A A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works [NOOK Book]


Treasury of five shorter works by the author of Gulliver's Travels offers ample evidence of the great satirist's inspired lampoonery. Title piece plus The Battle of the Books, A Meditation Upon a Broom-Stick, A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit and The Abolishing of Christianity in England.
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A A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works

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Treasury of five shorter works by the author of Gulliver's Travels offers ample evidence of the great satirist's inspired lampoonery. Title piece plus The Battle of the Books, A Meditation Upon a Broom-Stick, A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit and The Abolishing of Christianity in England.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486110752
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 2/1/2012
  • Series: Dover Thrift Editions
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 64
  • Sales rank: 555,247
  • File size: 576 KB

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A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works

By Jonathan Swift, CANDACE WARD

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1996 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11075-2




THE FOLLOWING DISCOURSE, as it is unquestionably of the same author, so it seems to have been written about the same time, with the former; I mean the year 1697, when the famous dispute was on foot about ancient and modern learning. The controversy took its rise from an essay of sir William Temple's upon that subject; which was answered by W. Wotton, B. D., with an appendix by Dr. Bentley, endeavouring to destroy the credit of Æsop and Phalaris for authors, whom sir William Temple had, in the essay before mentioned, highly commended. In that appendix the doctor falls hard upon a new edition of Phalaris, put out by the honourable Charles Boyle, now earl of Orrery, to which Mr. Boyle replied at large with great learning and wit; and the doctor voluminously rejoined. In this dispute the town highly resented to see a person of sir William Temple's character and merits roughly used by the two rever- end gentlemen aforesaid, and without any manner of provocation. At length, there appearing no end of the quarrel, our author tells us that the BOOKS in St. James's Library, looking upon themselves as parties principally concerned, took up the controversy, and came to a decisive battle; but the manuscript, by the injury of fortune or weather, being in several places imperfect, we cannot learn to which side the victory fell.

I must warn the reader to beware of applying to persons what is here meant only of books, in the most literal sense. So, when Virgil is mentioned, we are not to understand the person of a famous poet called by that name; but only certain sheets of paper bound up in leather, containing in print the works of the said poet: and so of the rest.


Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.

There is a brain that will endure but one scumming; let the owner gather it with discretion, and manage his little stock with husbandry; but, of all things, let him beware of bringing it under the lash of his betters, because that will make it all bubble up into impertinence, and he will find no new supply. Wit without knowledge being a sort of cream, which gathers in a night to the top, and by a skilful hand may be soon whipped into froth; but once scummed away, what appears underneath will be fit for nothing but to be thrown to the hogs.


Whoever examines, with due circumspection, into the annual records of time, will find it remarked that war is the child of pride, and pride the daughter of riches:—the former of which assertions may be soon granted, but one cannot so easily subscribe to the latter; for pride is nearly related to beggary and want, either by father or mother, and sometimes by both: and, to speak naturally, it very seldom happens among men to fall out when all have enough; invasions usually travelling from north to south, that is to say, from poverty to plenty. The most ancient and natural grounds of quarrels are lust and avarice; which, though we may allow to be brethren, or collateral branches of pride, are certainly the issues of want. For, to speak in the phrase of writers upon politics, we may observe in the republic of dogs, which in its original seems to be an institution of the many, that the whole state is ever in the profoundest peace after a full meal; and that civil broils arise among them when it happens for one great bone to be seized on by some leading dog, who either divides it among the few, and then it falls to an oligarchy, or keeps it to himself, and then it runs up to a tyranny. The same reasoning also holds place among them in those dissensions we behold upon a turgescency in any of their females. For the right of possession lying in common, (it being impossible to establish a property in so delicate a case,) jealousies and suspicions do so abound, that the whole commonwealth of that street is reduced to a manifest state of war, of every citizen against every citizen, till some one of more courage, conduct, or fortune than the rest seizes and enjoys the prize: upon which naturally arises plenty of heart-burning, and envy, and snarling against the happy dog. Again if we look upon any of these republics engaged in a foreign war, either of invasion or defence, we shall find the same reasoning will serve as to the grounds and occasions of each; and that poverty or want, in some degree or other, (whether real or in opinion, which makes no alteration in the case,) has a great share, as well as pride, on the part of the aggressor.

