A Proposal From Mr. J. Swift

Eighteenth century English satire is perhaps one of the most sophisticated of the literary periods. It subtlety satirizes, or makes ridiculous, the institutions that existed at the time, including the government, the treatment of children, and indeed social structures themselves. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope were both famed satirists in their way, respectively Juvenalian and Horatian in style. Jane Austen was also a satirical writer, writing a critique of the restraints of the upper and lower classes, in an often amusing fashion.

A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, was written by Jonathon Swift in 1729, at the height of satirical importance in English literature. Swift was a famed satirist, however his complete body of works does not sit comfortable in either a Juvenalian or Horatian category of satirical writing specifically. This particular work however is broadly considered to be a Juvenalian text, combating issues of morality, such as the man’s treatment of his wife with ridiculous sentiments such as her usefulness as a “breeder”. It is this incredibly powerful juxtaposition that provokes the mind to consider these sentiments in all seriousness.

Mr. Swift (1)

Juvenalian satire is an angry, biting form of satire, using morality to create a situation in which contempt can be provoked. In A Modest Proposal there are certainly a number of these elements, such as his extreme derision towards himself as a narrator, and the continued references to human children as delicious meats for the wealthy, products of a “breeder”. Whilst it is strikingly obvious that this is a satirical condemnation of the poverty and lack of government awareness in Ireland at the time, Swift himself may have to a certain extent supported these ideas. There are however, also elements of Horatian satire in the pamphlet; Horatian satire is a gentler form of derision that is motivated more towards amusing the audience, as opposed to repulsing them. There are very few elements of his kind of satire in this text; for instance, the suggestion that the cannibalistic behaviour would lead to a more loving marital situation is astounding, especially since it suggests that men would view their wives in the same way as they view their livestock.

Swift himself attempted to protect the oppressed in Ireland, specifically those who lived under the control of the English (often absentee) landowners, and the Irish Parliament, which was dominated by English influences. Despite being an Anglo-Protestant himself, and being elected Dean of St. Patrick’s Church very reluctantly, he sought to protect the Irish against the Anglo-Protestant classes, using very serious sermons to spread a message. Most significantly however, Swift went to the power of the pen, and wrote pamphlets such as A Modest Proposal that highlighted the issues of poverty in such a severe way that it was impossible to ignore such an extreme mode of communication. Swift had huge psychological problems with being connected by blood to Ireland, and appears to have had a very complex psychological stance on identity and society as a whole. Nevertheless, he sought to speak out against the huge issues of poverty that he saw in the streets on a daily basis. These problems included infanticide, begging, and prostitution. Due to his position as a senior member of the church, Swift often experienced these issues first hand.

For those who haven’t yet started to look at satire, then I’d say that you should if only for the entertainment value; without considering the social implications, the satirical texts tend to be amusing on a superficial level. That surely is the point of satire; to amuse, whilst causing somewhere, in the subconscious, a consideration of the meaning of the text. We never have been able to fully understand the subconscious; and in the same way that we don’t understand fully how dreams are formed, we don’t understand what makes us think of ideas in the way that we do. A testament to the power of satire is how it has continued to be a significant genre even today, especially in television. Satire is fundamentally amusing, and often hides the more serious implications of satire for society within its fabric.


(1) http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/images/jonathan-swift.jpg