January 13, 2011

A modest proposal

Jonathan Swift was the son of an Irishman who died seven months before he was born and whose English mother returned to England, leaving him with his father’s family when he was quite small.  A rough start, it goes without saying. And btw, his uncle was the vicar of Frisby-on-the-Wreake – he was clearly destined for a life of irony.

Dean Swift by Charles Jarvas, 1739.

Dr. Swift – ordained an Anglican priest on this date in 1695 – made his satirical debut with The Tale of a Tub, an allegory on unChristian behavior; many essays followed, most of them in response to events in his time. (A Drapier’s Letters actually changed government policy, a rare feat for a satirist.)

His masterpiece – Gulliver’s Travels – was published in 1726, like most of his work under a pseudonym, in this case that of Lemuel Gulliver.  It was not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, a children’s book, but a treatise on human nature.

But his single most memorable work has to be A Modest Proposal.  Critics tend to dwell on what a rhetorical tour de force it is, modeled brilliantly on the works of the Roman satirist Juvenal, or to focus on his criticism of English policy regarding Ireland.  No one seems to talk about how truly shocking it is.

Its full title is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public. In sum, it recommends that the poor sell their children for food.  Not to buy food, you understand, but as food.

A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter…

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

He goes on in graphic and relentless detail about the raising and marketing of children.  It is an absolutely horrific metaphor and is still deeply disturbing 300 years later.

I think the message of A Modest Proposal is not just its criticism of England vis-a-vis Ireland, but something about language itself.  I.e., that the most indecent and inhumane behavior can be condoned when it is made mundane by the skillful use of language.

And the reverse is also true. Swift would be fascinated by the euphemisms of our time, as well as the indiscriminate use of hyperbole. (‘Collateral damage,’ ‘Department of Corrections’ on the one hand, ‘death panels’ on the other.)

In any case, you can read it here.

N.B. If you look closely at Jarvas’s portrait of Swift, you will see that it has suffered the worst restoration job ever – the National Gallery in London really should do something about it.



  1. wake ’em up any way you can greedy so & sos, but of course they sleep on and maybe even dine on—-children


    Comment by avery — January 13, 2011 @ 9:00 am | Reply

  2. OH YES!you are right on as usual. Jonathan one of my great Literary Heroes. But I think that those who should get it, won’t.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — January 13, 2011 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

  3. wow – that is intense!! great post!! =)


    Comment by nina c — January 13, 2011 @ 7:16 pm | Reply

  4. […] idea for TBO came from our old friend Jonathan Swift, who had written to Alexander Pope a few years earlier, ”…what think you, of a Newgate […]


    Pingback by Mea culpa…and a beggar’s opera « CONTEXT — January 29, 2011 @ 12:11 am | Reply

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