Now, whoever will please to take this scheme, and either reduce or adapt it to an intellectual state or commonwealth of learning, will soon discover the first ground of disagreement between the two great parties at this time in arms, and may form just conclusions upon the merits of either cause. But the issue or events of this war are not so easy to conjecture at; for the present quarrel is so inflamed by the warm heads of either faction, and the pretensions somewhere or other so exorbitant, as not to admit the least overtures of accommodation. This quarrel first began, as I have heard it affirmed by an old dweller in the neighbourhood, about a small spot of ground, lying and being upon one of the two tops of the hill Parnassus; the highest and largest of which had, it seems, been time out of mind in quiet possession of certain tenants, called the Ancients; and the other was held by the Moderns. But these, disliking their present station, sent certain ambassadors to the ancients, complaining of a great nuisance; how the height of that part of Parnassus quite spoiled the prospect of theirs, especially toward the east; and therefore, to avoid a war, offered them the choice of this alternative, either that the ancients would please to remove themselves and their effects down to the lower summit, which the moderns would graciously surrender to them, and advance into their place; or else the said ancients will give leave to the moderns to come with shovels and mattocks, and level the said hill as low as they shall think it convenient. To which the ancients made answer, how little they expected such a message as this from a colony whom they had admitted, out of their own free grace, to so near a neighbourhood. That, as to their own seat, they were aborigines of it, and therefore to talk with them of a removal or surrender was a language they did not understand. That if the height of the hill on their side shortened the prospect of the moderns, it was a disadvantage they could not help; but desired them to consider whether that injury (if it be any) were not largely recompensed by the shade and shelter it afforded them. That as to the levelling or digging down, it was either folly or ignorance to propose it if they did or did not know how that side of the hill was an entire rock, which would break their tools and hearts, without any damage to itself. That they would therefore advise the moderns rather to raise their own side of the hill than dream of pulling down that of the ancients; to the former of which they would not only give licence, but also largely contribute. All this was rejected by the moderns with much indignation, who still insisted upon one of the two expedients; and so this difference broke out into a long and obstinate war, maintained on the one part by resolution, and by the courage of certain leaders and allies; but, on the other, by the greatness of their number, upon all defeats affording continual recruits. In this quarrel whole rivulets of ink have been exhausted, and the virulence of both parties enormously augmented. Now, it must be here understood that ink is the great missive weapon in all battles of the learned, which, conveyed through a sort of engine called a quill, infinite numbers of these are darted at the enemy by the valiant on each side, with equal skill and violence, as if it were an engagement of porcupines. This malignant liquor was compounded, by the engineer who invented it, of two ingredients, which are, gall and copperas; by its bitterness and venom to suit, in some degree, as well as to foment, the genius of the combatants. And as the Grecians, after an engagement, when they could not agree about the victory, were wont to set up trophies on both sides, the beaten party being content to be at the same expense, to keep itself in countenance, (a laudable and ancient custom, happily revived of late in the art of war,) so the learned, after a sharp and bloody dispute, do, on both sides, hang out their trophies too, whichever comes by the worst. These trophies have largely inscribed on them the merits of the cause; a full impartial account of such a battle, and how the victory fell clearly to the party that set them up. They are known to the world under several names; as disputes, arguments, rejoinders, brief considerations, answers, replies, remarks, reflections, objections, confutations. For a very few days they are fixed up in all public places, either by themselves or their representatives, for passengers to gaze at; whence the chiefest and largest are removed to certain magazines they call libraries, there to remain in a quarter purposely assigned them, and thenceforth begin to be called books of controversy.

