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A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift

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George Wittkowsky (essay date January-October 1943)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11939

SOURCE: Wittkowsky, George. “Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet.” Journal of the History of Ideas 4 (January-October 1943): 75-104.

[In one of the first major critical essays on A Modest Proposal, Wittkowsky remarks on the work within its contemporary economic context.]

There is an almost complete absence of sustained scholarship on the subject of Swift's Modest Proposal. The lesser works even of most major writers in English have been investigated with Gestapo-like thoroughness. Even the minor works of minor writers have received loving attention. And yet toward the Modest Proposal, a major work by a major English writer, scholars have been definitely coy. One searches in vain for a serious critical article on this pamphlet. No book on Swift which I have read has dignified it with a separate chapter. The usual practice in such books is to write a sentence or two of superlative praise: the rest, for the most part, is silence. The agnostic comment of Bertram Newman may be taken as the theme-song of most critics. Before the Modest Proposal, he says, “comment is dumb; … there is nothing with which to compare it.”1 Leslie Stephen, who happens to have written some of the most perceptive of all comments on the Modest Proposal,2 really devotes to the subject less than two pages; while Churton Collins spares only one sentence.3 Although Taine observes that it deserves quotation almost as a whole, because he knows nothing like it in all literature, all he adds by way of critical comment, after extensive quotation, is the remark that beside the Modest Proposal, the cries and anguish of Pascal are faint.4 Taine's compatriots, Legouis and Cazamian, in their distinguished study of English literature, do not even mention it. Quintana asserts that in this tract Swiftian irony “attained its most perfect expression”;5 that it is “not only the greatest of Swift's Irish tracts; it is also the best introduction to his satiric art.”6 Yet if Quintana's five scattered references to the Modest Proposal were brought together,7 they could be printed on one page.

And yet this neglect, possibly unparalleled in English literary studies, can be simply explained. Critics of the Modest Proposal, with few exceptions,8 have regarded this tract as satire directed against conditions in Ireland rather than against a set of theories and attitudes which rendered such conditions possible. In a moment of crisis, President Grover Cleveland once growled that the country was facing a condition, not a theory. Swift, on the other hand, in writing the Modest Proposal, was contemplating theories as well as a condition. Why have scholars ignored or dealt inadequately with the theoretical background of the Modest Proposal? Simply because the economists themselves, until very recently, have ignored or treated lightly economic thought before Adam Smith. With the exception of a lone scholar here and there, they seem to have regarded economic theory before the publication of The Wealth of Nations as a sort of Miltonic chaos, “a vast vacuity.” Mercantilist theories about labor, with which we are chiefly concerned in this chapter, remained, for many generations, particularly obscure. Furniss, who has done much to clear up this obscurity, has offered a cogent explanation for its existence. He points out that there have been semantic barriers. “Habitual use of words in certain meanings,” he says, “closes the mind to the reception of their connotations.”9 It is hard for two people with different points of view to reach an agreement on terms. This difficulty is magnified when we try to comprehend the...

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theories of a remote age, “cut off still more completely by a revolution in economic, political and social institutions.” Under such circumstances, it is “a positive disadvantage” if a common language has served to convey the thought of both periods. “This semantic barrier,” Furniss says, “is the source of most of the difficulty of understanding the position of labor in the eighteenth century.”10 Since most political economists ignored mercantilist theory, it is not surprising that writers on English literature have followed their lead. And if one regards the Modest Proposal simply as a criticism of conditions, about all one can say is that conditions were bad and that Swift's irony brilliantly underscored this fact.

A comment by Sir Henry Craik on the Irish Manufacturers tract of 1720 will go far toward explaining why the Modest Proposal has received such short shrift. Swift's idea of excluding English goods was, he writes, “faulty in political economy,” concerning which the age knew little. “Swift cared nothing for it. He anticipated its maxims only to ridicule them.”11 With Craik's first proposition one can easily agree. In fact, this tract was written at a time when Swift knew little about contemporary economic theory. But Craik goes further: he assumes not only that Swift knew little about political economy in 1720—or later—but that there was then no such body of knowledge. Yet Craik is one of the most perceptive of all writers on Swift!

But the recent work of scholars like Furniss, Heckscher, and Johnson has blasted the notion that the theories of the early economists are unworthy of study, and the rise of so-called “neo-mercantilism” in Europe during our own generation has stimulated interest in the writings of “the predecessors of Adam Smith.” So it may be said that, in a sense, the rise of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler has made inevitable, sooner or later, a reexamination of the works of Jonathan Swift.12 On no work by Swift will the new economic scholarship throw more light than on the Modest Proposal.

My analysis of this Swiftian masterpiece must be preceded by an exposition of certain economic terms and tendencies of the Age of Mercantilism. At the risk of over-simplification, I shall divide the discussion of theories of labor in the eighteenth century into four parts. The first, which might be called “The Theory of the Utility of Poverty,” will deal with the tendency to regard labor, including child labor, as a commodity; the second, which could appropriately be headed “Political Arithmetic,” with the application of statistics to problems of population and labor; the third, to which the title “The Able and the Impotent Poor” is applicable, will be concerned with a vital modification of the early mercantilist position that people are the riches of a nation; the fourth, for which the title “Project Concerning Population” comes to mind, will deal with a special type of project.

Fundamental is the tendency to regard labor as a commodity. Under the then dominant bullionist theory, it was assumed that in the exchange of goods between nations, it was impossible for both countries to profit; that for one nation to gain or (as the early economic writers phrased it) to maintain “a favorable balance of trade,” it was necessary for it to sell manufactured goods in exchange for raw material. (The phrases used in contemporary tracts were “artificed goods” or “wrought goods.”) In other words, the maintenance of “a favorable balance of trade” depended on the exportation of the products of the combined laboring force of a nation. Implicit in this theory was the assumption that the economic good of the state overshadowed the welfare of the individual. It was a philosophy of economic statism which regarded labor as a commodity. Naturally, such a point of view led to several brutal conclusions. It led, in the first place, to the conclusion that the wealth of a nation depended on a numerous population or—as contemporary writers had it—that people are the riches of a nation. It led to faith in an economy of low wages. The more people are paid, to use Heckscher's pithy restatement of this view, the less they work.13 This was the philosophy which Furniss had in mind when he coined the expressive phrase, “the doctrine of the utility of poverty.”14 Thomas Mun had written in 1664 that “penury and want do make a people wise and industrious.”15 In his essay on “Charity and Charity Schools,” published for the first time in the edition of The Fable of the Bees which appeared in 1723, Mandeville said that “in a free Nation where Slaves are not allow'd of, the surest Wealth consists in a Multitude of laborious Poor,” who should serve as nurseries of fleets, armies, and industry.16 Not only should they be poor: “To make the Society happy and People easy under the meanest Circumstances,” he argued, “it is requisite that great Numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor.”17 Heckscher points out that the logic of such a position is belief in “wealth for the nation, but wealth from which a majority of the people must be excluded.”18 It must be remembered that this grim mercantilist outlook was a comparatively recent development and that memories of a more humane philosophy lingered in the minds of men who had read the sermons and tracts written a generation or so earlier.19 But, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the view that poverty was caused primarily by low wages had fallen into disrepute.20 Writers and statesmen were exasperated by idleness in the face of the great need for industrial labor.21

Particularly important for an understanding of the background of the Modest Proposal is a consideration of the prevailing attitude toward child labor. It has been observed that no aspect of mercantilism is more peculiar from the modern point of view.22 “In the mercantilist view no child was too young to go into industry.”23 In his essay on charity, Mandeville scorned “the Enthusiastick Passion for Charity-Schools.”24 He spoke of the “unreasonable Vein of Petty Reverence for the Poor,” arising from “a mixture of Pity, Folly and Superstition.”25 In his description of England between 1724 and 1726, Daniel Defoe mentions (with what strikes Heckscher as approval) sections like Taunton where children of four or five could earn a living.26 The first point, then, to keep in mind about the position of labor in the Age of Swift is that the somewhat more humane attitudes of an earlier day had all but disappeared and the laborer had come to be regarded as a commodity.

This somewhat general exposition of the position of labor in the early eighteenth century should be followed by a discussion of the rise of the science of statistics. This calls for a brief survey of theories regarding population. The great name among writers on population is, of course, Thomas Robert Malthus, who proclaimed in his Essay on the Principles of Population that people increase by geometrical proportions, sustenance by arithmetical proportions only. Before Malthus, two main streams of English opinion are discernible. During the latter part of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth, writers on the subject were influenced by fear of overpopulation.27 Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, feared that the world would not only be full but overflowing were it not for abstinence, artificial sterility, hunger, pestilence, and crime.28 Bacon sounded a similar warning.29 But a reversal in point of view coincided roughly with the rise of mercantilism. Thus Sir William Petty wrote that “Fewness of people, is real poverty.”30 Sir Josiah Childs and Charles Davenant expressed similar views.31 Swift was familiar with the writings of all three. It is remarkable, comments Furniss, that the fear of too small a population should have existed in the midst of poverty. Moreover, it is important for us to realize how influential these mercantilist theories of population were—both in England and elsewhere. One writer observes that if we “turn over the dusty and numberless volumes in which the chaos of European legislation is comprised,” we shall find that all governments have encouraged young people to marry and parents to raise families.32 The unpredictable Bernard Mandeville, on the other hand, followed the minority view and argued amusingly that there was a real danger of excessive population and that this excess would be unavoidable were it not for physicians and apothecaries, wars by sea and land, wild beasts, hangings and drownings.33 On this general position, at least, Mandeville and Swift were in agreement, as we shall presently see.

The new fear of lack of adequate population arose partly from the theory that people are the riches of a nation, partly from a change in actual conditions, and partly from a new and faulty science of statistics.34 The chief factual elements which encouraged the belief that England was facing a shortage in population were three-fold. The plagues of the seventeenth century had decreased the population35 at the same time that both expanding foreign trade and insistence on the necessity for exporting “artificed” or “wrought” goods increased the demand. So great was the shortage at one time that criminals in Wales were pardoned on condition that they work in mines.36

But the student of Swift's Modest Proposal will be chiefly concerned with the third factor: the rise of the science of statistics and its application to problems of population, particularly in Ireland. Wesley C. Mitchell has called attention to the unsatisfactory nature of statistical knowledge on population in the eighteenth century.37 For example, during Adam Smith's lifetime, Dr. Richard Price was demonstrating that the population of England had declined since the Revolution of 1688, while Arthur Young was pointing out that it was rapidly rising.

Political Arithmetic, which has been called “the taproot of modern statistics,” originated “in the scientific spirit fostered in England … by the Royal Society.”38 It may be said to date from the publication by John Graunt in 1662 of a small book entitled Natural and Political Observations. This early attempt to analyze population statistically has been characterized as crude and defective, but “informed by the spirit of modern science.”39 The name “Political Arithmetic” was given to the embryonic science by Sir William Petty, who is of particular interest to us not only because he increased the popularity of Political Arithmetic, but especially because he applied the new methodology to Ireland. In 1652 this Englishman was appointed physician general of the army in Ireland and was directed to make a survey of the forfeited estates of Irish landlords. Thus he became somewhat familiar with the Irish scene. In 1672 he published his Political Anatomy of Ireland, in which he made his first attempt to set up as an authority on statistics. In laying the foundation for a discussion of Petty's probable influence on Swift, it is important to observe that he was the first to apply the statistical method to Ireland. Observe also the callous excuse he gave for using Ireland as a guinea-pig. In his preface to The Political Anatomy of Ireland he wrote:

As Students in Medicine, practice their inquiries upon cheap and common Animals, and such whose actions they are best acquainted with, and where there is the least confusion and perplexure of Parts; I have chosen Ireland as such a Political Animal, who is scarce Twenty years old.40

Petty's writings, important though they were as forerunners of modern statistics, were nevertheless excessively faulty.41 Men like Petty were, as Davenant phrased it, “Beginners of an Art not yet Polish'd.”42 One effect of the rise of political arithmetic was the intensifying of the tendency to regard human beings as commodities. Petty not only gave figures concerning the value of property, but even attempted to estimate the “value” of the population, as part of the aggregate national wealth.43

We can now turn to another aspect of the theoretical background of the Modest Proposal. It is important to understand the distinction once made between the “able” and the “impotent” poor. The Elizabethan Poor Laws, enacted when Englishmen still felt a sense of responsibility toward the unfortunate, divided objects of public charity into three groups: the aged and impotent, children, and persons able to work but unemployed.44 Meanwhile, the mercantilists, who had first proclaimed that people are the riches of a nation, later qualified this maxim by asserting that only the portion of the population which was usefully employed was the national wealth.45 Hence during the Age of Mercantilism writers tended to think of the aged, very young children and other unemployable persons as “the impotent poor,” and to classify those capable of performing useful labor, whether children or adults, as “the able poor.” Meanwhile the prevailing English attitude toward charity had undergone a profound change. In the late seventeenth and in the eighteenth century, as Dorothy Marshall points out, the religious aspects of poor relief all but disappeared.46 Moreover, throughout the eighteenth century the poor rates were going up, despite the great increase in national prosperity. This the writers on economic questions could not understand. Consequently, “a new bitterness superseded the old sense of responsibility towards the Poor”47—a bitterness which will be familiar to readers of Defoe's Giving Alms No Charity.

Grimly the tracts of the time harped on the distinction between the “able” and the “impotent” poor. Charles Davenant, whose pamphlets found a place on Swift's shelves, referred to King's division of all Englishmen into two principal classes, the 2,675,520 heads who increase the wealth of the kingdom and the 2,825,000 heads who decrease it. The sick and impotent, beggars and vagrants, Davenant says, “are nourish'd at the Cost of Others; and are a Yearly Burthen to the Publick.”48 It would be difficult to find a more striking commentary on the prevailing attitude toward “the impotent poor” than Petty's remark, after giving figures concerning losses from the plague, that he regretted that the plague unfortunately made no distinction between “the bees and the drones,” but destroyed “promiscuously.”

Although the Modest Proposal contains remarks about several categories of impotent poor, it deals chiefly with one category—children too young to work. It is therefore important that we note the provision in the Irish law passed during the reign of the first George, which classified unemployable children as impotent poor. The act declares that since there are everywhere numbers of helpless children who are forced to beg in order to live and who, unless some care is taken of their education, will become “not only unprofitable but dangerous to their country,”49 therefore power is given to the ministers to bind out these children to tradesmen, provision being made to prevent cruel treatment.50

Finally, we must consider a special aspect of the mercantilist enthusiasm for projects. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as we have seen, the “lust for enterprise and adventure” caused an epidemic of what Dr. Johnson defined as “wild, unpracticable schemes” to break out in England. The enthusiasm of a commercially reckless era for enterprises chartered to enable ships to sail against the wind, to cure venereal diseases, to empty buildings euphemistically called “necessary houses,” and to import jack-asses from Spain to improve the breed of British mules reached a climax with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. But I am concerned here particularly with a species of projects having as their objects the solution of problems of population and labor, which Swift satirized in the Modest Proposal with even fiercer irony than he had employed earlier in tracts and poems aimed at commercial projects and in his attack on both scientific and commercial projects in the Lagado portions of Gulliver.

Despite the callous attitude of the period toward poverty, the age was unable to escape from problems which it brought about. Consequently, during Swift's lifetime, England and Ireland were flooded with literature dealing with theories about population, labor, unemployment and poor relief. Furniss observes that a major portion of this literature discussed projects for increasing England's population.51 One of the most astounding types of project born of this commercial, speculative age, so insistent on placing the economic welfare of the state ahead of that of the individual, involved the idea of running the poor through a joint-stock company. Indeed, not all of these schemes for a joint-stock company came from ruthless advocates of “business first.” Sir Josiah Childs, one of the most humane of the writers roughly identified as “mercantilist,” was among the first to advance such a scheme. The underlying plan behind most of these enterprises was to incorporate a company to manage all the poor, “impotent” and “able” alike, and to manage them for a profit.52 Thus did the commercial pattern of the age fasten itself even upon schemes for solving problems of poverty. Thus did the poor, formerly regarded as fellow-countrymen, come to be regarded as “a distinctive species, a sect apart.”53 For the most radical of such projects, however, perhaps the laurel goes to Sir William Petty. This political arithmetician, fanatically wedded to the notion that people are the riches of a nation, said that if the people of Scotland and Ireland could all be removed into England, the three nations would all become richer.54

Few pamphlets relating to the poor laws are more interesting today than the anonymous Letter to a Member of Parliament, published in Dublin as a pamphlet in 1723. In executing these laws, says the pamphleteer, in language which awakens echoes in our own age, the justices should find work for the honest and industrious. He therefore suggests that the deserving among the unemployed be put to work improving grounds, keeping open the course of rivers, draining fens, discovering mines, and increasing manufacture.55 He makes an additional suggestion which looks forward toward the day of labor unions and various types of benevolent and mutual aid societies for laborers. I am wondering, he says, if in great industrial towns where there are more poor than can be provided for by ordinary means, laborers “may not be cast into such Companies, and subjected to such Rules, as may make them maintain their own Poor.” These proposals will strike liberals today as intelligent and good. At the same time, it must be remembered that to a man with Swift's deep suspicion of “projects” of all sorts, they must have appeared highly chimerical. Moreover, the fact that later in life Swift himself was active in the administration of institutions of charity and actually worked out a system by which he made small loans to needy laborers, does not preclude the notion that Swift was capable of satirizing such a scheme, for Swift was a complex character, capable of remarkable inconsistencies, as illustrated by the circumstance that he often vilified the very people whom he did so much to defend against injustice and oppression. It is therefore appropriate that we consider other schemes similar to the Dublin proposal of 1723.

A somewhat similar plan was suggested by Sir William Fownes in 1725.56 Sir William is concerned with the problems of idle children. Vividly he describes the contemporary scene: “strolling Women loaden with Children … most of which have either Husbands, or Fellows … sculking, idle, drunken. …” Meanwhile youth of both sexes loaf, skulking about gentlemen's stables and houses, “running often on pimping Errands from Taverns.”57

In 1729, the year when the Modest Proposal was being written, David Bindon, Irish economist, proposed a scheme for supplying the poor with money at a low rate of interest. Since the common people have nothing of value to pawn, Bindon points out, they are forced to borrow at usurious interest.58 Every city in Ireland should erect a “Lombard.” Dublin, for example, could erect one with a fund of ten thousand pounds, to be lent on security of household goods, jewelry, and other chattel. These loans could be used to set poor people up in business.59

I am, of course, suggesting that the Modest Proposal is, among other things, a burlesque on projects concerning the poor. Does the suggestion that the proposals just mentioned must be considered as background for Swift's tract seem somewhat far-fetched? If so, consider a rather special group of such proposals. Observe that most of the authors of these proposals (unlike Swift) regard as axiomatic the proposition that people are the riches of a nation; and, more important still, observe the titles. This group includes: An Essay or Modest Proposal, of a Way to encrease the Number of People, and consequently the Strength of this Kingdom,60 probably written in 1693; the Modest Proposal for the More Certain and yet more Easie Provision for the Poor,61 written in 1696, in which a remedy for base money is sought and workhouses advocated; and a broadside entitled the Humble Proposal of G. M. for Making England Flourishing & Happy,62 which deals with poor rates and education for the children of the poor.

Several significant facts emerge from a brief consideration of these tracts on population and poverty. First, Swift's Modest Proposal was offered to a public accustomed to the sight of “humble petitions” and “modest proposals,” displayed on the book-stalls of London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, dealing with economic problems, particularly with problems concerning population, labor, unemployment, and poverty.63 Second, the tracts on population ordinarily hewed to the doctrinal line drawn by the advocates of increased numbers. Third, these tracts were characterized, more often than not, by emphasis on the economic good of the Leviathan-state and disregard for the individual. Fourth, and most important, it seems clear that Swift's 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 was not merely a characteristic Swiftian bit of phraseology: it was obviously a burlesque on the titles of certain types of economic tracts.

Since Swift's title is so clearly charged with economic implications, we shall not be surprised to find, upon analysis, that the tract itself touches on contemporary economic problems in virtually every line. In it Swift discussed economic statism, the Navigation Acts, the mercantilist concept of the balance of trade, the maxim that people constitute the riches of the state, the rival theory that there is a danger of overpopulation, the Swiftian proposition that general economic laws do not necessarily apply to Ireland, the poor rates, projects concerning population, “political arithmetic,” the tendency to regard children as commodities, and the impotent poor, particularly bastard children. The spotlight is thrown on the last four items.

It is possible to consider separately the various strands which were woven into the tapestry of the Modest Proposal and to follow, in a general way, the hand of the weaver as he deftly worked at the masterpiece.

Consider first the general problem of population. In the fourth book of Gulliver Swift had revealed a passing interest in this problem. The wise horses were described as being anxious to avoid an increase in population. Each couple tried to limit its offspring to two. “This caution is necessary,” Gulliver remarked, “to prevent the country from being overburthened with numbers.”64 Thus Swift enunciated his opposition to the prevailing tendency to call for increase in numbers; but he revealed, at this time, no passionate convictions on the subject. Beginning, however, in 1728, perhaps a few months before he began the Modest Proposal, he suddenly became intensely concerned with theories about population and related problems. In An Answer to a Paper Called “A Memorial” he declared that Ireland had more people than she needed under prevailing conditions; that it would be well if many emigrated, since “where the plough has no work, one family can do the business of fifty.” It is error, he continued, to assume that people are the riches of a nation.65 On May 17, 1729, he wrote to Chetwode about “the universal complaints and despair of all people.”66 Ball says that at about this time Swift was occupied by consideration of Irish poverty to the exclusion of almost every other subject.67 In August Swift wrote Pope about the miseries of Ireland, saying that he had a mind, for once, to let him know the state of affairs there, “and my reason for being more moved than perhaps becomes a clergyman.”68 During 1729, too, Swift and Sheridan were discussing Irish conditions, including population and unemployment, in The Intelligencer. Hardly a tract written by Swift in 1729—and it was a year of tracts—failed to deal with these same subjects.

Swift's new concern with economic theory was a result, in part, of the pamphlet warfare between Swift and John Browne, and this exchange induced Swift to study contemporary economic doctrines closely for the first time and to declare general economic laws suspect. Maxims Controlled for Ireland, his most ambitious formulation of this point of view, was probably written a few months before the Modest Proposal and contains, in one paragraph, the germ of several ideas which he was to develop in his famous satirical pamphlet. In this paragraph he considers one of the maxims of contemporary writers which he singles out as being particularly inapplicable to Ireland: the proposition that people constitute the riches of a nation. Swift points out that Ireland actually has many more people than she can support, since there isn't enough trade to supply anything like adequate employment; and that, as a consequence, only one child out of six is employed, the other five lying “a dead weight upon us, while half the population support themselves by begging and thievery.” He then flies in the teeth of received opinion by suggesting that emigration would really be a boon. Then, as though adding an afterthought, and with a characteristic Swiftian twist, he makes the grim suggestion that since the poor suffer so much, he is really pleased when he hears of deaths among them.69 Swift writes:

I confess myself to be touched with a very sensible pleasure, when I hear of a mortality in any country parish or village, where the wretches are forced to pay for a filthy cabin, and two ridges of potatoes, treble the worth; brought up to steal or beg, for want of work; to whom death would be the best thing to be wished for on account both of themselves and the public.70

How did this grim, hyperbolical observation, the sort of remark thrown off so easily by Swift, become the barb with which the master of irony tipped his most lethal shaft? How did the grim remark become the macabre “project”? George Brandes has remarked that a creative artist does not choose a certain subject but that “a nerve in him is touched, vibrates, and reacts.”71 What caused the vibration which led the artist Swift, toying with thoughts of the advantages of death to the poor of Ireland, to fasten on the notion of proposing that Irish children should be cooked and eaten? In a study dedicated to the proposition that too much attention has been paid to so-called “literary” sources, too little to contemporary tracts,72 I find myself, in this instance at least, resorting to a “literary” source. During the year 1729 Swift and Thomas Sheridan, his boon companion and loved confidant, were editing jointly a weekly periodical called The Intelligencer. The seventeenth number, written by Sheridan, dealt with the poverty of Ireland. The great intimacy between Swift and Sheridan and the circumstance that they did all of the work on the journal themselves73 leave little doubt that Swift was familiar with an arresting passage in Number Seventeen, in which Sheridan suggests ironically, as writers like Browne had suggested seriously, that Ireland is really wealthy. As a final argument, Sheridan refers to the large number of beggars, since “it is a common Observation that Riches are the Parent of Idleness, Sloth, and Luxury,” which, in turn, produce beggary.74 Then, to give his argument a final punch, he tells the story, related, he says, by the Elizabethan chronicler, Fynes Moryson, in his account of Tyrone's Rebellion, of the widow of Newry who, having six small children and no food, shut the doors of her home and died from despair, after which her children were found eating her flesh.75 Then Sheridan passes on to an account of the punishment meted out by Sir Arthur Chichester, then Governor of the North of Ireland, to twelve women who made a practice of stealing children, whom they eat. The passages from Moryson, which occur in an account of Tyrone's Rebellion, are sufficiently striking in the present context to warrant quotation:

Sir Arthur Chichester, Sir Richard Moryson, and the other Commanders of the Forces sent against Brian mac Art aforesaid, … saw a most horrible Spectacle of three Children (whereof the eldest was not above ten Years old,) all eating and gnawing with their Teeth the Entrails of their dead Mother, upon whose Flesh they had fed 20 Days past, and having eaten all from the Feet upward to the bare Bones, roasting it continually by a slow Fire, were now come to the eating of her said Entrails in like sort roasted, yet not divided from the Body, being as yet Raw.76

The famine was so great, continues this Elizabethan Daumier, that:

the common Sort of the Rebels were driven to unspeakable Extremities (beyond the Record of most Histories that ever I did read in that kind). … Capt. Trevor and many honest Gentlemen lying in the Newry can witness, that some old Women of those Parts, used to make a Fire in the Fields, and divers little Children driving out the Cattle in the cold Mornings, and coming thither to warm them, were by them surprized, killed, and eaten, which at last was discovered by a great Girl breaking from them by Strength of her Body.77

Some soldiers, Moryson says, “found the Children's Skulls and Bones, and apprehended the old women.”78

Although I find no direct, testimonial proof that Swift read either Moryson or the reference in The Intelligencer to Moryson, nevertheless the probability that he read Number Seventeen and that he either turned to Moryson or discussed the relevant passage with Sheridan, and that he did so about the time he was writing the Modest Proposal, is overwhelming. If we are willing to believe that Sheridan and Swift, linked by the closest ties of friendship and editorial association, both hit, about the same time—and independently—upon the notion of emphasizing the plight of Ireland by using startling material dealing with the eating of children, then we must recognize here the existence of one of the most remarkable coincidences in the history of literature. It seems reasonably safe to assert that Swift got the basic idea of A Modest Proposal from Fynes Moryson.

But Swift needed a literary frame. This he found in contemporary tracts dealing with economic projects, particularly those concerned with population and unemployment. Swift's opposition to this commercial rash, springing from his early hatred for traders and from his contempt for visionary schemes, we have already examined. In truth, the entire chapter on “projects” may be regarded as background for this aspect of the Modest Proposal. More than one tract written in 1729 proclaimed his rising impatience with “speculative people,” “schemes,” and “abortive projects.” In the Answer to Several Letters From Unknown Persons he asserts that “there is hardly a scheme proposed” for improving Irish trade which does not show stupidity and ignorance.79 In the Letter Concerning the Weavers he says: “I am weary of so many abortive projects for the advancement of trade, of so many crude proposals in letters sent me … of so many contradictory speculations.”80 In A Letter to The Archbishop of Dublin Concerning the Weavers he asserts that although “speculative people” may “busy their brains as much as they please,” the only way to save Ireland is to renounce luxury.81

Many signs indicate that Swift deliberately and consciously employed as his prototype the contemporary tract plugging a favorite “project” and, at the same time, wrote a burlesque on the breed of projectors,82 much as Pope used the epic scheme as a device for satirizing contemporary society even as he wrote a burlesque on the epic. The very title of Swift's tract, as I have already indicated, was lifted from similar language in titles of tracts advancing “projects” for the solution of problems of population. Somewhere in his biography, Boswell said to Johnson: “So, sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement?” To this Johnson replied: “Why, sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.” Something of the same spirit entered into A Modest Proposal.

Swift's technique in the Modest Proposal, like his choice of a title and of a model, can be traced to the influence of contemporary economic literature. It is the technique of the political arithmetician and, since the use of this technique contributes most to the special flavor of the tract, it should be carefully examined. In this connection, I turn to the stimulating but misleading comments by Edmund Wilson on Swift's statistical style. He is comparing Swift's use of figures with Marx's. Karl Marx, he says, is the greatest ironist since Swift: the logic of the “modest proposal” can be compared with Marx's defense of crime in which he argues that crime takes care of the superfluous population. Moreover, Wilson says, Marx shares with Swift the ability “to get a certain poetry out of money.” He finds in Swift “a kind of intellectual appetite for computations and accounts and a feeling sensuous for currency.” In The Drapier's Letters, for example, “we seem to see the coins, hear them, finger them.” Swift describes “the base discs, with their flat little ring, by which the English are trying to perform the sleight-of-hand trick of cheating the Irish.” Alas, however, comments Mr. Wilson, “with Marx the idea of money leads to something more philosophic.”83 No one has sensed more keenly or described more vividly the importance of the statistical element in Swift's prose.84 Yet we must not permit Wilson's brilliant critical virtuosity to give us the wrong slant on Swift's attitude toward “computations.” In A Modest Proposal, for instance, he is no more enamoured of statistics than he is enamoured of the idea of eating baked Irish babies. Swift writes about “computations” not in the spirit of poetry but with a sense of irony. He had presumably read Graunt, Petty, Childs, Davenant, and Browne.85 His scorn for their statistics was natural, like his scorn for projects. The same impulses which led to the satire on science in Gulliver, resulted in a hearty dislike for one of science's youngest offspring, the infant school of political arithmeticians. In the second book of Gulliver's Travels, written before he had set pen to paper on either the Drapier or the Modest Proposal, Swift describes the King of the Brobdingnagians, here apparently the voice of Swift, as laughing at Gulliver's “odd kind of arithmetic (as he was pleased to call it) in reckoning the numbers of our people by a computation drawn from the several sects among us in religion and politics.”86 A little later Swift puts into the Drapier's mouth these words:

The highest Points of Interest and Liberty have been often sacrificed to the Avarice and Ambition of particular Persons, Upon the very Principles and Arithmetick that I have supposed.87

It is natural that Swift's interest in Political Arithmetic, hitherto slight and spasmodic, should become intensified about 1729 when he suddenly became greatly concerned with economic theory. The controversy with John Browne did much to bring about such an intensification because Browne hurled at Swift a mass of computations designed to convince him that economic conditions in Ireland were improving. In An Appeal to the Reverend Dean Swift, after reminding Swift that people were the riches of a nation, Browne expressed surprise that Swift should “disguise our Number of Inhabitants” and offered him data concerning Irish population. The following characteristic excerpt from this tract is the sort of thing which probably led not only to the attack in Maxims Controlled for Ireland against the proposition that people are the riches of a nation, but also to a heightened contempt for the embryonic science of statistics. Browne supports his argument about improvement in the condition of Ireland by pointing out that there are 374,286 homes paying quit-rent, besides colleges and hospitals, which, he says:

at an Allowance of six Souls to a House, may be equivalent in this Calculation to 42,381 Houses, and that makes the Number of Houses in all 416,667; to which if we allow a Medium of 6 Souls to the House, our Inhabitants must be about 2,500,000; and considering the prolifick Constitutions of our Country Folk, you will agree with me that six to a House is not an extravagant Allowance.88

Now set beside a typical statistical passage from Petty an equally characteristic burlesque of political arithmetic from A Modest Proposal. The passage by Petty is taken from a chapter in The Political Anatomy of Ireland entitled, mark you, “Of the Value of the People.” Petty writes:

Now if the annual proceed of the stock,89 or wealth of the nation, yields but 15 millions, and the expense be 40, then the labour of the people must furnish the other 25, which may be done, if but half of them, viz. 3 millions, earned but 8 £.6s.8d. per ann., which is done at 7d. per diem, abating the 52 Sundays, and half as many other days for accidents.90

Now listen to A Modest Proposal:

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couples whose wives are breeders, from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples, who are able to maintain their own children, … here will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand for those women who miscarry or whose children die by accident, or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born: The question therefore is, how this number shall be reared, and provided for.91

Two points should be made about this passage from A Modest Proposal. In the first place, it springs from a spirit of bitter mockery, not from the delight in calculations for their own sake which Mr. Edmund Wilson feels that Swift so often displays. Moreover, in satirizing the statistical approach to human problems, Swift has concentrated his fire here, as at many other points in the Modest Proposal, on figures dealing with human breeding.92 Obviously certain features of political arithmetic offered better material for artistic treatment than others. No feature was more vulnerable to ironic attack than statistical references to breeders. Consider two such references. John Graunt, whose works were represented on Swift's shelves, in explaining why christenings exceeded burials in the country, but not in London, asserted that “if there be sixty breeders in London, there are more than sixty in the country.”93 Arthur Dobbs, an Irish economist, discussing methods of computing the population of Ireland, and writing in the year 1728, said:

Thus, for instance, suppose a million of inhabitants in Ireland in 1691, when the war ended … ; we may reasonably suppose 500,000 of these females, the war having destroyed fewer of these than of the other sex; 240,000 of these above 14 and under 46, of an age capable to bear children. Suppose 40,000 of these barren, there would then have been 200,000 breeding women in the kingdom, each of these might have a child once in two years, so the births each year might be 100,000; … By this computation the nation might double in sixteen years. …94

In his satirical statistical discussions of human breeding Swift delivers some of his most devastating strokes against contemporary attitudes toward labor and poverty. True, he says, a child “just dropped from its dam” may be supported by its mother's milk, plus a bit of additional food not costing over two shillings, for a year.”95 Again, he asserts: “I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couples whose wives are breeders.”96 Moreover, he proposes that “of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed.”97 Indeed, references to breeders and to Swift's grim proposal for solving the problem of excessive breeding constitute the chief leit-motif of the Modest Proposal and supply the suggestion for the ultimate irony of the concluding sentence of the tract in which Swift declares that he has no personal interest in the proposal.98 “I have,” he protests, “no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.”99 The theme of human breeders is thus pursued throughout the Modest Proposal, even to the last lancing stroke.

Another point should be made about the influence of political arithmetic on the Modest Proposal. The early statisticians supplied Swift with a technique superbly adapted to his genius. I have in mind not only Swift's tendency to build up a mass of detail and overwhelm the reader with its cumulative effect, but also, and more particularly, his habitual use of what has been called “the surprise attack.” Mr. F. R. Leavis,100 in a most perceptive analysis of Swift's style, says that the most important thing in Swift—the “disturbing characteristic of his genius”—is his peculiar emotional intensity,101 which exhibits itself constantly “in negation and rejection.” Indeed, Swift's is the “most remarkable expression of negative feeling and attitudes that literature can offer.” He aims “to defeat habit,” using the technique of surprise. This element of surprise results from the “dispassionate delivery of his intensities,” from the “dissociation of emotional intensity from its usual accompaniments.” In A Modest Proposal, Leavis suggests, “the matter-of-fact tone induces a feeling … of assent, while the burden … compels feelings appropriate to rejection.” The contrast generates a tension—“a remarkable disturbing energy.” Swift's prose creates the same effect of surprise and the accompanying atmosphere of tension which the metaphysical poets are so successful in attaining.

Leaning heavily on Mr. Leavis' interpretation and applying it particularly to one aspect of Swift's prose style, I should like to amplify my earlier remark that political arithmetic supplied Swift with a technique peculiarly appropriate to his genius. In the following characteristic passage, note how the matter-of-fact tone “induces a feeling of assent,” while “the burden” generates “feelings appropriate to rejection”:

Of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black-cattle, or swine.102

Again, Swift writes:

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child … to be about two shillings per annum, rags included, and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child.103

At another point Swift writes of “a round million of creatures in human figure,” whose substance, pooled, “would leave them in debt two millions of pounds sterling.” The phrase which I have emphasized (which strikes me as one of the most telling in the Modest Proposal) is obviously soaked in the spirit of political arithmetic.

Especially helpful in an analysis of the influence of political arithmetic on the style of the tract is Mr. Leavis' stimulating suggestion that Swift's technique bears a resemblance to that of the metaphysical poets. It was Dr. Johnson, I believe, who spoke of the metaphysical poets as “pursuing a thought to its last ramification.” Observe how Swift pursues his modest proposal to its last statistical ramification. He coolly observes that a child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; that when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will suffice; that, seasoned with a little pepper or salt, such a dish will be “very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter”; that he has reckoned “a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year if tolerably nursed increaseth to 28 pounds”—on the average.104 A little further in the tract, continuing to play with his macabre conceit, and returning to his burlesque of the application of the statistical method to human problems, he dispassionately calculates that if one thousand families in Dublin would be “constant customers” for the flesh of babies, “besides others who might have it at merry-meetings, particularly weddings and christenings,” the city would consume annually about twenty thousand carcasses, and the rest of Ireland—“where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper”—the remaining eighty thousand.105

Political arithmetic, in short, supplied Swift with a subject for satire and, at the same time, with a technique which was highly appropriate to his method of writing. Professor Child remarks somewhere that Robin Hood is the creation of the ballad-muse. Similarly, may it not be said that A Modest Proposal is, in part, at least, the creation of whatever muse presides over the spirit of political arithmetic?

