Jonathan Swift’s essays are public writings by a public man and intended for public effect. They are the work of someone deeply involved in the life of his time, reflecting his immersion in politics, the Church, and Ireland. Because much of Swift’s writing in all of these areas is so closely related to the events of his day, most of it is now read only by specialists, but several of his essays—primarily those in which he does not speak in his own voice but creates a distinct persona to present his often bleak views—transcend the occasions that prompted them and retain a lasting interest.
Although Swift’s essays concern a wide variety of subjects, certain norms and beliefs underlie all of them. He was a firm believer in the via media, the “middle way” between political and religious extremes, and in the necessity of employing common sense in one’s approach to highly divisive issues. Those who adopted an extreme view of church or state were subject to Swift’s most slashing satire, for, as he wrote to his friend John Arbuthnot, “I could never let people run mad without telling and warning them sufficiently.”
Perhaps the least read of all Swift’s writings are the political essays and pamphlets, which were written for a specific purpose. When Swift shifted his allegiance from the Whigs to the Tories in 1710 he found that “their great difficulty lay in the Want of some good Pen to keep up the Spirit raised in the People, to assert the Principles, and justify the Proceedings of the new Ministers.” Of the several pamphlets and 33 essays Swift contributed to the Examiner, most can be reduced to the theme that Tories are preferable to Whigs. Swift’s only political writing of current interest is his The Conduct of the Allies (1711), and that not for its political message but because in this pamphlet he began to use an assumed character, in this case a supposedly impartial narrator who objectively presents “facts” concerning the disgraceful behavior of England’s allies during the War of the Spanish Succession, facts intended to induce the English public to accept the peace the Tories desired. Swift does not employ satire and irony in this work, but he does lie quite successfully, so successfully indeed that according to G.M.Trevelyan Swift did more in this pamphlet “to settle the immediate fate of parties and of nations than did ever any other literary man in the annals of England.”
Much of Swift’s religious writing is also little read today, but his “Sentiments of a Church of England Man” (1708) is an essential statement of Swift’s political and religious principles, primarily that the great evil to be avoided is arbitrary power; the supreme power must be invested in the whole people, and those who wish to “preserve the Constitution entire in Church and State” will avoid extreme Whiggery for the sake of the Church and extreme Toryism for the sake of the State. The ideas presented are those of a typical Swift narrator, a man who wishes to do his country service by “unbiasing his mind as much as possible, and thus endeavouring to moderate between the rival powers.”
A further attack on religious extremism is conveyed in “The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit” (1704), an example of what Ricardo Quintano (1936) has termed “threedimensional irony.” In two-dimensional irony what is said is directly opposite to what is meant; in the three-dimensional irony of “The Mechanical Operation” the narrator arrives at a perfectly sound conclusion, but the initial premise and all the reasoning resulting from it are completely wrong. The narrator analyzes religious enthusiasm, described as “a lifting up of the soul or its faculties above matter,” by describing the three traditional ways of “ejaculating the soul”: inspiration, from above; possession, from below; and the natural process of strong conjunctions or passion. To these methods the narrator now adds a fourth, “purely an effect of artifice and mechanic operation,” the selfinduced trance in which all religious belief and practice becomes a matter of distilled vapors.
“The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit” and the “Argument Against Abolishing Christianity” (1708), in which the narrator argues for the preservation of the Christian religion not as a religious experience but as a social necessity, are two of Swift’s best satires, illustrating both the effectiveness and dangers of the form. Readers aware of the nature of satire can easily discern the serious religious thought underlying both, but Swift always believed, no doubt correctly, that a misreading of such works led to the charges of irreligion that plagued him throughout his life.
Satire was perhaps a less dangerous weapon when employed in the service of Ireland, and Swift’s Irish writings were so strong that they made him the unlikeliest of Irish patriotic heroes. Having clearly outlined the problems confronting Ireland in his Short View of Ireland in 1727, to no effect whatever, Swift returned to these problems in A Modest Proposal of 1729, an essay often considered the best sustained satire in the
English language, demonstrating Swift’s satiric technique at its best. In form the modest proposal is a formal Aristotelian argument, but used for perverted purposes. The persona who makes this proposal may be Swift’s best use of the imagined narrator, who presents himself as a man of reason and good will with a great love for his country. The narrator proceeds modestly, methodically, and objectively to suggest that Irish poverty can be ameliorated by the sale of infants for food, remarking that “a very knowing American” of his acquaintance has assured him that “a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.” With relentless and horrifying logic the narrator calmly outlines the many benefits of his scheme, all the while protesting that cruelty “hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.” Throughout the essay the narrator’s economic scheme reduces humans to the level of beasts, the way, Swift implies, that the Irish are actually treated by their landlords and by the English. In a country where aged and diseased poor people “are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected” and in which young laborers are “now in almost as hopeful a condition” because they cannot find work and in any case are too weak from starvation to do any, why not make a metaphor literal: if the English and absentee landlords continue to devour the Irish people, why not their children as well?