In these books is wonderfully instilled and preserved the spirit of each warrior while he is alive; and after his death his soul transmigrates thither to inform them. This at least is the more common opinion; but I believe it is with libraries as with other cemeteries; where some philosophers affirm that a certain spirit, which they call brutum hominis, hovers over the monument, till the body is corrupted and turns to dust or to worms, but then vanishes or dissolves; so, we may say, a restless spirit haunts over every book, till dust or worms have seized upon it; which to some may happen in a few days, but to others later: and therefore books of controversy, being, of all others, haunted by the most disorderly spirits, have always been confined in a separate lodge from the rest; and for fear of a mutual violence against each other, it was thought prudent by our ancestors to bind them to the peace with strong iron chains. Of which invention the original occasion was this: When the works of Scotus first came out, they were carried to a certain library, and had lodgings appointed them; but this author was no sooner settled than he went to visit his master Aristotle; and there both concerted together to seize Plato by main force, and turn him out from his ancient station among the divines, where he had peaceably dwelt near eight hundred years. The attempt succeeded, and the two usurpers have reigned ever since in his stead: but, to maintain quiet for the future, it was decreed that all polemics of the larger size should be held fast with a chain.

By this expedient the public peace of libraries might certainly have been preserved if a new species of controversial books had not arisen of late years, instinct with a more malignant spirit, from the war above mentioned between the learned about the higher summit of Parnassus.

When these books were first admitted into the public libraries, I remember to have said, upon occasion, to several persons concerned, how I was sure they would create broils wherever they came, unless a world of care were taken: and therefore I advised that the champions of each side should be coupled together, or otherwise mixed, that, like the blending of contrary poisons, their malignity might be employed among themselves. And it seems I was neither an ill prophet nor an ill counsellor; for it was nothing else but the neglect of this caution which gave occasion to the terrible fight that happened on Friday last between the ancient and modern books in the king's library. Now, because the talk of this battle is so fresh in everybody's mouth, and the expectation of the town so great to be informed in the particulars, I, being possessed of all qualifications requisite in an historian, and retained by neither party, have resolved to comply with the urgent importunity of my friends, by writing down a full impartial account thereof.

The guardian of the regal library, a person of great valour, but chiefly renowned for his humanity, had been a fierce champion for the moderns; and, in an engagement upon Parnassus, had vowed, with his own hands to knock down two of the ancient chiefs, who guarded a small pass on the superior rock; but, endeavouring to climb up, was cruelly obstructed by his own unhappy weight and tendency towards his centre; a quality to which those of the modern party are extremely subject; for, being light-headed, they have, in speculation, a wonderful agility, and conceive nothing too high for them to mount; but, in reducing to practice, discover a mighty pressure about their posteriors and their heels. Having thus failed in his design, the disappointed champion bore a cruel rancour to the ancients; which he resolved to gratify by showing all marks of his favour to the books of their adversaries, and lodging them in the fairest apartments; when, at the same time, whatever book had the boldness to own itself for an advocate of the ancients was buried alive in some obscure corner, and threatened, upon the least displeasure, to be turned out of doors. Besides, it so happened that about this time there was a strange confusion of place among all the books in the library; for which several reasons were assigned. Some imputed it to a great heap of learned dust, which a perverse wind blew off from a shelf of moderns into the keeper's eyes. Others affirmed he had a humour to pick the worms out of the schoolmen, and swallow them fresh and fasting; whereof some fell upon his spleen, and some climed up into his head, to the great perturbation of both. And lastly, others maintained that, by walking much in the dark about the library, he had quite lost the situation of it out of his head; and therefore, in replacing his books, he was apt to mistake, and clap Des Cartes next to Aristotle; poor Plato had got between Hobbes and the Seven Wise Masters, and Virgil was hemmed in with Dryden on one side and Withers on the other.

