Jonathan Swift & the “Modest Proposal”

Literatura Irlandesa / LEM2055

Dr. Bruce Stewart
Reader Emeritus in English Literature
University of Ulster


Jonathan Swift is often called the greatest English satirist not alone because of the imaginative splendour of his best known narrative - Gulliver’s Travels (1929) - but because his mind explored the darkest sides of human nature as much as the flaws and vices of those politicians whom he chose to castigate in his writings. Swift wrote to his friend the poet Alexander Pope that his hatred was not for any particular man, profession, sect or religion but for Man as a species. To him, human kind was not the “rational animal” in which the dominant ideology of the 18th century believed but only an animal "capable of reason". Hence the stories that he told beings very like ourselves whose capacity for deceit and self-delusion is invariably greater than their capacity for decency and truth. In the Fourth Book of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift sends his famous character to a land where a race of Horses are the “masters” and who rule over a race of “Yahoos” much like apes or chimpanzees but also unmistakeable like ourselves, the humans of the European tradition. Like many of Swift’s stories, this one has a colonial edge since the Yahoos are also very like the natives of the many countries which the Europeans had “discovered” in the recent centuries - all of which they subjected to violence, rapine, and oppression. Yet Swift was himself a member of the Anglo-Irish class which had taken possession of the land of Ireland and banished its former Catholic nobility overseas while reducing its native population to a condition of near-slavery.

In A Modest Proposal (1729) Swift offers a hideous solution to a contemporary problem in suggesting that the children of the poor should be bred up for the dinner-table to be eaten by the rich in “dainty” dishes or else turned into gloves and shoes for their delicate feet. The satire resides in the fact that the imaginary author of the pamphlet delivers his “project” with all the straight-faced earnestness of a real scientist - a practitioner, that is, of science-gone-mad who computes and calculates the numbers to be killed and the profit to be extracted from the trade in young children for various members of society involved in the sale and consumption of that succulent resource. Once or twice in the satire, he lets the mask drop in order to cast aspersions on Irish country people whom he regards as a nation of thieves and beggars, or to accuse young women convicted of abortion and infanticide of acting out of shame rather than necessity and, finally, to suggest that the fine young ladies who can barely go from door to door in the fashionable parts of the city with hiring a “chair” to carry them are suitable fair candidates for his cannibalistic “solution” to the problem of surplus children.

The more we look into this text, the more we realise that the attitudes involved are typically those of a colonial country in which the life is hideously cheap. In this respect, Swift gave voice to hidden facts which contemporaries regarded as unsayable: this, in fact, is his ultimate distinction among the English writers. In many such respects, Jonathan Swift was an Anglo-Irishman first and foremost but he was also a citizen of the modern world and the world that we inhabit today is more like his than that of almost any of his contemporaries in the so-called Age of the Enlightenment.

See some sayings and apothegms of Jonathan Swift - infra.

[ Note: All files listed on this page are downloadable MS Word documents which can be read and saved on your own hard-drive. ]

Index of Resources
Classroom Readings
Critical Commentary
Some Further Texts
The Oxford Companion


An Album of Jonathan Swift


Anglo-Ireland & the Protestant Ascendancy

Primary Texts

Classroom Readings

“Some quotations from Jonathan Swift”
“Digression on Madness”, from A Tale of a Tub (1710)
“Gulliver talks with the Houyhnhnm” (Gulliver’s Travels, Bk. 4)
“The Debate on the Yahoos” (Gulliver’s Travels, Bk. 4)
A Short View of the State of Ireland (1727-28)
“A Modest Proposal (1729)

Some Further Texts

Gulliver”s Travels (1726) - Book IV
“The Drapier’s Letters” (1734) - Letter 4
"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" (1731)
“Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” (1734)

[ top ]

Secondary Texts

Critical Commentary on Jonathan Swift

[ This folder contains sundry commentaries on Jonathan Swift written by leading Irish scholars and others. ]
Thomas Sheridan, The Life of Dr. Jonathan Swift (1734) - extract on Gulliver’s Travels
Irwin Ehrenpreis, Swift: the Man, His Works & His Age (1962-83) - extract on Gulliver’s Travels
Michael Hauskeller, “Topsyturvy: Swift on Human Nature [.. &c]”, in Jonathan Swift and Philosophy (2017)
Bruce Stewart, “A Note on A Modest Proposal” [LEM2055 classroom materials - August 2017]

[ You can greatly extend your knowledge of this writer by browsing in RICORSO - online. ]

[ top ]

The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature (1996)
ed. Robert Welch; asst. ed. Bruce Stewart
“Jonathan Swift”
“A Tale of a Tub”
“The Drapier’s Letters”
“Gulliver’s Travels”
“A Modest Proposal”
“A Short View of Ireland”
“Stella and Vanessa”
“Verses on the Death of Dr Swift”

[ top ]


“When a true genius appears in the world, you may be know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
“We have just enough religion to make us hate, and not enough to make us love one another.”
“[U]tterly rejecting and renouncing everything wearable that comes from England [...] burn everything that came from England, except their People and their Coals.”
“For in Reason, all Government without the Consent of the Governed, is the very Definition of Slavery: But, in fact, Eleven Men well Armed will certainly subdue one Single Man in his Shirt.”
“Looking upon this world as absolutely desperate, I would not prescribe a dose to the dead.”
“It is a mistake of wise and good men that they expect more Reason and Virtue from human nature, than [...] it is in any sort capable of.”

On the colonies ...

Gulliver tells the Houyhnhmn: ‘Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right. Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives are driven out or destroyed, their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free licence given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony sent to convert and civilise an idolatrous and barbarous people. / But this description, I confess, doth by no means affect the British nation. [...]’ (Gulliver’s Travels, Bk 4.)

[ Comment: So says Lemuel Gulliver, but we are entitled to doubt if the author of the book shares his opinion and exempts the British from the cruelties of empire which are so easily ascribed to the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the Germans ... ]

Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” - by himself ( 1731)

Fair LIBERTY was all his cry,
For her he stood prepared to die;
For her he boldly stood alone;
For her he oft exposed his own.
Two kingdoms, just as faction led,
Had set a price upon his head;
But not a traitor could be found,
To sell him for six hundred pound.
  Perhaps I may allow the Dean,
Had too much satire in his vein;
And seem’d determined not to starve it,
Because no age could more deserve it.
Yet malice never was his aim;
He lash’d the vice, but spared the name;
No individual could resent,
Where thousands equally were meant;
His satire points at no defect,
But what all mortals may correct.;
For he abhorr’d that senseless tribe
Who call it humour when they gibe:
He spared a hump, or crooked nose,
Whose owners set not up for beaux.

  Vice, if it e’er can be abash’d,
Must be or ridiculed or lash’d.
If you resent it, who’s to blame?
He neither knew you nor your name.
Should vice expect to ‘scape rebuke,
Because its owner is a duke?

  He knew an hundred pleasant stories,
With all the turns of Whigs and Tories:
Was cheerful to his dying day;
And friends would let him have his way.

  He gave the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad;
And show’d by one satiric touch,
No nation wanted it so much.
That kingdom he hath left his debtor,
I wish it soon may have a better.”
And, since you dread no farther lashes
Methinks you may forgive his ashes.


[ back ]
[ top ]