We have considered the Modest Proposal as burlesque project and as burlesque political arithmetic. It is, in the third place, an attack on the general tendency of the age to regard people as commodities. Indeed, this attitude is implicit in the attack on projects and statistics. It becomes explicit when Swift tells of the assurance given him by the merchants that a child under twelve “is no saleable commodity” and that even when they reach this age, they will not yield more than three pounds and a half-crown at most—not enough to defray their expenses, since “nutriment and rags” cost at least four times as much.106 Again, consider this paragraph:

Infants' flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after, for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolific diet, there are more children born in Roman Catholic countries about nine months after Lent, than at any other season; therefore reckoning a year after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage by lessening the number of Papists among us.107

The discussion of this third facet of Swift's attack on contemporary economic tendencies is an appropriate place in which to consider evidence that Swift, as he wrote the Modest Proposal, was turning over in his mind the theories of the political economists. Take the fundamental postulate of the mercantilists that the good of the individual must be subordinated to the economic welfare of the state. Awareness of this assumption is revealed by the ironic title. The proposal is designed “For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, And For making them Beneficial to the Publick.” Again, he suggests ironically that an argument could be made against eating the flesh of girls, since “it would, I think with humble submission, be a loss to the public, because they would soon become breeders themselves.”108 Thus Swift on economic statism.

Consider a second point. Nothing is more characteristic of the economic doctrines of the day than reiteration of the fundamental bullionist concept of “the balance of trade.” When mercantilists mention “the balance of trade,” we can almost see their eyes gleam with a deep, religious light. Turn to our tract. Swift is considering the advantages of his proposal. He estimates that whereas the maintenance of a hundred thousand children two years old and over would cost at least ten shillings apiece annually, under his scheme “the nation's stock” will be augmented fifty thousand pounds a year, “and the money will circulate among ourselves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.”109

Closely related to the concept of the balance of trade were the Navigation Acts. These statutes may be described as mercantilism in action. Swift had repeatedly attacked these laws before he wrote the Modest Proposal. In this tract, he continues the onslaught. Can one doubt that he had this legislation in mind when he argues that his proposal cannot possibly offend the English since “this kind of commodity”—the flesh of infants—“will not bear exportation, the flesh being of too tender a consistency to admit a long continuation in salt,” although, he adds, “perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.”110 Here the emphasis is Swift's, and here the Irish hatred of the Navigation Acts reaches supreme bitterness.

Finally, the Modest Proposal recognized and ridiculed the distinction made during the Age of Mercantilism between “the able” and “the impotent” poor. Some are concerned, Swift writes, about “that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed.” Swift asserts that he, however, is not worried, since they are daily dying and rotting, “by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.”111 Swift likewise realized that the distinction between the “able” and the “impotent” poor sprang from the unwillingness of the age to spend money on charity, and from the fear of higher poor rates. My plan, he says, would cover not only children of professed beggars, but all infants of a certain age, whose parents, because of their poverty, “demand our charity.”112 Again, he says that the proposed plan would provide for children so that, “instead of being a charge upon their parents or the parish,” they will contribute to the feeding of many thousands.113

An important corollary of the mercantilist distinction between the “able” and the “impotent” poor is the harsh attitude of the age toward beggars. Both the distinction and the harsh attitude spring from the somewhat inconsistent desire of the age to raise to a maximum the number of people employable industrially while reducing to a minimum those whose condition in life made them objects of charity and, hence, causes of increased poor rates. Most of the harsh social and economic philosophy of the day comes from those concerned with the industrial progress of the state. By contrast, the attitude of the landed Tory, especially the English landed Tory, was both liberal and humane. But the poor rates touched the pocket-nerves of these Tory proprietors. Moreover, the landed squire discovered that industrial laborers could pay rents, while beggars could not. Consequently the landlords sometimes joined the industrialists in denouncing beggars, whom they blamed for defaults in rents and increases in the poor rates. The landlords in Ireland were particularly inclined to be harsh in their outlook. Thus the author of A Letter to a Member of Parliament, writing in 1723, voicing the point of view of the landed classes, pointed out that the industrial laborers pay the king his taxes and the landlord his rent, while the beggar, on the other hand, “eats your Meal, and drinks your Milk, and pays you nothing for it. Instead, he fills you with children.”114

A Modest Proposal opens, we should remember, with a harrowing account of these numerous beggars. In the second paragraph we learn that Swift's proposal will be aimed at making their children “sound useful members of the commonwealth.”115 Further on, the selfish landlords are cracked on the head when Swift mentions a variation on his scheme proposed by “a true lover of his country” who argued that, many gentlemen of Ireland having destroyed their deer, “the want of venison might be well supplied by the bodies of young lads and maidens.”116 Again, when Swift comes to the enumeration of the advantages of his schemes, he suggests, with obvious reference to the anxiety of the landlords about their rents, that “the poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to distress,” thus enabling landlords to collect their rents.117

Thus it is evident that Swift relied upon the literature of contemporary economic controversy for title, technique, and theme. Looked at it from the point of view of the student of political economy, A Modest Proposal is a tract dealing with current mercantilist theories which happened to cross the threshold dividing the turbulent early Georgian world of pamphlet controversy from belles-lettres. Looked at from the angle of the literary critic, it is a superb work of art which happens to be saturated with economic theory.


  1. Bertram Newman, Swift (Boston, 1937), 345.

  2. Leslie Stephen, Swift (London, 1903), 166-7.

  3. John Churton Collins, Jonathan Swift (London, 1893), 223.

  4. H. A. Taine, History of English Literature, translated by H. Van Laun (New York, 1872), II, 147-9.

  5. Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift (Oxford, 1936), 255.

  6. Ibid., 346.

  7. Ibid., 24, 43, 255, 346, and 355.

  8. These exceptions occur in incidental remarks, several of which are quoted in subsequent notes. No writer on Swift, however, has written a serious critique of the Modest Proposal.

  9. Edgar S. Furniss, The Position of the Laborer in a System of Nationalism. A Study in the Labor Theories of the Later English Mercantilists (Boston and New York, 1920), 25.

  10. Ibid., 75.

  11. Sir Henry Craik, The Life of Jonathan Swift (London, 1882), 342.

  12. Joseph Lecler, in an article entitled “Libéralisme Economique et Libre Pensée au XVIIIe Siècle: Mandeville et La Fable des Abeilles,” Études (Paris, March 22, 1937), 624, opens with this statement: “Par un singulier retour des choses, notre époque voit refleurir, en politique économique, les idées anciennes de protectionnisme et réglementation.”

  13. Eli F. Heckscher, Mercantilism (London, 1935), II, 165.

  14. Ibid., passim.

  15. Thomas Mun, England's Treasure (London, 1684), 182.

  16. Kaye edition, I, 287.

  17. Ibid., I, 288.

  18. Heckscher, op. cit., II, 165.

  19. John Bellers, who perhaps is not a fair example, because he was much more humane in his philosophy than most, in his Essay About the Poor, published in 1699, spoke eloquently for the laboring people. I have no evidence that Swift read Bellers. It is important, however, to remember that before the tribe of Mandeville and Defoe others had written about the humble in a more humane spirit.

  20. Dorothy Marshall, English Poor in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1926), 30.

  21. Ibid., 31.

  22. Heckscher, op. cit., II, 155.

  23. Ibid., II, 155. Heckscher also makes this comment: “Whereas from the beginning of the nineteenth century onward … measures were taken to limit child labour by law, under mercantilism the power of the state was exerted in precisely the opposite direction.” Ibid., II, 155.

  24. Fable of the Bees, Kaye edition, I, 268.

  25. Ibid., I, 311.

  26. Heckscher, op. cit., II, 156.

  27. C. E. Stangeland, Pre-Malthusian Doctrines of Population (1904), 110.

  28. Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World, Bk. i, ch. viii, sec. 4.

  29. Francis Bacon, “Essay Concerning Seditions and Troubles,” Works (Boston, 1860), XII, 127.

  30. Sir William Petty, Economic Writings. Edited by C. H. Hull, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1899), II, 393-4.

  31. Furniss, op. cit., 30.

  32. Stangeland, op. cit., 120, quoting Filangieri, Science of Legislation (London, 1792), 19. It is curious to what extent the dominant mercantilist point of view went. Late in the century, after Swift had done his work, Frederick the Great wrote Voltaire that he “regards men simply as a herd of deer in the park of a great noble, which has no other function than to people, and fill the enclosure.” Quoted by Stangeland, op. cit., 131.

  33. Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (London, 1739), III, 280.

  34. The change in conditions and the rise of the science of statistics account, in a large measure, for the tenacity with which writers clung to the theory that people are the riches of a nation. So perhaps the second and third factors should be regarded as fundamental.

  35. Guy Chapman, Culture and Survival (London, 1940), 18.

  36. Ibid., 50. Chapman observes that “the ceaseless plaints of economic pamphleteers in the early eighteenth century, that the poor are lazy, idle and dissolute, point rather to the inability than to the unwillingness of labour to respond to the offers of capital.Ibid., 31.

  37. Wesley C. Mitchell, unpublished lecture notes.

  38. Walter F. Willcox, “Statistics,” in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (New York, 1937), VII, 357.

  39. Ibid., 357.

  40. Petty, Economic Writings, Hull edition, I, 129.

  41. Hull says that they were based on “a few scattering bills from Paris and Dublin, haphazard returns from various tax offices, a guess here or there,” and that Petty himself realized the incompleteness of his data. Ibid., I, lxvi.

  42. Charles Davenant, An Essay upon the Probable Methods of Making a People Gainers in the Ballance of Trade (London, 1699), 3.

  43. Heckscher, op. cit., II, 190.

  44. Although Ireland did not actually have a law providing directly for the poor until well into the nineteenth century, earlier statutes nevertheless make the distinction between “able” and “impotent” poor which we find in English and Scottish legislation. Sir George Nicholls, A History of the Irish Poor Law (London, 1856), 12 ff. A law passed in the early seventeenth century entitled “An Act for the Erecting of Houses of Correction, and for the Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds,” etc., spoke, for instance, of palmists, bear wards, common players of interludes “and common labourers being able in body, using loytering, and refusing to work for such reasonable wages as is taxed and commonly given.” Ibid., 27 ff. The previsions of the Elizabethan Poor Law referred to are found in 43 Eliz. C. 2. See Marshall, op. cit., 23.

  45. E. A. J. Johnson, Predecessors of Adam Smith (1937), 281.

  46. Dorothy Marshall, op. cit., 19.

  47. Ibid., 22.

  48. Davenant, op. cit., 49-50.

  49. Dorothy Marshall remarks: “Despite the growth of the Charity School movement, charity to children in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant enabling them to earn their own living at the earliest possible moment, no matter how laborious their life might be.” Op. cit., 24.

  50. Nicholls, op. cit., 40, citing 2nd George 1st, C. 17.

  51. Furuniss, op. cit., 36. “The Labour of the Poor is the Treasure of the Rich, was a proverb freely quoted, but it was feared that the poor might cease to labour, and so destroy the trade upon which English prosperity was built.” Dorothy Marshall, op. cit., 34.

  52. Dorothy Marshall, op. cit., 43.

  53. “Of all the many proposals made for the employment of the Poor, the idea of running them for a profit is one of the most interesting. It marks most definitely the fact that the Poor from being fellow-countrymen had become a distinctive species, a sect apart. That the Poor, because they were poor, should be collected in colleges or cities, the sole qualification for which was unemployment and poverty, casts an illuminating light on the mentality of the early eighteenth century.” Ibid., 46.

  54. Petty, Economic Writings, Hull edition, I, 285 ff.; II, 563 ff. Despite his attempt to be jocular about his suggestion, one feels that Petty thought well of it. He writes: “And here I beg leave … to interpose a jocular, and perhaps ridiculous digression, and which I indeed desire Men to look upon, rather as a Dream or Revery, than a rational Proposition; the which is, that if all the moveables and People of Ireland, and of the Highlands of Scotland, were transported into the rest of Great Brittain; that then the King and his Subjects, would thereby become more Rich and Strong, both offensively and defensively, than now they are.” Ibid., I, 285. The emphasis is, of course, upon the good of the state, not the individual.

  55. “For I take much more pleasure in being their Advocate than their Accuser. They shall pave your Streets, drain your Bogs, make your Rivers Navigable, mend your Roads, build your Bridges, adorn your Churches, watch you while you Sleep, fight your Battles, and carry you on their Backs.” But, the writer adds, when they have done this, “let them not go Naked themselves; when they have ploughed our Land, let them not be like the muzzled Ox that may not taste the Corn, and when they have lost their Limbs, or shed their Blood in Defence of our Country, let us not leave their Widows and Children uncared for to die in ditches.” A Letter To a Member of Parliament, Concerning the Imploying and Providing for the Poor (Dublin, 1723) [Seligman Collection], 14-5.

  56. Sir William Fownes, Methods Proposed for Regulating the Poor (Dublin, 1725) [Seligman Collection].

  57. Ibid., 9. Fownes' description of migratory labor in eighteenth century Ireland reminds one of John Steinbeck. Complaints have been made, he writes, of trouble caused by “marching Gangs of Women, Children and youth” who leave their cabins, gardens, cows, or goats for months “whilst they follow the Harvest-Labourers.” Ibid., 16.

  58. David Bindon, A Scheme For Supplying Industrious Men with Money to carry on their Trades, and for better Providing for the Poor of Ireland, 2nd edition (Dublin, 1729), 19.

  59. Ibid., 12-13. It is to be noted that the tract contains a considerable amount of statistical material.

  60. Kress Collection.

  61. The full title is: A Modest Proposal For the More Certain and yet more Easie Provision for the Poor. And Likewise for the better Suppression of Thieves, Diminishers And Corruptors of the Coyn, and other Lewd Livers. Tending much to the Advancement of Trade, Especially in the most Profitable part of it. The Manufactures of the Kingdom (London, 1695/6) (Seligman Collection). It advocates the establishment of two public houses in every county of England or “division of London,” each unit to consist of two or three thousand families; and the provision that one house should be used as a hospital and workhouse, the other as a workhouse and prison. The writer anticipates the objection that the plan will be a needless burden on the public, “in loading it with the Charge of so many children.” The answer to this objection is predicated on the assumption that people are the riches of a nation. “I think it is a fault not to encourage the increase of Lawful Children, especially when they are likely to be train'd up in all Frugality and Industry.” Ibid., 12. This training, he adds, will cause little or no expense, and yet will be “a mighty Advantage to the Public.” Ibid., 12.

  62. [Kress Collection], 17.

  63. Other “humble petitions” and “modest proposals” include Thomas Thwaites' A Proposal humbly dedicated to the King, Lords, & Commons of Great Britain; setting forth the manner how we may very profitably employ our now idle, changeable, young, weak, feeble, and aged poor (London, 1725); and the Proposal for maintaining of the poor, and discouraging of vagabonds, and vagrant and sturdy beggers (Edinburgh, 1726). Observe, however, that “humble petitions” and “modest proposals” sometimes dealt with economic problems of other types. For example, An Humble Proposal To the People of England, For the Encrease of their Trade (London, 1729), ascribed to Defoe, contained a plea for the protection of the wool industry.

  64. Case edition, 291.

  65. Swift, Works, Temple Scott edition, VII, 114.

  66. Swift, Correspondence, Ball edition, IV, 81.

  67. Ibid., IV, 81.

  68. Ibid., IV, 88-9.

  69. Leslie Stephen points out that in Maxims Controlled Swift remarks on the lamentable contradiction presented in Ireland to the maxim that the “people are the riches of a nation” and that the Modest Proposal is “the fullest comment on this melancholy reflection.” Swift (London, 1903), 165.

  70. Swift, Works, Temple Scott edition, VII, 71.

  71. George Brandes, William Shakespeare (New York, 1927), 433.

  72. It would be possible to account for the “vibration” by resorting here, as I have in general elsewhere, to contemporary economic writings. In the second part of Arthur Dobbs' An Essay On the Trade and Improvement of Ireland (Dublin, 1861), 443, the writer, referring to the treatment of children by the poor, wrote: “They exercise the greatest barbarities upon children, either their own or those they pick up, by blinding them or breaking and disjointing their limbs when they are young to make them objects of compassion.” But while Swift might have read this statement by Dobbs, which appeared in 1729, he was almost certainly familiar with the “literary” source to which I refer.

  73. Swift wrote to Pope on June 12, 1732: “Two or three of us had a fancy, three years ago, to write a weekly paper and call it an Intelligencer … ; the whole volume … was the work only of two, myself and Dr. Sheridan. If we could have got some ingenious young man to have been the manager, who should have published all that might be sent to him, it might have continued longer, for there were hints enough. But the printer here could not afford such a young man one farthing for his trouble, the sale being so small, and the price one half-penny.” [Emphasis supplied.] Swift, Correspondence, IV, 307.

  74. The Intelligencer, Reprinted in London (1729), 191.

  75. Ibid., 195.

  76. Fynes Moryson, History of Ireland (Dublin, 1735), II, 282-3.

  77. Ibid., II, 283.

  78. Ibid., II, 283.

  79. Swift, Works, Temple Scott edition, VII, 123-4. Swift continues, in the same sentence: “… I laught with contempt at those weak wise heads, who proceed upon general maxims, or advise us to follow the example of Holland and England. These empirics talk by rote, without understanding the constitution of the kingdom.”

  80. Ibid., VII, 138.

  81. Ibid., VII, 136. Temple Scott's note is relevant. He writes: “In this letter, so characteristic of Swift's attitude towards the condition of Ireland, he aims at a practical and immediate relief. The causes for this condition discussed so ably by Molesworth, Prior and Dobbs in their various treatises are too academic for him. His ‘Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture’ well illustrates the kind of practical reform Swift insisted on.” [The emphasis is supplied.]

  82. Mason, op. cit., 375, wrote: “The cold, phlegmatic style of a political projector, who waves the consideration of all the finer feelings of humanity, or makes them subservient, as matters of slight moment, to the general advantages proposed in his plan of financial improvement, is admirably well satirized.”

  83. Edmund Wilson, “Karl Marx: Poet of Commodities,” New Republic, CII 46-7.

  84. One of the best comments along this line comes from the introductory note to the Modest Proposal in Eighteenth Century Prose, edited by L. J. Bredvold, H. K. Root, and George Sherburn (New York, 1935), 159. The authors speak of a “period when essays on trade or on ‘political arithmetic’ were beginning the modern science of political economy. With a somewhat ominous simile Swift seems to be saying, ‘You love to figure populations, needs, and productivity with dispassionate science as if men and women were nothing but so many cattle … and yet you call me a misanthrope. Perhaps you are right: the proper way to consider these wretches who are reduced to the state of brutes may be as mere animals. But let me show you what you sound like!’ His modest proposer putters about with his estimates and figures, while between the lines Swift reads us a tremendous lesson on the necessity of Christian charity as a supplement to ‘political arithmetic.’”

  85. See Harold Williams, Dean Swift's Library, passim, on Graunt, Childs, Davenant; Works, Temple Scott edition, IX, 280-81, on Petty.

  86. Case edition, 133.

  87. Drapier's Letters, David edition, 147.

  88. Sir John Browne, “An Appeal to the Rev. Dean Swift,” from A Collection of Tracts Concerning the Present State of Ireland (London, 1729), 131.

  89. Swift reveals in A Modest Proposal and elsewhere familiarity with the jargon employed by the early economists in speaking of “the stock” or the “wealth” of a nation.

  90. Petty, Economic Writings, Hull edition, I, 132.

  91. Swift, Works, Temple Scott edition, VII, 208-9.

  92. Bredvold, Root, and Sherburn, op. cit., 160, say: “Note how throughout the essay Swift, in order to hold a mirror up to the brutal attitude of men towards fellow men in distress, speaks of human offspring in terms of so many cattle.”

  93. John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations Upon the Bills of Mortality (Oxford, 1665), 61-2.

  94. Arthur Dobbs, “An Essay on the Trade and Improvement of Ireland,” in A Collection of Tracts and Treatises … of Ireland (Dublin, 1861), II, 414-15.

  95. Swift, Works, Temple Scott edition, VII, 208.

  96. Ibid., VII, 208.

  97. Ibid., VII, 209.

  98. There are, as this last instance indicates, other references to the “breeder” motif besides those in which he satirizes political arithmetic. He pretends, for instance, to be troubled by the suggestion of an American friend that the flesh of young maidens is preferable to that of boys, his anxiety arising from the realization that girls “soon would become breeders themselves.” Ibid., VII, 211. One of the advantages of the proposal, he argues, would be the reduction in the number of the Papists who are “the principal breeders of the nation.” Ibid., VII, 213. Another advantage would ensue from the circumstance that “the constant breeders” would be rid of the necessity for supporting their children. Ibid., VII, 213.

  99. Ibid., VII, 216.

  100. F. R. Leavis, “The Irony of Swift,” Scrutiny, II (1934), 364-79.

  101. Mr. W. B. C. Watkins has developed this same theme, comparing Swift's passion with that of the Elizabethan dramatists, in an essay which ranks among the most illuminating of all comments on Swift. “Absent Thee from Felicity,” in Perilous Balance (Princeton, 1939).

  102. Swift, Works, Temple Scott edition, 209.

  103. Ibid., VII, 210.

  104. Ibid., VII, 210.

  105. Ibid., VII, 214.

  106. Ibid., VII, 209.

  107. Ibid., VII, 210.

  108. Ibid., VII, 211.

  109. Ibid., VII, 213.

  110. Ibid., VII, 216.

  111. Ibid., VII, 212.

  112. Ibid., VII, 207-8.

  113. Ibid., VII, 208.

  114. Swift, A Letter to a Member of Parliament, Works, Temple Scott edition, VII, 7-8.

  115. Swift, Works, Temple Scott edition, VII, 207.

  116. Ibid., VII, 211.

  117. Ibid., VII, 213.

Maurice Johnson (essay date May 1958)

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SOURCE: Johnson, Maurice. “The Structural Impact of A Modest Proposal.Bucknell Review 7, no. 4 (May 1958): 234-40.

[In the following essay, Johnson weighs the influence A Modest Proposal derives solely from its syntactical and organizational format.]

A Modest Proposal (1729) has been singled out as the one incontestable example of poetic passion in English Augustan literature. Its pervasive irony, metaphorical contrasts, and paradox have been described as operating on a “grander scale than in any poem of its day.” Simultaneously, it has been studied as an early Georgian tract dealing with contemporary mercantilist attitudes toward balance of trade, economic statism, Irish absentee landlords, English policy, the impotent poor, and theories of population. A Modest Proposal is currently employed to illustrate a single department of Jonathan Swift's rhetorical art: his feigning an alien identity and situation, acting in character to achieve his satire. In the universities the present idea of Swift is that of The Man in the Ironic Mask.1

Yet these varied studies do not explain the effect made by A Modest Proposal. I suppose that the total impact of the essay—felt in the reading like an electric charge—cannot be satisfactorily assessed. (There is nothing else like it in literature, said Taine.) In the following paragraphs, however, I want to attempt such an assessment in the area of structure: to examine the effects won by Swift's arrangement of materials.

I need not inquire hypothetically what the essay would be like had it appeared in straightforward, conventional prose. Swift's sermon, “Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland,” very likely preached in the same period A Modest Proposal was published, deals with almost identical external subject matter and is similar in length (thirty paragraphs as compared with the Proposal's thirty-three).2

After an introductory paragraph, the sermon opens immediately with a statement of remedies in the power of the Irish to combat economic interference from England. The Irish, now only “Hewers of Wood, and Drawers of Water” for England, will approach freedom if they overcome their own vanity of buying foreign goods; if the Irish children are protected from habits of idleness and sloth; and if oppressing, often non-resident landlords are discouraged. The fourteen paragraphs devoted to the remedies are followed by eight on Swift's scheme for parish charity schools; six paragraphs on the deserving poor, who should be recognized as a parish responsibility and distinguished from professional beggars and strollers by the wearing of badges; and a paragraph of exhortation.

With its formal Biblical text (“That there be no complaining in our Streets. Happy is the People that is in such a Case”) and tail-piece prayer (“The Grace of God, & c”), and with its plain, vigorous appeal to the reason of Swift's parishioners, who had learned to expect neither wit nor cant from him in the pulpit, the sermon is a very different species of discourse from A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Publick. It could only by the greatest wrench of terminology be considered great literature, as the Proposal unquestionably is.

Yet if the first sentence of the sermon were exchanged for that of the essay, only persons expert in Swift's works would immediately guess it, for at first glance the constructions as well as the ideas seem hardly to differ:

It is a very melancholy Reflection, that such a Country as ours, which is capable of producing all Things necessary and most Things convenient for Life, sufficient for the Support of four Times the Number of its Inhabitants, should yet lye under the heaviest Load of Misery and Want, our Streets crouded with Beggars, so many of our lower Sort of Tradesmen, Labourers and Artificers, not able to find Cloaths and Food for their Families.

It is a melancholly Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country, when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-Doors, crowded with Beggars of the female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms.

The latter, from A Modest Proposal, is the more concise, concrete, and dramatic sentence. It severely limits itself, not to a “Reflection,” but to the active impression of persons who “walk” or “travel” among the Irish beggars and “see” them “crowded,” “followed,” and “importuning”; and it modestly introduces the word “Children,” to prepare for shocks to follow. Yet in isolation the sentence could not be thought remarkable: it becomes so only when it functions within the total structure of the essay. One characteristic aspect of the essay as a whole lies in the seeming prosaic innocence of the first sentence and of some following sentences that are meant to have the authentic sound of a sermon or tract.

Unlike his sermon Swift's essay wants time to reveal itself calculatedly—evoking a certain suspense, only partially disclosing the burden of its thought, producing the unexpected on several strata, and introducing seemingly irrelevant but artful flourishes of language—though its intention or desired end is precisely that of the sermon: to arouse the Irish and show ways to alleviate their wretched condition.

In the famous essay there are eight paragraphs introductory to the statement of the shocking, burlesque proposition that the fairest, cheapest method for helping Ireland is in breeding children to be sold for meat. Nineteen paragraphs linger excruciatingly upon the “advantages” of such a plan. Then in a single paragraph, accompanied by a transitional sentence set off by itself, Swift's real propositions are proffered, the same serious proposals that form the bulk of the sermon, though here they are negatively phrased: “Therefore let no Man talk to me of other Expedients: Of taxing our Absentees at five Shillings a Pound: Of using neither Cloaths, nor household Furniture, except what is of our own Growth and Manufacture: … Of curing the Expenciveness of Pride, Vanity, Idleness, and Gaming in our Women: Of introducing a Vein of Parcimony, Prudence and Temperance: … Of teaching Landlords to have at least one Degree of Mercy towards their Tenants.” There are ten such items, thick-coming and close-packed in their single paragraph, so obviously reasonable in contrast to the insanely logical elaborate plan for eating children that (if they can be read at all in the glare of the brilliant burlesque) they seem eminently workable. It is only in this crucial paragraph that the tension, created by assent to the Proposal's persuasive tone and rejection of its dreadful “matter,” is resolved.3

Three paragraphs conclude the essay with the pretended speaker's turning attention upon himself and the kind of man he is (“But as to my self,” “After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion,” and “I profess in the sincerity of my Heart”), almost in the same manner that the sermon ends with Swift in the role of pastor, turning with familiar phrases to consideration of his flock.

Much of the tension in A Modest Proposal lies in irony that is not at first apparent, contained within a design of seemingly innocent phrases that have been artfully “planted” throughout the general structure of the essay. The patriotic or canting “dear Native Country” of the first paragraph is shown in its proper setting only after one turns back to it from the end of the essay, in which Ireland has been characterized as a place appalling to its poor, who would “think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food.” Yet before Swift's soberly intended proposals can be put into action, Ireland must become in reality a “dear Native Country” that its people have learned to love. Similarly, before one learns precisely what the method is, the method for making children useful to the public seems perfectly acceptable in its initial description as “fair, cheap, and easy.” Repeated in the penultimate paragraph these adjectives become despicable when the projector, having outlined his proposal, avows his willingness to listen to any other plan “equally Innocent, Cheap, Easy and Effectual.” The real point—one of serious wit—is that the country cannot (the Irish must learn) be saved cheaply or easily.

As in poetry, a unifying intensity is achieved throughout the structure of the Proposal by means of a verbal contrivance that has been termed “the perpetual slight alteration of language.” Words are juxtaposed in shifting combinations and in a variety of contexts: throughout the essay references to children vary from a context of seeming humanitarianism to a context of animality, and then to a context of vendible commodity, sometimes all three being expressed at once. The word “Children” appears in the title, and the final word in the piece is “Childbearing.” At the outset one's sympathy is enlisted for “Children, all in Rags,” “Children, in the Arms,” “helpless Infants,” “poor innocent Babes,” and “Children of poor Parents.” But as early as the fourth paragraph there is a clue to the animality to follow, in the reference to “a Child, just dropt from its Dam,” though the unprepared reader would never guess that this leads to a recommendation for “buying the Children alive, and dressing them hot from the Knife, as we do roasting Pigs.” After the proposal has been made, in the ninth paragraph, where “a young healthy Child” is equated with “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food,” children are predominantly considered as a commodity: “this food,” “Infant's flesh,” “the Carcass of a good fat Child,” “a new Dish,” “the Goods,” “a well grown, fat Yearling Child,” and “this kind of Commodity.” After the proposal is almost complete, in the twenty-sixth paragraph, the most offending allusion to children occurs—prepared for from the beginning—when, in a context of animality and commodity, one reads of “the poor Babes.”

Swift's sermon on the “Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland” was intended to work directly upon its hearers, whereas A Modest Proposal is indirectly expressed through dramatic fiction, with Swift acting in character and addressing a fictional audience. Swift's relationship with his reader is indirect throughout; his relationship with his created persona, the projector, is almost—but not quite—antithetical.

Believing in the unquestionable authority of statistics, the self-deluded projector expects to inspire credence with his phrases of “I calculate,” “I have reckoned,” or “I have already computed.” He is a “disinterested” businessman who accepts the economic materialism of his time as the sole grounds from which patriotic action (“good business”) can conceivably begin. He insists upon practical expedients and prides himself upon his disinterestedness.

Swift himself was anything but disinterested. It cannot be said that in 1729 he devoted his entire energy to problems of Irish welfare, for he spent a few months on the estate of friends outside Dublin and considered building a house there; returned to Dublin to find his influence as the “Drapier” courted by both candidates in the elections; received “a gammon, the product of the wilds of America” from a Philadelphia Quaker; learned that some bottles of Irish usquebaugh intended for Lord Bolingbroke had not arrived in England; and said that now he mixed water with his wine, could eat only “half a dish of meat,” still suffered from attacks of giddiness, and was reading ecclesiastical history. But he wrote with directness and passion to Alexander Pope, three months before the Proposal was advertised for sale (as an “excellent treatise”), that he was strongly agitated to see Ireland sunk in such dire circumstances:

As to this country, there have been three terrible years' dearth of corn, and every place strewed with beggars; but dearths are common in better climates, and our evils here lie much deeper. Imagine a nation the two thirds of whose revenues are spent out of it, and who are not permitted to trade with the other third, and where the pride of women will not suffer them to wear their own manufactures, even when they excel what come from abroad. This is the true state of Ireland in a very few words. These evils operate more every day, and the kingdom is absolutely undone, as I have been telling often in print these ten years past. What I have said requires forgiveness, but I had a mind for once to let you know the state of our affairs, and my reason for being more moved than perhaps becomes a clergyman, and a piece of a philosopher, and perhaps the increase of years and disorders may hope for some allowance to complaints especially when I may call myself a stranger in a strange land.4

Here in this highly affecting single paragraph the matter of the sermon and the famous essay appears in little—the seed from which the other two pieces, different as they are, grew.

In the Proposal, indirectly but unmistakably, through the translucid, chilling, mad logic of the projector, Swift can be heard speaking as clergyman and philosopher, his compassionate temper passionately moved. For the length of one sentence he merges with his created speaker when he says: “But as to my self, having been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of Success, I fortunately fell upon this Proposal.” This, I think, can be considered the voice of Swift—as in his letter to Pope—speaking for himself, expressing his rejection of attempts to assist Ireland through his serious pamphlets and sermons. Earlier in his life he had rejected his attempts to write serious odes (“There thy enchantment broke, and from this hour, / I here renounce thy visionary pow'r”). Just as he had turned his interest and talent to the invention of witty satirical verses, he now turns to the satirical structure of A Modest Proposal.5


  1. Cleanth Brooks, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (New York, 1939), pp. 226-227; Louis A. Landa, “A Modest Proposal and Populousness,” MP, XL (Nov. 1942), 161-170, and George Wittkowsky, “Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,” JHI, IV (Jan. 1943), 74-104; John M. Bullitt, “Ironic Masks,” Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire: A Study of Satiric Technique (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), pp. 56-67, Martin Price, “The Ironic Mask,” Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning (New Haven, 1953), pp. 57-74, and William Bragg Ewald, Jr., The Masks of Jonathan Swift (Oxford, 1954), pp. 163-175.

  2. Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland is extensive in scope, being a condensed statement of views that Swift treated more elaborately in the Irish tracts. … The sermon is a catalogue of complaints and indictments.” See Louis A. Landa, “Introduction to the Sermons,” in Jonathan Swift, Irish Tracts, 1720-1723, And Sermons, ed. Herbert Davis (Oxford, 1948), p. 128.

  3. F. R. Leavis sees this tension as leading to indecision and exasperated frustration in the reader's mind. “The Irony of Swift,” Determinations (London, 1934), pp. 79-108. Drawing upon Mr. Leavis's essay, Donald A. Davie calls the total effect of Swift's style in A Modest Proposal one of “painful indecision,” leading nowhere: “By comparison with Johnson and Berkeley, Swift seems sheerly irresponsible; and this is particularly true of Swift the ironist.” “Irony and Conciseness in Berkeley and in Swift,” The Dublin Mag., XXVII (Oct.-Dec. 1952), 20-29. Both Mr. Leavis and Mr. Davie ignore the vital paragraph in which Swift states his serious proposals for action. John Middleton Murry takes the paragraph of serious remedies into consideration—but as the touchstone to defeat rather than as a call to action: “His efforts had ended in smoke. … So, in the Modest Proposal, he dismisses all the measures which he had specifically urged them [the Irish Protestants] to adopt. They had refused them; he now discards them, one by one.” Jonathan Swift: A Critical Biography (London, 1954), p. 428.

    The most recent reference to A Modest Proposal in this connection is that of Northrop Frye, who stresses the necessity of structural tension in all effective satire: “The argument of Swift's Modest Proposal has a brain-softening plausibility about it: one is almost led to feel that the narrator is not only reasonable but even humane; yet the ‘almost’ can never drop out of any sane man's reaction, and as long as it remains there the modest proposal will be both fantastic and immoral. … Hence satire is irony which is structurally close to the comic: the comic struggle of two societies, one normal and the other absurd, is reflected in its double focus of morality and fantasy.” Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1957), p. 224.

  4. 11 Aug. 1729, Corr., ed. F. E. Ball (London, 1910-14), IV, 89-90. (Pope could only reply: “I truly share in all that troubles you, and wish you removed from a scene of distress, which I know works your compassionate temper too strongly.”)

  5. See my study, The Sin of Wit: Jonathan Swift as a Poet (Syracuse, 1950), pp. 1-9; and “Swift's Renunciation of the Muse,” N&Q, CXCVII (24 May 1952), 235-236.

Oliver W. Ferguson (essay date October 1959)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3054

SOURCE: Ferguson, Oliver W. “Swift's Saeva Indignatio and A Modest Proposal.Philological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (October 1959): 473-79.

[In the following essay, Ferguson refutes the prior assumption that Swift was venting his saeva indignatio at England in A Modest Proposal, and instead proposes that Swift's anger was aimed at all social classes in Ireland.]

For two hundred years readers have admired Swift's Modest Proposal as one of the greatest pieces of sustained irony in the language. No one has failed to note the brilliance with which Swift balanced the opposing tones of the tract: the economic projector's studied disinterestedness and his own rage. But too little attention has been given to the object of that rage or to Swift's real purpose in the Modest Proposal.

The traditional assumption has been that it was upon England, and not Ireland, that he was venting his saeva indignatio. Leslie Stephen called the tract “the most complete expression of burning indignation against intolerable wrongs”; and Henry Craik concluded his brief discussion of it with a passionate rhetorical question: “Can England ever forget what lies on her conscience, while Swift's Modest Proposal continues to be read?” This position has for the most part been adopted by later critics. W. A. Eddy cites Walpole, Wood, and absentee English landlords as the immediate objects of Swift's attack and sees that attack as Swift's outraged protest against the brutality of England's exploitation of Ireland. Ricardo Quintana, both in The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift and the recent Swift, An Introduction, gives only the most general account of the tract, noting its irony and Swift's consummate use of the rhetorical device termed by Pons le mythe animal. A much more important study, Louis Landa's “A Modest Proposal and Populousness,” shows Swift's use of mercantilist theory in the tract, but argues that in terms of this theory Swift's satire was doubly damaging to England because her misrule in Ireland had there invalidated universal economic laws, especially the fundamental mercantilist maxim that people are the riches of a nation. George Wittkowsky, in his “Swift's Modest Proposal: the Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,” is also interested in the part contemporary economic theory played in Swift's tract, and he reads the Modest Proposal as chiefly a parody on current expressions of this theory. Similar to this view is that of Herbert Davis, who, in The Satire of Jonathan Swift, says that Swift's irony is directed against serious proposals which “take no account of the determined policy of the English government to impoverish the Irish people.”1

It is the purpose of the present study to show that Swift's anger in the Modest Proposal was directed towards Ireland, not England, and that the tract was his carefully itemized indictment of every class of Irish life, down to and including the very beggars. Further, it will show that Swift's view of the Irish was that of the defeated moral reformer, and it will show how this view determines the mode and tone of Swift's satire in the tract. It should be made clear that such a reading does not deny England's role in Ireland's tragedy or Swift's awareness of that role (there is, of course, a reference to England in the tract); rather, it emphasizes Swift's primary aim in writing the last major piece he ever published on Irish affairs.