Meanwhile those books that were advocates for the moderns chose out one from among them to make a progress through the whole library, examine the number and strength of their party, and concert their affairs. This messenger performed all things very industriously, and brought back with him a list of their forces, in all, fifty thousand, consisting chiefly of light-horse, heavy-armed foot, and mercenaries; whereof the foot were in general but sorrily armed and worse clad; their horses large, but extremely out of case and heart; however, some few, by trading among the ancients, had furnished themselves tolerably enough.

While things were in this ferment, discord grew extremely high; hot words passed on both sides, and ill blood was plentifully bred. Here a solitary ancient, squeezed up among a whole shelf of moderns, offered fairly to dispute the case, and to prove by manifest reason that the priority was due to them from long possession, and in regard of their prudence, antiquity, and, above all, their great merits toward the moderns. But these denied the premises, and seemed very much to wonder how the ancients could pretend to insist upon their antiquity, when it was so plain (if they went to that) that the moderns were much the more ancient of the two. As for any obligations they owed to the ancients, they renounced them all. It is true, said they, we are informed some few of our party have been so mean to borrow their subsistence from you; but the rest, infinitely the greater number, (and especially we French and English,) were so far from stooping to so base an example, that there never passed, till this very hour, six words between us. For our horses were of our own breeding, our arms of our own forging, and our clothes of our own cutting out and sewing. Plato was by chance up on the next shelf, and observing those that spoke to be in the ragged plight mentioned a while ago; their jades lean and foundered, their weapons of rotten wood, their armour rusty, and nothing but rags underneath; he laughed loud, and in his pleasant way swore, by G—, he believed them.

Now, the moderns had not proceeded in their late negotiation with secrecy enough to escape the notice of the enemy. For those advocates who had begun the quarrel, by setting first on foot the dispute of precedency, talked so loud of coming to a battle, that sir William Temple happened to overhear them, and gave immediate intelligence to the ancients; who thereupon drew up their scattered troops together, resolving to act upon the defensive; upon which, several of the moderns fled over to their party, and among the rest Temple himself. This Temple, having been educated and long conversed among the ancients, was, of all the moderns, their greatest favourite, and became their greatest champion.


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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Bibliographical Note,
Copyright Page,

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He had, early in life, imbibed such a strong hatred to hypocrisy, that he fell into the opposite extreme. . .

-- Thomas Sheridan (Life of Jonathan Swift)

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is generally acknowledged as the finest satirical writer in the English language, and it is no exaggeration to say, as Harold Bloom does, that he is likely the most "savage and merciless satirist" as well. Although Swift is best known for his longest and most ambitious work, the allegorical fiction Gulliver's Travels, shorter works such as A Modest Proposal and A Tale of a Tub, among other important pieces collected here, are no less accomplished and in some ways more revealing of his satirical genius. The surprising, sometimes perverse humor and stinging mockery, the complex stylistic interplay of rhetoric, argument, and meaning, and the superb ironic control displayed throughout these pieces are the hallmarks not only of a master satirist, but of a skilled controversialist and public spirit, someone intensely concerned with engaging pressing issues and affecting his audience in certain ways. The art of satire has rarely provoked more controversy and had such lasting effect.

Born of English parents in Dublin, Ireland, in 1667, Jonathan Swift lived in a time of unprecedented political and intellectual change. Liberal democracy, the scientific revolution, and the British Empire were all built on foundations laid during this period, and Swift's career and writing bear the marks of these momentous changes. His family was well connected in the Anglo-Irish settler circles that ruled Ireland during this period, and he received elementary and secondary training atthe elite Kilkenny School, followed by Trinity College, Dublin, where he received his B.A. in 1686. Aspiring above his provincial station as an Irish native, Swift sought fame and power in London, shifting his political alliances according to a complicated mix of personal opportunism and iconoclastic principle. Although his professional life centered on the Church of England, where he was ordained a priest and aspired to be a bishop, it was his brilliance as a writer and controversialist that brought him, briefly, into the center of power as chief publicist for the Tory regime of Robert Harley (1710-1714). With the dissolution of the Harley regime, however, Swift was "exiled" back to Ireland, where he spent the remaining decades of his life as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

