters. Surprisingly interesting answers: “I thought about Stern Hall” (our bio building here on campus, roughly 7 stories tall); “I would be reading, and then I would sit and kind of wonder about his size, and I would gain a rough sense and move on, but it wasn’t helpful the next time I was confronted with this problem”; “I imagined Gulliver like an action figure”; “I tried to work out the math of how tall he would be, and I couldn’t make it work”; “I coudn’t help but think of Gulliver as being the size of a finger or a …” So, some students used physical objects in their world as points of reference, some used abstract systems, some looked up from Gulliver’s perspective, others looked down at Gulliver from the Brobingnagian perspective. But all had a unique way of imagining and engaging with one of the central philosophical problems of the novel (embodiment and its discontents), and by making the thought-process public, we realized how strangely particular, how singular, how lonely, our reading strategies are.

    The point, I guess, is that I gained a great deal of insight into one of the most complicated aspects of Swift’s “novel” by probing how the students mentally pictured his body. The answer to the opening question is thus quite obviously irrelevant, but getting the students to see that Swift turns readers’ brains into rubber bands, forcing them to stretch to accommodate the changing size of Gulliver, was, I think, one of the most helpful ways of communicating to them the complexity of thinking required by satire.

  16. Dave Mazella

    Dwight, I think your anecdote nicely captures something important about the reading experience of GT: Gulliver’s size seems “situational,” dependent on context. The comparisons he uses are often vivid, but as you point out, they don’t map easily onto one another. Getting students to verbalize their images of him reveals the lack of agreement on this point.

  17. I guess I should have stated how this addresses earlier posts, but the upshot of my tale was that while contextualization can be stressed by the instructor, it certainly doesn’t have to be in order for the work to be meaningful, interesting, and, notwithstanding Matthew’s claim to the contrary, quite funny. Similar questions could be asked of The Dunciad or of Rape of the Lock (assessing, for instance, the location of the Cave of Spleen — either in Belinda’s brain, in the underworld, her bedroom…Pope enforces our confusion on this point in a variety of ways). Maybe this doesn’t work for the more intensely topical satires; I’m not sure. What I try to teach is not how satire X deals with historical event Y, but the way(s) that satire forces us to think (or not think). I take several cues from Ric Bogel’s _The Difference Satire Makes_, btw. Instead of emphasizing the inherently unstable properties of language, though, I tend to pin my readings on the highly divergent nature of student responses to these works.

  18. Dave Mazella

    This makes a lot of sense, pedagogically. Students are confronted, not with contexts they haven’t heard of, but the problem of their own and others’ responses. What other kinds of works can you use to showcase their divergent responses, and how do they react when you point this out?

  19. Absalom and Achitophel, though not quite a satire, is a work that of course requires a fair bit of historical contextualization. But the extent to which that contextualization is thorough is also the extent to which students are unwilling or unable to gain the confidence to speak authoritatively about the poem (believing that the only way to possibly engage is to bring additional historical information to bear on the poem). So, when I teach this poem, I ask about how students imagine the settings of this poem. To be clear, this is quite different from asking for “reactions” or “their feelings” about the poem; rather, it is to explore how readers “place” and “situate” the dialogues and encounters between the poem’s principle characters. On the one hand, Dryden’s poem is a narrative, but is a completely “placeless” narrative in the sense that the characters sort of exist in a vacant locale; a fact that students don’t really realize until they are asked about it. Once students recognize the placelessness of the dialogues, or the “setting” of David’s terminal meditations, they are more likely to see an additional aspect of allegory: that it is not simply an elaborate act of assimilation, it is also a studied process of denudation and omission. A & A come to “resemble” Monmouth and Shaftesbury precisely to the extent that M & S have dialogues that occur in a non-historically specific space.

  20. Dave Mazella

    This seems like a smart way to approach the poem, both critically and pedagogically. I’m assuming that when you say that AA is “not quite a satire,” you’re referring to its affiliations with allegory?

    The question you pose about “setting” and “situation” and “placement” helps students understand something quite specific to allegory, I think–its peculiar mode of representation. Would you extend that kind of “denuding” reading to GT’s mode of satire, too? I can see how that might work with some aspects of GT (its referential moments) but it’s a little less clear with sections like Part IV. But what you’ve pointed out is a potentially fruitful resemblance between satires and allegories, in their movement between the text and what it refers to.

    So if historical contextualization is not how you introduce students into this dimension of these works, where would you stress it, if at all? (I understand your point about professor-provided context killing students’ engagement)

  21. Right. Of course A & A is a satire, but its simultaneous status as an allegory opens up the gap between its historicity and its timelessness. Maybe this is too convenient/sloppy, but would it make sense to say that a poem like A & A exists as a satire only when contextualized? That if we contextualize these poems and novels, the texts “become” satire, whereas if we avoid that process of contextualization — giving the reference points for the Dunciad, or A & A, or a description of the Royal Society, etc. — then we are, strictly speaking, not teaching these works as satires but as something else? Which leads me to a final question: has anyone ever tried to teach a text so relentlessly referential and allegorical (not that these are the same) as A & A without ever mentioning the historical figures with which the poem deals? I feel like I’m verging on Wimsatt here, but I am curious what it would be like to do so.

  22. Not Wimsatt…I meant I.A. Richards…of Practical Criticism.

  23. Dave Mazella

    I was thinking Empson, but yes, I would think it would make for an interesting experiment in deliberate decontextualization. I suppose this is what the formalists might have done with Sterne or Swift.