A Modest Proposal was written, the projector tells us, because he had “been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary Thoughts.”2 These “Thoughts” were Swift's own tracts written from 1720 to 1729, tracts which had touched on practically every aspect of Ireland's economy and which were directed solely to the Irish. In them Swift had considered the projects of other men and had advanced his own in a constant effort to stir Ireland from her lethargy—projects to establish a local mint, to introduce farm and road improvements, to encourage fair dealing among shopkeepers and tenants, and to discourage the excessive emigration that was depopulating the country. In fact, this newest proposal of 1729 was but a logical extension of a plea Swift had made unceasingly to the people of Ireland: domestic consumption of domestic products. It is in outlining the advantages of this latest plan that Swift systematically condemns the landlords, the idle rich of both sexes, the Irish poor, Protestant Dissenters, Papists, absentees, shopkeepers—in short, “the whole people of Ireland.”

The commodity, the projector admits, 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”. This, it should be noted, is a reference to Irish landlords, whether resident or absentee; as early as 1720, Swift was castigating “our Country Landlords” for their selfish unconcern with the welfare of Ireland.3 Continuing his attack on the upper classes, the projector notes that the scheme will appeal to “all Gentlemen of Fortune in the Kingdom, who have any refinement in Taste”—whose lavish manner of living Swift had sought to curb through sumptuary laws. For such epicures, a clever cook will be able to make the new delicacy “as expensive as they please”. And the “Gentlemen of Fortune” were not alone in their extravagance. At one point the projector directs a vicious aside to the women of fashion—whose ruinous demands for imported luxuries Swift had assailed for years: Though he rejects the “Refinement” of his scheme offered by a friend, that the eligible age limit of the children be extended to fourteen, he confesses that the kingdom would benefit if it could thus destroy “several plump young girls in this Town, who … appear at the Playhouse, and Assemblies in foreign Fineries, which they never will pay for”.

The lowest class of native Irish do not escape Swift's wrath: In addition to being economically advantageous, the scheme will teach the Irish poor common humaneness (the severity of the irony here attests to Swift's disgust at the brutish ways of the “mere Irish”). During his wife's pregnancy, a man will curb his usual brutality for fear of causing a miscarriage, and the new economic value of children will decrease the number of abortions and infanticides—crimes which the projector says are committed “more to avoid the Expense than the Shame”. Further, in his unwittingly callous way the projector will allow one male for every four females, because “these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages”. This charge (a strange one to make against Catholic Ireland!) is Swift's contemptuous reference to the marriages performed among the Irish poor by “couple-beggars,” Roman priests who officiated at clandestine and—certainly from an Anglican point of view—illegal ceremonies.4

Swift even found an occasion to aim a gibe at his old enemies the Dissenters. Like many other writers on Irish affairs, he was alarmed at the widespread emigration, especially by Ulster Presbyterians, that was depleting the country of its people; and he angrily rejected the Dissenters' claim that they were leaving Ireland because of Anglican oppression. The projector's scheme will decrease the number of Catholics and thus partially restore the balance which was in danger of being upset by so many “good Protestants” emigrating rather than paying tithes “against their Conscience, to an idolatrous Episcopal Curate”.

These complaints, however, are incidental to the final, cumulative indictment of the nation. Losing for a moment his willingness to yield to a better patriot, the projector exclaims, “Let no man talk to me of other Expedients,” and he then lists such “expedients.” The important thing to note here is not that these had been proposed by Swift since 1720—almost every compiler of an anthology in which the tract is reprinted has made this obvious point—but that they had been proposed to the people of Ireland. Not one even remotely applies to England; Swift does not here mention legislative or commercial restrictions. Like the proposal at hand, the rejected expedients had been in Ireland's own power to effect: to tax absentees; to use products of native growth and manufacture; to refrain from importing luxuries; to imbue all the people with a sense of morality, coöperation, and patriotism.

“The two principal Branches of Preaching,” Swift wrote in 1720, “are first to tell the People what is their Duty; and then to convince them that it is so.”5 From the Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720) to the economic treatises of 1728-29, Swift had been “preaching” to the people of Ireland, trying to convince them of their duty. It was, as he saw it, to improve to whatever degree possible Ireland's tottering economy. In a sermon on the causes of the country's condition, he acknowledged that Ireland suffered from many disadvantages “not by our own Faults,” but in the same sermon he urged the people to try “what Remedies are in our Power towards removing, at least, some Part of these Evils.”6 With the exception of their resistance to Wood's Halfpence, however, the Irish had failed in their duty. Instead of listening to the advice of men who were trying to help them, or following the simple dictates of common sense, the people persisted in the practices which, along with English oppression, contributed to their ruin. And as Ireland's “beggars” included “all Cottagers, Labourers, and Four fifths of the Farmers”, so Ireland's guilt was shared by all Irishmen: the gentry, the tradesmen, the farmers—even, in some measure, the beggars. The gentry continued to import luxuries and to neglect agriculture. The shopkeepers and common laborers continued in their knavish and sottish ways. And at the very bottom of the social scale, the beggars—more sinning than sinned against—continued to infest the country, their idleness and wretchedness representing in small the state of the whole nation: “As a great part of our publick miseries is originally owing to our own faults,” Swift wrote in 1737, “so I am confident, that among the meaner people, nineteen in twenty of those who are reduced to a starving condition, did not become so by what lawyers call the work of God … but merely from their own idleness, attended with all manner of vices, particularly drunkenness, thievery, and cheating.”7

That Swift adopted the technique of the political arithmeticians in A Modest Proposal should not obscure his intent. He was not concerned with satirizing the proposals of other writers on Irish affairs—men like Viscount Molesworth, Thomas Prior, Alexander Macaulay, Arthur Dobbs, James McCulla, and Sir John Browne. Far from disagreeing with them, Swift shared many of their economic theories. He mentioned with approval the work of Molesworth and Prior, and he openly sponsored Macaulay's Some Thoughts on the Tillage of Ireland with a prefatory letter of commendation. Nowhere in his works is there a reference to Dobbs, but he must have approved of an author who reflected so many of his own beliefs. With Browne and McCulla he was not in agreement, but in his answers to them he objected to particular proposals and not to the authors as “projectors”; and he respected their intentions.8 Whatever parody Swift employed in the Modest Proposal at the expense of such writers was to show their foolishness—like his own—in trying to help an indifferent Ireland.

When Swift's real purpose is understood, the use of le mythe animal in the Modest Proposal is seen to be more than an effective and convenient device. It is a point of view integral to Swift's judgment of Ireland. Swift is saying to the Irish, in effect, “You have acted like beasts; hence you no longer deserve the title of men.”9 A passage from a tract written some seven months before A Modest Proposal anticipates this point of view. Swift wondered, he wrote,

whether those animals which come in my way with two legs and human faces, clad, and erect, be of the same species with what I have seen very like them in England, as to the outward Shape, but differing in their notions, natures, and intellectualls more than any two kinds of Brutes in a forest, which any men of common prudence would immediately discover, by persuading them to define what they mean by Law, Liberty, Property, Courage, Reason, Loyalty, or Religion.10

These animals the preacher had tried to show their duty; but their sloth and viciousness had defeated him. “I am banished,” he wrote a friend in 1732, “to a country of slaves and beggars—my blood soured, my spirits sunk, fighting with beasts like St. Paul, not at Ephesus, but in Ireland.”11

Further, it is le mythe animal that allows Swift to make the one proposal so singularly appropriate to this abandoned nation—cannibalism. It is the Irish, not the English, who are to commit the final barbarity, the last indignity to human reason, of eating their children. And the paradox of their position accounts for the ambivalence between pity and wrath that Swift shows in the Modest Proposal. The wretchedness which surrounds him is a “melancholly Object” to Swift—the strolling mothers with their children, the young laborers unable to find work, the aged dying “as fast as can reasonably be expected.” But the more melancholy the object, the greater Swift's anger at the object itself; for he saw the Irish as at once victims and villains, by their criminal folly and selfishness devouring themselves.

If Ireland rather than England is the object of Swift's attack in the Modest Proposal, it follows that Swift is not so far removed from the ingenuous “projector” as has been supposed.12 For the projector's remedy for the Irish is a hyperbolic parallel to Swift's abandonment of them. In their conception of the Irish as beasts, Swift and the projector are one. The crucial difference is in their attitudes towards this conception: The projector's is economic; Swift's is moral.13 It is a mistake to speak of Swift interrupting in his own voice in the key “other Expedients” passage. The voice is the same, and the weary impatience with which these expedients are rejected as “visionary Thoughts” is the same. Similarly, the reference to England at the conclusion of the tract is inconsistent not because Swift drowns out the projector's voice with his own, but because he momentarily diverts the direction of his attack.14

In A Modest Proposal, ten years of warning and exhortation gave way to frustration and despair, and Swift directed the full weight of his anger not against England, or callous economists, or visionary projectors, but against Ireland herself. Savage as this expression of his anger is, a tract written in 1728 contains a passage even more terrible than any in the Modest Proposal:

If so wretched a State of Things would allow it, methinks I could have a malicious Pleasure, after all the Warning I have in vain given the Publick … to see the Consequences and Events answering in every Particular. I pretend to no Sagacity: What I writ was little more than what I had discoursed to several Persons, who were generally of my Opinion: And it was obvious to every common Understanding, that such Effects must needs follow from such Causes. … Wisdom crieth in the Streets; because I have called and ye refused; I have stretched out my Hand, and no Man regarded. But ye have set at nought all my Counsel, and would none of my Reproof. I also will laugh at your Calamity, and mock when your Fear cometh.15

Here, stripped of all irony and grounded in the authority of Scripture, is the moralist's judgment on the people of Ireland.


  1. Leslie Stephen, Swift (London, 1889), p. 165; Henry Craik, The Life of Jonathan Swift (London, 1894), ii, 155; W. A. Eddy, Swift's Satires and Personal Writings (London & New York, 1932), p. 20; Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift (London, 1953), p. 346; Quintana, Swift, An Introduction (London & New York, 1955), pp. 176-77; Louis Landa, “A Modest Proposal and Populousness,” Modern Philology, xl (1942-43), 162; George Wittkowsky, “Swift's Modest Proposal: the Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,” Journal of the History of Ideas, iv (1943), 74-104; Herbert Davis, The Satire of Jonathan Swift (New York, 1947), p. 107. In his Introduction to Vol. XII of Swift's Prose Works (Oxford, 1955), Dr. Davis modifies his earlier view to the extent of saying that the Modest Proposal was addressed to an Irish audience (p. xx). John Middleton Murry, in his Jonathan Swift (London, 1954), reads Swift's satire in too narrow a scope in seeing the Protestant ruling class in Ireland as the object of Swift's attack in the Modest Proposal (p. 429).

  2. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis (Oxford, 1955), xii, 117. All subsequent quotations from A Modest Proposal are taken from this edition.

  3. Prose Works, ed. Davis, ix, 21.

  4. See W. E. H. Lecky, A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1892), i, 382.

  5. Prose Works, ed. Davis, ix, 70.

  6. Prose Works, ed. Davis, ix, 199.

  7. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Temple Scott (London, 1925), vii, 330.

  8. Prose Works, ed. Davis, ix, 58-59; The Drapier's Letters, ed. Davis (Oxford, 1935), pp. 157 & 317; Prose Works, ed. Davis, xii, 22 & 97.

  9. It is just possible that the motif actually comes from the Americas, as the projector tells us (p. 111). In the Commentarios Reales, by Garcilaso de la Vega (1609-1617[?]; English translation, 1688), is an account of how the Peruvians ate their own children. Whether Swift knew Garcilaso is impossible to say. However, it is interesting to know that Bolingbroke probably did. In Reflections Concerning Innate Moral Principles, attributed to Bolingbroke, there is a reference to Garcilaso's “Man-Eaters” with the comment, “We should never find whole Nations butchering their Kindred, and their Offspring, as we never find whole Nations destroying themselves” (London: S. Bladon, 1752, p. 63). It was just because Swift found such a thing in Ireland that he wrote A Modest Proposal.

  10. Prose Works, ed. Davis, xii, 65.

  11. The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. F. E. Ball (London, 1910-14), iv, 357.

  12. See, for example, Ricardo Quintana, “Situational Satire: A Commentary on the Method of Swift,” University of Toronto Quarterly, xvii (1947-48), 130.

  13. The technique is similar to that in the Argument against Abolishing Christianity, where both Swift and the defender of nominal Christianity accept the necessity of the Established Church, but do so for different reasons.

  14. For an example of the view that in these passages the projector is out of character, see W. B. Ewald, The Masks of Jonathan Swift (Cambridge, Mass., 1954), pp. 171 & 173.

  15. Prose Works, ed. Davis, xii, 22-23.

Louis A. Landa (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: Landa, Louis A. “A Modest Proposal and Populousness.” In Eighteenth-Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by James L. Clifford, pp. 102-111. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[In the following essay, Landa remarks on Swift's perception that Ireland's citizens may only become a source of wealth to the nation if the country seizes its natural opportunities and resources.]

Among Swift's Irish tracts is one entitled Maxims Controlled [i.e., confuted] in Ireland, written probably about the time of A Modest Proposal (1729), though published later. In this lesser known tract Swift examined ‘certain maxims of state, founded upon long observation and experience, drawn from the constant practice of the wisest nations, and from the very principles of government.’1 His purpose was to demonstrate that however much these maxims applied to other countries they had no application to Ireland. Among the maxims examined and confuted is one that was cherished by the mercantilist economic writers of the last half of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries: that people are the riches of a nation. The passage in which this maxim is presented would seem to be the germ of A Modest Proposal:

It is another undisputed maxim in government, ‘That people are the riches of a nation’; which is so universally granted, that it will be hardly pardonable to bring it in doubt. And I will grant it to be so far true, even in this island, that if we had the African custom, or privilege, of selling our useless bodies for slaves to foreigners, it would be the most useful branch of our trade, by ridding us of a most unsupportable burthen, and bringing us money in the stead. But, in our present situation, at least five children in six who are born, lie a dead weight upon us, for want of employment. And a very skilful computer assured me, that above one half of the souls in this kingdom supported themselves by begging and thievery; whereof two thirds would be able to get their bread in any other country upon earth. Trade is the only incitement to labour; where that fails the poor native must either beg, steal, or starve, or be forced to quit his country. This hath made me often wish, for some years past, that instead of discouraging our people from seeking foreign soil, the public would rather pay for transporting all our unnecessary mortals. …2

The parallelism in ideas between this passage and A Modest Proposal is striking. In each there is the complaint that the people, for want of employment, must turn to begging and thievery, that a portion of the population is a useless burden, and that under certain conditions these useless people could become a source of wealth to the nation. The ironic solution for Ireland's economic difficulties in each instance is the selling off of human bodies, as slaves in the one case and as food in the other. In effect, Swift is maintaining that the maxim—people are the riches of a nation—applies to Ireland only if Ireland is permitted slavery or cannibalism. In both the Maxims Controlled in Ireland and A Modest Proposal populousness is overtly and impliedly made a vicious economic condition for Ireland. The methods are, of course, different in the two, with A Modest Proposal gaining its effects through broad and sustained irony but for fear that the reader may miss his telling point that people are not the riches of Ireland whatever they may be in other countries, Swift inserts at the close of A Modest Proposal a more direct statement of his purpose:

I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and was indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon earth.3

The satirical point of A Modest Proposal would have been sharpened for Swift's contemporaries to the extent to which they believed the maxim it refuted. How much more damaging to England that her drastic policies had forced Ireland outside the pale in which universally valid economic laws could operate!

An examination of economic tracts in the second half of the seventeenth century reveals constant iteration of the principle that people are the riches of a nation. Sir William Petty, whose views on Ireland were widely quoted in Swift's day, wrote that ‘Fewness of people is real poverty; and a Nation wherein are Eight Millions of People, are more than twice as rich as the same scope of Land wherein are but Four.’4 People, wrote William Petyt, the supposed author of Britannia Languens (1680), are ‘in truth the chiefest, most fundamental, and precious commodity.’5 Sir Josiah Child, great merchant and expounder of mercantilist ideas, maintained that ‘most Nations in the Civilized Parts of the World, are more or less Rich or Poor proportionably to the Paucity or Plenty of their People, and not to the Sterility or Fruitfulness of their Lands.’6 These statements are frequently repeated in the early eighteenth century. In New Essays on Trade (1702), Sir Francis Brewster wrote: ‘Nothing makes Kingdoms and Commonwealths, Mighty, Opulent and Rich, but multitudes of People; 'tis Crowds bring in Industry.’7 From Defoe came a similar expression: ‘… the glory, the strength, the riches, the trade, and all that is valuable in a nation as to its figure in the world, depends upon the number of its people, be they never so mean and poor. …’8 These are typical expressions and could be multiplied. In their context and with their supporting arguments, these expressions, it is true, are not tantamount to an unqualified assertion that people are the riches of a nation. People are conceived of as a source of riches; their labor is potential wealth but it must be utilized. As one writer expressed it, the people are ‘capital material … raw and indigested..’9

Yet often the maxim was stated without qualification or without any attempt to equate the number of people and the employment available to them, although there was likely to be an assumption that employment could be provided.10 The mercantilist wanted a large or dense population in order to keep wages low11 and manufactures cheap, a condition by which a country gained an advantage in export trade, the great desideratum of the mercantilist. As William Petyt wrote: ‘The odds in Populacy must also produce the like odds in Manufacture; plenty of people must also cause cheapnesse of wages: which will cause cheapnesse of the Manufacture; in a scarcity of people wages must be dearer, which must cause the dearnesse of the Manufacture. …’12 Mandeville was thinking in the same terms when he declared that ‘in a free Nation where Slaves are not allow'd of, the surest Wealth consists in a Multitude of laborious Poor.’13 Though the insistence on populousness received support from serious economic writers by serious arguments, the maxim was as likely as not to be set down in nontechnical and popular writings without consideration of the implications and assumptions involved, as it was, for example, in the Weekly Journal, or Saturday's Post, April 11, 1724, and in the Irish weekly, the Tribune, No. 17 (1729).

Against the uncritical enunciation of the maxim there were sporadic protests. In an Essay upon the Probable Methods of Making a People Gainer in the Ballance of Trade (1699), Charles Davenant declared: ‘Their's is a wrong Opinion who think all Mouths profit a Country that consume its Product; And it may more truthfully be affirmed, That he who does not some way serve the Commonwealth, either by being employed, or by employing Others, is not only a useless, but a hurtful member to it.’14 A similar protest came from Laurence Braddon in 1723:

But tho' Populousness be designed as the greatest Blessing to a Nation, yet, in fact, it proves a Blessing only to that Kingdom and State, where due care is taken … that none, who are willing to work, shall be forced to be Idle for want of Employment. … And where none who are able are permitted to live idle, by begging, or other more Vicious Practices. …15

Swift, too, made a protest of the same nature. In The History of the Four Last Years of the Queen, which he was writing in the trying days near the end of Anne's reign, he complained that ‘The maxim, “That people are the riches of a nation,” hath been crudely understood by many writers and reasoners upon that subject.’ At the moment his animus was directed against the Palatines, whose numbers immigrating into England had increased the population by just so many dissenters; yet he was also establishing a general point: that populousness per se is not a blessing; that a person who does not function productively in economic or political society makes the nation poorer, not richer; and that such a person is comparable, to use Swift's own figure, to a wen, which, although it makes a man fatter, is ‘unsightly and troublesome, at best, and intercepts that nourishment, which would otherwise diffuse itself through the whole body.’16

Viewed against this background, A Modest Proposal is seen to be another protest, in Swift's unique manner, against the unqualified maxim that people are the riches of a nation. The tract was written for a public in whose consciousness the maxim was firmly implanted, in the expectation that the ironic impact would thus be greater. The terrible irony in the bare maxim, divested of its supporting arguments, was even more apparent at this time than usual because of the famine conditions which prevailed in Ireland after three successive failures in harvests; and Swift takes occasion in two other tracts, one written in 1728 and one in 1729, to insist that ‘the uncontrolled maxim, “That people are the riches of a Nation,” is no maxim here under our circumstances.’17 Here, at least, was one country where populousness was not a virtue. Swift seemed to be aware—the evidence was before his eyes—of the contradiction in the mercantilist attitude that the wealth of a country was based on the poverty of the majority of its subjects. However, we must guard against endowing Swift with unusual knowledge of or insight into economic matters,18 or even seeing him as moving against the trend of mercantilist thought. His purpose was not primarily to expose an economic fallacy; it was purely propagandistic: to put the onus on England of vitiating the working of natural economic law in Ireland by denying Irishmen ‘the same natural rights common to the rest of mankind.’

It would seem, on merely logical grounds, that Swift should have favored a reduction of the population to achieve a higher level of subsistence, that he should have defended, for example, the emigration of the Irish people to the American colonies; and he did pretend to see in emigration a partial solution. In Maxims Controlled in Ireland he wrote that he has often wished ‘for some years past, that instead of discouraging our people from seeking foreign soil, the public would rather pay for transporting all our unnecessary mortals, whether Papists or Protestants, to America.’19 He repeats the view in the Intelligencer, No. 19: ‘It must needs be a very comfortable circumstance, in the present juncture, that some thousand families are gone, or going, or preparing to go, from hence, and settle themselves in America.’20 But these statements, viewed in their context, are seen to be ironic, their function being to emphasize the dire position of a country which must resort to emigration. In the light of contemporary economic theory, with its insistence on an increasing population, emigration could not be viewed with complacency; it was not acceptable as a solution. There was much concern that England's population was declining or was not increasing at a sufficiently rapid rate; and many mercantilists advocated encouragements to marriage, to achieve a higher birth rate,21 and laws to facilitate immigration.22 There were complaints that emigration to the colonies has been detrimental to the nation. ‘The peopling of the American Plantations subject to the Crown of England,’ wrote Roger Coke, ‘hath diminished the strength of England.’23 It is not, Slingsby Bethel maintained, in ‘the interest of State, to suffer such multitudes of people to pass out of his Majesties Kingdoms into other Princes Dominions, or the Western Plantations, thereby to disfurnish our selves of people; the sad consequences and effects whereof, are too visible in the misfortunes of Spain.24 The author of Britannia Languens argued in the same vein: ‘… our Plantation-Trade hath robbed and prevented us of some Millions of our People, amongst which very many being, or might have been Manufacturers, the Nation hath also lost more Millions of Pounds in the loss of their Manufactures.’25 Those Irishmen, Swift among them,26 who had observed the losses to Ireland resulting from the emigration of workers in the Irish woolen industry to France, Spain, Germany, and the Low Countries—an exodus caused by the restrictive acts passed by the English Parliament at the close of the seventeenth century—would have read such complaints understandingly.

Many mercantilists found, however, that they could reconcile emigration to colonies with the desire for an increasing population and the fear of loss of numbers. It could not be denied that by reducing the number of laborers in the nation emigration tended to raise the costs of labor and manufactures and thus to put the country in a less favorable position for advantageous foreign trade; yet it could be and was argued that colonies compensated for the disadvantages created by providing raw materials to be manufactured in the mother-country and a market for the finished products. Emigration to colonies whose trade was carefully controlled by navigation acts was justifiable, therefore, if such colonies created employment at home and swelled the exports to a value greater than that lost by the numbers who emigrated. Thus Sir Josiah Child wrote: ‘That all Colonies and foreign Plantations do endamage their Mother-Kingdom, whereof the Trades (of such Plantations) are not confined to their said Mother-Kingdom, by good Laws and severe Execution of those Laws.’27 He continued:

Plantations being at first furnished, and afterwards successively supplied with People from their Mother-Kingdoms, and People being Riches, that loss of People to the Mother-Kingdoms, be it more or less, is certainly a damage, except the employment of those People abroad, do cause the employment of so many more at home in their Mother-Kingdoms. …28

The argument is more fully expressed by John Cary:

… it having been a great question among many thoughtful Men whether our Foreign Plantations have been an advantage to this Nation, the reasons they give against them are, that they have drained us of Multitudes of our People who might have been serviceable at home and advanced Improvements in Husbandry and Manufacture; That the Kingdom of England is worse Peopled by so much as they are increased; and that Inhabitants being the Wealth of a Nation, by how much they are lessened, by so much we are poorer than when we first began to settle our Foreign Colonies; Though I allow the last Proposition to be true, that People are or may be made the Wealth of a Nation. … Its my Opinion that our Plantations are an Advantage … every one more or less, as they take off our Product and Manufactures, supply us with Commodities which may be either wrought up here, or Exported again, or prevent fetching things of the same Nature from other Princes for our home Consumption, imploy our Poor, and encourage our Navigation. …29

Such justifications, as Swift was aware, had no application to Ireland, which was itself treated as a colony, with its trade strictly controlled by the Navigation Acts in the interests of England. An emigrant from England, Holland, or France might be looked upon as a unit of economic value who would eventually return his value to the mother-country; but one could hardly apply the same economic logic to the Irish emigrant, whose country was peculiarly removed from the operations of economic law, ‘I have often taken notice,’ Swift wrote, ‘both in print and in discourse, that there is no topic so fallacious … as to argue how we ought to act in Ireland, from the example of England, Holland, France, or any other country, whose inhabitants are allowed the common rights and liberties of humankind.’30 Public-spirited Irishmen were concerned at the numbers who were departing. Even Lord Primate Boulter, whose first thought was for the welfare of England rather than for Ireland, was disturbed in 1728, when famine was widespread, at the size of the emigration. In a letter written to the Duke of Newcastle, then Secretary of State, Boulter brought the problem before the English Cabinet for possible parliamentary action:

I am very sorry I am obliged to give your Grace so melancholy an account of the state of this kingdom. … For we have had three bad harvests together there [in the north], which has made oatmeal, which is their great subsistence, much dearer than ordinary. … We have had for several years some agents from the colonies in America, and several masters of ships that have gone about the country, and deluded the people with stories of great plenty and estates to be had for going for in those parts of the world: and they have been better able to seduce people, by reason of the necessities of the poor so late. … But whatever occasions their going, it is certain that above 4,200 men, women, and children have been shipped off from hence for the West Indies within three years, and of these above 3,100 this last summer. … The whole north is in a ferment at present, and people every day engaging one another to go next year to the West Indies. The humour has spread like a contagious distemper, and the people will hardly hear any body that tries to cure them of their madness.31

Swift, too, was genuinely perturbed. In 1728 and 1729 he refers several times to the subject of emigrating Irishmen, particularly to those who are leaving for America, which for several reasons he thinks no better than Ireland. Like Boulter, he believed that they had been given false representations and that they were doomed to disappointment; yet he is not at a loss to understand their motives for going, since ‘men in the extremest degree of misery, and want, will naturally fly to the first appearance of relief, let it be ever so vain, or visionary.’32 It was at this time that Swift wrote A Modest Proposal and its lesser known companion piece, An Answer to the Craftsman. This last tract was occasioned by the license given to France to recruit Irishmen for military service in the French army; and it too is a bitter and ironic commentary, among other matters, on the subject of Ireland's depopulation by England. As he had done in A Modest Proposal, Swift makes in this tract an ironical computation of the monetary profit to Ireland from the reduction and destruction of its people. And he adds this recommendation: ‘… for fear of increasing the natives in this island, that an annual draught, according to the number born every year, be exported to whatever prince will bear the carriage, or transplanted to the English dominions on the American continent, as a screen between his Majesty's English subjects and the savage Indians.’33

What Swift wanted for Ireland was not fewer people but more opportunities—opportunities that would present themselves if England adopted a less restrictive policy, if the Irish absentees were regulated, and if the Irish people could be made to see wherein their welfare lay. He maintained, as did many contemporary Irishmen,34 that Ireland possessed the potentialities of a rich country and could, under proper conditions, easily support its population. Ireland, he wrote, ‘is the poorest of all civilized countries in Europe, with every natural advantage to make it one of the richest.’


  1. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., ed. Temple Scott (London, 1897-1908), VII. 65. This edition will hereafter be referred to as Works.

  2. Ibid., p. 70.

  3. Ibid., pp. 214-15.

  4. A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions, in The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty, ed. Charles H. Hull (Cambridge, 1899), I, 34.

  5. Reprinted in A Select Collection of Early English Tracts on Commerce, ed. J. R. McCulloch (London, 1856), p. 458.

  6. A New Discourse of Trade (London, 1698), p. 179.

  7. P. 51.

  8. Giving Alms No Charity (1704); reprinted in A Collection of Pamphlets Concerning the Poor, ed. Thomas Gilbert (London, 1787), p. 71.

  9. William Petyt, Britannia Languens, in A Select Collection. … ed. McCulloch, p. 458.

  10. See the discussion on this point in Eli F. Heckscher, Mercantilism, trans. Mendel Shapiro (London, 1935), II, 159 ff. Heckscher writes: ‘It is natural to wonder how the notion that there could never be too great a population could ever be reconciled with the anxiety concerning the insufficiency of employment. In actual fact, this contradiction was never resolved.’

  11. See Jacob Viner, Studies in the Theory of International Trade (New York and London, 1937), pp. 56-57, where it is pointed out that commentators on mercantilism have neglected to take sufficiently into account dissent—on economic and humanitarian grounds—from the dominant doctrine that low wages are desirable. Viner's first two chapters, with their clear exposition of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century economic theory and their rich documentation from writers in the period, are of great value to the student of the period.

  12. Britannia Languens, in A Select Collection …, p. 349.

  13. The Fable of the Bees, ed. F. B. Kaye (Oxford, 1924), I, 287.

  14. P. 51.

  15. To Pay Old Debts Without New Taxes (London, 1723), p. xi.

  16. Works, X, 114-15.

  17. Ibid., VII, 114, 139.

  18. There is no evidence that Swift did any extended or systematic reading in economic theory. His library contained the following: Josiah Child, Discourse on Trade (1693); Charles Davenant, Picture of a Modern Whig: with Other Tracts (1701); John Browne, Essays on the Trade and Coin of Ireland (1729); John Locke, Tracts Relating to Money, Interest and Trade (1696); William Petty, Essays in Political Arithmetick (1699); Samuel Madden, Reflections and Resolutions for the Gentlemen of Ireland (1738). I have listed these in the order in which they appear in the Sales Catalogue reprinted by Harold Williams in Dean Swift's Library (Cambridge, 1932), Nos. 276, 288, 300, 412, 435, 444. To these may be added the economic tracts of Sir William Temple.

  19. Works, VII, 70.

  20. Ibid., IX, 328.

  21. In A Modest Proposal Swift lists among the ironical advantages of his proposal that it ‘would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties’ (Works, VII, 214). Charles Davenant complained that the duties imposed on marriages and birth were detrimental: ‘a very grievous Burthen upon the poorer Sort, whose Numbers compose the Strength and Wealth of any Nation.’ He adds: ‘In order to have Hands to carry on Labour and Manufactures, which must make us Gainers in the Ballance of Trade, we ought not to deterr but rather invite Men to marry …’ (An Essay Upon the Probable Methods of Making a People Gainers in the Ballance of Trade [London, 1699], p. 33). Contrast Swift's statement in A Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars of Dublin (1737): ‘As this is the only Christian country where people contrary to the old maxim, are the poverty and not the riches of the nation, so, the blessing of increase and multiply is by us converted into a curse: and, as marriage hath been ever countenanced in all free countries, so we should be less miserable if it were discouraged in ours, as far as can be consistent with Christianity (Works, VII, 330).

  22. In The History of the Four Last Years of the Queen, Swift makes an interesting application of the maxim, that people are the riches of a nation, to the problem of immigration (Works, IX, 114-15). On the immigration and naturalization of foreigners see Slingsby Bethel, An Account of the French Usurpation Upon the Trade of England (London, 1679), p. 15; Charles Davenant, Discourses on the Public Revenues and Trade of England (London, 1698), II, 199; William Wood, A Survey of Trade (London, 1718), pp. 299 ff.

  23. A Treatise Wherein is Demonstrated that the Church and State of England are in Equal Danger with the Trade of It (London, 1671), p. 26.

  24. An Account of the French Usurpation upon the Trade of England (London, 1679), p. 16.

  25. P. 370.

  26. Any reader of the Irish tracts will recall examples of Swift's laments about the Irish woolen industry.

  27. P. 194.

  28. Ibid., p. 195.

  29. An Essay on the State of England, in Relation to its Trade, Its Poor, and Its Taxes (Bristol, 1695), pp. 65-66.

  30. Works, VII, 196; see also VII, 66, 123, 339.

  31. Letters Written by His Excellency Hugh Boulter … to Several Ministers of State in England (Dublin, 1770). I, 209-10.

  32. Works, IX, 330; see also VII, 120, 123.

  33. Ibid., VII, 222. Compare this passage with what Swift has to say in the Intelligencer, No. 19, on the conditions which confront the Irish emigrant to America: ‘The English established in those colonies, are in great want of men to inhabit that tract of ground, which lies between them, and the wild Indians who are not reduced under their dominion. We read of some barbarous people, whom the Romans placed in their armies, for no other service, than to blunt their enemies' swords, and afterward to fill up trenches with their dead bodies. And thus our people who transport themselves, are settled in those interjacent tracts, as a screen against the insults of the savages, and may have as much land, as they can clear from the woods, at a very reasonable rate, if they can afford to pay about a hundred years' purchase by their labor’ (Works, IX, 329-30).

  34. Cf. John Browne, An Essay on Trade in General, and on That of Ireland in Particular (Dublin, 1728), pp. 38-39; George Berkeley, The Querist (1735), Nos. 123-24, 132-34, 272-73; Some Thoughts on the Tillage of Ireland (Dublin, 1738), pp. 52 f.

Charles Allen Beaumont (essay date fall 1960)

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SOURCE: Beaumont, Charles Allen. “Swift's Classical Rhetoric in A Modest Proposal.Georgia Review 14, no. 3 (fall 1960): 307-17.

[In the following essay, Beaumont comments on the employment of rhetoric and its significance in A Modest Proposal.]

Jonathan Swift had little confidence in man's using his reasoning powers; therefore it is not surprising that he turned to the persuasive power of classical rhetoric to convince man of his sins and follies and to indicate right action. Having been thoroughly trained in classical rhetoric at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin, Swift made extensive use of the non-argumentative devices of ancient rhetoric in both his ironical and his non-ironical work. His non-ironical rhetoric, such as his sermons, he called “plain honest stuff”; his highly ironical work can be referred to (as he did to an early pamphlet of his) as “grave formal lies.” One such grave formal lie is A Modest Proposal, the irony of which is built by and sustained by the devices of classical rhetoric, even to its very structure, which Swift modeled on the five-part classical oration. (The Exordium is paragraphs 1-7; the Statement of Facts, 8-16; a set, classical Digression, 17-19; the Proof 20-28; the Refutation, 29-30; and the Peroration, 31-33.) The classical form of the essay is itself an important constituent of Swift's irony, for the projector's addressing his readers through an ancient and learned form helps allay any suspicion of radical newness. The revolutionary new proposal to sell the babies of Ireland for food for the rich is insinuated in a traditional, respected form.

Aristotle has said that there are only three kinds of proof for a speech: the ethical proof, which springs from the moral character of the speaker; the emotional, which puts the hearer into a certain frame of mind; and the logical, which proves or seems to prove. Swift has heavily relied upon Aristotle's ethical proof for his essay by creating a particular economic projector as the “author” of his modest proposal. Within the ironic inversion, the projector is humane, self-confident, reasonable, competent, and somewhat exhausted in his attempts to improve his native kingdom.

The humanity of the projector is immediately revealed in the opening words of the address. While he is moving his audience to pity with his description of the “melancholly Object of those, who walk through the streets of this great Town” and see mothers with ragged and starving children strolling to beg, he is indicating his own humane inclinations, for he is also capable of being moved to such pity. His sensibilities quite offended, the projector rejects a proffered “Refinement” to his proposal (that young lads and maidens be used in place of venison) because “some scrupulous People might be apt to censure such a Practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon Cruelty; which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest Objection against any Project, how well soever intended.”

In the last paragraph of the essay the projector assures the reader of his great sincerity and unselfish motives: “I PROFESS, in the Sincerity of my Heart, that I have not the least personal Interest, in endeavouring to promote this necessary Work. … I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Child-bearing.” This last sentence gives two more pieces of information important to the character of the pleader. He is not a childless man who can propose such a solution in ignorance of a father's feelings, and he will not gain personally from the adoption of the proposal.

Because the projector is sometimes thought of as the ingénu type, a somewhat diffident, inexperienced person who has come upon the scene without being in complete touch with the whole situation, it has not been sufficiently noticed that he is at the same time a bit cocksure. In creating his projector, Swift faced a rhetorical problem that required careful balancing of these contrasting characteristics in one person. He had to make his projector humble enough to gain the reader's approval and sympathy and assured enough to gain the reader's confidence. Further, Swift had to keep the projector sufficiently dense to sustain the irony. The self-confidence of the projector is first indicated in the second paragraph: a bit presumptuously, he looks forward to seeing himself commemorated with a statue for being a “Preserver of the Nation.” His sureness of himself and of the efficacy of his proposal is revealed in the opening sentence of the Statement of Facts (the part of a speech in which the situation is narrated and the thesis to be proved is stated): “I SHALL NOW therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts; which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection.” This sentence is echoed in the first sentence of the Refutation: “I CAN think of no one Objection, that will possibly be raised against this Proposal; unless it should be urged, that the Number of People will be thereby much lessened in the Kingdom.” But this concession is quickly turned to his advantage by his claiming that this was indeed one of his motives.

The projector stands in marked contrast to “SOME Persons of desponding Spirit” who are in as great concern for the aged as he is for the youth. He asserts that he is “not in the least Pain upon that Matter”: one could not reasonably expect the aged to be taken care of any more rapidly than they are by death, famine, and the like.

The projector speaks out boldly in introducing his Proof: “I think the Advantages by the Proposal which I have made are obvious, and many, as well as of the highest Importance.” And he proceeds to list and describe six of these advantages, but finally (implying that there are too many to list) he summarizes the rest. Argument from a wealth of sources indicates the firmness of the projector's position.