Swift's writing career began in the 1690s, following his departure from Ireland amid the civil unrest unleashed by the Glorious Revolution (1688-89). Through a family connection, he found employment as secretary in the household of Whig party leader Sir William Temple, where he was based for nearly a decade. During this time he took his M.A. at Oxford and was ordained a priest of the Church of England in 1695. Although he held several clerical positions in Ireland after 1695, he traveled frequently to England on church business and spent significant time in Temple's vast library. By the late 1690s, he was at work on his first and possibly his greatest satirical masterpiece, A Tale of a Tub.

Although deeply conservative by the emerging liberal standards of his day, Swift was in many ways the most radical stylist and polemicist of his generation, and he suffered professionally as a result. Many of his most important works, including Gulliver's Travels and A Tale of a Tub, appeared anonymously or pseudonymously, although often to little effect in shielding him. Later in life, Swift took up his pen with particular force for the cause of Ireland, his birthplace, against English commercial policies. This culminated in A Modest Proposal, the darkest of all his satires and one that has secured his place in the annals of Irish patriotism. Although for this and other interventions Swift stood among the most important and widely read controversialists of his day, ultimately his satire remains as politically unclassifiable as it is stylistically recognizable. At heart Swift was a consistent, unsparing skeptic toward the "modern" spirit of his time, with its own brand of religious enthusiasm for rational system-building and scientific dominion over human nature and the natural world. If, as Henry Fielding noted, "the satirist is to be regarded as our physician, not our enemy," satire was, for Swift, a method finely tuned to the moral purpose of, as he put it, "dissect[ing] the carcass of human nature"-exposing the delusive assumptions and contradictions, and the potential destructiveness, of voiding the "nature" from human nature by an unfounded faith in self-reliant intellectual progress.

Swift wrote during the eighteenth-century "Augustan Age" in British literature, known especially for its refined stylistic qualities, its deep engagement with classical literary forms and techniques, and its argumentative public spirit. An ambitious, well-known controversialist and publicist throughout a literary career spanning four decades, Swift was ultimately denied high professional appointment in the Church of England, where he had sought fame and power above his station as a native of Ireland. From 1714 until his death, Swift lived in Ireland in what he felt was an exile. Toward the end of his life, Swift experienced frequent attacks of dizziness, likely suffering from what modern medicine calls Me?niere's syndrome, and by 1742 his mental state had deteriorated to the point where associates placed his affairs under legal guardianship. This situation fueled rumors of madness his less inventive critics frequently exploited to explain away his difficult attitudes and style. In 1710, Swift began writing actively in support of the conservative Tory government of Robert Harley, and he was appointed editor of the main pro-government newspaper The Examiner. Although he considered himself a "balance-of-powers" liberal in the Old Whig tradition of the Glorious Revolution, Swift had grown disenchanted with Whig politics over attempts within the party to repeal the Test Act, which barred Presbyterians, Catholics, and others opposed to the Church of England from holding public office. Swift's one abiding institutional loyalty throughout his life was to the Church of England, and it was arguably this loyalty that shaped his political allegiances and the political goals of many of his writings.

Allying with the pro-Church Tories was something of a personal triumph for Swift as well, however, giving him access to the London audience and power base he had long craved but never attained under Whig patronage. With John Gay, Alexander Pope, and other Augustan luminaries, Swift formed the Scriblerus Club during this period, a kind of Tory united literary front to undertake collective works that would expose cultural degradation at the hands of modern pedants and "scribblers." As George Levine suggests, three of the greatest works of eighteenth-century literature, Gay's A Beggar's Opera (1728), Pope's burlesque verse masterpiece The Dunciad (1728), and Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), likely had their genesis in the Scriblerus Club.

