Jonathan Swift: A Modest Proposal
and Other Satirical Works
Edited by Candace Ward
Dover Thrift Editions 1996
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, 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; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
With this paragraph, around a quarter of the way through a 1729 text, Swift (originally writing anonymously) detonates the bomb that is at the core of A Modest PROPOSAL For preventing the CHILDREN of POOR PEOPLE From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the PUBLICK.
But this, of course, is Swift, and we must never take his writings at their word. When he discusses the main advantages of such a policy for Ireland (such as fewer Catholics, the introduction of a new dish for gentlemen with refined tastes, an added draw for taverns, an income for the ‘breeders’ and an economic policy to encourage marriage) his purpose is to criticise social attitudes, but as with all satire, outward appearances are outrageous–but also deceptive.
Swift was Anglo-Irish Anglican clergyman, and his position was to be a signpost always to a via media (as characterises the Church of England itself, being somewhere in the middle of a Christian continuum stretching from Dissenter to Roman Catholic). By taking arguments to extremes, as with A Modest Proposal, he exposed what he saw as inherent ridiculousness, but with such po-faced earnestness that it was sometimes hard to know when he was being serious without close reading of the text.
In this slim volume are also included four other works. The Battle of the Books is the longest, and was essentially a discourse on the three strands of Christianity in the west, with the individuals Peter, Martin and Jack standing for Catholicism, Anglicanism and Nonconformism. (As a digression, I wonder if this piece indirectly influenced R M Ballantyne’s famous novel The Coral Island, the leads of which were Peterkin, Jack Martin and Ralph, and which itself directly inspired William Golding’s characters Piggy, Jack and Ralph in The Lord of the Flies.)
Also here is the very short A Meditation upon a Broomstick, a mock allegory of the human condition perpetrated as a joke upon a Lady Berkeley. This is followed by A Discourse concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit: in this Swift equates spirit with ‘enthusiasm’, literally the state of being possessed by a god. The manifestation of enthusiasm Swift calls ‘ejaculating the spirit, or transporting it beyond the sphere of matter’; to the three expressions of this manifestation–divine prophecy or inspiration, devilish possession, and the product of the imagination or strong emotions–Swift adds ‘the mechanical operation of the spirit’, which he at first compares to the ass on which Mohammed is said to have travelled to Paradise. (He also has witty words to say about epistolatory conventions, but there is no space, dear reader, to expand on this.)
That only leaves the last of these papers published before 1729, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity in England, which, however dry the subject appears to be from the title, is as knockabout a farce attacking all and sundry as any in this collection. Swift’s own footnotes, along with the editor’s, are included here, as well as a brief biography by way of introduction.
Even allowing for a three-century gap these pieces have a surprisingly relevant contemporary bite, especially in view of recent political events: the shocking satire of A Modest Proposal throws a light on the downsides of utilitarianism, the dangers of cynical commercialism and the human capacity for self-delusion.
A review posted as part of Reading Ireland Month, or Begorrathon19