Closely related to the self-confidence of the pleader is his competence in dealing with the subject at hand. He gives abundant evidence of his capability. First, he has not burst into print thoughtlessly: “As to my own Part, having turned my Thoughts for many Years, upon this important Subject, and maturely weighed the several Schemes of other Projectors, I have always found them grosly mistaken in their Computation.” He then plunges into a barrage of mathematical calculations, which of course indicate his painstaking work and thought on the subject.

In addition to such verbal indicants of competence, the whole movement of the proof reflects the strong debater arguing from a wealth of material. Six carefully thought out advantages are brought forward in such a way as to imply that he could continue listing advantages indefinitely, but finally he stops, being (as he says) “studious of Brevity.” His two large rhetorical questions in paragraph thirty-two which he poses to would-be answerers complement this listing by indicating movingly and thoroughly the consequences which will obtain if the proposal is not accepted. Thus, both through careful attention to the smallest detail and through the marshalling of the whole movement of the essay, Swift has succeeded in creating an aura of rightness in the carefully calculated and convincingly presented proposal.

Swift has amply provided for the reasonableness of his projector. As we have just noticed, the projector's having turned his thoughts on this matter for “many Years” suggests a reasonable rather than a rash pleader. He is certainly open to better proposals: “AFTER all, I am not so violently bent upon my own Opinion, as to reject any Offer proposed by wise Men, which shall be found equally cheap, easy, and effectual.” The conservative basis of his mathematics further demonstrates the projector's reasonableness. In establishing 30,000 as the number of couples who can maintain their own children, he is apprehensive “there cannot be so many, under the present Distresses of the Kingdom. …” In allowing that of the 20,000 reserved for breeders, only one-fourth be males, the projector through concession emphasizes the generosity of his calculation, for this proportion “is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine.

Most of the concessions are of little importance to the projector's central argument, but their use, where they cannot damage the proposition, is standard classical use of concession and tends to create an impression of the projector's reasonableness and lack of dogmatism.

This impression is reinforced by the projector's readiness to defer to others, as in such expressions as “with due Deference to so excellent a Friend, and so deserving a Patriot” and “I think, with humble Submission.”

I have said that the projector is a bit cocksure. He is also manifestly humble and modest. The proposal is a “Modest” one. It is introduced in generally modest terms: “I SHALL NOW therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts. …”; “I do humbly offer to publick Consideration. …” Swift has blended these two qualities of his projector in such a way that both are convincing and that neither quality overshadows the other. The result is a pleader whose humility is justifiably tempered by the sure knowledge that he has something to offer Ireland, to her everlasting benefit.

These are the explicit indicants of the moral character of the pleader; they are reinforced and dramatized by the whole tone of the essay. From this stable personality Swift allows only one outburst of real anger and pathos. It occurs at the climax of the essay, when the patient but exhausted old projector, “having been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary Thoughts,” turns in righteous indignation to insist, “THEREFORE, I repeat, let no Man talk to me of these and the like Expedients; till he hath, at least, a Glimpse of Hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere Attempt to put them in Practice.

Classical rhetoricians recommend the device of diminution, the use of the lesser term to name a thing or the implying of the worse motive for an act. Swift has made diminution the informing device of the entire essay; it underlies the whole animal motif. The diminution of man to animal Mr. Quintana sees in its perfected form in Book IV of Gulliver's Travels and in A Modest Proposal. It is, he says, perhaps the “most devastating weapon ever used by a satirist.” (The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift, p. 43.)

The most obvious form of diminution is the use of the lesser noun to refer to people. Strolling mothers are “Beggars of the female Sex.” As if speaking of any animal, the projector comments that “It is true a Child, just dropped from its Dam, may be supported by her Milk for a solar Year with little other Nourishment. …” The couples are referred to only as “Breeders.” There will be no lack of people willing to set up butchery shambles in Dublin; however, he recommends “buying the Children alive, and dressing them hot from the Knife, as we do roasting Pigs.” As if referring to cattle, the projector calculates that since the cost of maintaining 100,000 children after the age of two can be estimated at not less than ten shillings annually, “the Nation's Stock will be thereby increased Fifty Thousand Pounds per annum. …” Not only will a “well-grown fat yearling Child” well grace a Lord Mayor's feast, but also the projector can depend upon the pride of women as to “which of them could bring the fattest Child to the Market.” At the beginning of the mathematical calculations the people are referred to as “Souls,” but at the end they have become “Creatures in human Figure” and “Mouths and Backs.”

It is easy to get the impression from reading the essay casually that Swift creates the animal transfer by avoiding the use of terms appropriate to human beings. But such is not quite true. Mother, father, child, children, babe, youth, lad, maiden, infant are liberally sprinkled through the essay. With the exception of the word carcass (used in reference to children three times) all of the other nouns applied to children are food terms. In addition to the use of the lower term, Swift effects the animal diminution by juxtaposition of a modifier and a noun, as in “yearling Child.” Rhetorically, the projector's varying the normal term with the animal term serves to keep the reader off guard, with the result that if the reader begins to expect the animal term, he is fooled. The effect is that one term is just as normal as the other. The animal terms are slipped in unobtrusively; they are never insisted upon.

As if the diminution of human beings to animals were not strong enough, the irony is intensified by a species of redoubled diminution: the animal becomes food. The progression thus becomes man to animal to food (with the obvious implication that man is an animal or worse for eating such food, there being relatively few animals which eat their own kind). Notice, for example, the final step in the diminution to food in the following statements: 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 Fricasie, or Ragoust.” Swift renders literally the mercantile maxim that the people are the wealth of a nation: these babies are the wealth of Ireland.

Swift refers to the parents by the best name sixteen times, by the impersonal or neutral term twenty-eight times (such nouns as women, cottagers, labourers, males, females), and by the animal name eight times. Naming them most frequently by the impersonal middle term is consistent with his purpose of neutralizing these human beings so that, on the eight occasions of referring to them in animal terms, easy acceptance results. By firmly establishing the middle term, Swift has not had to make the broad jump from human being to animal; he moves only from the middle term to the animal term.

The acceptance of the parents as breeders of animals makes the acceptance of babies as animals much easier. Thus, by natural sequence, the parents-as-animal diminution serves as preparation for the babies-as-animal diminution. It further allows for the larger number of references to the children as animals and food. Swift refers to the children by the best name twenty-nine times, by the impersonal name sixteen times (lads, maidens, male, young person, girl), and by the animal term twenty-four times (venison, flesh, carcass, food, commodity, yearling child). The low incidence of the middle term in naming children results from the foundation laid by its high incidence in naming parents. This balance results not from a chronological sequence in the essay but from the sequence in nature, that the offspring will naturally be like the parents. Building the diminution carefully in this manner, Swift was free then to push the terrible juxtaposition of the two extremes, the best name coupled with the animal or food term for children.

If such man-to-animal diminution stood alone in the essay, it would no doubt be so offensive that it would defeat its intended purpose of persuading the reader. However, as Swift has blended the operation of this device with the functioning of the several devices, the whole resultant fabric of the irony is made so tightly knit that this particular use of diminution is one highly successful and basic to the whole essay. The steady reiteration of this diminution tends to establish it in the reader's mind as a norm, and thus the rhetorical device is one of the means of establishing the ironic norm of the essay.

Refining is the third most significant device of classical rhetoric used in this essay. Refining “consists in dwelling on the same topic and yet seeming to say something new.” (Rhetorica ad Herennium. IV. x/ii. 54.) It can be accomplished by a variation in words, in delivery, or in treatment. The device appears in Swift's essay in a much subtler form than the author of Ad Herennium had in mind. Swift's use of refining is akin to what Mr. Martin Price has called “redefinition”: in referring to something, Swift varies the word until finally the word or phrase has a new meaning, a meaning which Swift intended it to have all along but which he carefully avoided expressing immediately. (Swift's Rhetorical Art: a Study in Structure and Meaning, pp. 28-30.)

For example, the proposal is ostensibly designed for the children of professional beggars, who hardly make up a majority of the population. Swift must redefine “professional Beggar” so as to include all of the poor within this term. The pride of the poor being as great as the pride of the rich, Swift eases the redefinition in by “refining” it, by varying the terms without seeming to dwell on them. This is accomplished in three steps and reinforced in a fourth. The pitiful strollers in the opening paragraph are said to be beggars (whether technically or not is not made clear). In paragraph three the projector states, “BUT my Intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the Children of professed Beggars: It is of a much greater Extent, and shall take in the whole Number of Infants of a certain Age, who are born of Parents, in effect as little able to support them as those who demand our Charity in the Streets.” The two groups are put on one footing, but they remain in two groups. In the next several paragraphs they remain “the Children of the Poor,” beggars not being mentioned. Swift waits until the fourteenth paragraph to push the identification: “I HAVE already computed the Charge of nursing a Beggar's Child (in which List I reckon all Cottagers, Labourers, and Four fifths of the Farmers. …” The identification is complete, and it has been accomplished by a quite casual parenthesis. The word beggar is used only once again in the essay: in the peroration, where the projector adds “those who are Beggars by Profession, to the Bulk of Farmers, Cottagers, and Labourers, with their Wives and Children, who are Beggars in Effect.” Through such refining Swift has steered a precarious course: he has made the identification of the poor and the beggars, and at the same time he has refined so subtly that he has not impugned the dignity of the group in whose behalf he is writing.

But all of Swift's refining is not so gentle; neither is it aimed at redefinition. The landlords fare far worse. The word landlord (or its equivalent “Gentlemen of Fortune and Pleasure,” the rich, etc.) occurs eleven times. The refining is merely verbal, and these words occur with iterative force to emphasize the idea that the landlords will be the main eaters of this new food, they having been the causers of the starvation and destitution. This accusation is prepared for in paragraphs six through ten, in which the new food is discussed. Who will eat it is only implied, until finally late in paragraph ten, the projector states that these babies are to be “offered in Sale to Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom. …” The verb offered does not yet explicitly mean that those persons will accept the offer. Then in paragraph twelve the projector concedes that the 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 for the Children.” From this bold statement forward the idea is not allowed to rest: “no Gentleman would repine to give Ten Shillings for the Carcase of a good fat Child,” the flayed carcasses will “make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen,” “all Gentlemen of Fortune in the Kingdom, who have any Refinement of Taste” and “who justly value themselves upon their Knowledge of good Eating,” etc. The stream of such expressions is almost incessant, until in the peroration it reaches a climax: in the final paragraph in the recapitulation the landlords are given the strong final position in a series: “and giving some pleasure to the Rich.

Isolating these examples tends to give the impression that Swift's amazingly frequent repetition of this idea is merely gross pounding at a theme. However, as each instance appears in full context, Swift's subtlety is fully appreciated. Swift's use of refining is a rhetorical device contributing to the reader's acceptance of the irony, because its operation is pervasive, it works by indirection and by implication, it is manipulated through a careful handling of the language in each sentence, and because, when it appears, the reader's attention is frequently fixed elsewhere (on the idea of the sentence rather than on the method of the sentence).

For A Modest Proposal Swift uses ethical proof, diminution, and refining as the major rhetorical devices to construct the irony. In addition he has woven a tight fabric of many lesser devices, which, although they do not necessarily create the irony, do buttress the irony and contribute to the classical texture of the essay. These are appeal to authority, ocular demonstration, interrogation, argument from elimination, accumulation, litotes, direct appeal to the auditor's emotions and prejudices, and parenthesis. For our present purposes, let us examine three of these—appeal to authority, litotes, and parenthesis—in order better to see the subtle Dean's method.

Aristotle recommends appeals to several kinds of authorities: individual persons, proverbs (which contain the wisdom of the race), and the opinion “held by the majority, or the wise, or all or most of the good.” (Rhet. II. xxiii. 12.) The projector's most famous single authority is “a grave Author, an eminent French Physician” Rabelais. He has also consulted “a principal Gentleman in the County of Cavan,” “our Merchants,” and “a very knowing American.” But more important than these specific authorities is the projector's implying the tacit or even eager participation of the poor and the rich of Ireland in the proposal, with the result that the whole society seems to participate and the basis of the ironic inversion is made to lie far beyond the bounds of the essay itself.

Although Swift sometimes dramatically and powerfully breaks through the surface of his ironic essays, in this one he chooses to maintain a smooth ironic surface, and at those few places where the irony becomes quite thin so that the ironist can “tip his hand” it is fascinating to see Swift slip in a single little litotes and thus maintain his ironic pose. The projector admits that this new food “will be somewhat dear.” All except one of the ironic veils is lifted in order to state a terrible truth, with only the one word “somewhat” holding the thin thread of irony as the observation darts for the moment to the very edge of the fine line between irony and simple truth. Swift achieves the same effect when the projector admits that the proposal might be objected to as “a little bordering upon Cruelty.” The single phrase “a little bordering upon” holds the ironic structure tightly together during the moment that the ironist, brushing aside all except one thin layer of irony, allows his reader a glimpse into the heart of the matter.

In addition to the more customary uses of parenthesis, Swift puts this device to an unusually effective use. Referring to the lack of employment for farmers, the projector says, “We neither build Houses, (I mean in the Country) nor cultivate Land. …” The projector does not mean primarily that construction jobs are lacking; he means that no great plantation houses are being built and that therefore no agricultural jobs are being created. Much later in the essay, the projector states that Dublin alone would “take off, annually, about Twenty Thousand Carcasses; and the rest of the Kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining Eighty Thousand.” The parenthesis again emphasizes the unfruitful conditions in the country areas. He has told his readers of the destitution in Dublin, and through these parentheses he leaves it to the reader to imagine the situation in the country. The wealth of argument which the projector enjoys is so vast that only through these two parentheses does he have space even to indicate some lines of proof for his proposal. This is one of the most subtle refinements Swift has given to a standard rhetorical device.

A Modest Proposal is a brilliant example of the use of non-argumentative devices of rhetorical persuasion. The whole essay, of course, rests broadly upon argument of cause and effect: these causes have produced this situation in Ireland, and this proposal will result in these effects in Ireland. But Swift, within the general framework of the argument, does not employ specific argumentative forms in this essay. The projector chooses rather to assert his reasons and then to amass them by way of proof. In introducing the proof, he states “I think the Advantages by the Proposal which I have made, are obvious, and many, as well as of the highest Importance.” The fact that his reasons are “obvious” indicates that they need not be proved by argument. After having listed the sixth reason, he states that many more advantages could be “enumerated.” This last word indicates that he is making no effort to prove but just to list. This refusal to argue is of course a persuasive device in itself, for it places the whole proposal upon the plane of obvious fact, necessary truth, rather than upon the plane of argued postulates which are open to debate.

Although the essay is not logically complex, it is extremely complex rhetorically. Swift's ironic norm is established by the pervasive tone of diminution (human beings to animals) and by the projector's sustained point of view as an economist (his mathematics, his dealing with people only as statistical abstractions, his assuming that everyone will participate in this new industry). The human flesh is so consistently regarded as just another commodity that the whole society is finally drawn into participation in the project—the producers, the sellers, and the consumers. This complete involvement of all classes of citizens into the scheme is arrived at by the subtle use of rhetorical devices—especially by the processes of diminution (for producers) and refining (for consumers). The ironic norm is so thoroughly established that if the reader demurs, he will find himself to be the only one out of step.

In addition to the extensive use of these two devices, there is the fundamental ethical proof which informs the whole essay. Swift has fully exploited the possibilities of this proof by his thorough development of the character of the projector, whose personality is evident either implicitly or explicitly in every paragraph of the essay. And within these elaborately employed devices are manipulated the rhetorical devices which Swift uses less often: his direct and implied authorities; his appeal to the emotions through ocular demonstration and through the prejudices of the Irish and the Anglo-Irish; his rhetorical interrogation to allow him to assert strongly while he seems only to question mildly; his use of elimination, whereby all other proposals except his are swept aside; his uncanny use of litotes to hold the ironic pose by a single fine wire while truth is allowed to peek through for a moment; his effortless use of parentheses to indicate whole areas of reasons which have had to be crowded out of the main line of proof; his repeatedly implied refusal to argue the “obvious.” By the consummate skill with which Swift has interlocked these several devices of classical rhetoric, he has created A Modest Proposal. To appreciate how fundamental the classical rhetoric is to the very texture and irony of the essay, one need merely ask himself what the essay would be like if Swift had not availed himself of the long tradition of such rhetoric as it reached right down to Swift's own school days. The answer that this “grave formal lie” simply would not exist in its present perfection would be a conservative reply.

Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr. (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1962

SOURCE: Rosenheim, Edward W., Jr. “The Satiric Victim.” In Swift and the Satirist's Art, pp. 37-108. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

[In the following excerpt, Rosenheim provides a brief review of the satire in Swift's observations of the economy in A Modest Proposal.]

Strangely enough, A Modest Proposal1 presents the reader with some of the same difficulties that are encountered in the Argument [against Abolishing Christianity]. With the exception of Gulliver's Travels, Swift's grotesque argument for infant cannibalism as a solution to the problems of Ireland is certainly the most widely read of his works. And it may be argued that the ordinary reader has little difficulty in understanding A Modest Proposal or in responding with shocked fascination to the incomparably outrageous method by which Swift suggests that a tragic human problem be overcome.

In subsequent discussion, we shall note the importance of Swift's uniquely memorable fiction, in itself, as a source of the appeal which A Modest Proposal has retained through the centuries. For the moment, however, let us concern ourselves with the work as a satiric attack and again raise the question which is primary for the analysis of satire. What is the object of Swift's attack in this famous document?

It may, of course, be argued that Swift's chief purpose is to reveal, in the most arresting possible terms, the full horror of the Irish economic situation. And certainly this is one of the achievements of the tract since, in effect, the “proposer” adopts a posture in which he implies that cannibalism is a reasonable alternative to an unspeakable status quo. When, however, we assert that the chief effect of the tract is to underscore the lamentable condition of the Irish peasantry, we court difficulties. It is true that, as a preliminary to the proposal itself, Swift is able to provide an appalling—and, one judges, not excessively distorted—view of the hopeless squalor and suffering which afflict his countrymen. Yet how does the “proposal” itself serve to reinforce this distressing picture? The answer one is tempted to give is that the proposal is no more shocking than the state of affairs which actually exists. Yet this implies that the proposal is therefore authentic, that the document is an affirmative, literal argument, that we are to take the author's position seriously—and that, in short, we are dealing not with satire but with a straightforward advocacy of the most revolting economic project ever to occur to a Western mind.

That such an interpretation is unthinkable need not, I hope, be argued. It is clear, from the scrutiny of all that has been written about A Modest Proposal, that thoughtful readers of the tract refuse to accept its argument literally, seek beyond Swift's apparent attitude for some essential object of attack, and, in effect, regard the work as satiric in substantially the terms which we have been employing to define this species of writing. Such responses have led to a number of illuminating suggestions concerning the true direction which is taken by the work. One of the most common conclusions to be offered is that the ultimate object of satiric attack is the English—and sometimes more specifically, English legislators, landlords, or economic apologists. From such an approach, Swift's persona can be seen—as he is in the Argument—to represent his satiric victim; the extravagant inhumanity of his proposal is thus construed as a distortion (or perhaps merely a reductio ad absurdum) of English indifference to the most basic matters of human need when they are manifested in Ireland. The acceptance of such an interpretation, however, is difficult for several reasons, The persona is not identified in any way with a position that might be characteristic of the English. Indeed, throughout the text he is clearly addressing his Irish countrymen and regards the nation as his own.2 Moreover, we have, in the Drapier's Letters and elsewhere, abundant evidence of the kind of viciousness in practice and policy with which Swift is willing to tax the English nation; in A Modest Proposal, however, we are allowed to see, at most, the consequences of English evil, and it is Irish policy, or lack thereof, in the face of these consequences which occupies the writer.

Efforts to locate the object of satiric attack with greater precision have also led to the view that the Modest Proposal is largely a parody or derisive caricature of writings which have preceded it. And certainly in the glib and pseudo-systematic working-out of particulars and anticipation of objections there are mocking echoes of what must have been familiar discussions of Irish problems.3 There is likewise, without doubt, a derisive distortion of influential economic theories, particularly, as Professor Landa has pointed out, those of the mercantilists.4 The question remains, however, whether the bleak clarity with which the Irish plight is represented, the savage resentment which it has engendered, and the repellent solution which is offered can be satisfactorily explained as assaults upon either the substance or the language of previously published attempts to deal with the problems of the Irish.

As is so often true in Swift's satire, there are several victims against whom, by a single comprehensive satiric fiction, appropriate thrusts are delivered. But at the same time, only one end can account for all of the means which the writer has employed in the Modest Proposal, and one candidate alone qualifies as the principal goal of Swift's attack. The central satiric victim in this tract, as in the Argument against Abolishing Christianity, is the audience for whom the work is primarily intended. The audience—and satiric target—are the Irish people themselves; or, more explicitly, that part of the people of Ireland which determines the country's policies. Swift here is again the angry preacher, bent upon the exposure of the lethargy and obtuseness of his congregation. The “melancholly Object” which is the spectacle of Irish poverty is, after all, the occasion for the tract, but the plain facts about Irish populousness must have been lamentably familiar to Swift's original readers. The elaborate, systematic advocacy of the proposal, with its resemblance to the manner in which other “projects” have been couched, strikes passing satiric blows at victims ranging from absentee Anglo-Irish Protestants to the prolific Irish peasantry. But the crucial impact of the satire becomes unmistakable only belatedly, in the famous passage which asserts that this remedy is calculated “for this one individual Kingdom of IRELAND, and for no other that ever was, is, or I think ever can be upon Earth.”

Therefore, [Swift goes on] let no man talk to me of other Expedients: of taxing our Absentees at five Shillings a Pound: of using neither Cloaths, nor Household Furniture except what is of our own Growth and Manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the Materials and Instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the Expensiveness of Pride, Vanity, Idleness, and Gaming in our Women: Of introducing a Vein of Parsimony, Prudence, and Temperance: Of learning to love our Country, wherein we differ even from LAPLANDERS, and the Inhabitants of TOPINAMBOO: Of quitting our Animosities, and Factions; nor act any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very Moment their City was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our Country and Consciences for nothing: Of teaching Landlords to have, at least, one Degree of Mercy towards their Tenants. Lastly, Of putting a Spirit of Honesty, Industry, and Skill into our Shop-keepers; who, if a Resolution could now be taken to buy only our native Goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the Price, the Measure, and the Goodness; nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair Proposal of just Dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it

(pp. 116-17).

What is immediately clear about these “other Expedients” is that they represent the precise steps which Swift has long advocated.5 And when this fact is recognized, the entire context of the Modest Proposal becomes clear. Writing to Pope in the year previous to the publication of this tract, Swift denies all motives of disinterested altruism in his concern for Irish affairs. “I do profess,” he says, “without affectation, that your kind opinion of me as a patriot, since you call it so, is what I do not deserve; because what I do is owing to perfect rage and resentment, and the mortifying sight of slavery, folly, and baseness about me, among which I am forced to live.”6

In the light of this kind of statement, A Modest Proposal is very close to a direct expression of Swift's rage and disgust, and the persona, driven by the obdurate rejection of every reasonable “other expedient” into the advocacy of a final, outrageous solution, is not very different from the historic figure of the bitterly frustrated Dean of St. Patrick's.

We are bound to discover in this document the sort of conceit which, for many readers, is memorable because of its unique Swiftian amalgam of wild fancy and perverse logic. We likewise recognize a variety of satiric assaults which find their mark in such diversified phenomena as anti-Catholicism, sexual irregularity, the follies of people of fashion, and, as we have suggested, most notably the economic projectors, among them those who had offered prescriptions for Irish problems. The principal satiric achievement, however, must be seen as persuasive and, indeed, once more a “homiletic” one. Swift is concerned with providing, for an audience whom he regards as lethargic and foolish, the most devastating assessment of their own condition and with arguing, almost literally, that as they have rejected all reasonable courses of action, the incredibly repellent proposal he advances is at least better than doing nothing.

This is, in truth, an address to and an assault upon “this one individual Kingdom of Ireland,” for, whatever Swift may have felt about the English conduct of Irish affairs, within this document it is the Irish who are plainly taxed with bringing about their own deplorable condition. The so-called “paradox” of Swift's furious nationalism is illuminated rather than complicated by A Modest Proposal. For a people who should, he believes, truthfully “think it a great happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old,” Swift offers, in his anger, a prescription for virtual race suicide which is no more shocking than the state of affairs at which, through the folly of their own national policy, they have already arrived.


  1. Textual references to A Modest Proposal can be found in Prose Works, XII, 107-18.

  2. E.g., “this great Town” (p. 109); “For we can neither employ them …” (p. 110); “this one individual Kingdom of Ireland” (p. 116); “by advancing our Trade” (p. 118).

  3. See Davis' Introduction, Prose Works, XII, xx-xxi.

  4. A Modest Proposal and Populousness,” Modern Philology, XL (1942), 161-70, and “Swift's Economic Views and Mercantilism,” ELH, X (1943), 310-35. See also George Wittkowsky, “Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,” Journal of the History of Ideas, IV (1943), 75-104. Wittkowsky points to rather clear analogies between Swift's style and putative purpose and the writings of those economic projectors who practiced “political arithmetic”; his case might, indeed, have been strengthened by noting the association of such a founder of the new economic science as Sir William Petty with the Royal Society (and particularly its Irish correspondents) during the period (1682-85) when the Philosophical Transactions furnished abundant material for Swift's future attacks on the projectors. To imply, however, that even “from the point of view of the student of political economy” (p. 104) the tract is a parody of mercantilist theories, is to ignore the facts—largely economic—of Irish wretchedness and apathy which, in 1729, were Swift's most passionate concern.

  5. See earlier “Irish Tracts” in Prose Works, XII, 1-90 passim, including Intelligencer, No. 19 (pp. 54-61).

  6. Correspondence, IV, 34.

John W. Tilton (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: Tilton, John W. “The Two ‘Modest Proposals’: A Dual Approach to Swift's Irony.” Bucknell Review 14, no. 3 (1966): 78-88.

[In the following essay, Tilton suggests that A Modest Proposal may be interpreted in two different ways; one concerning the aesthetic art of satire and the other as a contemporaneous utilitarian commentary.]

Supposedly agreement was reached long ago on the peculiar mode of Swift's irony in A Modest Proposal. If any principle seemed to be established in Swiftian criticism it is that a persona functions as the putative author of the Proposal. In the public-spirited Irish economist who methodically, reasonably develops a plan to alleviate the distress of the Irish poor, Swift is parodying the political arithmeticians of the time and exploding their basic tenet, the popular economic dictum that “People are the riches of a nation.”

But this recognition of a putative author created by Swift to be the morally obtuse advocate of a scheme whose monstrosity he cannot perceive has nearly always been qualified by one serious reservation, to wit, that Swift either did not intend the persona to be consistent or, overpowered by his savage indignation, could not maintain the cool ironic pose. Almost all the critics assert that Swift deliberately violates the persona by breaking through to speak directly in propria persona. As the most recent proponent of this view puts it, “It is possible … for critics to talk of Swift's abandoning his mask inopportunely. … For, whenever Swift steps outside his assumed personality, and lets his beliefs overpower him, his ‘second voice’ assumes a strident, critical tone out of keeping with his persona.”1 The frequency with which critics hear Swift's voice in one passage or another makes this stricture seem well taken. Although doubt may be raised by the fact that rarely do any two critics agree on precisely where Swift breaks through,2 the effect of written criticism of the Proposal has been to perpetuate the image of Swift as an enraged satirist who, unable to restrain himself from pushing the persona aside, speaks out in his own impassioned voice.

In a now famous, much-debated essay, Irvin Ehrenpreis has strengthened this image of Swift. Ehrenpreis occasionally hears Swift's voice plain and clear in “outbursts” in which the ironic mode has given way to the “mode of direct, bitter statement.”3 But Ehrenpreis goes farther. He denies that a persona operates at all in the Proposal: “There is no intermediate person between the author and us. Surely the inference we draw when a decent, intelligent man produces an abominable scheme is that he doesn't mean it, that he is ironical, that he speaks in parody.”4 The voice Ehrenpreis hears is Swift's ironic voice, broken now and then by direct, non-ironic outbursts; no persona exists in the Proposal.

Perhaps I may be pardoned if I suggest that this radical disagreement over the role of the persona smacks of critical confusion and that the critics' readiness to charge Swift with an inability to maintain artistic control seems like a conspiracy to practice “the proper Employment of a True Ancient Genuine Critick.” Both the disagreement and the faultfinding suggest that we may not yet have learned how to read the Proposal. I have no ready and easy solution; but in attempting to account for the radically different readings of the Proposal, I have arrived at a promising answer, a potential means of describing the source of the confusion and of clarifying the method needed to reach agreement.

Could it be possible that the critics of the Proposal have, unwittingly, taken an ambivalent attitude toward the essay, that they have unconsciously applied two different critical approaches at once? Or, to put the question in another way, is it possible that there are two Modest Proposals and that analysis of the one slips imperceptibly into analysis of the other? In nearly all criticism of the Proposal I detect a vacillation between two distinctly different ways of reading the essay: the first an imaginative re-creation of the original impact of Swift's pseudo-economic pamphlet upon the readers of 1729, the second a description of the impact it makes upon present-day readers, a description arrived at through analysis informed and directed by the twentieth-century scholar's knowledge of Swift and his works. It seems that the critics are dealing with the Proposal part of the time as an anonymous utilitarian essay and part of the time as a well-known work of satirical art by Jonathan Swift and sometimes as both simultaneously without being aware of the difference. Recognition that there may be a real difference, that there may be two Modest Proposals which call for distinctly different critical approaches, seems to be the first stage in the process of clarifying the present confusion. Is it possible, with full awareness, to deal with the Proposal separately as a utilitarian pamphlet of 1729 and as an enduring satirical masterpiece illuminated by more than two hundred years of scholarship?

The Proposal can be easily read and evaluated as a utilitarian essay if one recognizes the force of a few facts and grants one premise. The facts are quite simple: first, the Proposal appeared anonymously in Dublin in 1729 without the slightest indication that it was the work of Dean Swift. This signal fact has, unfortunately, been obscured: both William B. Ewald and Ricardo Quintana erroneously assert that Swift's name did appear on the title page.5 But a photographic facsimile of the title page of the first edition shows no name (Works, XII, facing p. 109). According to Herbert Davis's textual notes, Swift's name first appeared on a London edition later in the year. Second, as Herbert Davis has asserted, “it follows exactly the shape and form of … various proposals of one kind and another” that had been published in Ireland (Works, XII, xx). That in appearance it differed in no way from numerous genuine economic tracts of the time is substantiated by George Wittkowsky's study of the Proposal, which cites the titles of several non-ironic pamphlets then current such as “An Essay or Modest Proposal,” “Modest Proposal,” and “Humble Proposal.”6 In appearance, then, Swift's Proposal would have been indistinguishable on the bookseller's tables from the bona fide economic pamphlets that interested Dubliners were accustomed to buy.

The premise indicated by these facts derives from the necessity of exercising historical imagination: nothing but the twentieth-century scholar's trained ear prevents our accepting every word in the Proposal as the utterance of an Irish economist. That is, if the scholar puts aside his detailed knowledge of Swift's modes of thought and expression and places himself at a bookseller's stall on a Dublin street in October of 1729, a copy of the freshly printed “Modest Proposal” in his hand, he will read not Swift's satire but a sincere project outlined by a public-spirited, humane, but morally obtuse economist. In other words, is it not extremely doubtful that any Dubliner of 1729 heard the voice of Dean Swift, excepting possibly a few intimate friends and a few others who were adept at recognizing his stylistic peculiarities? In view of its anonymous publication and its calculated similarity to the economic proposals frequently circulated in Ireland, even those few may have been taken in by the essay. To put the case simply, though a critic cannot transform himself into a Dubliner of 1729, he can understand through extension of his imagination that the Irish audience of 1729 very probably read the Proposal warm from the press in the belief that its author was a real Irish economist sincerely proposing the sale of poor children for food.

Because of the frequency with which readers of the Proposal do hear Swift's voice—some hear the voice of a persona only faintly or, like Ehrenpreis, not at all—it is best to pause here to support the premise just stated: that in sentiment, in phraseology and diction, in reasoning—in short, in every way—the entire essay can be taken as the utterance of the persona. This premise can be phrased in the form of a hypothetical statement of Swift's intention: suppose that Swift intended to create as author of this pamphlet a public-spirited Irishman whose proposal arises out of his firsthand observations of the deplorable Irish situation. Can the essay support this hypothesis? It can indeed, if one will allow it to, if one will stuff cotton in his trained ear and listen with the ear of the audience in 1729.

The first paragraph alone provides a sufficient basis for the probability that nowhere will Swift violate the character of the persona and that, conversely, the persona will speak in character in every passage cited by the critics as Swift's voice breaking through the mask. It will be useful to have that opening paragraph before us:

It is a melancholly Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country; when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms. These Mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest Livelyhood, are forced to employ all their Time in strolling to beg Sustenance for their helpless Infants; who, as they grow up, either turn Thieves for want of Work; or leave their dear Native Country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

(Works, XII, 109)

Granted, this paragraph can be read as a discursive passage written in the person of Swift himself, but the essay soon makes clear the impossibility of identifying the speaker with Swift, unless, that is, one wants to believe that the Dean of St. Patrick's was a married man, had children, and was morally inclined to urge the slaughter of babies. The speaker is an Irishman, we presume (he gives confirmation later by referring to Ireland as “my Country”), specifically either residing in Dublin or at this moment writing in Dublin (“this great Town”), the place of publication of the pamphlet. He is an eye-witness of the condition of the Irish poor both in Dublin and in the country; he portrays in detail and with some vividness the scene of “Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars.” Evidently he is acquainted with the national economic and moral problems arising from scenes like the ones he describes: he knows that because of lack of work the beggars turn to thievery or leave the country to serve as mercenaries or slaves. He is no ignorant provincial unaware of Ireland's plight and her relationship with the world beyond. Finally, his expression of melancholy reveals his concern for the poor, and we may also surmise his concern over the economic plight of Ireland as a nation. There should be no demurs if one asserts that a rather distinct identity emerges from this one paragraph. I have already referred to that identity as the “public-spirited Irish economist.”

Not unless one willfully disregards the fictive premise that this public-spirited Irish economist is the author of the Proposal can one isolate passages where Swift speaks directly to his audience. The two supposed inconsistencies cited by Ewald are actually highly appropriate in the mouth of an Irishman concerned about the economic plight of his country. The persona's statement, “I could name a Country, which would be glad to eat up our whole Nation without [Salt],” is quite clearly a privately Irish reference equivalent to saying, “We all know that England's policies toward us Irish are the cause of our misery.” And the tone of the passage is not incongruous with the character of the public-spirited Irishman. Its indirection and especially its apt use of the metaphor of eating stamp it as the speaker's own idiom, and its placement is significant as well: to appease Irish fears of England's dislike of his proposal, he had, earlier in the same sentence, assured his audience that “we can incur no Danger in disobliging England”; now, in saying “I could name a Country,” he not only takes an irresistible jab at England but simultaneously lets his audience know that he is a loyal Irishman. The other statement isolated by Ewald, the one he found “almost” out of character because of its intensity—“I calculate my Remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland”—is just as fully in character. The public-spirited Irishman should be intense in his feelings about the plight of Ireland because he knows that plight well. To deny him that intensity is to deny his existence in the essay. Of course, the trained ear that has heard Swift speak in “Maxims Controlled in Ireland” may hear Swift's own intense voice in this passage, but one cannot argue on this basis that the passage is not perfectly appropriate in the mouth of the speaker, who does after all share a common Irish background with his creator and is bound to resemble Swift. One destroys the dramatic-ironic mode of the essay if one refuses to allow Swift occasionally to put certain intense truths in the mouth of his created character without in the slightest violating the objective existence of that character.

Detailed attention need not be paid to the other supposed inconsistencies of the Proposal, for they all were selected, it seems, according to the same principle: Whenever a persona's voice sounds even vaguely and remotely like Swift's, the persona is out of character. Hence, Bonamy Dobrée evidently heard in the passage about the “several young plump Girls” Swift's earlier strictures on luxury-loving young Irish women who will not wear honest home-spun stuff, and thus to Dobrée the persona is out of character. But Dobrée fails to see that the persona has his own opinion of Irish women. Dobrée seems to have overlooked the fact that the speaker lists the “Expedient … Of curing the Expensiveness of Pride, Vanity, Idleness, and Gaming in our Women” as one of the desirable reforms which he rejects only because he despairs of “Hope, that there ever will be some hearty and sincere Attempt to put them in Practice.” In short, Dobrée and the other critics, Ehrenpreis in particular, seem arbitrarily to refuse to accept the persona as he is characterized organically within the essay. The public-spirited Irishman knows whereof he speaks when he condemns landlords, bemoans the lack of trade, and laments the misery of the Irish poor. In that passage in which Miss Kathleen Williams felt Swift's presence and in which Robert C. Elliott found the persona thrust aside, Swift has actually taken great pains to have the persona speak in character: on the basis of his own observations of a situation so desperate that his proposal does seem humane, the public-spirited Irishman speaks directly from his own reasoned awareness when he argues that the parents of poor children would “think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old … and thereby have avoided such a perpetual Scene of Misfortunes.” As Elliott asserted, this passage is charged with Swift's “scarifying moral indignation” but not in the manner Elliott described. Swift does not speak out directly; he has artistically controlled his indignation by making it perfectly fit the character of his persona. Swift's is the anger of the dramatic artist, anger expressed as fine art in the guise of an ordinary pamphlet published anonymously by an Irish economist.