Swift's time at the center of power was short-lived, however. In 1713, he was appointed Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, and the following year, when the Harley government was dissolved, he returned to Ireland permanently. Swiftly partly attributed his Irish "demotion" to royal hostility fueled by lingering suspicions of irreligion in A Tale of a Tub, first published nearly ten years earlier. In any case, his long-nurtured ambition for high preferment in the Church of England went unrequited by Tories and Whigs alike. Swift's sense of exile was surely part of the backdrop to the remarkable patriotic campaign he later began against English policies in Ireland.

Swift's career as a literary controversialist was launched in 1704, with the anonymous publication of a miscellany volume containing A Full and True Account of the Battezl Fought last Friday, Between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James's Library, A Tale of a Tub, and A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit etc. Although many consider this volume to be Swift's most brilliant work, in fact it haunted him throughout his career. The prefatory "Apology" to A Tale of a Tub was in fact written after the original publication to address accusations of anarchy and irreligion aroused by the book.

The Battle of the Books was Swift's entry into an aristocratic pamphlet war that erupted in the 1690s concerning the value of ancient versus modern learning. As contemporary scholarship has shown, this conflict was essentially between two types of criticism-an older literary humanism or cultural "letters" tradition, associated with the Renaissance and its revival of classical wisdom, and an emerging "scientific" criticism emphasizing texts and philology, rather than ideas and sentiments, as the starting point for scholarship. Swift's account of the battle was written in defense of his patron William Temple at the provocation of several "moderns," including Richard Bentley, Keeper of the Royal Library. Bentley had demonstrated that the ancient texts put forward by Temple in his 1690 essay "On Ancient and Modern Learning" (Phalaris' Epistles and Aesop's Fables) were in fact forgeries, or the product of later editors, thus reducing Temple's defense of the "ancients" to absurdity. Rejecting this textual focus as a gratuitous display of useless learning, Swift presents an Aesopian fable of his own, comparing the scholarly moderns to a lordly spider, "which feeding and engendering on itself. . .produces nothing at last but flybane and a cobweb." He contrasts this to the humanistic bumblebee, whose "universal range. . .brings home honey and wax."

While written during the same period, A Tale of a Tub is a far more original and independent work-perhaps even the "most powerful prose work in the language," as Bloom claims. It is also the first major expression of Swift's central preoccupation with the "New Philosophy" of his day-centered in the Royal Society and other highly positioned rationalist circles. Just as Temple's opponents said he had "treated with Contempt" the "Inventions and Discoveries of the present Age, especially by Men of Gresham" (where the Royal Society was based), Swift believed this philosophical vanguard threatened humanity with ruin by subsuming religious tradition and human nature in the mechanical framework of modern science. Isaac Newton had been appointed president of the Royal Society in 1703, marking an important intellectual turning point and greatly amplifying the changes Swift perceived.

A Tale of a Tub was certainly the most striking and disturbing contemporary satire on the new learning. Although a publishing success, it was attacked by establishment and dissenting figures alike. Samuel Clarke, one of the leading Newtonians among Anglican divines, launched the first public attack in 1705, citing A Tale as the work of a "Profane and Debauched Deist," meaning someone who thinks God acts through natural processes rather than divine intervention, as held in the Bible and church teaching. In fact, Swift was anything but a Deist. His own Argument Against Abolishing Christianity from the same period (1708), although meticulously inlaid with ironic misdirections, was an unmistakable defense of the established church against Dissenters, Deists, and their Whig supporters. Moreover, John Toland, the controversial early Deist, is plainly attacked in A Tale of a Tub, where he is partly personified in the character of Jack. Clarke's misguided criticism gives us an idea, however, of the political confusion Swift's satirical methods caused. It also sheds light on the "leveling" persuasion Swift held toward virtually all the modernizing elements of his day, whether within or outside the established church and political system.