The true horror of A Modest Proposal lies in the bland understatement with which it is presented, a narrative pose sustained until the very end of the essay when Swift’s savage indignation blasts forth as the narrator, responding to possible objections, urges his opponents to “first ask the parents of these mortals whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old in this manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes as they have since gone through by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of entailing the like or greater miseries upon their breed forever.”
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this performance is that A Modest Proposal, in common with a few of Swift’s other works, notably the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), retains its power to upset, disturb, anger, and shock contemporary readers. Swift would surely have been pleased that as recently as 1984 Peter O’Toole’s reading of A Modest Proposal at the reopening of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin was greeted with cries of “disgusting” and “offensive,” followed by the departure of several members of the audience.
Such controversy has always been associated with Swift. During the late 18th century and throughout the 19th he was frequently regarded as a monster in both his personal and literary lives. The 20th century has responded more favorably to him; today his reputation has probably never been higher, partly because of the dedicated work of recent scholars who have added greatly to our understanding of Swift’s satiric methods and underlying seriousness of purpose. Another, more visceral reason for Swift’s greater popularity has surely been the horrors of the 20th century itself. Satires that describe religion as a social rather than spiritual activity, that warn of the dangers of religious and political extremism, and above all that ironically advocate the methodical destruction of large numbers of humans for the economic prosperity of the state, may have been written in the 18th century, but speak directly to our own.
See also Satiric Essay
Born 30 November 1667 in Dublin. Studied at Kilkenny Grammar School, 1674–82; Trinity College, Dublin, 1681–89, B.A., 1686, M.A., 1692. Secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Farnham, Surrey, 1689–95 and 1696–99; ordained in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Dublin, 1695; vicar of Kilroot, 1695–96, and Laracor, from 1700; prebendary, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, 1701; emissary for the Irish clergy in London, 1707–09. Contributor of the “Bickerstaff Papers,” 1708–09, and to the Tatler; editor, the Examiner, 1710–11. Renounced the Whigs and joined the Tories when they came to power, 1710. Cofounder, the Scriblerus Club, 1713–14. Returned to Ireland, 1714. Dean, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 1713–42. Married Esther (Stella) Johnson, c. 1716 (died, 1718). Visited London, 1726 and 1727. Awards: honorary degree from University of Dublin. Died in Dublin, 19 October 1745.
Essays and Related Prose
(selection; many pamphlets and letters individually published)
Esquire Bickerstaff’s Most Strange and Wonderful Predictions for the Year 1708, 1708
The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions, 1708
Bickerstaff redivivus; or, Predictions for the Year 1709, 1709
A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff Esq. Against What Is Objected to Him by Mr. Partridge, 1709
The Examiner, nos. 13–45, 2 November 1710–14 June 1711; in Swift vs. Mainwaring: “The Examiner” and “The Medley”, edited by Frank H.Ellis, 1985
A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, 1729; edited by Charles Beaumont, 1969
Prose Works, edited by Herbert Davis and others, 14 vols., 1939–68
The Writings of Jonathan Swift (selection), edited by Robert A. Greenberg and William Bowman Piper, 1973
Swift’s Irish Pamphlets, edited by Joseph McMinn, 1991
The Intelligencer, with Thomas Sheridan, edited by James Woolley, 1992
A Modest Proposal and Other Satires, 1995
Other writings: the satires A Tale of a Tub (1704) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726),
poetry, many works on politics, and correspondence (collected in The Correspondence, edited by Harold Williams, 5 vols., 1963–65).
Collected works editions: The Works, edited by Thomas Sheridan, 17 vols., 1784, revised edition edited by John Nichols, 24 vols., 1812; Works, edited by Sir Walter Scott, 19 vols., 1814.
Landa, Louis A., and J.E.Tobin, Jonathan Swift: A List of Critical Studies Published from 1895 to 1945, New York: Octagon, 1974 (original edition, 1945)
Rodino, Richard H., Swift Studies, 1965–1980: An Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1984
Stathis, James J., A Bibliography of Swift Studies, 1945–1965, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967
Teerink, Herman, A Bibliography of Writings of Jonathan Swift, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1937; revised edition, edited by Arthur H.Scouten, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963
Bullitt, John M., Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1953
Craik, Henry, The Life of Jonathan Swift, London: Murray, 1882
Davis, Herbert, Jonathan Swift: Essays on His Satire and Other Studies, New York: Oxford University Press, 1964
Downie, J.A., Jonathan Swift: Political Writer, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984
Ehrenpreis, Irvin, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 3 vols., 1961–83
Ewald, William Bragg, Jr., The Masks of Jonathan Swift, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1954
Ferguson, Oliver W., Swift and Ireland, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962
Landa, Louis, Swift and the Church of Ireland, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954
Nokes, David, Jonatban Swift, a Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985
Price, Martin, Swift’s Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1953
Quintano, Ricardo, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift, London: Oxford University Press, 1936
Quintano, Ricardo, Swift: An Introduction, London: Oxford University Press, 1955
Rosenheim, Edward, Swift and the Satirist’s Art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963
Watkins, W.B.C., Perilous Balance: The Tragic Genius of Swift, Johnson, and Sterne, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1939
Williams, Kathleen, Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1958; London: Constable, 1959
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