Now, although Ehrenpreis categorically denies the existence of this persona or “intermediate person,” I cannot believe that he means what he says. Once a fundamental contradiction in his position is resolved, one can see that Ehrenpreis is actually well aware that a persona does function in the Proposal. Ehrenpreis argues that Swift is the true author, “that he is ironical,” and then immediately contradicts himself by adding the clause, “that he speaks in parody.” Swift's parody Ehrenpreis defines as, “acting out a caricature of a type of man he loathes or contemns” (p. 35). Precisely, Swift is acting out or imitating the type of Irish economist he loathes; Swift is speaking in the voice of a morally loathsome economist; Swift is pretending that this economist is the author of the Proposal. Of course Swift is the true author—no one doubts that—just as surely as Dickens is the true author of Great Expectations. But the voice heard is the economist's just as surely as the voice heard in Great Expectations is Pip's, not Dickens'. Ehrenpreis would evidently not hear Pip at all; he would hear Dickens impersonating Pip and thus say that Pip does not exist. Granted, the analogy is not exact. Pip is not an ironical figure, not a parodic creation. But to a degree that Ehrenpreis should not ignore, the results of Swift's and Dickens' different modes of character creation are similar: Dickens' novel is designed to sound as if it were written by a real young man named Pip, and the Proposal is designed to sound as if it were written by a real Irish economist.

If this assumption is correct, if Swift did intend the Proposal to be taken as the product of the humanitarian but distorted mind of an actual economist, we have a strong indication of the impact Swift may have calculated it would have on the Dublin audience of 1729. Read naïvely as if it were just another project for alleviating the distress of the Irish poor, A Modest Proposal may have affected its audience as follows: immediate acknowledgment of the literal truth (the Irish poor are miserable); utter horror at the inhuman proposal to eat children and thus an intense emotional reaction against those economists whom Swift parodies in the person of the writer; a recognition, however, of the figurative truth that, conditions being as they are, it would be humane to sell children for food if that were the only alternative to continuation of their present misery; and a sense of shame that reforms lying within the power of the Irish have not been put into practice in order to alleviate human suffering. Had all of Swift's readers thrown down their copies in disgust and moral revulsion, I think he would have been pleased. But this impact would also have been great even on those who, slowly or quickly after a first reading, smoked the hoax and began to suspect the Dean of St. Patrick's of being “at it again.” All of this imaginative reconstruction is, of course, unprovable; but it does accord with our knowledge of Swift's ability to perpetrate a “grave, formal lie” for an immediate utilitarian purpose. Does it not seem that one can and must read the Proposal as a piece calculated to have a tremendous impact upon an unsuspecting audience?

Does it not also seem that critics who hear Swift's voice breaking through the persona in anger or in irresistible wit, who therefore hold that the persona is inconsistently characterized or simply dispensed with as Swift's whim or anger directs—are they not failing to read the Proposal as it was written? Are they not in effect reading scholarly notes to the Proposal rather than the work itself? To suggest that Swift wavered between cool irony and impassioned outbursts or between the calculated imitation of the voice of cold reason and the strident tone of his own voice in heated anger is to deny that Swift had enough skill or artistic control to practice a satiric technique successfully. And so to deny is to perpetuate the common image of the enraged satirist who, unable to contain his scorn and anger, forgets all pretense to art in his wild explosions of emotion. And that image, regrettably, serves further to perpetuate the puerile idea that satire is not art at all.

Having demonstrated the possibility of an imaginative recreation of the first Modest Proposal, I hasten to admit the impossibility and the undesirability of exclusive attention to the original utilitarian pamphlet. Quite properly, the second Modest Proposal now is and must be theModest Proposal.7 Present readers of the essay approach it knowing Swift to be the author and expecting a “grave, formal lie.” Even readers with only an elementary knowledge of Swift cannot help hearing his voice and being aware of his purpose. And beyond a doubt, Swiftian scholars have not only the privilege but the duty to note wherein the voice of the persona resembles Swift's. As long as tuning their ears to Swift's voice does not tune out the persona's voice, their approach to the Modest Proposal is the proper way to deal with the essay in its second mode of existence as a masterpiece of satirical art. This second critical approach is more than just the proper process; it is a tremendously illuminating and enriching process. The Proposal can and should be read in the light of the economic theory and conditions of the time, in the light of Swift's angry despair over the spirit of the Irish as recorded in his letters and essays, in the light of his earlier futile attempts to reform and save the Irish nation, in the light of his propensity towards arithmetically oriented wit, and so on. The Proposal is an intimately revealing personal document in the life of Jonathan Swift.

But the greatest enrichment as well as the truest awareness of the relationship between Swift's personal commitment and his artistic accomplishment comes when the exact nature of the original Proposal is kept clearly in mind. Only when one recognizes that every element of Swift's knowledge of and attitude towards the state of affairs in Ireland was transformed into the utterance of a public-spirited Irish economist humbly but sincerely proposing a solution to Ireland's greatest problem, only then can one truly understand and appreciate the superb artistic control Swift exercised over the powerful indignation that motivated the writing of the Proposal.

More particularly in terms of the aesthetics of satire, the aesthetic value of the second Proposal may be said to hinge upon full recognition of the exact form and function of the first Proposal. One reads both Proposals at once, as it were. One appreciates a master satirist at work manipulating the technique of the persona to achieve powerful effects which one can feel in retrospect. One is pleased, for instance, with Swift's skill in parodying the political arithmeticians while at the same time making that parody serve as a vehicle of profound and moving truths about the conditions of Ireland. Aesthetically one reacts to the artistic technique of the satirist: to his superb control of the form of the essay, to his skill in rhetoric, to his wit—in short, to his ability to express his indignation as fine art. The spectacle of an angry man venting his wrath in uncontrollable spasms is distressing, but there is nothing distressing about the satirical artist at work. The price one has to pay to win the full aesthetic value of the Proposal is small indeed, merely a modest expense of the critical acumen necessary to recognize the existence of two Modest Proposals.


  1. H. T. Greany, “Satiric Masks: Swift and Pope,” Satire Newsletter, III (Spring 1966), 158.

  2. William Bragg Ewald, Jr. (The Masks of Jonathan Swift [Cambridge, Mass., 1954], p. 171) found the persona a credible character who speaks out of character only once, in this passage: “I could name a Country, which would be glad to eat up our whole Nation without it” (The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis [Oxford, 1955], XII, 117. Hereafter referred to as Works). And on p. 173 Ewald remarked that the following passage “almost seems out of character in its intensity”: “I calculate my Remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland …” (Works, XII, 116). Bonamy Dobrée, in English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century, 1700-1740 (New York, 1959), pp. 443-444, also asserted that the speaker is violated only once but cited an entirely different passage from the one Ewald cited: “Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same Use were made of several plump young Girls in this Town … ; the Kingdom would not be the worse” (Works, XII, 114). Maurice Johnson, in “The Structural Impact of A Modest Proposal,Bucknell Review, VII (1958), 240, heard Swift's voice in that sentence beginning, “But, as to myself; having been wearied out for many years …” (Works, XII, 117). Kathleen Williams felt Swift's presence in that part of the penultimate paragraph beginning, “I desire those Politicians …” (Works, XII, 117-118), and ending at the conclusion of that paragraph (Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise [Lawrence, Kansas, 1958], p. 131). Robert C. Elliott selected that whole penultimate paragraph as the place where Swift thrusts aside his ingénu as he “speaks out directly from his own scarifying moral indignation” (“Swift's Tale of a Tub: An Essay in Problems of Structure,” PMLA, LXVI [June 1951], 453.

  3. “Personae,” in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature: Essays in Honor of Alan Dugald McKillop (Chicago, Ill., 1963), p. 36.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ewald, op. cit., p. 174, n. 5; Quintana, Swift: An Introduction (London, 1955), p. 176. H. Teerink confirms this fact of anonymous publication: A Bibliography of the Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Arthur H. Scouten, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, 1963), p. 336.

  6. “Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of An Early Georgian Pamphlet,” Journal of the History of Ideas, IV (1943), 88-89. In format and in ostensible seriousness of purpose A Modest Proposal must have closely resembled a pamphlet by Defoe published in London just a few months earlier: “An Humble Proposal, to the People of England, for the Encrease of their Trade and Encouragement of their Manufactures; whether the present Uncertainty of Affairs issues in Peace or War. By the Author of the Compleat English Tradesman. London. C. Rivington. 15 March 1729.” One of the titles cited by Wittkowsky (p. 88, n. 61) might have served Swift almost as well as his own title: “A Modest Proposal for the More Certain and yet more Easie Provision for the Poor. And Likewise for the better Suppression of Thieves, Diminishers And Corrupters of the Coyn, and other Lewd Livers. Tending much to the Advancement of Trade, Especially in the most Profitable part of it. The Manufactures of the Kingdom (London 1695/6).”

  7. Actually the anonymity of the first Proposal survived but a few weeks. Within a month of its publication the Dublin Intelligence (November 8, 1729) reported that the Proposal was “said in public to be written by D_____ S_____” (Quoted by Davis in Works, XII, xix-xx). However, a life of even one month is long enough to fulfill Swift's purpose. But is the first Proposal really dead? The violent reaction it still induces in an occasional naive or unsuspecting reader suggests that it will never wholly die.

Samuel J. Rogal (essay date April 1968)

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SOURCE: Rogal, Samuel J. “The Timelessness of A Modest Proposal.English Record 18, no. 4 (April 1968): 48-53.

[Rogal observes in the following essay that A Modest Proposal has endured as a work of consequence because its rhetorical composition overshadows its outdated subject matter.]

Ricardo Quintana labels A Modest Proposal as the “greatest of all the later writings on Ireland and his [Swift's] last prose masterpiece. …”1 Apparently he is at least equating the quality of the 1729 essay with the earlier, more developed, and better known Tale of a Tub, Battle of the Books (both 1704), and Gulliver's Travels (1726). Why would a Swift scholar preface his discussion of A Modest Proposal by referring to it as a “great prose masterpiece”? The answers are not only clear, but important to the discussion of the essay as being timeless. First, the content is limited to a specific time, locale, and set of circumstances. Second, Swift repeats the techniques of classical rhetoric prevalent in A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. Third, the method of attack is typically Swift: a strong blending of irony with a parody of human types is dispensed from behind the cover of a persona. Yet, A Modest Proposal exists as more than merely a carbon of Swift's earlier prose pieces. It has become a great prose masterpiece because it is free from those restrictions that would make it dated.

A Modest Proposal illustrates the dominance of Swift's rhetorical method over his subject matter. The general and the specific almost fuse into one when he refers to persons and places. For example, consider the terms “great town” and “the country”; the reader automatically relates to the specific (Dublin and Ireland), but he has committed himself too quickly. Swift really desires the less limited reference, for he knows that the problems of “roads and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms”2 is not to be a monopoly reserved for early eighteenth-century Dublin. Or, in a more deceptive manner, he practically orders the reader to “observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one universal Kingdom of Ireland, or for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon the earth.” (p. 445) Here the modern reader has three distinct choices: obey the order and accept the specific references to Ireland; delete “Ireland” and substitute “England,” whereby the entire essay can become a proposal for preventing the children of poor BRITAINS from becoming a burden (a proposal for eliminating them entirely?); or, reflect upon nations wherein there has been insufficient acreage to contain and feed over-expanded populations. The timelessness of A Modest Proposal resides in the ease by which even the dullest economist can adapt it to any one of a hundred economic plights since 1729 by merely changing the word “Ireland.” Certainly Swift was aware of this as he carefully inserted these “generalized/specifics.”

Yet on at least two instances in the essay, Swift changed his technique from the “general/specific” to broad comments on his own times; these become universal statements for all ages. He declares that “it is very well known that they [the aged poor] are every day dying, and rotting, by cold, and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. As to the young labourers they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away from want of nourishment, to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labour, they have not the strength to perform it. …” (p. 443) Surely these words, when uttered by a Garibaldi, Kossuth, or Ghandi, are sufficient sparks to ignite revolution. However, 1729 was too early for such forward action, and perhaps Swift was content to leave this business for others. His tone indicated this in another brisk comment upon the times:

… I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and perhaps may be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old … and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of weather, and the most inevitable prospect of entailing the like or greater miseries upon their breed forever.

(p. 446)

Swift here most certainly provides the background for the modern Irish rebellion; in the next century the likes of Daniel O'Connell and Charles Parnell possessed tempers too short to await the day when politicians would “be so bold to attempt an answer.” Certainly, Swift subtly planted the seeds, covered them lightly with clumps of playful irony, and passed from the scene—confident of a bountiful harvest.

There can be little doubt, therefore, that as a political tract, A Modest Proposal is timeless because its content is the timeless problem of human deprivation. Yet, I am interested in more than merely political and human arguments; the problem here concerns the craft of Swift as well as his material, and for this I turn to the technique of his classical rhetoric. Charles A. Beaumont contends that “the irony of … [A Modest Proposal] is built by and sustained by the devices of classical rhetoric … modeled on the five-part classical oration: Exordium (paragraphs 1-7); the Statement of Facts (8-16); the set, classical Digression (17-19); the Proof (20-28); Refutation (29-30); and Peroration (31-33).”3 On the surface this method appears to be a part of Swift's training and classical background, perhaps even a condensation of the same techniques employed in A Tale of a Tub. This is partly true, but also (in A Modest Proposal) Swift hid behind a traditional and certainly recognized form so that the sharp sting of his insinuations would appear reasonably ethical to his contemporaries. For example, the Refutation contains a list of “other expedients” that the reader is ordered to ignore:

Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor act any longer like Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

(p. 445)

These are the real solutions to alleviating the misery in Ireland. Again Swift's motives are apparent. His eighteenth century reader saw a systematic and logical argument dedicated to eliminating a problem, yet that reader was too far removed to appreciate either the problem or its solution. However, the twentieth century reader readily grasps the distaste for system-philosophy and formal presentation; he sees instead a call to common sense—a fair proposal to erase present and future poverty.

The final point in analyzing Swift's craft centers on three techniques—all typical of him: irony, parody of human types, and the use of the persona. Regarding the irony, it would be correct to maintain that “his satirical technique … [comprises] his habit of swathing himself in irony.”4 This is especially effective because it obscures even Swift's deepest feelings on the subject. Once his patriotism for Ireland and contempt for England are free from blind enthusiasm, there remains the strong bite of irony to mock as he chooses. In the Exordium, Swift fashioned a reward from his own labor, arguing that “whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the commonwealth would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.” (p. 439) Notice how Swift refused to plead his case for improving conditions in Ireland. Instead, he reflected the despair of the realist; deep emotion was cast aside for “ironic refraction with a vengeance and comedy in the full Swiftian sense.”5 The more comic the irony, the deeper it penetrates, as in his solution to the entire problem:

… of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black-cattle, or swine, and my reason is that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve our females. That the remaining hundred thousand may at a year old be offered in sale to the persons of quality, and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. 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.

(p. 439)

Each spasm of laughter only serves to increase the degree of tragedy.

Swift's parody of human types was “only another means of creating and exploiting a situation having its own unmistakable thickness.”6 In three instances in A Modest Proposal—political statisticians, landlords, and human beings—parodies were created with such calculated calm that it is almost impossible to discern the true personality of the writer. Consider one such example:

The number of souls in Ireland being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couples whose wives are breeders, from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many under the present distresses of the kingdom, but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. …

(p. 440)

Again Swift's dedication to his craft conceals his disgust. However, the parody of the British landlords “who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children,” (p. 441) is not so subtle. Obviously, Swift was unable to evade his passionate hatred for the human element that caused the problem in Ireland; but the tone remains wrapped within the bonds of playful ridicule. Finally, the parody intensifies in a summary that condemns humanity; Swift states that his proposal “hath something solid and real, of no expense and little trouble, full in our power. …” (p. 445) Here, perhaps, is one of the best judgments on the woeful conditions of the human race.

The final area in the discussion of Swift's technique is his reliance upon the persona. In A Modest Proposal, “the projector's addressing his readers through an ancient and learned form helps allay any suspicion of radical newness.”7 Therefore, Swift was his own fictional character who checked the passion of his creator. This is substantiated in the final paragraph:

I profess in the sincerity of my heart that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.

(p. 446)

The paragraph also removes Swift from the authorship of the essay. His apparent personal disinterest subtly disguised the importance of the true issue, and “within the ironic inversion, the projector is humane, self-conficent, reasonable, competent, and somewhat exhausted in an attempt to improve his native Kingdom.”8 Swift merely fictionalized his own personality to heighten the tragic force of his concluding message.

Therefore, irony, parody of human types, and the persona insured the timelessness of A Modest Proposal because they enabled Swift to pass on an invaluable lesson to the ages: the control of passion is necessary in confronting tragedy. He attempted to confound and confuse his own audience by playing upon its inability to grasp the seriousness of the tragedy in Ireland. He purposely led his readers from the primary problem of the Irish peasants by creating a burlesque that really calls forth all of the disgusting imagery of truth. Swift did not preach or dictate to his contemporaries; he embarrassed them (without their knowing it) into discovering their weaknesses as thinkers who could understand only the obvious and the systematic. As a writer, Swift was the fisherman who cast without bait to lure his victim; instead, he relied only upon the reader's own desire for awareness to a problem. This is the meaning of a prose technique that brings timelessness to all of his prose. He argued for a fusion of reader with writer on a distinct plain of mutual understanding; he denounced the emptiness of violent rhetoric.

Insofar as the twentieth century reader is concerned, Quintana assumes a similar view. He declares that “the world in which the Modest Proposal invites us to live is our own familiar world twice refracted, our world as remade in the enthusiastic imagination of a typical projector, and that remade world further destroyed through parody.”9 Here is the appeal of the 1729 essay. Although Swift traveled a circuitous route to prove a point, he always managed to communicate the spirit of his function as an essayist. He displayed concern for his craft, even when he was in danger of not being truly understood by his audience. In A Modest Proposal, he built an imaginary world atop a real one, then proceeded to destroy the former to uncover the latter. Since his world, like the present, refused practical solutions to its difficulties, he had to point to the absurdities to reveal the tragedies. So long as mankind continues to ignore common sense as a means to alleviating human misery, A Modest Proposal will remain timeless.


  1. Ricardo Quintana, Swift: An Introduction (London, 1962), p. 176.

  2. Jonathan Swift, “A Modest Proposal,” Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings by Jonathan Swift, ed. Louis A. Landa (Boston, 1960), p. 439. All references refer to this edition.

  3. Charles A. Beaumont, “Swift's Classical Rhetoric in ‘A Modest Proposal’,” Georgia Review, XIV (1960), 307.

  4. John A. Yunch, “The Skeptical Faith of Jonathan Swift,” The Personalist, XLII (1961), 533.

  5. Quintana, Swift, p. 176.

  6. Ricardo Quintana, “Situational Satire: A Commentary on the Method of Swift,” University of Toronto Quarterly, XVII (1947-48), 133.

  7. Beaumont, p. 307.

  8. Beaumont, p. 307.

  9. Quintana, “Situational Satire …”, p. 133.

Samuel L. Macey (essay date 10 November 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2743

SOURCE: Macey, Samuel L. “The Persona in A Modest Proposal.Lock Haven Review (10 November 1968): 17-24.

[In the following essay, Macey examines Swift's persona as a conduit for satire and as a representative of the author himself.]

The subjective Romantic author—Wordsworth in The Prelude, for example—frequently sets himself up for direct examination by the reader. With the neo-classicist, however, objectivity is the goal, and one of the techniques for achieving this is to set someone else up “pinned and wriggling” against the wall, as do Pope for his sylph in The Rape of the Lock and Eliot for J. Alfred Prufrock. In one sense this is the role played by the various personae who appear frequently in eighteenth-century literature. In the case of Swift's creations these personae sometimes take on not only a character of their own—Bickerstaff, the Drapier, Gulliver, the supposed authors of The Tale of a Tub, the Argument against Abolishing Christianity and the Modest Proposal—but in addition—as with the simple seamanlike reporting of Gulliver or the scientific reasoning of the Modest Proposal—they even act as a “feedback” and control Swift himself with reference to the tone which he imparts to the work under his pen.

This paper shall concern itself with the persona in A Modest Proposal, firstly as a satire against projectors, secondly as a vehicle for a satire against ourselves, and lastly as a vehicle for the positive proposals of the puppet master who stands behind him.

In dealing with the satire against projectors, one is struck by the extraordinary uniformity of the character of the putative author, and the tone of controlled reasoning which, as Leavis points out, contrasts sharply with the suggestions which he makes. Occasionally it is true—as when he speaks of landlords who have devoured most of the parents, and particularly when he talks of the country (England) which would gladly “eat up our whole nation”—Swift's proverbial flood of saeva indignatio breaks through. In general, however, even the points of individual satire, as those against the indolent young women in Dublin or against the incidence of stealing in the country of Cavan, have been well integrated.

We do not need to know the details of the actual “projects” of the eighteenth century in order to appreciate the dangers of reason, when it stands alone without the heart. Swift was not only writing a Critique of Pure Reason half a century before Kant, but he was also looking forward to times closer to our own. The very reasonableness with which the projector speaks must put us on our guard, because he is one of us. Kafka writes, in his Penal Colony, of an island where the officer explains to the persona with pride, and with a detachment identical to that of our own projector, the details of a machine which methodically strips his prisoner to death. Just a few years later six million Jews received similar scientific treatment at the hands of one of our most civilized communities. Shortly after the last war an essay was written suggesting the enslavement of fifteen million displaced persons as a means of dealing with the pressing problem which they presented, while Swift himself, before writing his Modest Proposal, had made the even more modest suggestion of slavery in his Maxims Controlled in Ireland (1724?). Similar problems are pressing in our modern world, and we are certainly not lacking for projectors who offer to rectify them. Paralleling, for example, the population problem in Ireland are the teeming millions in Eastern Asia. As many of us are aware, such projects as the defoliation of Vietnam by atomic means is not without advocates in our own country, and perhaps, in some measure, in our own minds.

The problem with the various projects mentioned, whether they be rooted in seriousness or in satire, is that we do not know to what extent we would identify with them if they could solve difficulties, while not in any way implicating ourselves. It is not without purpose that Swift has left to the very last line the persona's assertion that, since his children are more than nine years of age and his wife past child-bearing, he has no personal axe to grind. Certainly, on one level, this is a satire against the projector, but on another he may represent ourselves; and on this level we might wonder whether the fact that perhaps our children are under nine years of age and our wives capable of child-bearing might make a difference.

Of course the suggestion made by the persona could be described as preposterous, inconceivable and inhuman, or with any other of the adjectives with which we ward off in our minds that which we do not wish to contemplate. However, it remains an essential element in the Modest Proposal that mass annihilation and cannibalism both were and are at no great distance from the human psyche. Indeed, in contradistinction to the Houyhnhnms, we could hardly dispense with such terms in our language and thought.

Before moving from the persona as projector to the persona as vehicle for positive suggestions, it will be necessary to consider some aspects of the genre with which we are concerned. Schiller, in his Essay on Naive and Sentimental Poetry, has defined satire, be it of the serious or of the laughing kind, as that which points up the difference between the real and the ideal. In the persona as projector we have seen, apart from the parody involved in the title and content of the work, a satire against this fictitious author by a pointing up of the difference between his expressed ideals—objectivity, compassion and a dislike of cruelty—and the real results which we feel may ensue from his suggestions. On this level, too, the very name ‘projector,’ within the Swiftian and the neo-classical context, was sufficient to prepare us for irony against the persona. It is essential, of course, that the purveyor of irony gives us a clue to the fact that what he, or his author, means moves in quite another direction from what he says. One of the best methods for doing this is to exaggerate the ‘real,’ thereby accentuating its disparity with the ‘ideal.’ Thus in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso the adventures associated with Roland are purposely exaggerated in a way which points up the difference between these and many of the expressed ideals of the chivalric tradition. The failure of such exaggeration or other clues to be perceived by the reader may result in the work being taken seriously—as is the case with some of the satire in Goethe which is only now being brought to light by modern irony hunters—but it can also have dangerous results for the author. In this respect it will be remembered, of course, that Defoe suffered at the hands of the very faction for whom he was supposedly writing.

In the Modest Proposal, the persona, on the level at which he is a vehicle for corrective satire, provides us with an exaggeration which no ‘homocentric’ society could possibly miss, since the ‘real’ is the butchery of young children, and the ‘ideal’ against which it is set is by implication the expressed mores of the people who are to carry this out. Thus, in Schillerian terms, the satire results from juxtaposition of a reality which is butchery, and an ideal which is Christian brotherly love.

Needless to say this is not laughing satire. Laughter may well be the result of a pleasant shock, as we observe that two things thought to be similar are surprisingly and amusingly different, as occurs perhaps, for those who are amused, when we realize the difference between the persona's expressed standards and the motives or results which are implied. More frequently however, as with the high and low life in The Beggar's Opera or Jonathan Wild the Great, laughter results when we discover that two things commonly held to be different are surprisingly and amusingly the same. As Ewald points out, though in widely separated statements, the humour, such as it is, is in the unassuming persona of the Proposal, while on the other hand he maintains that “no modern reader ever put down this essay with a feeling that the problems in it were not tragically serious.” Indeed, this is Schiller's pathetic satire and Swift serves it up biting, trenchant, unadulterated and piping hot from the oven of his savage indignation; while it is both the purpose and the magic of the persona, in his role as vehicle for constructive satire, that he achieves the well nigh impossible task of presenting positive proposals without dulling the edge of the wit.

It is, I feel, observably true that forms such as satire and the mock epic tend to belong to those periods of both literature and life when men have acquired a certain objectivity and are not passionately involved in the policies, be they religious or political, which they endorse. Thus among the Romantics we should be surprised to find satire, except in such ‘hermaphrodite’ creatures as Byron and Goethe, while the possibility of either Pope or Swift producing an epic with either the sublimity of Milton or the bathos of Southey is hard to conceive. It was often claimed for satire (as indeed for drama) that its purposes were constructive, yet the very act of producing a list of constructive proposals is bound to dull the edge of the satire itself, since this displays patently that the author is merely cutting down one crop of enthusiasms for the purpose of planting another of his own choosing. Here of course the persona permits Swift to speak through a discredited person, as occurs with Byron's Satan or Goethe's Mephistopheles. For the latter authors this represented a subtle method of escape from the censorship of society. Swift has other ends in view. Not only does the pseudo-author reinforce the anonymity of his puppeteer, as occurs with the Drapier, but as a projector he lists a number of positive proposals which Swift had been developing for over a decade. Yet the putative author frames them in a condemnation on utilitarian grounds, and we sense that we are being offered the simple choice between these proposals on the one hand and the fire of cannibalism, in which we may not remain entirely unscathed, on the other hand. Nevertheless the technique has been such that neither Swift nor the persona has made these suggestions directly, and the satire still cuts with a razor edge.

The author of the “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” was well aware of La Rochefoucauld's preoccupation with man's self interest, and he is not above using this knowledge through many judicious and yet highly exaggerated hints in several of the satires. Thus behind the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity is the insinuation that the whole church, and indeed public order itself, would come to chaos if the Test Act were repealed; behind the “Examiner Paper” on Marlborough is an indication of the enormous continuing cost to the public if the military are not brought under civilian control; behind The Drapier's First Letter is the ‘shocking’ hint that the price of beer would rise to thirty-six halfpence per quart; in The Answer to ‘the Craftsman’ is the suggestion that France and Spain might import Irish troops; and behind the Modest Proposal lies the hint that the entire structure of human mores might degenerate if Swift's methods for dealing with the Irish problem are not accepted. Part of the artistry of Swift is to leave his heavy handed insinuation in the background, while speaking to us through a persona who allows him to cut and thrust with as finely edged a rapier as any which the wit of Congreve brought upon the stage.

The persona demonstrates—with all the mathematical precision used earlier by Swift in the “Examiner Paper” on Marlborough and imitated so well a century later by Buchner—that Ireland's excess of population can only be turned into an asset by using children as meat for home consumption. He lists, in a scientifically restrained tone, those advantages which would accrue: the number of Papists would be reduced, the tenants would have money with which to pay their landlords, there would be a circulation of funds from an internal manufacture which did not interfere with England and her mercantilist policies, taverns would prosper, husbands would become as fond of their wives as of their cows in calf, and barrelled beef would be freed for the export market.

These, of course, are all suggestions by the persona, which lead directly up to the positive proposals that he will then render in a negative framework; but it is interesting to observe how, at this stage, Swift is interweaving with subtlety other less clearly defined points which would not fit too comfortably into the simple list of his true proposals. Thus there are thrusts at young Protestant ladies living beyond their means in Dublin, at the risks of Ireland being lost to the Pretender, at the absentee landlords in particular (and especially those who do not pay their tithes), at the heartlessness of landowners in general and at the scarcity of money in circulation, at taverners and gourmets and at the lack of consideration in husbands. After this veritable lanx satura the persona lists some suggestions, which he has written off not because they are immoral but because they are impractical. Among these are the use of home manufactures, the taxation of absentees, the avoiding of luxury in all and particularly in women, the love of one's country, the development of mercy among landlords and a refusal of shopkeepers to unite for the purpose of making arrangements to the detriment of the public. The persona writes off all these possibilities as “visionary thoughts.” What he is offering instead is a proposal which is “solid and real.”

Here, towards the end of the pamphlet, Swift has clearly juxtaposed his own visionary ideal and a brutal and exaggerated version of the ‘real.’ It is interesting that the very terms which Swift uses are involved in the Schillerian definition of satire. Indeed this is satire of the most biting kind, but Swift is also holding over our heads the unspoken threat of a disruption in our Christian mores through his insinuation that, since all other methods had been considered without success, there remained only a choice between the hidden proposals of Swift or the modest proposal of his persona.

In the pages of the Modest Proposal, Swift's persona, though he has neither a name nor a profession, comes very much to life. He is a man who expresses compassion and sensibility, a man who may well be troubled by the poverty, misery and filth of the life which surrounds him. He has carefully weighed the schemes of other projectors, but he has always found them “grossly mistaken in their computation.” Like the fox which will not kill the “John, Peter or Thomas” rabbit in whose warren he is lodging, the persona is nevertheless able to consider objectively schemes which deal with man in the mass, while being moved to “tears and pity” when considering the individual. He propounds his scheme with the scientific approach and careful logic on which Western civilization has been based, and he claims to be able to view the situation objectively, because his own wife and children are not included in the criteria of his modest proposal.

Curiously, as we come to consider the man with greater care, many of his characteristics seem uncommonly familiar to us. Very probably, like the persona in the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, he assumes politely that one is only defending a “nominal” religion, and he does not appear unduly involved with Christ's concept of brotherly love at the local and perhaps more uncomfortable level. Could he be our neighbor who advocates a scheme for birth control in India and equality in Alabama (though not at home of course), or is he the man who proposes the stronger line of atom bombs for China before they are able to deliver the home product? If only Swift had suggested a name or a profession as a clue, but then perhaps in part the persona is Swift himself, and he would naturally find protection behind satire, which by his own definition is “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.”

Denis Donoghue (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2482

SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Words.” In Jonathan Swift, a Critical Introduction, pp. 117-159. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Donoghue remarks on the exuberant rhetoric of A Modest Proposal.]

Many features of [A Modest Proposal] are at once obvious and important; the tone of the projector fending off human and moral considerations in his economic zeal and yet, now and again, stumbling upon a cliché which conceals an ironic truth—as when the projector varies his diction and calls the people of Ireland ‘souls’; or the tour de force of out-Heroding Herod by parodying the Massacre of the Innocents. The basic technique is what Kenneth Burke calls ‘planned incongruity’, the imposition of a proper perspective by putting gross perspectives in lurid proximity. Much of Swift's irony is enforced by these discrepancies; the merit of incongruity is that a writer may capitalise upon it. In the face of much apathy—this is the first irony—the projector offers a highly organised programme at a time when highly organised programmes are much in vogue. Again, Swift's favourite discrepancies are those which destroy the relation between moral ideas and facts. People are the wealth of a nation, say the moral idealists and some economists; but not in Ireland, the facts reply. (In the Proposal for Giving Badges to Beggars Swift, all irony spent, says: ‘As this is the only Christian Country where People contrary to the old Maxim, are the Poverty and not the Riches of the Nation …’) Family feeling is the basis of unity and cohesion, the moralists say; but in Ireland this does not hold. Often Swift runs his sentence in the apparent guise of a syllogism, where the middle term spins the reader from one moral context to another and the conclusion is the last word in anarchy. ‘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.’1 The facts of the case are so perfect in their own terms that Swift allows them a correspondingly invincible ethic; or so the irony goes. The planned incongruity sets the idiom of rights and property against the sheer facts of the case, and the rout of the moralists is complete. Ostensibly, it is a question of title; reasonably enough, since this is the kind of mind at work. The right to devour children belongs, by the decorum of black poetry, to those who have already devoured the parents; a lurid propriety is suggested, by which the ethical consideration yields to considerations of perfection, completeness, the ‘entelechy’ of the case. Logic has a certain rhythm, shared with its travesty. This is how Swift's dominion works. The will imposes itself, as Yeats says, upon the multiplicity of living images by seeming to collapse before them. Swift says a moment later:

I have already computed the Charge of nursing a Beggar's Child (in which List I reckon all Cottagers, Labourers, and Four fifths of the Farmers) to be about two Shillings per Annum, Rags included; and I believe, no Gentleman would repine to give Ten Shillings for the Carcase of a good fat Child; which, as I have said, will make four Dishes of excellent nutritive Meat, when he hath only some particular Friend, or his own Family, to dine with him.

The sentence is a declaration of war; class war, with the beggars, cottagers, labourers, and farmers absurdly set against the gentlemen who will eat the children. No gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcase of a good fat child; the point being that no gentleman intends to repine about anything he has done. Repining is not a gentleman's way. The incongruity works, this time, by offering a blatant euphemism so outlandish that the reader is bound to take it literally. The basic technique of the Proposal is to confound moral categories, to play off one set of categories against another, to contrive a situation in which words with rival allegiances collide and yet the sentence drives on to a conclusion beyond its contract. The cadence of cliché is always available as a banana-skin for the dense. When someone raises the question of old people, diseased or maimed, Swift answers: ‘But I am not in the least Pain upon that Matter, because it is very well known, that they are every Day dying, and rotting, by Cold and Famine, and Filth, and Vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.’ With the last phrase the projector's happiness is complete; the complacency anticipated by the happy repetition (dying and rotting) and the satisfying variety of means (cold and famine and filth and vermin). Projectors are always pleased when a single crude end is attainable by any of several crude means. Most of Swift's sentences in the Modest Proposal are moral exercises imposed upon the reader for his discomfiture; hence the proliferation of incongruous values where primacy is invariably ensured for the wrong one. Enumerating the advantages of his proposal, he writes:

Sixthly, This would be a great Inducement to Marriage, which all Wise Nations have either encouraged by Rewards, or enforced by Laws and Penalties. It would encrease the Care and Tenderness of Mothers towards their Children, when they were sure of a Settlement for Life, to the poor Babes, provided in some Sort by the Publick, to their annual Profit instead of Expence. We should soon see an honest Emulation among the married Women, which of them could bring the fattest Child to the Market. Men would become as fond of their Wives, during the Time of their Pregnancy, as they are now of their Mares in Foal, their Cows in Calf, or Sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them, (as it is too frequent a Practice) for fear of a Miscarriage.2

Swift plays the game according to rules which he changes at every turn; each rule obtains until the author's whim changes it. It is like winning at chess by cutting off the opponent's hands. The introduction of a new rule puts the projector another step ahead. The passage begins as if it were a conventional plea for marriage and families, leading to the usual endorsement of tenderness between mothers and children. Then the rules are changed. Children are livestock, until they are brought to market and killed. The reference to ‘poor Babes’ seems to turn the sentence back to humanity, but only for a moment in which we realise the absurdity of that direction; then it spins in another direction, toward impoverishment and money. This is developed on the basis of the cliché that people are wealth: Swift treats it as if it were literally true; so mothers will vie with one another to show off the fattest child. This emulation is ‘honest’ because it is conducted in sanctioned terms; it is characteristic of such words that they lose their ethical meaning, under that kind of pressure, and assume the public tone; here the word is a political counter, shadow of its ethical self. The analogy is held at that point. Mothers would treat their children like calves; men would treat their wives like valuable cows, at least during pregnancy. This would make a significant improvement. The field on which this irony is played is the traditional view of the several levels of being extending from the vegetative level to Godhead; the point being that people are supposed to act more gracefully if they look up, emulating their betters, aspiring; but here they act decently by looking down. Animals are better than men. Mothers behave themselves as they should only if they think of their children as calves; and so forth. Gulliver's Travels is the most elaborate version of this device, playing off one level of being against another, confounding upper and lower; it works by confounding categories, becomes a powerful freak of nature by disclosing without particular comment the freaks already there. Meanwhile, projectors are not in the least pain.

In the Modest Proposal Swift uses many devices of irony, but chiefly one which he first discovered in A Tale of a Tub; to confound differences and blast similarities. It is the governing technique of the Directions to Servants. If people think certain things the same, you gain an effect by treating them as different; if they think things different, you suppress the difference. All the better if this involves, as in the Directions to Servants, a clash of values, poor ethics and the main chance. The eventfulness of Swift's prose arises from this procedure, where the detail of the writing, like harmonics in music, redeems the monotony of the denunciation. One of his recurrent problems was to persist in saying essentially the same few things, without frustrating his aim by repetition. The answer was: enliven the monotone by constant changes of pressure and dynamics. So changing the rules has the same effect, within the paragraph, as new chapters of incident in an extrovert novel. The stratagem is somewhat like the procedure in certain modern novels where the motif is boredom and the greatest human effort is seen to be expended on merely passing the time. One of the more entrancing discoveries of modern fiction is that even when nothing is happening, so far as reportage is concerned, the language which delivers this nothing may be eventful, lively with internal business. Flaubert is a master of this resource. Samuel Beckett has capitalised upon the tradition. In Beckett's later novels hundreds of paragraphs record ennui so engagingly that the reader asks, can it really be so boring if it yields these diverting sentences? The eighteenth-century masters are Swift and Sterne. What Swift is saying in the Modest Proposal is: ‘You are murdering the Irish people; at least do it systematically, organize it for profit, don't waste such talents in carelessness. You are starving the people too quickly; fatten them up and sell them.’ The difference between this synopsis and the essay itself is lively detail, variations upon the musical theme, incidents of language, verbal surprise and suspense. The essay as a whole is meant to strike the reader as monstrous and hypothetical, in fact, but he is not allowed to evade the feeling that it is not at all monstrous or hypothetical in principle. ‘I do not do these things’, he is allowed to feel; but, on a second thought, ‘I do this kind of thing, admittedly.’ The difference between fact and principle is allowed, at the price of acknowledging that the correspondence between them is outrageously exact.