Even as the "Apology" published with later editions of A Tale sought to refurbish the religious standing of its author, Swift's Tritical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind (1707) can be read as a kind of restatement of the satirical essence of A Tale, shorn of stylistic impediments in its juxtaposition of ancient wisdom with the "opinions of philosophers" that "have scattered through the world as many plagues of the mind as Pandora's box did those of the body." The hallmark of A Tale, in contrast, is a remarkable complexity and opacity of style, where speaker, narrative, genre, rhetoric, tone, and reference are consciously and purposefully deployed, but without clear boundaries as to authorial intent: at every turn the satire and the thing satirized are blurred or doubled back on each other to deflect easy interpretation; and yet, despite this stylistic refraction of meaning, the critical force remains-interpreted differently by different people. As Swift himself famously put it in the preface to The Battle of the Books, "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." Where Clarke saw Swift as a Deist, the Deists are in fact one of the main targets of A Tale.

Although not unlike the work of other satirists of this period in its exposure of abuses of religion, learning, and language, A Tale cuts much deeper in its philosophical anxiety and moral purpose. As Kenneth Craven asserts in his important contemporary study, "Swift's minority voice sees the modern world as having been constructed empirically of new sensibilities at the expense of immeasurable values and priceless standards." This "reductive process," in Swift's eyes, "had skewed scientific information to fit the optimistic parameters of its own myth, effectively burying other knowledge systems." Another contemporary critic, Frank Boyle, sees Swift's religious allegory of the three brothers and their coats, the narrative heart of A Tale, as a prop for exposing the "New Philosophy" as a methodological amalgam of historical heresies and emerging corruptions-combining gnosticism, alchemy, Roman Catholicism, and radical Protestant dissent. "This history culminates," Boyle says, "in the ridicule in A Tale of A Tub of the intellectual basis of the most formidable of all modern works, Newton's Principia." Closely related to the Tale, the finely drawn Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit etc. satirizes the speculative and charismatic aspects of the new learning. For Swift, the new scientific "virtuosi" are part of a long history of "inspired" but misguided heretical movements, a worthy heir to the classic orthodox calumny linking religious dissent with sexual libertinism and "community of women."

A Tale's anti-modernism lies at the heart of Swift's satirical imagination, and he would return to these themes in Gulliver's Travels. But the interval between Swift's return to Ireland in 1714 and the spectacular success of Travels by the late 1720s was highlighted mainly by his remarkable patriotic pamphlet campaign against English commercial policies. Beginning in 1720, this campaign was Swift's greatest effort as a publicist and perhaps his most enduring political contribution.

In 1724, Swift wrote a series of letters under the name of "M. B. Drapier" (meaning "drape maker") in direct appeal to the Irish people. Drapier's Letters sought to arouse popular opposition to the Whig government's grant of a currency patent to English iron merchant William Wood, allowing him to introduce a specified volume of copper coins into Ireland. Swift and other patriotic leaders saw Wood's patent as a government attempt to, effectually, impose a debased currency on Ireland, with the goal of undermining its monetary system and national wealth.

Drapier's plain style and unadorned policy explanations could not be less Augustan, or for that matter less Swiftean, in their direct attempt to "conscientize" the Irish masses-to use Paolo Freire's term for a pedagogical process that aims to mobilize the poor by facilitating popular comprehension of oppressive structures. The letters' political appeal was modeled on a longstanding tradition of popular sovereignty Swift knew well from his classical studies. Indeed, the initials M. B. likely stood for Marcus Brutus, the Roman republican assassin. The letters provoked public demonstrations and petition campaigns, and a government reward for the author's identity went unclaimed-even though everyone knew the author was Swift. These rebellious events led the English Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, to finally withdraw the patent-a textbook example of the adage that the "pen is mightier than the sword."

