What verbal irony does Swift use in lines 135–145 “Some persons . . . evils to come”?  

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Verbal irony is a language technique more commonly referred to as sarcasm. In effect, when a writer uses verbal irony, it means that he or she is saying the opposite of what he or she means. This generally contributes to a sardonic tone and has a comedic effect, as is the case in Swift's famous parody. In the section you have highlighted, Swift first refers to the "dying" and "rotting" of the poor as they succumb to disease, age and illness, and then describes this as a "hopeful . . . condition." Evidently, Swift does not really mean that the condition of these people—or the young laborers he then goes on to discuss—is hopeful. Instead, he is using a word that conveys the exact opposite of what is really meant. Likewise, verbal irony is achieved through the use of the word "accidentally" in reference to these people being hired for labor—his suggestion being that this happens so infrequently that it seems to have occurred by accident rather than by design. Finally, Swift describes the laborers' eventual death as representing both the laborers and the country being "happily delivered from the evils to come." This statement has a dual meaning—the laborers themselves will be dying, although Swift describes that process very euphemistically here; they will certainly not be happy. But will the country be happy to have rid itself of the burden of worrying about these people? The tone of the piece certainly implies that the richer classes will be glad not to have to think about the poor any longer.

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The verbal irony in this passage turns on the narrator's misinterpretation of what "persons of a desponding Spirit" mean when they express "concern" about the large numbers of older, diseased and disabled poor people dying in Ireland. What his friends mean, of course, is that they are morally concerned and distressed over the situation and would like the narrator to come up with a plan to end the suffering of the poor by making their lives better. The narrator, however, interprets his friends' "great concern" as wanting to get rid of the poor because they are an economic drain on the system. He interprets their "despond" as the result of the fact that the poor are not dying fast enough.

To the narrator's mind, the people who approach him with this question are unnaturally depressed--ie "desponding Spirits"--because actually there is no problem! As the narrator points out, there's no need for a scheme to rid the country the burden of the poor because they are dying off so fast anyway. The narrator, who defines the "matter" wholly in economic terms, says "I am not in the least pain  upon that matter... [for] they are every Day dying, and rotting, by cold, and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected." The irony, of course, is that the fact that old, sick and disabled people are dying and rotting in cold, hunger and filth is exactly what should cause pain in the narrator's mind. Likewise, the narrator finds the younger workers in a similarly "hopeful condition:" so starved that if they do happen to get work, they can't do it and die anyway, thus "happily" solving the problem of how to get rid of them.

The verbal irony lies narrator's inability to see the poor in anything but economic terms, so that he misinterprets people's "concern" for them not as compassion for their plight, but as an economic desire for the poor to die faster. Thus, the narrator turns morality itself on its head, describing as "hopeful" and "happy" a morally disgraceful situation in which the poor are dying in cruel, horrible and preventable ways. In doing this, Swift hopes to shock people into treating the poor as human beings deserving of empathy and compassion. 

 

 

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