We revert to words and things. Our impression of Swift's prose is that the words are always ready to be tested in the light of facts, things, Nature. His style is not wordy, it is thingy. Every change of key, every new direction, forces us to attend to a new thing on the way. We recognise this commitment when we say that his style is natural, meaning that it acknowledges Nature. The nearest equivalent in English verse is Hudibras, a poem Swift knew by heart. The chief quality of Swift's style is indeed simplicity, in the sense that it sponsors attainable objects and leaves nothing to chance. But the simplicity depends upon the peculiar form of his energy, which is constantly clearing away the debris of fancy and pride so that intelligible facts may have room to appear. This more than any other quality distinguishes Swift's style from Johnson's. Johnson was prejudiced against Swift and disapproved of his general style, but the reason is interesting. Under Boswell's pressure he conceded that Swift had ‘a good neat style’, and he allowed neatness as a merit. What he criticised was its dependence upon facts and things. This prevented him from admiring The Conduct of the Allies: ‘it operates by the mere weight of facts’, he said, ‘with very little assistance from the hand that produced them’.3 Professor Wimsatt has an excellent comment: Johnson disapproved of Swift's style because it was too heavily dependent upon ‘a constant succession of different things, not different aspects of the same things’. Johnson's own aim, Wimsatt remarks, was ‘to deal not in things but in thoughts about things’.4 The difference is a matter of emphasis, but it is crucial. Johnson felt that attention to things was justified only by the grandeur of the generality they supported; the generality once achieved, the things could be dispatched. Swift did not object to generality, unless it appeared as speculative ambition; but he had no interest in it. In any case he knew, more painfully than Johnson, the gap between grand generality and puny deed. He was concerned to make a world as one builds a fort in time of need, by finding the things and putting them together. He had no desire to think of the fort as separable from the things of which it was made. This is one reason for his nonchalance with metaphor. He had little need of metaphor, because he could attend to relevant things one at a time; so his chosen figure was the simile. The likeness imputed would always, in that figure, wait until he called it.

In language, it appears, Swift was extremely conservative. A Tale of a Tub is odd and special in his canon because it takes pleasure in the internal resources of language. Swift confounds his enemy by showing that two can play his loose game. The puns, far-fetched analogies, bogus comparisons, lexical freaks, and so forth are diversions to this end. But, as I have argued, the Tale cannot be completely understood in these terms. More generally, it should be remarked, Swift does not insist upon the constitutive resources of language; he is content with an instrumental role for words. Thought is one activity, speech another, and Nature is something else again. ‘Proper words in proper places’, yes, because the spatial idiom is congenial to Swift. The structure of language may not correspond to the structure of the mind, but it can be made to correspond, at least in one restricted sense, to the structure of the world. Each thing on this earth is given a place, presumably its proper place: the universe is a divine construction. Things which are out of place are scandalous. So also in language; to write well is to put proper words in their proper places, the propriety endorsed by common sense, Nature, and faith. Decorum is that sense of order. Swift's energy in language is not, except partially in the Tale, a self-delighting, self-engendering force; it is an instrument designed for ready use, in public. …


  1. Irish Tracts 1728-1733, p. 112.

  2. Irish Tracts 1728-1733, p. 115.

  3. Johnson, Lives of the Poets, edited by G. Birkbeck Hill (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1905), p. 48.

  4. William K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1941), pp. 99 ff.

Thomas Lockwood (essay date summer 1974)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5954

SOURCE: Lockwood, Thomas. “Swift's Modest Proposal: An Interpretation.” Papers on Language and Literature 10, no. 3 (summer 1974): 254-67.

[In the following essay, Lockwood examines the role of the “economic projector” or narrator of A Modest Proposal, and his objective, if appalling, irony.]

The Modest Proposal has always struck readers as perhaps the perfect work of its kind: breathtakingly to the point, unnerving in the extreme. It is so short and in a certain sense so sweet that one is naturally led to wonder exactly how Swift does what he does in this desperately funny, desperately bleak little performance. Until recently, students of Swift have said that the secret of the work is a peculiarly horrifying kind of ironic impersonation, by means of which Swift creates a more or less fictional character, the “economic projector,” who is the putative author of the Proposal. By silently allowing this character to reveal himself, Swift invites the reader to feel the horror of close contact with the type of the detested “projector,” who is made to speak the “reasonable,” “modest,” and fraudulently compassionate language of real eighteenth century projectors and planners. Thus, the perfection of the work, according to some critics, may be attributed to the convincing completeness of the impersonation.

This interpretation has proved to be one of the great perpetual motion machines of modern Swift criticism: fascinating to watch but not overwhelming the observer with a sense of its eternal fitness. The economic projector has always been more believable as he appears in the criticism than in the work itself. The practiced critic can make him “talk” and create for him a synthetic sort of existence in the work; but more often than not the result is a character who sounds just about like Jonathan Swift, when the critic's intent was to show how well Jonathan Swift is able to make himself sound like a projector. In a notable essay some years ago Irvin Ehrenpreis suggested in effect that if anybody was playing the ventriloquist in creating the economic projector, it was the critic and not Swift, who in the Proposal is speaking very much in character—that is, ironically.1

It is difficult to know how widely this point has been accepted; but in any case, certain related thoughts may bear brief emphasis.2 The view that Swift mimics a projector is based on the very doubtful assumption that Swift somehow saw projectors and their attitudes as at the heart of the trouble in Ireland. But Swift is not attacking projectors in the Modest Proposal. He is attacking the wretched Irish situation. During the previous ten years in which he wrote about that situation, he referred occasionally to projectors, and usually in exasperation or contempt: not because of their inhumanity or moral blindness, however, but rather their stupidity and ignorance in basing their schemes of reform on general economic theories (“uncontrolled maxims”) which did not apply to Ireland's unique situation (e.g., where people were not the riches of a nation).3 The Modest Proposal, then, can hardly be regarded as a satire on projectors when the whole point is that this proposal is the proper medicine for Ireland's disease—indeed the one and only proper medicine, under the circumstances.

It is wrong to suppose that Swift locates the inhumanity and moral indifference of the Irish situation in the character of projectors—however much he may have disliked them or even thought them “morally obtuse.” Projectors, after all, had nothing especially to do with what was wrong in Ireland. The blame for that lay upon absentee landlords, the Dublin men and women of fashion, the English trade policies, and the indifference of the Irish themselves.

An interpretive invention such as the projector persona would be harmless enough insofar as it merely misrepresented Swift's intentions, but it has also worked to obscure or oversimplify some of the most essential qualities of the work. In affective terms, it imposes narrower limits on the emotional range of the reader's reaction than Swift imposes on the range of his own feelings as they come to be manifested in the text. It has meant, for instance, that one must think of the work as having mainly two tones of voice: the flat and innocent tone of a supposedly “typical” projector, and, occasionally breaking through, another more obviously emotional and knowing tone that is out of keeping with what one must expect of a fictional projector—in other words, Swift's voice. But the range of tones is wider and much more complicated than that. Swift goes from the most unaccountable seriousness in speaking of things no one could possibly be serious about, to the most understandable seriousness in speaking of things everyone ought to be—but is not—serious about; from wicked jest to bitter moral protest; from deadpan irony to hyperbolic sarcasm; from ludicrous concession to exhortation to contempt and disgust; from fun with a wild idea to a desperate dismay at the real-life circumstances that have given rise to it; from honest compassion for his miserable countrymen, to reproaches for their lack of patriotism, to diabolically self-satisfied fantasies of Irishmen eating other Irishmen's children “at merry Meetings, particularly Weddings and Christenings.4 Each of these fluid responses is equally valid, because the situation calls them all forth simultaneously. They converge from opposite emotional directions in a brilliantly unified effect of moral and satiric meaning, and the meaning is always the same: that there is madness and misery in the Irish situation that is not to be comprehended except in a plan for selling the Irish children for food.

The formula of the author as projector has also limited our appreciation of the purely comic aspect of the Proposal. That is, we have been taught to feel “horrified” by the monster-projector with his inhumanly rational plans. But the work is at least equally full of laughter. It is Swift's laughter, of course, and the more one focuses on the idea that Swift is trying to sound like a humorless social planner, the easier it is to miss the laughter. It is not surprising that Swift's friend Bathurst should have reacted to the Proposal as though it were all some merry joke to be played and replayed for laughs (this in his letter to Swift about four months after the publication of the Proposal, in the course of which Bathurst talks gaily about what a marvelous expedient Swift's plan could be for a man who, like himself, “has nine Children to feed”).5

In fact, of course, Swift's contemporaries tended to appreciate him most for the vein of ludicrous humor that he had mastered; one hears less from them about Swift the relentless critic of society, the “serious” or “committed” satirist more often emphasized in our own time. In any event, it is worth remembering that the Modest Proposal begins with a pun on the word “eat,” and that in one sense the paper is a zany experiment in trying to bring dead metaphors to life: landlords devouring tenants, England eating up Ireland, Home Consumption. At the age of sixty-two Swift's comic imagination was never better, and A Modest Proposal is surely the most exquisite, most telling joke he ever made. It is in the end a work of humor, richly complicated of course by the satiric and moral attitudes toward Ireland that had long since become a part of Swift's consciousness; but fundamentally a deeply personal, deeply alienated joke, one with no beginning, middle, or punch line—not “told” so much as lived, not exactly contained in the work but containing it, without definition apart from Swift himself and—as I hope to show—without definition apart from his reader.

The Proposal involves and implicates the reader more radically than any other work of Swift's, to a degree that the reader may be called the unexpressed subject of the work, its most important though largely invisible “character.” Swift seeks to induce in the reader an emotional replication of his own experience in the Ireland of the 1720s: that is, he makes the work a simulacrum of that lunatic world and imprisons the reader within it as he himself had been living a prisoner in the Irish madhouse.

The question remains as to how Swift achieved that effect. Taking the hint from Professor Ehrenpreis's essay, I should like to urge that the idea of a “projector” be abandoned in favor of the less artificial proposition that Swift simply speaks to the reader ironically. More precisely, he is speaking as if he had matter-of-factly accepted the public attitude of indifference to what he, at least, had for so long taken to be the main issues. In a certain sense, of course, he had accepted this indifference, having no choice, and so he is not really speaking ironically at all; but he does speak ironically in the obvious sense that he does not mean what he says when he recommends his proposal.

When Swift says, “I can think of no one Objection, that will possibly be raised against this Proposal,” he produces the characteristic effect of ludicrous but appalling understatement: mockingly pretending to puzzle over this possibility, “maturely” trying to anticipate any respect in which his plan might not be so appealing, and failing to think of anything except the one consequence which is its chief attraction, the depopulation of the kingdom. Swift ironically takes it for granted that no one will object, at least not on moral grounds, the effect of which is to attribute the very worst sort of moral indifference to those he is addressing, the “publick.” He pretends to give his attention to his nonsensical proposal, fussing about the commercial and culinary details, in that way negatively dramatizing the main point that no one has ever cared or ever will. The deeply bitter implication is: Why should he?

Here is an essay, then, in which a monstrous thing is massively taken for granted: namely, that the reader will scarcely concern himself with what he is reading, let alone raise any protest against the proposal being put before him. What is monstrous about the Modest Proposal, in other words, is not the putative author but his putative audience. Swift's relentless insistence upon speaking an unmoral language indicates simply that no other language is answerable to the occasion, for he addresses himself to an audience who have evidently lost all capacity to register ordinary human responses. “The heart of this People,” he had said on another occasion, “is waxed gross, and their Ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed.”6

The celebrated quality of moral anesthesia in Swift's language and manner can hardly be intended to reflect on the author himself; but it does reflect ironically on those for whom the author writes, who will “hear” him upon no other terms. Swift's wickedly systematic silence on the matter of whether there may be any moral question involved in this situation he is otherwise so talkative about—surely one of the most powerfully expressive ellipses in literary history—ironically dramatizes the indifference of his readers. Swift mocks them in effect by acting out their own indifference: why make a reference to the moral question where none is expected, and no one cares?

Some Persons of a desponding Spirit are in great Concern about that vast Number of poor People, who are Aged, Diseased, or Maimed; and I have been desired to employ my Thoughts what Course may be taken, to ease the Nation of so grievous an Incumbrance. But I am not in the least Pain upon that Matter; because it is very well known, that they are every Day dying, and rotting, by Cold and Famine, and Filth, and Vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.

Swift is simply telling his readers—the majority of whom are not “of a desponding Spirit,” i.e., not neurotic worriers—to be patient, at the same time reassuring them that their patience is steadily paying off, at least as far as any reasonable person could expect it to. Here Swift's words force one to regard him as having made certain radical assumptions about his readers: about the things that may be expected to concern them (what are we to do about the old, the sick, and the crippled?), about the things over which they may be expected to grow impatient (when are we going to get rid of them?), about their need for reassurance (we're losing our patience).

As usual, Swift's ironic predication of such assumptions is extremely thorough, and reveals itself in his language and manner as an apparently total incapacity to understand the real point of what he is himself saying. He seems to expect that his use of the phrase “as fast as can be reasonably expected” will be accepted as appropriate usage by those who are reading the words. Swift is fond of using throwaway remarks and offhand phrases as ironic repositories for his most bitterly and deeply felt views: remarks or phrases whose content manifests some extreme perversion or corruption of ordinary values but whose manner is so offhanded as to indicate that this perversion is noncontroversial or otherwise widely agreeable. “As fast as can be reasonably expected” shows that the main issue is not whether, but how fast the old and sick and crippled are dying. Of course it is an inhumanly impertinent thing to say, and grotesquely beside the point. But it is said so unselfconsciously, with such confidence in its being accepted as perfectly to the point, that we are made to feel that somebody thinks this is the point.

More precisely, Swift in this way represents his readers as likely to have an interest in the sick and dying which is at best only actuarial. He does not give out any such opinion of his readers; rather he simply writes as if they were what he thinks them to be, making it appear that his unfeeling manner is a function merely of theirs, that his plan, his rationale, his arguments, his perception of what is and is not acceptable—all these are matter-of-factly predicated upon the universal moral indifference that is the most basic element of the whole situation. And Swift's manner has built into it the evident assumption that this indifference is so very much the case, so deeply and pervasively true, that it may be taken for granted without even mentioning it. His ironic manner, in other words, expresses the degree as well as the fact of the indifference. Irony is only a figure of speech, but Swift typically saturates his speech with the figure so deeply as to suggest that figurative reality is no longer subordinated to literal reality—that there is an equivalency between them or even a substitution of the one for the other. The point of dislocation and disorientation in the verbal medium—the point at which the vehicle appears to become the tenor, as it were—corresponds in Swift's Irish experience to the point at which passive indifference to suffering is so completely the rule as to become quite naturally an active interest in seeing it become more efficient: one wants to hear not only that the old and sick and crippled poor are dying (which everybody knows anyway) but that they are dying every day, and as fast as they can.

In order to put a work like the Proposal into a comfortable perspective, one must be able to deal directly with Swift's real opinions. But of course Swift does not present his opinions directly. Instead he makes an absurd proposal, clearly predicated on the assumption that no one cares, including apparently himself—a proposal so absurd and repellent as to compel the reader to search the essay for any evidence of a merely human reaction to it. But there is no such evidence to be found there, because Swift has contrived to make the reader expect from this essay the very thing he himself had been expecting for so long from the public—a sense of shame—and has further seen to it that the reader's expectations, like his own, are doomed utterly to defeat. Thus the reader cannot really respond to Swift's portrayal of the situation unless he first acknowledges or, like Swift, takes it for granted that no one cares. The question of whether there would be an emotional or moral reaction to this proposal is therefore no question at all, having long since been settled. If one does not acknowledge the extent of the moral indifference, then one is left trying to prove somehow that people do care when all the evidence to the contrary is on Swift's side. In other words, the idea that people have limits beyond which they will react (for example, cannibalism) is for Swift an uncontrolled moral maxim, inapplicable to Ireland.

What sort of relationship does Swift seem to have with this audience of Dubliners whose hearts have waxed gross? He is, as it were, their “humble servant,” their creature and, in a sense, their creation. He is one of them (frequently using the first person plural) and his humility and modesty are an elaborate and intentionally transparent pretense designed to heighten the effect. His apparent respect for the public is somewhat like the attitude of Gulliverian respectfulness with which the Argument against Abolishing Christianity begins: intended to sharpen our sense of how all-powerful the public is, how impossible it is to try to argue with them. Swift is “modest” and “humble” and earnestly reassuring to his readers because he must be if he is to have a hearing (and if he is to be thought loyal, and not disaffected); again, he mocks the audience with his outlandish respect for them, his acute sensitivity to their unparalleled insensitivity, thus dramatizing intensely, by his usual contrarious method, the contemptible degree to which they are beyond any respect or consideration.

In his unpublished papers of 1729, Swift's bitterest reflections have to do with what he sees as the public's incomprehensible stupidity on the Irish question. These papers furnish us the proper introduction to the Modest Proposal, as their mood is increasingly hopeless, in terms of Swift's perception not only of the situation itself but also of his role in it. “I am tired,” he says, striking the note of personal despair that is shortly to become the very material of the Proposal, “with Letters from many unreasonable well-meaning People, who are daily pressing me to deliver my Thoughts in this deplorable Juncture, which upon many others I have so often done in vain. What will it import that half a score more people in a Coffee-house may happen to read this paper, and even the Majority of those few differ in every sentiment from me.”7

Elsewhere, arguing for elimination of the imports as the only means of making even the slightest improvement in the economic condition of the country, he notes, “All other Scheams for preserving this Kingdom from utter ruin are idle and visionary, consequences drawn from wrong reasoning, and from generall Topicks which for the same Causes that they may be true in all Nations are certainly false in ours; as I have told the publick often enough, but with as little effect as what I shall say at present is likely to produce.”8

What appears here to be a purely personal cynicism and frustration is given logic and propriety and meaning in the context of universal indifference which is the Modest Proposal. For ten years or more, all through a steadily worsening situation, Swift had been advocating realistic remedies; and all to no purpose whatsoever. But he had also been proceeding upon the false assumption that his audience cared enough to listen, or would in time be persuaded by plain words and plain sense. (One sees Swift rather bitterly coming to terms with the falsity of the assumption in the unpublished papers.) The Modest Proposal shows a certain development in his thinking, however, in that he adopts there the more realistic assumption that the situation is morally quite hopeless and physically almost hopeless, and that the public attitude of indifference and ignorance will not change in the slightest. Once he has accepted this attitude as the basic given of the whole situation, he can speak to his reader with an irrepressible confidence in being, at last, listened to, understood, and even agreed with.

When Swift concludes the paper by saying, “I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny,” he is in effect reasserting the truth of his implicit representation of the public attitude by offering up one climactically consistent illustration of the distinction he has been silently dramatizing throughout the work between what his readers may and may not reasonably be expected to care about. They are not capable of imagining that there is anything wrong with the proposal, any more than they are evidently capable of seeing anything wrong with children starving all around them; they are, however, quite capable of imagining how nice it would be to be able to get money by selling their own children—and that this is probably what their fellow-countryman has in mind for himself. So Swift reassures them on that point.

The perfection of that famous concluding paragraph is the quality of harmonious completion it gives the essay, like tonic chords at the end of a sonata. Again the point—the “real” point—is horribly missed, just when one feels sure there cannot be any new way of missing it. This most unreassuring piece of reassurance leaves the reader with a convincing feeling that the point will continue to be missed, in perpetually fresh ways, indefinitely. The peculiar beauty of the end of the essay, in short, is its manifestation of the endlessness of a condition we have been made to feel is so monstrous it would surely end itself.

The Proposal shows us an audience of people who (1) “know very well” that money is scarce, prices are high, and people are starving all over the kingdom, but who (2) do not concern themselves with the causes or the consequences, and (3) might be interested in a solution only if it involved no moral or practical effort whatsoever. Swift gives them what they want, a plan that is “innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual,” so that one might say the essay does for them only what true poetry is supposed to do, according to the Augustan rule—it gives them back the image of their mind.

The enormity of this plan of course is meant to be taken as a measure of the enormity of the situation. In seeming not to notice the monstrousness of his proposal, Swift is indicating that no one would care if such a plan were actually adopted, and suggesting that the proposal is indeed very close to reality and that he is (almost) serious. In rigorously underplaying the aspect of fantasy in his proposal, he suggests that the Irish have virtually arrived at a condition in which such a plan may be seriously considered. In that condition the plan is both economically enforced (because the kingdom is reduced almost to cannibalism) and morally acceptable (because no one could possibly make moral objections to the cure when no one has made any moral objections to the disease).

Swift speaks of himself as “having been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary Thoughts,” which are the “preposterous” proposals he has been making all along and which he restates in his list of “other Expedients” in the Proposal. Simple, sensible ideas in themselves, like “quitting our Animosities, and Factions,” but in the real-life Irish context, nothing more than foolish daydreams. There is little reason to think Swift does not literally mean what he says when he writes, “Therefore I repeat, let no Man talk to me of these and the like Expedients; till he hath, at least, a Glimpse of Hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere Attempt to put them in Practice.

Earlier in the essay Swift talks about the scheme of his patriotic friend for supplying the want of venison with the bodies of young boys and girls between twelve and fourteen, an idea he politely rejects, partly because “it is not improbable that some scrupulous People might be apt to censure such a Practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon Cruelty; which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest Objection against any Project, how well soever intended.” These seemingly phony asservations about “cruelty” are a superb example of Swift's trick of dumping the crucial question into the lap of his reader, for whom in this instance it becomes almost impossible not to come to some foolish, premature conclusion about the author's inconsistency. How is it that a man who talks so fastidiously about cruelty can be advocating a scheme to sell babies for food? The triumphant answer is that it is not a cruel scheme; one has only to “ask the Parents of these Mortals, whether they would not, at this Day, think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old, in the Manner I prescribe. …” What seems at first to be a grotesque failure of perception on the part of the author is proved to be, rather, a failure on the part of the reader. Swift's apparent failure to notice, even to raise the question of whether there is any distortion of moral value in his plan simply expresses the fact that morally it distorts nothing. It can hardly be inconsistent or absurd of him not to raise the question. The only absurdity would be in thinking that anyone could possibly, under the circumstances, consider it a cruel plan. Such a thought is so absurd, indeed, that it quite properly does not occur even to a man for whom cruelty hath always been the strongest objection against any project.

In some of his earlier Irish papers Swift had occasionally made ominous hints about the doom of the nation. “One Thing I know,” he says of Ireland in the Short View, “that when the Hen is starved to Death, there will be no more Golden Eggs.9 Elsewhere he asserts, “If labour and people make the true riches of a nation, what must be the issue where one part of the people are forced away, and the other part have nothing to do?”10 Swift may be thought of as having answered this rhetorical question in the Modest Proposal. In 1728 he had said, “If so wretched a State of Things would allow it, methinks I could have a malicious Pleasure, after all the Warning I have in vain given the Publick, at my own Peril, for several Years past; to see the Consequences and Events answering in every Particular.” Following which he quoted Proverbs: “Wisdom crieth in the Streets; because I have called and ye refused; I have stretched out my Hand, and no Man regarded. But ye have set at nought all my Counsel, and would none of my Reproof. I also will laugh at your Calamity, and mock when your Fear cometh.11 In a sense, then, Swift is envisioning this calamity in the Modest Proposal, and doubtless taking a malicious pleasure in it: there is, certainly, a distinctively mingled mood of despair and triumph in the essay as Swift makes horrifyingly specific the veiled prophetic hints he had been issuing in the earlier papers.

This prophetic or futuristic quality in the Modest Proposal is worth noticing. It is reflected in the verb forms, for instance, which are generally future declarative: “Infants Flesh will be in Season throughout the Year,” or “a well-grown fat yearling Child; which, roasted whole, will make a considerable Figure at a Lord Mayor's Feast, or any other publick Entertainment.” We see it too in the brief comic-nightmare visions of Irishmen eating Irish children all over the kingdom, as for instance “at merry Meetings, particularly Weddings and Christenings.” And at public houses—“This Food would likewise bring great Custom to Taverns, where the Vintners will certainly be so prudent, as to procure the best Receipts for dressing it to Perfection; and consequently, have their Houses frequented by all the fine Gentlemen …”—and private homes—“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. …”

As a vision or imagined fulfillment of Swift's warnings, then, the Proposal dramatizes the extremity of the Irish condition, economically reduced to cannibalism, morally reduced to practicing it with gusto. The masterstroke is Swift's projecting this vision in the form of a proposal, which is a much more “realistic” vehicle than prophecy: it provides a convincing context for the elaboration of practical details, and it minimizes the quality of illustration-by-exaggeration in the idea of a nation so poor that it has to practice cannibalism. In a certain sense what Swift means is that “we are almost to the point of having to eat our own children,” but instead of simply saying that (which he had more or less been doing all along) he writes a cannibalistic proposal, talking about it as if it were no worse than a picnic in the park—thus effectively eliminating the “almost” that separates jesting exaggeration from literal truth. The catastrophic future Swift had been warning against seems in the Modest Proposal suddenly to have arrived, and the proposal itself is the proof.

The Modest Proposal is by far Swift's most comprehensive rehearsal of what he had called “the true state of Ireland,”12 taking in as it does virtually everything he had ever said on the subject for the previous ten years: every misery he had discovered, every cause he had assigned, every remedy he had offered, all newly subsumed by this ominously suitable plan for consuming the children of the kingdom. And there is more to the work than satire; it is a rendering of the Irish situation in a medium compounded variously of sarcasm, knowing jokes, contempt, moral protest, prophetic ultimatum, frustration, and despair, underlying all of which is Swift's frantic desire simply to make the most compelling possible display of the situation in all its desperate simplicity and obviousness, to make the reader see what he sees, yet without telling him to look.

It is that peculiarly Swiftian kind of satire that is constantly seeking to go beyond the conventions of the genre “satire” into some undefined but more richly expressive, more genuinely affective form. Swift in this work evokes a terrible indifference; it seems almost to envelop him like some numbing murky fluid through which one may just glimpse a figure seeming to shout but whose words reach us only in deadened, dreamlike sounds. These “sounds” are the characteristic language of the Modest Proposal, the language of moral opposition and outrage neutralized, as it were, by its passage through this enveloping context of indifference.

The astonishing thoroughness with which Swift dramatizes this indifference as a permanently prevailing moral condition in Ireland, in England, among his putative readership, gives it an authenticity quite beside whatever it may involve of satiric hyperbole. Here it is simply a matter of Swift's telling the truth: he saw a monstrous indifference, and he wrote about it so as to make it visible to everyone else. That is why Swift's proposal itself has always seemed, fascinatingly, so much more difficult to dismiss than such a proposal ought to be—that is, because Swift makes us believe so implicitly in the moral deadness in terms of which it becomes an apt, reasonable, not to say attractive idea. Every reader finds himself drawn almost in earnest into contemplations such as Bathurst's: “The more I think upon this scheme, the more reasonable it appears to me.”13

Swift does of course make one last effort in the Modest Proposal to publicize his “real” proposals for improving the situation, but he also makes a point of saying that they are hopelessly unrealistic. It would be nonsense to believe that after ten years of virtually total defeat on this question, Swift is still hoping that his words might be listened to, let alone acted upon. When Swift wrote this paper there were Irishmen who persisted in declaring Ireland to be a thriving nation, Irish farmers who believed the crop failures merely to be the cause of all the trouble, Dublin women who were as eager as ever to be wearing Paris clothes, and the majority of Englishmen who simply never thought about Ireland one way or another. The mood of hopelessness in the Modest Proposal is authentic and virtually unmitigated. The real genius of the work is the way in which Swift manages to objectify or otherwise make an extremely realistic representation of the most intensely personal frustration and despair. His style of address, a manner of insinuating that the reader will surely not find anything very startling or objectionable in what he is saying, is wrought upon so variously, insisted upon so literally as to force even the twentieth-century reader to assume to a degree the attitude of moral nonchalance that Swift assigns his Dublin audience. To be sure, one must distinguish between “real” readers (you and I) and putative readers: but Swift in projecting an indifferent putative reader seems to communicate only with him, leaving “real” readers no role in the author-reader relationship. To some extent, then, reading the work involves joining Swift in the madhouse. Swift is here giving up on Ireland, taking the malicious pleasure he had threatened in contemplating or “projecting” the ultimate doom of the kingdom. Yet, for all that, it is impossible to dismiss the Proposal as the jaundiced kidding of a merely frustrated man, because in it Swift compels one to assent to his despair, to validate it, by his recreation of the undismissible moral reality of the situation. How a work of such unrelieved moral pessimism may nevertheless claim the highest sort of artistic value is a point well explained by Bonamy Dobrée when he observes that although it expresses an absolute despair, it does not express acceptance: “There is not the faintest perfume of hope in the document; nothing will happen; no one will stir a finger, but there is no acceptance in it, neither Stoic nor Christian. It is the control, the courageous will disciplining and shaping the justifiably bitter emotions, that makes of it a consummate, a great, almost a noble work of art.”14


  1. “Personae,” in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature: Essays in Honor of Alan Dugald McKillop, ed. Carroll Camden (Chicago, 1963), p. 36.

  2. For a strenuous (and strained) objection to Ehrenpreis, see John W. Tilton, “The Two ‘Modest Proposals’: A Dual Approach to Swift's Irony,” Bucknell Review 14 (1966): 76-87.

  3. See for example the “Answer to Several Letters from Unknown Persons” (1729) in The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis, 14 vols. (Oxford, 1939-68), 12:79.

  4. The text of this and subsequent references to the Modest Proposal is from the Prose Works, 12:109-18. As the Proposal is so short and so well known, I have not cited particular page references for each of my quotations from it.

  5. Letter of 12 February 1729/30, in The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1963), 3:372-73.

  6. This is in the “Answer to Several Letters from Unknown Persons,” in Prose Works, 12:75.

  7. Prose Works, 12:80-81.

  8. “Letter to the Archbishop of Dublin, concerning the Weavers,” in Prose Works, 12:66-67.

  9. Prose Works, 12:12.

  10. “Answer to Several Letters from Unknown Hands,” in Prose Works, 12:89-90.

  11. “An Answer to a Paper called, A Memorial …,” in Prose Works, 12:22-23.

  12. Letter to Pope, 11 August 1729, in Correspondence, 4:89-90.

  13. Letter of 12 February 1729/30, in Correspondence, 3:373.

  14. English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1959), p. 445.

Wayne C. Booth (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7534

SOURCE: Booth, Wayne C. “Essays, Satire, Parody.” In A Rhetoric of Irony, pp. 91-136. Chicago, III.: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Booth analyzes portions of A Modest Proposal, noting the irony of two contradictory readings.]


[It] is now time to turn to the difficulties offered by even more intricate contexts. For greatest speculative interest, I perhaps ought now to tackle one of the sources of famous critical disagreement—say, Swift's A Tale of a Tub, or the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels, or Melville's Billy Budd. But for the purpose of understanding, it is still important to stress the sources of our agreement. And so I choose “A Modest Proposal,” to me the finest of all ironic satires. In spite of its intricacies it has produced enough critical consensus to justify my calling it stable, not only in intent but in effect.

The consensus is of course not universal. Though no publishing critic, so far as I know, has ever attributed to Swift himself the cruelty of his speaker's proposal that young children be bred, slaughtered, and sold as meat for human consumption, some inexperienced readers do so. I have met the bizarre reading only in teaching college freshmen—perhaps half a dozen out of hundreds who have read it with me. High school teachers report a higher incidence. It seems an incredible kind of misreading, since so far as I can determine, these readers always condemn the proposal itself as outrageous. I have never heard of anyone who said, “Good idea, that. Why didn't I think of it myself, as a solution to the population explosion?” Unlike Whyte's modest proposal for the Universal Personnel Card, Swift's plan is, even the bad readers say, obviously “crazy,” or “criminal.”

It is frequently said that irony always presupposes such victims, or even that it is written with the intent to deliberately deceive them.

To write ironically with success a writer needs to be alert to two audiences: those who will recognize the ironic intention and enjoy the joke, and those who are the object of the satire and are deceived by it. This implies that the ironist has ranged himself with those of his readers who share his superior values, intelligence and literary sensibility; together they look down on the benighted mob.

So writes James T. Boulton, attempting to show that Defoe's style “makes no provision for irony,” since all readers of “normal intelligence should respond in the same manner with one another.”1

But it is clear that Swift wrote with an absolute and justified expectation that every proper reader would, as an essential part of his reconstruction of the essay, “respond in the same manner” and repudiate the proposal as mad. The essential structure of this irony is not designed to “deceive some readers and allow others to see the secret message” but to deceive all readers for a time and then require all readers to recognize and cope with their deception. There has been so much written about the “marvelous consistency” of this work that a close look at its controlled inconsistencies should be justified.

A Modest



Preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick.

[1] It is a melancholly Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country; when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms. These Mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest Livelyhood, are forced to employ all their Time in stroling to beg Sustenance for their helpless Infants; who, as they grow up, either turn Thieves for want of Work; or leave their dear Native Country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

[2] I think it is agreed by all Parties, that this prodigious Number of Children in the Arms, or on the Backs, or at the Heels of their Mothers, and frequently of their Fathers, is in the present deplorable State of the Kingdom, a very great additional Grievance; and therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method of making these Children sound and useful Members of the Commonwealth, would deserve so well of the Publick, as to have his Statue set up for a Preserver of the Nation.

[3] But my Intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the Children of professed Beggars: It is of a much greater Extent, and shall take in the whole Number of Infants at a certain Age, who are born of Parents, in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our Charity in the Streets.

[4] As to my own Part, having turned my Thoughts for many Years, upon this important Subject, and maturely weighed the several Schemes of other Projectors, I have always found them grosly mistaken in their Computation. It is true a Child, just dropt from its Dam, may be supported by her Milk, for a Solar Year with little other Nourishment; at most not above the Value of two Shillings; which the Mother may certainly get, or the Value in Scraps, by her lawful Occupation of Begging: And, it is exactly at one Year old, that I propose to provide for them in such a Manner, as, instead of being a Charge upon their Parents, or the Parish, or wanting Food and Raiment for the rest of their Lives; they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the Feeding, and partly to the Cloathing, of many Thousands.

[5] There is likewise another great Advantage in my Scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary Abortions, and that horrid Practice of Women murdering their Bastard Children; alas! too frequent among us; sacrificing the poor innocent Babes, I doubt, more to avoid the Expence than the Shame; which would move Tears and Pity in the most Savage and inhuman Breast.

[6] The Number of Souls in Ireland being usually reckoned one Million and a half; of these I calculate there may be about Two hundred Thousand Couple whose Wives are Breeders; from which Number I subtract thirty thousand Couples, who are able to maintain their own Children; although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present Distresses of the Kingdom; but this being granted, there will remain an Hundred and Seventy Thousand Breeders. I again subtract Fifty Thousand, for those Women who miscarry, or whose Children die by Accident, or Disease, within the Year. There only remain an Hundred and Twenty Thousand Children of poor Parents, annually born: The Question therefore is, How this Number shall be reared, and provided for? Which, as I have already said, under the present Situation of Affairs, is utterly impossible, by all the Methods hitherto proposed: For we can neither employ them in Handicraft or Agriculture; we neither build Houses, (I mean in the Country) nor cultivate Land: They can very seldom pick up a Livelyhood by Stealing until they arrive at six Years old; except where they are of towardly Parts; although, I confess, they learn the Rudiments much earlier; during which Time, they can, however, be properly looked upon only as Probationers; as I have been informed by a principal Gentleman in the County of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two Instances under the Age of six, even in a Part of the Kingdom so renowned for the quickest Proficiency in that Art.

[7] I am assured by our Merchants, that a Boy or a Girl before twelve Years old, is no saleable Commodity; and even when they come to this Age, they will not yield above Three Pounds, or Three Pounds and half a Crown at most, on the Exchange; which cannot turn to Account either to the Parents or the Kingdom; the Charge of Nutriment and Rags, having been at least four Times that Value.

[8] I shall now therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts; which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection.

[9] 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 Broiled; and, I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust.

[10] I do therefore humbly offer it to publick Consideration, that of the Hundred and Twenty Thousand Children, already computed, Twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed; whereof only one Fourth Part to be Males; which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine; and my Reason is, that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages; therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females. That the remaining Hundred thousand, may, at a Year old, be offered in Sale to the Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom; always advising the Mother to let them suck plentifully in the last Month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good Table. 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.

[11] I have reckoned upon a Medium, that a Child just born will weigh Twelve Pounds; and in a solar Year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to twenty eight Pounds.

[12] 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.

And so the full picture of the brutal proposal is developed. Different readers will become suspicious at different points. Some will begin to wonder with the phrase “just dropt from its Dam,” in the fourth paragraph, because of the curious barnyard terminology; some may wince at “Breeders” in the first sentence of paragraph 6. (On second reading we may wonder how we missed earlier clues, like the style of the first sentence in the second paragraph.) Some will feel sure of themselves only when they come to the talk of training pickpockets at the end of paragraph 6. But most will have had their suspicions fully aroused by paragraph 7, and every reader should know, by paragraph 9, that the most wrenching kind of irony is at work. Every reader has thus to some degree been duped—not simply for a fleeting moment of shock and reconstruction that is produced by essays that are ironic from the first word, but for several paragraphs. And every reader has thus been drawn into an engagement of the most active kind: having been driven to suspect, and finally to admit that the voice is speaking a kind of mad reasonableness, one is tricked into an intensely active state, mind and heart fully engaged—indeed apprehensive—about what is to come.