Drapier's Letters also reveal a vein of deep human sympathy rarely seen in Swift's work. The opening of the fourth letter, addressed "To the Whole People of Ireland," cites the analogy of Esau, who "came fainting from the field at the point to die," causing him to sell his birthright for a mess of potage. Like Esau, the Irish have been weakened in claiming their liberty and rights by extreme hardship. There is hope, however, if the unvarnished truth, like "cordials. . .applied to their weak constitutions," is heard above the din of government rumors and lies, the "last howls of a dog dissected alive." Swift's sympathy for the Irish poor also galvanized his most famous short satire and arguably his darkest, A Modest Proposal (1729). Assuming the voice of a learned "projector"-what we would call a technocrat-Swift lays out, in painstaking methodical garb, a plan for introducing child cannibalism as the only feasible commercial policy left for Ireland, with its endemic hunger and poverty. The backdrop to this masterpiece of ironic tone was Swift's own 1720 Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, which urged a boycott of English imports and was condemned for sedition. Failing this kind of unified social effort, the only commercial policy finally left for Ireland, A Modest Proposal imperturbably argued a decade later, is to commodify her plentiful stock of children as gourmet food. Swift turns colonial economics on its head by dignifying that chief maxim of political economy-"people are the riches of a nation"-with its most literal application.

It is no wonder Swift was wary of his audience right from the beginning, dedicating A Tale of a Tub to "His Royal Highness, Prince Posterity." Among his last works, the poem A Character, Panegyric, and Description of the Legion Club (1736)-a bizarre prophetic indictment of the Dublin Parliament-is perhaps indicative of the degree of alienation he came to experience over the course of his diverse but always volatile career. Although he had defenders in his own time and has many enthusiasts besides Bloom in ours, few great writers have been subjected to the kind of critical abuse Swift suffered from his contemporaries on forward, well into the nineteenth century. In one of the first official blows after Swift's death, the Earl of Orrery set the tone by plainly calling Swift a misanthrope who "ridiculed human nature itself." The nineteenth-century Whig historian Thomas Macaulay wrote that Swift had "a heart burning with hatred against the whole human race," and the Victorian novelist Thackeray condemned his "gibbering shrieks and gnashing imprecations against mankind." Setting aside the moralistic tone of earlier criticism, the preeminent twentieth-century critic F. R. Leavis famously ascribed Swift's satirical genius to "the power of vanity," taking a strong cue from his contentious biography.

But Swift's satirical genius cannot be guilty of such moralistic and biographical indictments; otherwise, what would be the point of satire? The posterity Swift hoped would vindicate him has seen the point better than his contemporaries did, although not under circumstances Swift himself would have liked. A modernist and avant-garde progenitor above all the great Augustan stylists, it is notable that Swift's surest champions often celebrate those aspects of his work most despised by his fiercest enemies. His influence can be felt in the multivalent narratives and allegorical systems of later prose masters such as Herman Melville and James Joyce, in the existential absurdism of Samuel Beckett, and in the Surrealists' psychological attack on bourgeois culture. It is surely a very Swiftean irony that this Church of England man and doubter of all things new eventually became a leading icon of modernist counterculture. Swift was placed at the head of Andre Breton's seminal Anthologie de l'Humour Noir, leading the way, as the "ve?ritable intiateur," for the likes of Sade, Poe, Baudelaire, and Dali. He was also a formative influence on the psychedelic revolution's greatest prose innovator, William S. Burroughs, of Naked Lunch fame. Perhaps Swift would have agreed that such surprising influence shows the important truth that great satire knows no boundaries.

Lewis C. Daly is a senior research fellow of the Democracy Collaborative of the University of Maryland. He holds a Ph.D. in early modern English literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2001

    Modest Proposal

    Hence, the Modest proposal is truly a classic that underestimates the life time of 1700's. The British rule whom conquered the Irish for many centuries, left the children of the poor little babies of Ireland and suggested a proposal to wipe them all out. Even though at first you may think, Jonathan Swift is a maniac, insanely mad but he was writing against the English who had neglected the Irish for some time. His proposal says it all. Clearly if you understand the Modest Proposal, it will shed some glimpse of the past.

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