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Swift

His BiographyEdit

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Famous Irish poet, pamphleteer, satirist and wit of Augustan Age. He was educated (more or less) at Trinity College, Dublin. In the aftermath of the 1689 Jacobite rebellion in Ireland, Swift found shelter in England, under the auspices of Sir William Temple, a prominent diplomat and statesman. Swift served as secretary to Temple for the next ten years. In the process, he earned his M.A. at Oxford, was ordained into the Episcopalian Church of Ireland and was charged with the tutorship of Temple's young ward, Esther Johnson, a.k.a. "Stella".

After Temple died in 1699, Swift moved back to Ireland, working at various posts in the Church. In 1704, two satirical pieces -- Tale of the Tub and Battle of the Books -- earned him some renown (and some enemies). Returning to England intermittently, he became intimate with the Augustan wits and literary men of the day -- Addison, Steele, Pope and Congreve.

Although a lifelong supporter of the Whigs, the growing chasm between Whigs and the Church led Swift, in 1708, to launch a series of pamphlet attacks on the Whigs. By 1710, Swift had switched over the Tories completely and put his skills at their disposal. Swift took over The Examiner, a Tory rag, and, with a couple of 1711 pamphlets, helped turn to the tide of English public opinion against the "Whig" War of Spanish Succession.

With the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the Tories fell from favor and Swift returned to Ireland. He would serve as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin for the rest of his life. He remained bitter but quiet for several years.

In 1720, he roused himself from his perch and got busy again. His 1720 Irish Manufacture essay attacked English economic policy towards Ireland and suggested a boycott of English goods. The pamphlet was later declared seditious by the British government. His Swearer's Bank (1720) was his proposition for the setting up a bank to help small tradesmen in Ireland. His visceral series of 1724-5 pamphlets, known as Drapier's Letters led to the downfall of Wood's half-pence, the Whig government's plan to make up for the shortfall of coinage in Ireland by minting copper coins. His 1727 and 1728 pieces on the state of Ireland explains how British economic policies are keeping Ireland in a state of underdevelopment and poverty. This series of works on the state of the Irish economy culminated in the wickedly delicious A Modest Proposal (1729). His bitterness against British policy came out most fully in his Injured Lady (1746). Oh, incidentally, he also found time to write that masterpiece of satire, Gulliver's Travels (1726).

After the death of his beloved Stella, Swift began to drop off and gradually grew mentally unstable in the years before his death in 1745. Having served his role as an Irish patriot and Tory critic of Whig policies, Swift is duly celebrated in William Butler Yeats's poem "The Seven Sages" and in "Swift's Epitaph".


About A Modest ProposalEdit

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Swift's motives for writing "A Modest Proposa", which appeared in 1729, were complex. He felt, for his own part, that he had been exiled to Ireland when he would have much preferred to have been in England, and his personal sense of the wrongs he had received at the hands of the English only intensified the anger he felt at the way England mistreated Ireland. Though he was most concerned with the plight of his own class, the relatively prosperous Anglo-Irish who were members of the Church of Ireland, rather than that of the Irish Presbytarians of Ulster or that of the Roman Catholics who made up the largest, and the poorest, segment of the Irish population, he spoke, in the end, for the country as a whole. He lived in an Ireland which was a colony, politically, militarily, and economically dependent upon England. It was manifestly in England's interest to keep things as they were: a weak Ireland could not threaten England, and the measures which kept it weak were profitable for the English. As a result Ireland was a desperately poor country, overpopulated, full, as Swift said, of beggars, wracked periodically by famine, heavily taxed, and with no say at all in its own affairs. England controlled the Irish legislature. English absentee landlords owned most of the land which was worth owning. Irish manufacturies were deliberately crippled so that they could not compete with those in England.

Swift was enraged at the passivity of the Irish people, who had become so habituated to the situation that they seemed incapable of making any effort to change it. The Irish Parliament ignored numerous proposals which Swift made in earnest — proposals to tax absentee landlords, to encourage Irish industries, to improve the land, agricultural techniques, and the quality of manufactured goods — which would have begun to rectify things.

        • the following part: NOT FOR THE EXAM **********

"A Modest Proposal," then, is at once a disgusted parody of Swift's own serious proposals, as well as those of less disinterested "projectors," and a savage indictment both of the exploitive English and of the exploited Irish. Rhetorically, it is enormously sophisticated; requiring that we accept and reject its central premise at one and the same time. In it Swift owes a debt to Defoe's "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters": behind the role-playing, behind the semblance of quietly realistic humanitarianism and calm reasonableness lies a savage indignation directed at the exploiter as well as an implicit compassion for the exploited. Behind the "Modest Proposer," that is, stands an enraged and sardonic Swift, asking both sides whether the whole matter is not merely a question of degree; a question of the extent to which a human being — the manipulator or the manipulated — can be dehumanized. Once the process of dehumanization gets underway, as it obviously is, in a country in which no one — not even the unfortunates themselves — seems to mind or object to the fact that tens of thousands of human beings starve to death each year, where can one calmly, sanely, and logically draw the line and say thus far and no farther? "A Modest Proposal" is a manifestation of Swift's sense of anger and frustration, and as such it is merely the most savage, the most brutal, the most heavily ironic, of the numerous tracts which he produced during the early eighteenth century in an attempt to shame England and to shock Ireland out of its lethargic state. It is a ghastly masterpiece, cunningly devised, horribly plausible, deviously manipulative: it remains for the reader to come to terms with it, to comprehend it, and to determine the extent to which, oddly enough, it might be relevant in our own world. Swift goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion. He uses methods of argument throughout his essay which lampoon then-prominent William Petty and the social engineering popular among followers of Francis Bacon. These lampoons include appealing to the authority of "a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London" and "the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa" (who had already confessed to not being from Formosa in 1706). Swift couches his arguments in then-current events, exploiting common prejudice against Catholics (misnomed Papists) and pointing out their depredations of England. After enumerating the benefits of his proposal, Swift addresses possible objections, including the depopulation of Ireland and a litany of other solutions that he dismisses as impractical. This essay is widely held to be one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the history of the English language. Much of its shock value derives from the fact that the first portion of the essay describes the plight of starving beggars in Ireland, so that the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift's solution when he states, "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragoust." Readers unacquainted with its reputation as a satirical work often do not immediately realize that Swift was not seriously proposing cannibalism and infanticide , nor would readers unfamiliar with the satires of Horace and Juvenal recognize that Swift's essay follows the rules and structure of Latin satires. The satirical element of the pamphlet is often only understood after the reader notes the allusions made by Swift to the attitudes of landlords, such as the following: "I grant this food may be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children." Swift extends the metaphor to get in a few jibes at England’s mistreatment of Ireland, noting that "For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it."