For one thing, no reader can possibly predict what it will be: too much of what the speaker has said has made sense. Nothing here can be simply reversed, once the irony is discovered. If the speaker's position is that he will save the children and the kingdom by butchering the children, Swift's position cannot be simply that “we should not butcher them”; nobody, not even the worst exploiter, had ever proposed that we should, and to write an essay attacking such a position would be absurd. How is the reader to reconstruct a sound version of Swift's intentions behind the speaker's double claim that the landlords “have already devoured most of the Parents,” and thus “seem to have the best Title to the Children”? No amount of simple inversion to contraries, or substitution of one speaker's voice for another, can yield the reconstruction of such a mixture of truth and madness. I do not want to manufacture difficulties—most readers no doubt manage to decide that Swift stands fully behind the first half of it (though the “devoured” is metaphorical, the clause is not ironic in our sense), and that he stands behind neither the literal sense nor any easily formulated “reversal” of the second half: to reconstruct it as “the landlords do not have the best Title to the Children” lands us in another absurdity. And so we move along, accepting, rejecting, partially rejecting. But the question is, how?

As we move through the essay, we in fact distinguish at least three completely different kinds of statement. The first two are primarily important in determining the emotional power and the direction of the attack. The third, which I shall hold to one side for a moment, is useful in filling out our conception of the details of Swift's implicit affirmative position. All three are in one sense in the same tone of voice, we might say; except for the radical differences in moral content, I think that no one could say that the style or tone is verbally inconsistent. But the meaning conveyed, the moral tone, is an almost incredibly complex mixture of the three; the skill of it can hardly be appreciated except in uninterrupted reading:

[13] Infants Flesh will be in Season throughout the Year; but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after: For we are told by a grave2 Author, an eminent French Physician, that Fish being a prolifick Dyet, there are more Children born in Roman Catholick Countries about Nine Months after Lent, than at any other Season: Therefore reckoning a Year after Lent, the Markets will be more glutted than usual; because the Number of Popish Infants, is, at least, three to one in this Kingdom; and therefore it will have one other Collateral Advantage, by lessening the Number of Papists among us.

[14] I have already computed the Charge of nursing a Beggar's Child (in which List I reckon all Cottagers, Labourers, and Four fifths of the Farmers) to be about two Shillings per Annum, Rags included; and I believe, no Gentleman would repine to give Ten Shillings for the Carcase of a good fat Child; which, as I have said, will make four Dishes of excellent nutritive Meat, when he hath only some particular Friend, or his own Family, to dine with him. Thus the Squire will learn to be a good Landlord, and grow popular among his Tenants; the Mother will have Eight Shillings net Profit, and be fit for Work until she produceth another Child.

[15] Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the Times require) may flay the Carcase; the Skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen.

[16] As to our City of Dublin; Shambles may be appointed for this Purpose, in the most convenient Parts of it; and Butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the Children alive, and dressing them hot from the Knife, as we do roasting Pigs.

[17] A very worthy Person, a true Lover of his Country, and whose Virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this Matter, to offer a Refinement upon my Scheme. He said, that many Gentlemen of this Kingdom, having of late destroyed their Deer; he conceived, that the Want of Venison might be well supplied by the Bodies of young Lads and Maidens, not exceeding fourteen Years of Age, nor under twelve; so great a Number of both Sexes in every County being now ready to starve, for Want of Work and Service: And these to be disposed of by their Parents, if alive, or otherwise by their nearest Relations. But with due Deference to so excellent a Friend, and so deserving a Patriot, I cannot be altogether in his Sentiments. For as to the Males, my American Acquaintance assured me from frequent Experience, that their Flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our School-boys, by continual Exercise, and their Taste disagreeable; and to fatten them would not answer the Charge. Then, as to the Females, it would, I think, with humble Submission, be a Loss to the Publick, because they soon would become Breeders themselves: And besides it is not improbable, that some scrupulous People might be apt to censure such a Practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon Cruelty; which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest Objection against any Project, how well soever intended.

[18] But in order to justify my Friend; he confessed, that this Expedient was put into his Head by the famous Salmanaazor, a Native of the Island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty Years ago, and in Conversation told my Friend, that in his Country, when any young Person happened to be put to Death, the Executioner sold the Carcase to Persons of Quality, as a prime Dainty; and that, in his Time, the Body of a plump Girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an Attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his Imperial Majesty's prime Minister of State, and other great Mandarins of the Court, in Joints from the Gibbet, at Four hundred Crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same Use were made of several plump young girls in this Town, who, without one single Groat to their Fortunes, cannot stir Abroad without a Chair, and appear at the Play-house, and Assemblies in foreign Fineries, which they never will pay for; the Kingdom would not be the worse.

[19] Some Persons of a desponding Spirit are in great Concern about that vast Number of poor People, who are Aged, Diseased, or Maimed; and I have been desired to employ my Thoughts what Course may be taken, to ease the Nation of so grievous an Incumbrance. But I am not in the least Pain upon that Matter; because it is very well known, that they are every Day dying, and rotting, by Cold and Famine, and Filth, and Vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the younger Labourers, they are now in almost as hopeful a Condition: They cannot get Work, and consequently pine away for Want of Nourishment, to a Degree, that if at any Time they are accidentally hired to common Labour, they have not Strength to perform it; and thus the Country, and themselves, are in a fair Way of being soon delivered from the Evils to come.

[20] I have too long digressed; and therefore shall return to my Subject. I think the Advantages by the Proposal which I have made, are obvious, and many, as well as of the highest Importance.

[21] For, First, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the Number of Papists, with whom we are yearly overrun; being the principal Breeders of the Nation, as well as our most dangerous Enemies; and who stay at home on Purpose, with a Design to deliver the Kingdom to the Pretender; hoping to take their Advantage by the Absence of so many good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their Country, than stay at home, and pay Tithes against their Conscience, to an idolatrous Episcopal Curate.

[22] Secondly, The poorer Tenants will have something valuable of their own, which, by Law, may be made liable to Distress, and help to pay their Landlord's Rent; their Corn and Cattle being already seized, and Money a Thing unknown.

[23] Thirdly, Whereas the Maintenance of an Hundred Thousand Children, from two Years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than ten Shillings a Piece per Annum, the Nation's Stock will be thereby encreased Fifty Thousand Pounds per Annum; besides the Profit of a new Dish, introduced to the Tables of all Gentlemen of Fortune in the Kingdom, who have any Refinement in Taste; and the Money will circulate among ourselves, the Goods being entirely of our own Growth and Manufacture.

[24] Fourthly, The constant Breeders, besides the Gain of Eight Shillings Sterling per Annum, by the Sale of their Children, will be rid of the Charge of maintaining them after the first Year.

[25] Fifthly, This Food would likewise bring great Custom to Taverns, where the Vintners will certainly be so prudent, as to procure the best Receipts for dressing it to Perfection; and consequently, have their Houses frequented by all the fine Gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their Knowledge in good Eating; and a skilful Cook, who understands how to oblige his Guests, will contrive to make it as expensive as they please.

[26] Sixthly, This would be a great Inducement to Marriage, which all wise Nations have either encouraged by Rewards, or enforced by Laws and Penalties. It would encrease the Care and Tenderness of Mothers towards their Children, when they were sure of a Settlement for Life, to the poor Babes, provided in some Sort by the Publick, to their annual Profit instead of Expence. We should soon see an honest Emulation among the married Women, which of them could bring the fattest Child to the Market. Men would become as fond of their Wives, during the Time of their Pregnancy, as they are now of their Mares in Foal, their Cows in Calf, or Sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them, (as it is too frequent a Practice) for fear of a Miscarriage.

[27] Many other Advantages might be enumerated. For instance, the Addition of some Thousand Carcasses in our Exportation of barrelled Beef: The Propagation of Swines Flesh, and Improvement in the Art of making good Bacon; so much wanted among us by the great Destruction of Pigs, too frequent at our Tables, and are no way comparable in Taste, or Magnificence, to a well-grown fat yearling Child; which, roasted whole, will make a considerable Figure at a Lord Mayor's Feast, or any other publick Entertainment. But this, and many others, I omit; being studious of Brevity.

[28] Supposing that one Thousand Families in this City, would be constant Customers for Infants Flesh; besides others who might have it at merry Meetings, particularly Weddings and Christenings; I compute that Dublin would take off, annually, about Twenty Thousand Carcasses; and the rest of the Kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining Eighty Thousand.

[29] I can think of no one Objection, that will possibly be raised against this Proposal; unless it should be urged, that the Number of People will be thereby much lessened in the Kingdom. This I freely own; and it was indeed one principal Design in offering it to the World. I desire the Reader will observe, that I calculate my Remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or I think ever can be upon Earth.

The first voice, simply an extension of the one we hear when the essay opens, is that of a calm but indignant man trying to deal rationally with the admitted miseries of Ireland. If we had only this voice, we would probably make the mistake of saying that Jonathan Swift speaks directly to us throughout the essay: “The Landlords have already devoured”—“the present Distresses of the Kingdom”—“which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine”—“their Corn and Cattle being already seized, and Money a Thing unknown”—“I calculate my Remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth”—and so on.

The second voice utters the mad proposals of cannibalism: “I recommend … dressing them hot from the Knife.” The whole essay could have been made up of such extreme departures from the author's and reader's values and opinions. A speaker unwaveringly arguing his case would have made a very ironic work of it indeed, as consistent as “The Shortest Way with the Dissenters,” and it would have become either obvious and less interesting (to most of us) or totally deceptive (to any mad landlords who happened to read it). Most of paragraphs 7 through 16 are made up of this mad reasoning—thoroughly rational if one agrees to discard all humane motives and view children as material assets.

It is true that the rationality is elegantly tainted with moments that seem to betray, like an uncontrollable nervous tic, a sadistic delight in the physical prospect of all that flesh: “Hot from the Knife,” “plump and fat,” “prime dainty,” etc. But if we think of how easily Swift could have increased such signs of the madness, we see just how restrained the style is. If Swift had been interested mainly in a clever display of irony, he could have lingered over the succulence, the rich juices, as one might imagine the Poe of “A Cask of Amontillado” doing. Instead, this speaker is denied full license in order to maintain control of the main satiric point.

Any careful rereading of the shifts between these two radically different kinds of statement will show that it is in the mastery of the clashes between them, the very “inconsistency” of tone, that much of the essay's brilliance is found. Some critics have talked of the essay as marvelous in its “sustained irony,” but though the quality of the work is marvelously sustained, and one must certainly call the whole piece ironic, the marvel is in the clarity and power achieved against the obstacles, as it were, of the shifting surface; there is a continuous, intense pressure upon us as we move back and forth from the true, angry but rational voice describing Ireland's woes and the mad, almost cheerfully “rational” voice describing the remedy.

But it is misleading, I repeat, to talk of voices here, because in style the voices are practically indistinguishable. We are given very little stylistic assistance in turning our innumerable somersaults: they all depend on inferences about the beliefs of Swift as they relate to the reasonable indignation of one voice and the mad reason of the other. If we did not find it possible to construct a solid and convincing “Swift” through the inferences we make about his agreement with many statements (“that horrid Practice of Women murdering their Bastard Children”; the spectacle of mothers murdering their “innocent Babes” should “move Tears and Pity in the most Savage and inhuman Breast”), we could never make our way through all of the non-sense with the kind of sure and strangely delightful confidence that the essay builds.

I doubt that any reader could trace fully how he manages to reconstruct his picture of what Swift intends behind all the complex interweavings. But it is surely in part a matter of the emotional intensity we sense, and share, at those moments when the speaker moves closest to Swift's views of Ireland's woes. When the speaker questions whether there are as many as thirty thousand couples who can maintain their own children, “under the present Distresses of the Kingdom,” the reader cannot resist joining in the melancholy lament and inferring that Swift does too—it is a note that has been struck from the very beginning, with the description of Ireland's begging mothers; every detail of the piece (including the desperation of the remedy proposed) supports the inference that the woes of Ireland make, indeed, a “melancholy Object.” It becomes, very early, impossible to doubt that Swift concurs with the speaker's distress about a country where the aged, diseased, and maimed are “every Day dying, and rotting, by Cold and Famine, and Filth, and Vermin. …” And it is this confidence that enables us to make that glorious ironic leap upward to the ironic sublime when Swift's speaker, plunging into a moral abyss, goes on to say, “as fast as can reasonably be expected.”

At every shift, then, our inferential involvement is as great as our emotional concern, and it serves to strengthen our active embrace of those truths we discern behind the horrible “falsehoods.” After the first four paragraphs we are never allowed to forget that Swift hates the evil conditions more passionately than the speaker who describes them as hateful—it is as if we said to ourselves, “the conditions are so bad that even a man with as little true humanity as this speaker is offended by them—how much more strongly must Swift feel.”

It does not matter very much, I think, whether we account for our reconciliation of the surface inconsistencies as I have done by seeing a passionate conflict between the two voices, neither of them precisely Swift's, or, as some others have done, by trying to construct a coherent single voice, that of a madman who can reconcile, in his madness, the brutal scheme with the angry compassion. I do think that one cannot really reconcile, in one literary portrait, the extremes that we find here, except by postulating a completely capricious, unrealistic kind of madness that could encompass the sort of thing found, say, in paragraph 19. But even if we could reconstruct a clear literary portrait of a single confused voice, the point still remains: it is through shifting the tone back and forth between totally unacceptable statements of the first kind and totally acceptable statements of the second kind that the rich passion of the essay emerges.

Once we have turned our somersaults several times, landing with confidence on the right platform each time (we know we are right because we are rewarded—the higher platform is always there), we have a new and secure context for the resolution of any doubts that occur about particular points. What do we do, for example, with the traditional debate about whether Swift is primarily attacking the absentee English landlords or the Irish who collaborate with them? There is, of course, a great deal of anger here against the English, but it will hardly do to resolve the dispute by saying simply that he is attacking both. The focus of the inverted attack is provided by the speaker, an Irishman who, while deploring Ireland's sufferings, can offer as cure only a program that produces worse suffering and degradation. He is thus a kind of mad collaborator, and he draws most of the indignation toward his own kind—Irishmen. The anger against the English is used merely to heighten the denunciation of those who play along with them.

Thus we need not appeal to such external evidence as the fact that the essay was written for Irish readers—evidence which in any case would be ambiguous as applied to this question. All we need do is ask ourselves how Swift would have rewritten the essay if he had been primarily concerned with arousing the Irish against the English. The most obvious change would have been, it seems to me, to make the speaker an English landlord, proposing to the Irish that they solve their problems with this inhuman scheme. Then the ironic fire would have been aimed at the English; but as the essay stands, it is an Irishman, facing Irish woes with fake rationality and deep concern, who proposes the ultimate act of collaboration: let us offer ourselves to be eaten, since it is the only measure open to us.

The third “tone of voice” introduces an even deeper, but hence less troublesome, contrast. Swift occasionally offers quite direct, precise proposals of what might be done to cure Ireland's ills. The most obvious shift comes as paragraph 29 continues:

Therefore, let no man talk to me of other Expedients: Of taxing our Absentees at five Shillings a Pound: Of using neither Cloaths, nor Houshold Furniture except what is of our own Growth and Manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the Materials and Instruments that promote foreign Luxury: Of curing the Expensiveness of Pride, Vanity, Idleness, and Gaming in our Women: Of introducing a Vein of Parsimony, Prudence and Temperance: Of learning to love our Country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the Inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our Animosities, and Factions; nor act any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very Moment their City was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our Country and Consciences for nothing: Of teaching Landlords to have, at least, one Degree of Mercy towards their Tenants. Lastly, Of putting a Spirit of Honesty, Industry, and Skill into our Shop-keepers; who, if a Resolution could now be taken to buy only our native Goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the Price, the Measure, and the Goodness; nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair Proposal of just Dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

[30] Therefore I repeat, let no Man talk to me of these and the like Expedients; till he hath, at least, a Glimpse of Hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere Attempt to put them in Practice.

If we ignore the first clause, “therefore, let no man talk to me of other Expedients,” all that follows in the paragraph is absolute Swift, without a touch of irony. (It is of course “ironic” that the direct program seems hopeless to the speaker, but once we are wrenched on to the proper platform, we do no ironic reconstructions throughout this passage. The only possible exception is the understatement of “being a little cautious” and “at least, one Degree of Mercy.”) As a result, it simply cannot be as “interesting” to any reader who goes to the essay only for ironic pleasure, and critics have sometimes argued that it is an artistic flaw. But we have long since been taught by this essay that it is of a kind that seeks a practical effect in the world; diminishments in “entertainment” are not necessarily flaws, if they strengthen our indignation. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the original Irish readers, we can see at once that such portions are in fact the most vital of all, though not ironic; here it is that the full argument reaches its most careful definition. There have been earlier promises of this final direct list of answers: “for we can neither employ them in Handicraft or Agriculture; we neither build Houses, (I mean in the Country) nor cultivate Land” (par. 6). But the final list gives us that part of Swift's message which can be given best in direct language. And it confirms beyond question our earlier inference about that argument: it is directed to the Irish about the Irish. Not a single proposal here is for action by the landlords; the only sentence about landlords concerns our teaching them. It is all centered on what the Irish might do, if they attended to Swift's message.

Perhaps this point can be made more clear by imagining an ironic revision of this section:

Once we have begun to carry out my Proposal, I have other Projects which I should be glad to develop in aid of my Countrymen: Of offering our Absentees a special Subvention to encourage them to treat us more kindly; Of ingratiating ourselves with them by raising our Imports of English Goods; Of providing all our Wives and Daughters as a common Store of paid Companions, the Profits thereof to go to the Poor; Of deporting all those who in their grovelling Poverty are a Burden upon the Landlord's senses of Sight and Smell and who are an economic Burden on the Country …

And so on. One cannot doubt that Swift could have invented ironies upon ironies, each one more outlandish and—if what we seek is only irony—the whole more delightfully ironic than what he has written.

It is clear by now that a consistently inconsistent ironic mixture has proved here to be an especially useful tool for portraying Swift's savage indignation. A simple attack (“every Day dying, and rotting, by Cold and Famine, and Filth, and Vermin”) could have been powerful, but it would be impossible to sustain its interest for more than a few pages. A straightforward essay arguing for certain needed reforms, in the third tone of voice (par. 29), would be informative and useful, but it would lack all fire. A sustained piece of Swiftian impersonation, entirely in the second tone of voice, would be splendid, no doubt, but it would of course lack the practical specifications and clarity supplied by the third voice. And more important, it would, I am convinced, be relatively feeble: a weaker intellectual exercise with much less emotional engagement. Without our active battle to reconstruct the genuine values from the grotesque mixture of sane, half-sane, and mad, and without the sense this gives of Swift's own passionate involvement, almost bursting through the frame he has himself built, much of the force would be lost.

One can see what this means by looking closely at the next two paragraphs:

[31] But, as to my self; having been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary Thoughts; and at length utterly despairing of Success, I fortunately fell upon this Proposal; which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no Expence, and little Trouble, full in our own Power; and whereby we can incur no Danger in disobliging England: For, this Kind of Commodity will not bear Exportation; the Flesh being of too tender a Consistence, to admit a long Continuance in Salt; although, perhaps, I could name a Country, which would be glad to eat up our whole Nation without it.

[32] After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own Opinion, as to reject any Offer proposed by wise Men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that Kind shall be advanced, in Contradiction to my Scheme, and offering a better; I desire the Author, or Authors, will be pleased maturely to consider two Points. First, As Things now stand, how they will be able to find Food and Raiment, for a Hundred Thousand useless Mouths and Backs? And secondly, There being a round Million of Creatures in human Figure, throughout this Kingdom; whose whole Subsistence, put into a common Stock, would leave them in Debt two Millions of Pounds Sterling; adding those, who are Beggars by Profession, to the Bulk of Farmers, Cottagers, and Labourers, with their Wives and Children, who are Beggars in Effect; I desire those Politicians, who dislike my Overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an Answer, that they will first ask the Parents of these Mortals, Whether they would not, at this Day, think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old, in the Manner I prescribe; and thereby have avoided such a perpetual Scene of Misfortunes, as they have since gone through; by the Oppression of Landlords; the Impossibility of paying Rent, without Money or Trade; the Want of common Sustenance, with neither House nor Cloaths, to cover them from the Inclemencies of Weather; and the most inevitable Prospect of intailing the like, or greater Miseries upon their Breed for ever.

No reader really laughs, I suspect, or even smiles, throughout these paragraphs. For a moment all comic disparities are dropped; Swift, his speaker, and we readers are all united in a despairing vision of just how bad conditions are—since they have been made to seem morally worse than the modest proposal.

The final touch is brilliantly surprising, returning once again to comic irony. Suddenly we are back in the madman's world, reminded of just how far we stand from home ground:

[33] I profess, in the Sincerity of my Heart, that I have not the least personal Interest, in endeavouring to promote this necessary Work; having no other Motive than the publick Good of my Country, by advancing our Trade, providing for Infants, relieving the Poor, and giving some Pleasure to the Rich. I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Child-bearing.

There could be no greater distance than that we place between the bitter Swift, speaking more or less directly in the previous paragraph, and the ridiculous disinterested rhetorician caricatured in this ending. Early in the essay this contrast would have been unacceptable, even unintelligible. But by now Swift has schooled us to follow such shifts with ease. Each statement in each tone of voice has a clear context of precedents into which it can fit. We have our reconstruction, we have it in great detail and with a good deal of emotional investment in every part of it. When anyone challenges our reading of those details, we are annoyed, as the history of controversy about Swift's ironies shows; we have been working at the peak of our powers. The author has paid us the compliment of assuming that we can be trusted to work as a kind of assistant in building the final complex edifice.

The building materials are of course derived from all the innumerable assumptions we make about what Swift would himself believe about cruelty, about exploitation, about absentee landlords, about what makes sense and what sounds mad. Some of these assumptions are a kind of historical information which, if challenged, could be decisively confirmed or refuted: without the assumption, for example, that the Irish were in fact exploited by the landlords, that conditions were in fact intolerable in Ireland, the essay will lose much of its meaning and power. If someone said to us (as nobody ever would) that in fact Swift thought the Irish were in good shape, and he was ironically satirizing anyone who would be so radical as to write such an unjustified satire, most of us have at least a smattering of knowledge about the actual history of the two countries to support our reply; and this knowledge could be then eked out with an hour or two of reading in the encyclopedia or any history of the period. I suppose that nobody ever feels that he needs to do so, but that is not because the historical assumptions are not important; it is because they seem so obvious: “Swift must have assumed that we would assume …” But what if he didn't? But of course he did.

We are confident that he did, but it is clear that our confidence does not depend primarily on our picture of the historical Swift; the highly articulated literary work has made us far less dependent on specific historical knowledge than we often are in shorter works. Though we still must make inferences about the author, the work has yielded an immense improbability that he was not ironic. It makes a kind of finished sense as a whole, read in this ironic way, that fixes us immovably in a certain position; if someone came to me saying that he had found a document proving Swift to have been really on the side of the landlords, I would not believe it. I would simply not be able to change my reading of the essay. I would choose the tale and not the teller, as the modern commonplace has it (that is, I would choose the embodied “Swift” and not Dean Swift), because the final intuition I have of the kind of literary work before me, and of the precise service that stable irony performs in it, leaves me no choices. This does not mean that I feel this level of confidence about every detail, or that I feel it about many or most of my readings: you could shake me easily, for example, about many parts of A Tale of a Tub. Nor does it mean that such “absolute” assurance can never be mistaken: it is a curious fact that two readers can sometimes feel total confidence in contradictory readings, each reader convinced that every detail in the work confirms his reading, bolted into place by a self-evident interpretation of the literary context.


  1. As quoted in “Defoe's Use of Irony” by Maximillian E. Novak, Irony in Defoe and Swift (Los Angeles, 1966), p. 7. Critical debate about Swift's satire and irony runs by now to what must be thousands of books and articles. The central issues are incisively analyzed by Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr., in Swift and the Satirist's Art (Chicago, 1963), chap. 1, a book to which I owe a great deal here. Mr. Rosenheim rightly notes that to call a work by Swift “ironic” says practically nothing about it, given the grotesque looseness of the term; he then in effect puts irony to one side and discusses what I call stable ironies under other critical terms. It is a good strategy, given the world's habit of equating irony with ambiguity, and given his intent, which I share, to show Swift's passion for clarity through devices of indirection—his “concern for total intelligibility” (see esp. pp. 236-38). Of the works appearing since Mr. Rosenheim's critical survey, I have found Denis Donoghue's Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, 1969) most helpful.

  2. Rabelais.

Robert F. Willson Jr. (essay date autumn 1976)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4576

SOURCE: Willson, Robert F., Jr. “A Modest Proposal: Swift's Persona as Absentee.” Ball State University Forum 17, no. 4 (autumn 1976): 3-11.

[In the following essay, Willson disputes the general recognition of Swift's persona as an economic or political theorist, arguing instead that based on his puns and euphemisms, he is a decidedly antihuman figure.]

It is a melancholy object to encounter the number of critics who have taken their cue concerning the identity of Swift's persona in A Modest Proposal from Louis Landa's theory about the pamphlet's economic nature. Landa has argued that the Proposal was “another protest, in Swift's unique manner, against the unqualified maxim that people are the riches of a nation” [i.e., populousness], and that it directly attacked the politico-economic language of a particular tract entitled Maxims controlled in Ireland.1 To read the satiric work in this light, Landa maintains, is to see it as another in Swift's series of outraged statements about England's treatment of Ireland as a resource, thereby denying it the right to function under the same economic laws as England, Holland, and France. It could use nothing of its own manufacture, was required to export all goods to England, and was forced to subsist on what England would let it import.2

This reading, while to be sure underscoring an issue of exploitation central to all the Irish tracts, ignores the stronger ad hominem features of the satire and invites us instead to believe, regardless of Landa's reminder that the Proposal is “purely propagandistic,” that Swift's aim is to ridicule some economic doctrine or theory. Given Landa's preferred purpose for the work, we must assume that the mask is simply that of an economic projector whose inhuman scheme Swift is exploding mainly for the sake of complaining once more about commercial policy. This assumption is not consistently supported by the text and asks us to accept a one-dimensional aspect for this character. He does after all reveal more than one dimension, indeed even seems to have ulterior motives, and this complexity constitutes one of the main aesthetic concerns of the work. I want to urge in this essay that discovery of the character's identity and intentions will lead to a fuller understanding of Swift's satiric as well as propagandistic aims.

In reviewing some representative guesses at the persona's identity, one is struck by the indebtedness of many critics to Landa's reading, as well as by the somewhat haphazard methods used in ascertaining voice, tone, mood, and attitude in the satire. Martin Price calls the projector a political arithmetician who is attempting a never before tried reconciliation of England's interests with those of Ireland; in other words, Price says he stands as an eager collaborator, anxious through some deftly devised program to please the country's oppressor. While this identification seems to deal with the problem of characterization, Price concludes that the proposer's intensity and obliviousness to all but the economic side of the question places him in the class of blind scientist.3 William Ewald uses the supposed economic expertise of the persona as proof that Swift had in mind two Anglo-Irish economists who were authors of similar panaceas; that is, these writers argued for the development of industries which would not interfere with English ones, yet at the same time would engage and encourage the growth of Irish industry. These immoral men would thus be fitting targets for Swift's parodic pen. The specific details of the portrait, such as the proposer's worthy friends, his wife past childbearing, are seen by Ewald as necessary to make the mask as credible as possible, thus driving home both the caricature and the seriousness of the country's dilemma.4

Edward Rosenheim takes a different tack in claiming that certain phrases in the pamphlet, for example “this great Town” and “by advancing our Trade,” offer evidence that the character is Irish and in no way identified with a position characteristic of the English. He concludes that the persona, driven by rage and disgust at the rejection of reasonable expedients, “is not very different from the historic figure of the bitterly frustrated Dean of St. Patrick's.”5 Somewhat following this line, Richard Cook, citing the mode of detachment in political pamphlets as the chief characteristic of the mask Swift designed for satiric works, describes the writer as a “self-deceived enthusiast,” one whose professed objectivity is so transparent that the reader can easily perceive Swift's tortured face behind the veil. Cook thus places this character in a class with other ironic speakers, such as Lemuel Gulliver and the persona of An Argument Against by arguing that the proposer is really Abolishing Christianity.6 W. B. Carnochan takes the suggestion a step farther modeled on one of Locke's madmen, whom the philosopher aptly describes in the following way: “They do not appear to me to have lost the faculty of reasoning, but having joined together some ideas very wrongly, they mistake them for truths; and they err as men do that argue right from wrong principles.”7 Here, as in Ewald's argument, a specific type is said to be the original for parody.

In light of these myriad proposals, some of them less than modest, it may be folly to offer another; but each seems to stress a particular characteristic of the portrait and ignore others, some of which plead for recognition. For instance, Landa's reading tends to see the proposer as a disinterested party, an amateur who has no concern in the matter of Irish overpopulation except for the opportunity it provides to prove his economic scheme. But clearly the persona hopes to gain more benefit from the implementation of this public plan for slaughter than an intellectual kind; why indeed should Swift have him stress ironically his own exemption from personal profit, because of his wife's age and infertility? Landa's reading simply ignores the irony of character involved. Price's claim of political motivation, portraying the character as an easy collaborator, overlooks the purely selfish motives alluded to: the persona pretends to have special skills—his knowledgeable friends, his experience in preparing rich foods, his logistical knack—which would make him indispensable in developing the plan. Like Landa's argument, Price's implies some higher aims, whether economic or political or both, are to be found in the proposal, a point which he does not bother to substantiate in any detail. Ewald's assertion that the pamphlet parodies the style of contemporary Anglo-Irish economists is difficult to prove and tends to discount the similarities in style and manner with Swift's other personae, especially Lemuel Gulliver and the masks of the Intelligencer Papers (see in particular numbers ix and xix). In fact, the personalizing details Ewald cites as crucial in giving the portrait credibility argue more for the depiction of a unique or specialized character and less for one intended as a caricature of any real-life figure.

Rosenheim's identification of the proposer as Swift himself, or as “not very different,” begs the question; it asks us to pay attention only to the points at which Swift breaks through the mask to attack the devouring absentees or to offer the list of reasonable proposals at the end. Cook's designation, “self-deceived enthusiast,” appears to be even farther from the truth of the essay's tone, mainly because no self-deception can be demonstrated in the carefully euphemized diction, and little enthusiasm, in the eighteenth century sense of the term, can be detected in the voice of the speaker. To accept this reading means rejecting the strongly implied Swiftian purpose of exposing an attempt at public deception! Finally, Carnochan's positing of a Lockean model exempts the speaker from moral responsibility for his plan; we would then be forced to dismiss him as humorous or misguided rather than calculating; a mad scientist rather than bloodthirsty cannibal. Here again, as in the readings of Landa and Price, we are asked to interpret the character as an enthusiast, obsessed with some philosophical theory, rather than a devious and conniving villain.

These interpretations, then, tend to be ingenious guesses rather than supported analyses, paying little attention as a group to the numerous clues to identity in the Proposal. For this reason, I shall now therefore humbly offer my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

The persona is clearly intended to stand as an archetypal absentee landlord. Indications of this role abound in the pamphlet, though none is quite so convincing as the remark that the proposed delicacies are proper only for landlords, “who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children” (p. 112).8 Swift is simply translating this metaphoric statement into real terms: the persona desires to gain public support for a project—cannibalism—which he has practiced in private over a period of time. Although the proposer announces that he borrowed the idea of children as food from an American acquaintance, his listing of methods of preparation, “Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled,” smacks of personal experience and expertise. This suspicion is confirmed a few paragraphs later when he recommends “buying the Children alive, and dressing them hot from the Knife, as we do roasting Pigs” (p. 113).9 The food, furthermore, is to be designated mainly for gentlemen, “who justly value themselves upon their Knowledge in good Eating” (p. 115). What more proof than the references to such connoiseur-like questions do we need to prove that the projector prides himself on being just such a gentleman, in spite of his professed modesty? My point is simply this: we must read the pamphlet, in the light of this thinly veiled pretentiousness, as a contrived effort on the part of a budding entrepreneur to maneuver the distraught public into adopting a scheme which would transform a private fetish into a going business. By concretizing the metaphor associated with the word “devour,” Swift affords us with more than one way of seeing the relationship of the absentees to their tenants, of England to Ireland, and, in a more general way, of man to those whom he views as inferior.10 In each of these relationships one can see the effort of an oppressor to force his private whims on a larger public; in each as well the technique of masking those whims by using euphemisms and offering panaceas can be demonstrated.

The persona's exploitative role, which I believe he makes a conscious effort to cover up, can be discerned by careful attention to his diction. He declares that anyone who could find a “fair, cheap, and easy Method” for disposing of these children should have his “Statue set up for a Preserver of the Nation.” The pun, which no critic to my knowledge has bothered to examine, reveals much about the persona: his scheme of slaughter is foreshadowed in the literal sense of the word “preserver,” yet he also obviously hopes to be that very patriotic party he so grandiloquently describes. Disinterested altruism is thus immediately exposed as nothing more than a guise. We have as a result a mask designed to veil the persona himself, and the parallel with a character like Chaucer's Pardoner should be readily apparent: both ironic speakers believe they can outwit their audiences at the same time they appear to be voicing honestly held views. Swift's intentional play on words to imply this underlying motivation can only be appreciated in second reading; yet I am convinced the satirist elicits from the reasonable man in his audience a re-reading of the pamphlet, if only to confirm what he thought he read the first time through. One must assume that a second reading would naturally occur because of the sheer enormity of the plan.

Such reviews likewise expose the contrived stance of objectivity more readily. His reduction of mothers to breeders and their children to calves, a sign for Landa and others of the speaker's mathematical obsession, can be interpreted as well as a conscious attempt to euphemize the horror of genocide and give the sanction of animal husbandry to slaughter. The projector's habit of seeing human beings as animals provides a further insight into the identity of the voice, since his farming expertise would easily qualify him as an agricultural landlord. As oppressive landlord, we might also expect this character to be licking his lips at the “prodigious Number of Children” his method would be able to process. The parallels with the commandant of a Nazi extermination camp need not be mentioned. His breeding plan, the instructions to mothers about feeding in the last month, his exaggerated notion that the average new-born child will weigh twelve pounds (a sign that he is greedily thinking in terms of cattle and not malnourished human beings), all point to a man whose background is barbaric and whose chief talent lies in the practice of breeding, raising, and slaughtering cattle. And rather than qualifying as an expert in economics and mathematics, as such commentators as Landa have suggested, I think the very informality of the persona's reckoning hints at a man of great experience and pretension but little formal training. For example, he depends on someone else's figures to compute the number of souls (an ironic choice of words!) in the kingdom, then “calculate[s] there may be about Two hundred Thousand Couple whose Wives are Breeders” (the italics are mine). His subtractions are done on a haphazard basis as well, though in this instance Swift is certainly speaking through the mask to underscore the more distressing fact that only thirty thousand couples are able to support their children! Furthermore, he reckons “on a Medium” that a new-born babe will weigh twelve pounds, and calculates the cost of nursing a beggar's child at two shillings: both of these “facts” are little more than conjectures. “Reckon” is used four times, “compute” four times, and “calculate” twice in the pamphlet, which, compared with the other Irish tracts, is relatively short; and these verbs underscore the unreliability and guesswork of the supposedly careful researcher. A man pretending to expertise frequently resorts to such statistics as a way of “proving” his otherwise shaky case, but this is especially true when the projector is offering a panacea to solve a complex problem.

Depending upon other experts and acquaintances is another favorite ploy of the proposer: A gentleman in county Cavan assures him that children cannot steal effectively until age six; merchants claim a boy or girl is not a saleable commodity before twelve years of age; an American in London informs him of the actual plan (a fact which both relieves the persona of responsibility but also challenges his own originality); a grave author (Rabelais) tells us about the great number of Catholic children born nine months after Lent; and a “very worthy Person” offers the refinement of using twelve and fourteen-year-old boys and girls for dishes, an idea rejected by the proposer because his American friend tells him male flesh is tough and lean, while eating the females would greatly reduce the number of breeders. This lengthy citation of authorities or men of experience supports in an ironic way the pretext of modesty in the speaker, but it also defines for us a pretender to position and sophistication, someone who delights in referring to important people as his close friends. In the main, however, the proffered refinements of these acquaintances only serve to prove that the persona belongs to a club of cannibals, most of whom in other places, notably a savage country like America, have already practiced this custom.11

The persona only comes to these important points after a long digression relating directly to the butchering, preparation, and serving up of the infants, questions which take up an inordinate amount of space. His informal manner, while offering proof of the persona's inexpert style, also manages to discover for us his personal investment in the scheme: the private pleasure of infant eating so overwhelms him, and leads to an attempt at generalizing this pleasure, that he overlooks his responsibility of proving the plan's economic and social benefits. This sardonic implication is the core of Swift's satiric attack on the landlords, since it explodes the notion that they hold any benevolent concern for their tenants. Even as this absentee attempts to praise the altruistic intent of his plan, his style reveals that he can never pretend to speak for anyone but himself.

As for the advantages themselves, Swift has his character articulate them in an ironic way, at the same time giving us further glimpses into his true nature. His anti-Catholicism emerges the first time as he notes that the Papists are the “principal Breeders of the Nation,” with breeders here connoting not just propagators of children but hatchers of schemes as well, such as plotting “to deliver the Kingdom to the Pretender.” One cannot help noting that the speaker's envisioning of the Catholic's demise is particularly cruel because they would not be a good market for consuming the delicacy, restricted as they are to many meatless days. This group qualify as good producers but poor consumers! The anti-Catholic strain also suggests that the audience to whom the scheme is presented consists of Protestants, most of whom were landlords and represented a minority in Ireland during the period. Such an assumption broadens the base of the satire by identifying this landlord with oppressive England; the persona stands in relation to the children as does England to Ireland. Here the analogy makes clear that though the speaker claims to be offering a way for the Irish to use only what they produce the scheme is really just another sham by which England could continue to devour Irish resources. The added advantage would be that the mother country could rid herself of the troublesome Roman Catholic force, which she blamed and punished severely for anti-government revolts throughout the eighteenth century.12 In light of this indicated result of the proposal—destruction of the rebellious “child,” in essence with its own consent—the persona becomes the exact opposite of what he claims to be. Instead of patriot and preserver, he takes on the role of traitor; instead of modest planner, he emerges as immodest destroyer not only of the country but of a religion as well.

The remainder of the advantages are reiterations of previously noted gains: tenants will now have something valuable of their own; they will not have to suffer the cost of maintaining children after the first year; the food will enhance the menus of taverns where “fine Gentlemen” eat; and marriage and careful treatment of pregnant wives by husbands will be encouraged by the obvious “Rewards.” In each of these cases, listed in no particular order, thus adding to the sense of disorganization in the pamphlet, there is more evidence of subterfuge. Tenants will own something valuable, but this will also mean they can now pay their exorbitant rents; taverns will offer new delicacies but only for “Gentlemen of Fortune”; husbands will not beat their wives but such abstinence is suffered only in order to bring the fattest child to market. As in the other parts of the essay, Swift here invites his audience to read behind the lines to discover how much this scheme will profit those who have nothing to lose from it. These advantages would only foster the kind of economic competitiveness which would further enhance the pocketbooks and stomachs of landlords.

An even more tyrannic feature of the portrait is thrown into relief in a number of contexts, and again those point to the identity of the landlord. The proposal envisions taking the babies from their mothers at one year, a particularly cruel time because by then one would assume a mother had fashioned unbreakable ties with her child. Yet, more important as regards the proposer's character, the act of collecting and butchering children calls to the cultured reader's mind associations with Herod, Macbeth, and other child-obsessed kings. Ironically, the modesty and detachment pretended to by the speaker only help to reinforce the image of a mad monarch, trying desperately to insure his rule by inflicting dire suffering on the people. And the association of character with Herod reminds the sympathetic reader of the religious overtones of such a scheme, a point studiously avoided throughout the pamphlet.

Furthermore, while the persona declares proudly that his plan will teach mothers to care more dearly for their infants, husbands for their pregnant wives, his idea of holding out one fourth of all men at stud will effectively destroy marriage as a monogamous institution. Marriage will also lose all its spiritual ties, once it is seen as simply a business arrangement. All human bonds and sanctified rites are to be affected by the plan, since it is ingenuously suggested that the infants' flesh will provide special food for such occasions as weddings and christenings. One can easily see that the tyrannic aspect of the character is manifested in stripping away not just the children, but the basic religious, social, and human values by which men live. By inferring that this tyrant is a landlord, moreover, Swift equates absenteeism in a metaphoric sense with distance from human feeling; the fact that the speaker's tone can remain so matter-of-fact while he articulates such outrageous refinements indicts him as a man who cares only for products and consumption.

Indeed, it is obvious from his identification of himself with gentlemen of quality and refinement that the projector-landlord hopes to be a conspicuous consumer of this product. He suggests that the dish is fit for “Gentlemen of Fortune,” with “Refinement of Taste,” euphemistic phrases which clearly point to the gourmet landlords. “Taste” is a word with reverberating double meaning in this context. His reference to worldly friends and confidants, his talent for preparing and eating food, his pretension to knowledge about such exotic groups as Laplanders, and his general claim to experience in logistics are facts which depict the persona as someone who values status and is condescending in attitude toward those he feels are below him.

In the proposer's list of oft-mentioned alternatives to his scheme there are more indications that he is trying to throw the reader off the track of his identity. He rejects as idle such notions as “taxing our Absentees at five Shillings a Pound” or “being a little cautious not to sell our Country and Consciences for nothing: Of teaching Landlords to have, at least, one Degree of Mercy towards their Tenants.” Though we know Swift is speaking through the mask ironically here, the rejection of such useless gestures is in the speaker's character as a supposed patriot, a man calling for sweeping change and rejecting traditional or partial means of establishing independence. This list of expedients, moreover, is presented in a manner which suggests that the speaker knows his audience is so desperate it will likely be swayed by an argument for untried and drastic solutions. How devious of the persona to mention landlords in the list of alternative measures, knowing as he does that the poor and exploited can hope neither of taxing them nor of pleading for mercy from them! In fact, of course, once the producers of children achieve some degree of success the man who is most likely to benefit is their landlord, who will naturally begin to charge higher rents from his more prosperous tenants. We should not overlook the fact that the proposal has nothing revolutionary about it if we simply substitute “cattle” for “infants;” indeed, seen in this light it is nothing more than a plan to make tenants into competing entrepreneurs and thereby better rent sources. This is one of the most poignant truths of the pamphlet.

Added to it in the conclusion is the admission that the projector has nothing to gain because his wife is beyond child-bearing. This final assertion of altruism places the character at the greatest distance from the supposed beneficiaries of his scheme, thereby further supporting the metaphor of absenteeism from human feeling: he has no children to lose, no other way to gain than by feeding on those who might despairingly pursue his plan.

There is no doubt that Swift's parting shot at the modest denial of his character was prompted by a growing frustration at the failure of other schemes for reducing the power of landlords. Because of that frustration, which can be traced throughout the Irish tracts, he deserted the random method of attack in the early pamphlets and letters and turned to his favorite and most effective technique of satiric characterization. By creating a figure with a scheme which he diabolically attempts to sell to the nation in the devised role of patriot, Swift could achieve the shocking impact he desired on his audience and hope to arouse them to action by demonstrating that their real enemy was the absentee landlord. Here indeed is an archetypal example of the breed, anxious to devour not just poor tenants but as many Irish people as he can. In A Modest Proposal we are truly in a mad world on which has been imposed a fiercely logical system (the parallel with extermination camps again comes to mind); and Swift carries us to its outer boundaries in order to warn of the imminence of total destruction for the Irish people. To characterize the outrageous but devious inhabitant of that world as economic theorist, political activist, or simple madman is to miss the thrust of Swift's powerful ad hominem technique, in which the careful manipulation of puns and euphemisms points up the anti-human nature of the speaker.


  1. See “Swift's Economic Views and Mercantilism,” ELH, 10 (1943), 310-35; and “A Modest Proposal and Populousness,” MP, 40 (1942), 161-70.

  2. A Modest Proposal and Populousness,” p. 168.

  3. Swift's Rhetorical Art (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 71-73.

  4. The Masks of Jonathan Swift (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1954), pp. 164-69.

  5. Swift and the Satirist's Art (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 48-50.

  6. Jonathan Swift as a Tory Pamphleteer (Seattle and London: Univ. of Washington Press, 1967), p. 92.

  7. Lemuel Gulliver's Mirror for Man (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1968), p. 132.

  8. All quotes are from Herbert Davis, ed., 1728-1733: Irish Tracts (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1955), vol. 12 in The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, 14 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1939-1962.)

  9. See also p. 112: “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”; p. 112: “Those who are more thrifty may flay the Carcase; the Skin of which, artificially dressed will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen”; p. 116: “Pigs are in no way comparable in Taste or Magnificence, to a wellgrown fat yearling Child”; p. 117: “the Commodity will not bear Exportation; the Flesh being too tender a Consistence, to admit a long Continuance in Salt.”

  10. In A Short View of the State of Ireland, Swift declares: “The Rise of our Rents is squeezed out of the very Blood and Vitals, and Cloaths, and Dwellings of the Tenants. …” (Davis, p. 11).

  11. Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift (London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1936), p. 43, sees this idea in terms of Swift's favorite satiric theme, le mythe animal. Reduction of the speaker to a bestial state, a devourer of fellow animals, would rank this character with Gulliver in Book IV.

  12. J. H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (Hammondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1950), pp. 180-81.

C. N. Manlove (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2065

SOURCE: Manlove, C. N. “Swift.” In Literature and Reality, pp. 114-24. London: MacMillan Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Manlove investigates the reader's propensity to sympathize with advantageous outcomes in A Modest Proposal at the expense of devious measures.]


This satire is rather more a test of the reader than is the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity. Given that the Irish are sunk in animal misery, and that they would welcome the scheme outlined (117-18 [The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis, vol. 2, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1939.]), how many of us have a sneaking sympathy with a method that takes advantage of the prevailing state of affairs rather than tries to change it with an idealism that so far has proved ineffectual? We may think it stark against the basic principles of humanity to make children into cattle to be slaughtered for the profit of the parents, but, then, what finally is humanity?—for here in Ireland is a nation of beings who have been bestialised, and, if they are beasts, why not treat them as such?

Thus it is that we can find ourselves at least partially assenting to the proposer's arguments, even where we know the corrupt basis on which they are founded. When he argues against the use of children of between twelve and fourteen for the table, not only because their flesh is too tough (his first reason) but because such a practice would be cruel (p. 113), we do make a gesture towards the thought that, after all, children of one year old are not conscious of what is happening to them when slaughtered. Again, though we may reject the advantages he finds to the nation in his project—namely, the lessening of the number of Roman Catholics or the increase in national revenue—we are more tempted, however disgusting its basis, by the picture of the poor Irish tenants given a means of subsistence they are without (p. 112) or of the happier marriages and families that would result from his scheme. Such benefits are to be wished on the people; and that they are to be effected only by such hideous means—indeed, that they can be effected by such means—is part of the terrible force of the satire. Thus, drawn to the end and repelled by the means, the reader's sensibility is mangled.

The calculating style of the proposer, which at first repels, later attracts us. As he begins, walking through Ireland, finding a ‘melancholly Object’ in ‘Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms’, and considering only how these children may be made ‘sound and useful Members of the Commonwealth’, we are alienated, even while the easy flow of the style draws us in; and, as he proceeds to arithmetic, so do we further remove ourselves.

The number of Souls in Ireland being usually reckoned one Million and a half; of these I calculate there may be about Two hundred Thousand Couple whose Wives are Breeders; from which Number I subtract thirty thousand Couples, who are able to maintain their own Children; although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present Distresses of the Kingdom; but this being granted, there will remain an Hundred and Seventy Thousand Breeders. I again Subtract Fifty Thousand, for those Women who miscarry, or whose Children die by Accident, or Disease, within the Year. There only remain an Hundred and Twenty Thousand Children of poor Parents, annually born: The Question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for?

(p. 110)

But, as he proceeds to answer this question, and the full horror not only of his scheme, but also of the circumstances which make it practicable, become apparent, the reader begins to find the calculations a comfort, a systematising and distancing of a reality which would be unbearable to contemplate directly, a giving of order and control to obscene chaos. We are in short, brought halfway to being someone like Adolf Eichmann.

Twice the proposer destroys his own position. He argues that his scheme will have the advantage of preventing ‘those voluntary Abortions, and that horrid Practice of Women murdering their Bastard Children; alas! too frequent among us; sacrificing the poor innocent Babes, I doubt, more to avoid the Expence than the Shame; which would move Tears and Pity in the most Savage and inhuman Breast’ (ibid.). We are left to wonder what sort of a breast can outline a scheme for just such murder on a systematic and national scale. But then the answer is that of all exterminators: those they would do away with are not to them random and chaotic individuals, but a controlled mass of numbers. Again, at the end of his outlined scheme the proposer declares,

in the Sincerity of my Heart, that I have not the least personal Interest, in endeavouring to promote this necessary Work; having no other Motive than the publick Good of my Country, by advancing our Trade, providing for Infants, relieving the Poor, and giving some Pleasure to the Rich. I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Child-bearing.

(p. 118)

No children by which (!) he may gain; but equally none by which he may lose.

Yet, even while we are repelled by his arguments, we are fascinated; even when he is exposed, we still feel the force of his case. If we look for the human sympathy the proposer so clearly lacks, or for any alternative to his project, he is ready for us:

Therefore, let no man talk to me of other Expedients: Of taxing our Absentees at five Shillings a Pound: Of using neither Cloaths, nor Houshold Furniture except what is of our own Growth and Manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the Materials and Instruments that promote foreign Luxury: Of curing the Expensiveness of Pride, Vanity, Idleness, and Gaming in our Women: Of introducing a Vein of Parsimony, Prudence and Temperance: Of learning to love our Country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our Animosities, and Factions; nor act any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very Moment their City was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our Country and Consciences for nothing: Of teaching Landlords to have, at least, one Degree of Mercy towards their Tenants. Lastly, Of putting a Spirit of Honesty, Industry, and Skill into our Shop-keepers; who, if a Resolution could now be taken to buy only our native Goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the Price, the Measure, and the Goodness; nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair Proposal of just Dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

Therefore, I repeat, let no Man talk to me of these and the like Expedients; till he hath, at least, a Glimpse of Hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere Attempt to put them in Practice.

(pp. 116-17)

If the reader has been storing himself with such norms or expedients, the ground is quite removed from under him, and he is left only with an impracticable ideal. What each man may learn from Swift's satire, each man may learn: the object is to force him into questioning himself, not to present fixed values.

The question at the root of this satire is close to that of Book iv of Gulliver's Travels: what, finally, distinguishes man from the beasts? If we answer ‘reason’, then in the proposer of this satire we have a man whose reason is employed to bestial ends: he has no notion of the value of a single human life, no conception of man as finally distinct from the brutes, and no sympathy. And he is without all these things because, since nobody has shown human feeling to the Irish, there is no other attitude open but the one he gives (pp. 116-17). The Irish, we may say, are all body, wallowing in the dirt, animal and vicious; and he, surveying them thus coldly, is all mind. Doubtless a classic dualism or a case of dissociated sensibility on a national scale; but the proposer's mind, which can work only with physical data, which has a purely utilitarian idea of value, and which is left with no conception of any metaphysical or spiritual category, is this mind not finally as physical and bestial, as non-mental as the state it portrays? Thus, ‘It is true a Child, just dropt from its Dam, may be supported by her Milk, for a Solar Year with little other Nourishment’ (p. 110); ‘there may be about Two hundred Thousand Couple whose Wives are Breeders’ (ibid.); ‘Twenty thousand [children] may be reserved for Breed; whereof only one Fourth Part to be Males; which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine’ (p. 111); ‘flay the Carcase; the Skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen’ (p. 112); and ‘Men would become as fond of their Wives, during the Time of their Pregnancy, as they are now of their Mares in Foal, their Cows in Calf, or Sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them, (as is too frequent a Practice) for fear of a Miscarriage’ (p. 115). All of this is a picture of the animal level not only of the Irish people but also of the proposer's mind, and, through it, of the minds of those whose failures to help have made this project the only practical answer to the Irish condition.

Both A Modest Proposal and An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity portray a divorce between reason and passion. The proposers have no sentiments, only a utilitarian conception of value which, pushed to its extreme as here, is madness. At the same time, the vicious passions of men, their rapacity, lewdness, greed and complacency, have created a situation to which irrational reason is the only answer. In the fourth voyage of Gulliver's Travels we are presented with a dichotomous society of extreme animality in the humanoid form of the Yahoos, and of rationality in that animal shape which throughout the Renaissance had been the symbol of passion—the horse.1 Swift would dare us to distinguish the Houyhnhnms, who propose the destruction of the Yahoos, from the modest proposer who plans the culling of the animal Irish: what Gulliver sees in Houyhnhnmland is the hypostasis of the divorce of reason and passion in mankind itself. Whether Swift really believed this does not matter; but it is at once the technique and the vision of his satire. As a vision, though, it involves a recognition of a split, between the ordering and energising forces in life, to which few other writers of the eighteenth century were prepared to admit, even while it crippled their work.

Unlike others of his age, Swift presents no norms, takes no partisan attitude to the world. He is comprehensive in his treatment of reality: like Marvell he sees both sides of an opposition, but unlike him he gives neither pole, as a pole, any value. He is one-sided, it is true, in the negative direction of his satire: he has little to say of man's better impulses of mind or heart. Yet it is not masochistic pleasure but unflinching spiritual rigour, together with humour at once mordant and zestful, that goes into the pictures he paints. His satiric journey is a kind of via negativa by which the way down feels, finally, like the way up. In his intensity, and perhaps in more, Swift anticipates Blake. Blake presents a poetic world in which opposites are married, not divorced: for him everything is of absolute value, for everything that lives is holy. Yet Swift's satire is of a potency to drive us to reconcile such opposites in our lives even where it exposes their disjunction; and, in the fusion of reason and energy in its procedure, enacts, on a literary level at least, something of the harmony it challenges us to find.


  1. See Crane, ‘The Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos and the History of Ideas’, repr. in Jonathan Swift: A Critical Anthology, ed. Donoghue, pp. 379-80; Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, pp. 145-7.

C. J. Rawson (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10047

SOURCE: Rawson, C. J. “A Reading of A Modest Proposal.” In Augustan Worlds, edited by J. C. Hilson, M. M. B. Jones and J. R. Watson, pp. 29-50. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Rawson examines various segments of A Modest Proposal and their effects on popular interpretations of the reading.]

The title is famous, but still bears examination: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick.1 The form of title is that of many ‘modest proposals’ and ‘humble petitions’ which appeared in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘dealing with economic problems, particularly with problems concerning population, labor, unemployment, and poverty’.2 It captures accurately the conventional postures: concern for the public good, profitability, the air of planned or scientific management of human material. It is hard for the modern reader, more familiar with the gruesome irony of Swift's Modest Proposal than with conventional formulas of pamphleteering, to realize that the title would be taken quite straight and give no hint of shocks to follow. At the same time, it would be wrong to infer, when the shocks do come, that what is at work in any important sense is ‘a burlesque on projects concerning the poor’ or ‘on the titles of certain types of economic tracts’.3 If there is a poker-faced mimicry of these things, it is only a seasoning, not the main point. And to suggest that Swift was radically attacking the notion of economic planning of human affairs, or even that his attitude on certain central questions (poverty, beggars, the care of children) was ‘humane’ or ‘liberal’ in a sense which a modern reader would understand or assent to, is misleading.

A crucial part of the title speaks of preventing the children of the poor ‘from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country’. Swift himself used this sort of phrase unironically and (some readers might feel) quite callously when, for example, he noted that society ought to be protected from strolling beggars, and proposed schemes for reducing the ‘burden’ to the community (IX, 191, 209; XIII, 132, 137).4 Wittkowsky has shown that behind such a phrase, in the social thinking of the day, lay a hard-headed distinction between the ‘able’ and the ‘impotent’, or unproductive, poor.5 The latter (including the sick, beggars, vagrants etc.), unable to work for their keep, are, in the words of Charles Davenant in 1699, ‘nourish'd at the Cost of Others; and are a Yearly Burthen to the Publick’. The seventeenth-century economist, Sir William Petty, commenting on losses from the plague, regretted that the plague made no distinction between ‘the bees and the drones’, but killed ‘promiscuously’.6

More recently, an Irish law of George I's reign ‘classified unemployable children as impotent poor’, declaring that there were many children who had to beg and who thus risked becoming ‘“not only unprofitable but dangerous to their country”’. The Act empowered ‘the ministers to bind out these children to tradesmen, provision being made to prevent cruel treatment’. Wittkowsky also cites a work of 1695-6, A Modest Proposal for the More Certain and yet More Easie Provision for the Poor. And Likewise for the Better Suppression of Thieves … Tending Much to the Advancement of Trade, Especially in the most Profitable Part of it.7 This plan advocates the setting up of workhouse-hospitals and workhouse-prisons, answers the objection ‘that the plan will be a needless burden on the public, “in loading it with the Charge of so many children”’ by saying that ‘“it is a fault not to encourage the increase of Lawful Children, especially when they are likely to be train'd up in all Frugality and Industry”’. This training will be inexpensive, and ‘“a mighty Advantage to the Public”’.

It is tempting to think of Swift's Modest Proposal as a parody of this kind of thing. But there is no reason to suppose that his own attitude was radically different, or to attribute to him a Dickensian protest about child-labour. He was no exception to Dorothy Marshall's statement that ‘Despite the growth of the Charity School movement, charity to children in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant enabling them to earn their own living at the earliest possible moment, no matter how laborious their life might be’.8 In his sermon on the ‘Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland’ he gave qualified support to charity schools, agreeing, as Louis Landa has pointed out, with those criticisms of the schools which said that they had failed in their purpose of supplying cheap labour, and had over-educated their pupils, making them unfit for menial work (IX, 130, 202ff.).9 He argued in particular that the schools ought to instill in their pupils a ‘teachable Disposition’ (a phrase, as it happens, which calls to mind the Houyhnhnm master's patronizing praise of the Yahoo Gulliver, IV, iii; XI, 234), in order to make of them good household servants, since the common run of servants were, in Swift's view, an idle and vicious lot (IX, 204-5, 203ff.). He made it clear that pupils must ‘be severely punished for every Neglect’ in study, religion, cleanliness, honesty, industry and thrift. After this training, they should be ‘bound Apprentices in the Families of Gentlemen and Citizens, (for which a late Law giveth great Encouragement)’—the late law being the one cited by Wittkowsky, presumably as an instance of what Swift would be inclined to deplore.10 They would thus be learning useful things whilst being at the same time ‘very useful in a Family, as far as their Age and Strength would allow’ (IX, 205). In such a passage, Swift gets close to the flat economic utilitarianism which the Modest Proposal is alleged to be attacking.

Swift's comments on charity schools in the sermon have yet more light to throw on the Proposal. He argued that the children admitted to these schools should be those of ‘honest Parents’ struck by misfortune, rather than

the Brood of wicked Strolers; for it is by no means reasonable, that the Charity of well-inclined People should be applied to encourage the Lewdness of those profligate, abandoned Women, who croud our Streets with their borrowed or spurious Issue.

(IX, 202)

(Cf. Swift's distinction in the Modest Proposal between ‘Beggars by Profession’ and those worthy persons who have become ‘Beggars in Effect’ because of the wretched condition of Ireland, XII, 117). It was also wrong, except in the bigger well-endowed schools, to train poor children to anything but ‘the very meanest Trades’:

otherwise the poor honest Citizen who is just able to bring up his Child, and pay a small Sum of Money with him to a good Master, is wholely defeated, and the Bastard Issue, perhaps, of some Beggar, preferred before him. And hence we come to be so over-stocked with 'Prentices and Journeymen, more than our discouraged Country can employ; and, I fear, the greatest Part of our Thieves, Pickpockets, and other Vagabonds are of this Number.

(IX, 203)

Against the background of such passages, the opening paragraphs of the Modest Proposal acquire an irony a good deal less simple than is normally thought:

It is a melancholly Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country; when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms. These Mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest Livelyhood, are forced to employ all their Time in stroling to beg Sustenance for their helpless Infants; who, as they grow up, either turn Thieves for want of Work; or leave their dear Native Country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all Parties, that this prodigious Number of Children in the Arms, or on the Backs, or at the Heels of their Mothers, and frequently of their Fathers, is in the present deplorable State of the Kingdom, a very great additional Grievance; and therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method of making these Children sound and useful Members of the Commonwealth, would deserve so well of the Publick, as to have his Statue set up for a Preserver of the Nation.

(XII, 109)

If there is compassion in this passage, it is no straightforward feeling. Swift was intensely hostile to beggars. ‘There is not a more undeserving vicious Race of human Kind than the Bulk of those who are reduced to Beggary, even in this beggarly Country’, he wrote in 1737, in a serious sociological tract, the Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars (XIII, 135). This explosive irritation recalls the King of Brobdingnag's ‘little odious Vermin’ speech (Gulliver, II. vi; XI, 132). But Swift went further, in the same late tract, making his own Modest Proposer seem modest indeed by comparison, when he added that the strolling beggars from the country were ‘fitter to be rooted out off the Face of the Earth, than suffered to levy a vast annual Tax upon the City’ (XIII, 139): the Gulliverian analogy here is with the Houyhnhnms who debate ‘Whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the Face of the Earth’ (Gulliver, IV. ix; XI, 271). This is, no doubt, a rhetoric of exasperation and not an advocacy of massacre. But we should recognize squarely that this exasperation is present also in the Modest Proposal, and that ridding society of its beggarly ‘burdens’ was not a notion which Swift identified exclusively with the cant of the profiteering and the inhumane. If Yeats was right that Swift ‘understood that wisdom comes of beggary’ (‘The Seven Sages’), Swift would not have understood what Yeats meant.

The beggars were usually poor through their own fault.11 The notion runs through the whole pamphlet, and had been strongly expressed in the sermon on the ‘Wretched Condition of Ireland’: ‘there is hardly one in twenty of those miserable Objects who do not owe their present Poverty to their own Faults; to their present Sloth and Negligence; to their indiscreet Marriage without the least Prospect of supporting a Family, to their foolish Expensiveness, to their Drunkenness, and other Vices’ (IX, 206).12 Family relations among the Irish poor are part of the whole ‘anti-nature’ of the state of Ireland:

In all other Nations, that are not absolutely barbarous, Parents think themselves bound by the Law of Nature and Reason to make some Provision for their Children; but the Reason offered by the Inhabitants of Ireland for marrying, is, that they may have Children to maintain them when they grow old and unable to work.

(XIII, 136)

Thus the Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars, in non-ironic analysis. It gives an edge to the Modest Proposer's sixth argument in support of his cannibal scheme:

This would be a great Inducement to Marriage, which all wise Nations have either encouraged by Rewards, or enforced by Laws and Penalties. It would encrease the Care and Tenderness of Mothers towards their Children, when they were sure of a Settlement for Life, to the poor Babes, provided in some Sort by the Publick, to their annual Profit instead of Expence. We should soon see an honest Emulation among the married Women, which of them could bring the fattest Child to the Market. Men would become as fond of their Wives, during the Time of their Pregnancy, as they are now of their Mares in Foal, their Cows in Calf, or Sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them, (as it is too frequent a Practice) for fear of a Miscarriage.

(XII, 115)

There is about this a fierce, angry compassion. But it is hardly a flattering glimpse of the domestic mores of the Irish poor.13 The Proposer is, of course, writing de haut en bas, as a Protestant member of the ruling class (as, in his own different way, is Swift). When he coolly protests his own disinterestedness, and his absence of family-inducements to profit, he begins squarely as a solid, patriotic and profit-minded economist:

I profess, in the Sincerity of my Heart, that I have not the least personal Interest, in endeavouring to promote this necessary Work; having no other Motive than the publick Good of my Country, by advancing our Trade, providing for Infants, relieving the Poor, and giving some Pleasure to the Rich.

(XII, 118)

But he comes in his next (and final) sentence to be queerly identified with the values of the Papist poor: ‘I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Child-bearing.’ It is all much more decorous, of course, than the glimpse of Papist family life. Conveniently, the Proposer has not the same temptations. But this convenience was set up by Swift, and is very double-edged. For it confirms our strong instinctive tendency to separate the cool Proposer from the messy and intimate sub-humanities of the Papist poor, while at the same time establishing a profound link. The mindless brute with his base family life, and the soundly calculating Whig planner, unite in their commercial priorities, with Swift wishing a plague on both their houses.

This charged, quizzical note is very important. Swift chose to end the tract with it. The Papists' profit-motive was largely the result of conditions brought about by the Whig planner and his like (the governing Anglo-Irish, and the English), as Swift knew. But his emphasis in the Modest Proposal is not ‘judicial’, and his intense exasperation lurches throughout the tract from one side to the other. The jibe in the opening paragraph about the Irish catholics who ‘leave their dear Native Country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain’ (XII, 109) contains protest at real Irish ‘disloyalty’, as well as at the cruelties of economic circumstance which force them into the armies of Catholic princes.14 There may also be anger at the apparent tolerance of this situation by the government, and the following year, in the ‘Answer to the Craftsman’ (1730 but published posthumously; XII, 171ff.), Swift found himself using his Modest Proposer's voice to satirize an arrangement between George II and the French to allow French recruiting officers in Ireland. And running in a sense against both these feelings was a third, in which Swift complains of exaggerated anti-Papist fears, and a Whiggish cant always ready, at the drop of a hat, to accuse anyone (Swift was not excepted) of Jacobitism. It is this kind of scaremongering which is parodied in the Modest Proposer's ‘first’ argument:

[the cannibal scheme] would greatly lessen the Number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run; being the principal Breeders of the Nation, as well as our most dangerous Enemies; and who stay at home on Purpose, with a Design to deliver the Kingdom to the Pretender; hoping to take their Advantage by the Absence of so many good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their Country, than stay at home, and pay Tithes against their Conscience, to an idolatrous Episcopal Curate.

(XII, 114)15

Here, moreover, the Papist pauper comes into yet another surprising proximity, this time with Protestant Dissenters who emigrated to America, and who, like Catholic defectors to foreign armies, betray Ireland by going away. (Swift hated these most of all: the sarcasm about clergymen's tithes is a sure additional sign of angry Swiftian grievance.) Both groups of underprivileged defectors might, in an essential respect, be likened to that other, by no means underprivileged category, the Anglo-Irish landlords whose economically ruinous absenteeism from Ireland is complained of in the Proposal and elsewhere (XII, 116, 126 etc.).

These comparisons do not raise the Papist poor in estimation. The compassion Swift feels for them is real. But at some of the places where a modern reader senses this compassion (in the opening paragraphs about the beggars and vagrants, and in the many exposures of family cruelty) Swift is partly exposing to derision his modest proposer's sentimental show of tenderness where it is not due. When the proposer says of ‘that horrid Practice of Women murdering their Bastard Children’ that it ‘would move Tears and Pity in the most Savage and inhuman Breast’ (XII, 110); or when he protests that cruelty ‘hath always been with me the strongest Objection against any Project, how well soever intended’ (XII, 113), Swift is only partly exposing the hypocrisy of profiteering do-gooders. He is also, and importantly, guying a lazy-minded (and mainly Whiggish) benevolism, given to indiscriminate tolerance, misguided charities and that whole sentimental euphoria which drives moderns to write books like those projected long ago by Swift's first mad ‘author’: A Panegyrick upon the World, and, better still, A Modest Defence of the Proceedings of the Rabble in all Ages (Tale of a Tub, Preface; I, 32).

The complicated interplay of compassion and contempt is not to be taken as a finely-textured, sensitively judicial blend, a mellowly-pondered product of the liberal imagination. It is an explosive mixture, and Swift's feelings oscillate starkly among extreme positions. When he discloses that it is not only the English but also (and at times especially) the Irish and, among the Irish, not only the ruling classes but the ruled, who are to blame for the state of Ireland, fierce convergences of anger take place which make the rational lucidities of the most subtle and comprehensive political analysis seem irrelevant. These convergences gain a particular edge from the fact that Swift was always insisting to himself and to others on the differences between the English and the Irish, and between the Anglo-Irish and the Catholic natives; and that it was frequently important to him to identify himself now with the English, now with the Anglo-Irish Protestant establishment, even at moments when his most heartfelt compassion was directed towards the Papist poor whom he despised. To some extent, these complexities were due to factors inherent in the Irish situation itself.16 But Swift's intensely individual charge of feeling was very strong. He wrote in 1734 in ‘A Letter on the Fishery’:

As to my Native Country, (as you call it) I happened indeed by a perfect Accident to be born here … thus I am a Teague, or an Irishman, or what People please, although the best Part of my Life was in England. What I did for this Country was from perfect Hatred of Tyranny and Oppression … I have done some small Services to this Kingdom, but I can do no more …

(XIII, 111-2)

There is here something of the self-righteous hauteur that we find in the Verses on the Death, and the presumably unconscious echo of Othello's ‘I have done the state some service’ (V.ii.341) is not without an element of valedictory self-indulgence. But Swift understood the risks and temptations of such luxurious postures, and usually shied from them to assert more low-pitched and untidy motives. He said to Pope on 1 June 1728: ‘I do profess without affectation, that your kind opinion of me as a Patriot … is what I do not deserve; because what I do is owing to perfect rage and resentment, and the mortifying sight of slavery, folly, and baseness about me, among which I am forced to live’ (Correspondence, III, 289). If the denial of ‘affectation’ has itself a touch of affectation, and if the denial of higher motives is hardly altogether fair to himself, the passage conveys well the enforced emotional raggedness, the self-conscious impossibility for Swift of any clear self-ennobling stand. English tyranny was vicious, but the ‘Letter on the Fishery’ is quick to say that ‘corrupt as England is, it is an Habitation of Saints in Comparison of Ireland. We are all Slaves, and Knaves, and Fools, and all but Bishops and People in Employments, Beggars’ (XIII, 112).17 The last word thrusts the Anglo-Irish (Members of Parliament and others), into the familiar sarcastic identification with ‘the vulgar Folks of Ireland’, ‘so lazy and so knavish’ that any economic scheme is doomed to founder among them. But ‘Oppressed Beggars are always Knaves’ (XIII, 113), and the ‘Letter on the Fishery’ comes quickly to all the giddy circularities of guilt which make it so hard and so absurd to apportion blame clearly, or to hope for a remedy. It is not surprising that the targets of Swift's Irish satires cannot always, and are not always meant to, be clearly distinguished from one another, nor that Swift's allegiances as between the English, the Anglo-Irish and the natives are blurred and irrationally fluctuating things, whose very confusions provide the essential energies of his style.

Thus the sarcasms of the ‘Answer to the Craftsman’ aim at England, and simultaneously at the Anglo-Irish and Ireland's original native rulers:

For, as to England, they have a just Claim to the Balance of Trade on their Side with the whole World; and therefore our Ancestors and we, who conquered this Kingdom for them, ought, in Duty and Gratitude, to let them have the whole Benefit of that Conquest to themselves; especially, when the Conquest was amicably made, without Bloodshed, by a Stipulation between the Irish Princes and Henry II. by which they paid him, indeed, not equal Homage with what the Electors of Germany do to the Emperor, but very near the same that he did to the King of France for his French Dominions.

(XII, 177)

Behind this are various further ironies. The speaker is ostensibly expressing that Anglo-Irish point of view with which, among the three alternatives, Swift himself was most closely identified. The speaker here, however, is the Modest Proposer himself, Swift's Whiggish opposite, selling Ireland out to England as (it would seem to be implied) the native Irish rulers had before. But what Molyneux had called the ‘Intire and Voluntary Submission’ of the Irish to Henry II was one of the bases of that constitutional doctrine of Ireland's status as a kingdom rather than a conquered or colonial territory which Swift himself accepted.18 That submission Swift recognized to have been somewhat qualified. In The Story of the Injured Lady, Ireland is made to say that she was won ‘half by Force, and half by Consent’ (IX, 5). When the speaker of the ‘Answer to the Craftsman’ says it is ‘our Ancestors and we’ who ‘conquered’ Ireland, he is speaking not only of conquests as distinct from free compacts, but of more recent conquests, including those of William III, which fell within Swift's lifetime and to which Swift himself felt loyal, though not without ambiguity. And since the Irish have continuously needed subduing in spite of their ‘Intire and Voluntary Submission’, there may even be some kind of exasperated hint that that submission was not only less than ‘Voluntary’ but also less than ‘Intire’, and therefore also unreliable and insincere.19 To make things seem still more confused, Swift was mocking a Whiggish supporter of the English government for defending a scheme by the present King of England which was clearly to England's disadvantage, since it encouraged disaffected Irish Catholics to enlist in the armies of a potential enemy. And it seems clear at the same time that the Irish mercenaries who did so enlist are (as in the opening of the Modest Proposal) viewed by Swift as traitors. The follies are viciously intermerged, and so are the turpitudes.

This is notably true in the cannibal theme, and in other elaborations of the mythe animal. England ‘would be glad to eat up our whole Nation’ (without salt!; XII, 117), but the Whig proposer expects his scheme to commend itself to his own profit-minded Irish fellow-Protestants, while (as we have seen) the Papist poor are assumed to be likely not only to embrace it heartily, but to improve their family relationships as a result. The fact that at previous and historically recorded times of famine, actual instances of cannibalism, including child-eating, had occurred in Ireland (about which Swift certainly knew), adds hideous and tragic overtones to the insinuation.20 Swift's compassion would certainly have been mixed with a very uppish revulsion, for the fact was clearly in accord with his notions of the barbaric squalor of ‘the poor Popish Natives’ (IX, 209). In An Answer to … A Memorial (1728) Swift noted, from a certain ironic distance, ‘that our Ancestors, the Scythians, and their Posterity our Kinsmen the Tartars, lived upon the Blood and Milk, and raw Flesh of their Cattle; without one Grain of Corn; but I confess myself so degenerate, that I am not easy without Bread to my Victuals’ (XII, 19). In 1729, newspaper reports were saying that the unemployed Dublin weavers were forced to feed ‘on Grains, and Blood from the Slaughter-Houses’.21 In 1730, in the ‘Answer to the Craftsman’, Swift returns to the modern Irish descendants of the Scythians, and their diet, as ‘Virgil describeth it’:


Which, in English, is Bonnyclabber, mingled with the Blood of Horses, as they formerly did, until about the Beginning of the last Century Luxury, under the Form of Politeness, began to creep in, they changed the Blood of Horses for that of their black Cattle; and, by Consequence, became less warlike than their Ancestors.

(XII, 178)

Behind the pained compassion of such passages lies a whole tradition of contempt for the Irish and their barbarous ways. The link between the Irish and the Scythians was a popular tradition,22 and many authors (notably Spenser) noted the diet of boiled blood, sometimes adding to this some cannibal variants. Spenser and others noted not only that the Irish in times of famine nourished themselves on human bodies, but that like the Scythians they were given (for various ritual reasons) to drinking human blood.23 Long before, Strabo had spoken of both the Irish and the Scythians as cannibals or reputed cannibals.24 There was also a tradition that the Scythians made mantles out of the skins of their enemies,25 which gives a doubtless fortuitous additional irony to the Modest Proposal's notion that the skins of cannibalized babies ‘will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen’ (XII, 112).

There are also, in the background to Swift's Scythian parallel, Swift's own frequent references to the Scythians in the Tale of a Tub, the ‘Mechanical Operation of the Spirit’ and elsewhere, as prototypes of the many ‘modern’ madnesses of Britain: a reverence for asses and ‘True Criticks’ (Tale, III; I, 60-1) and allied zaninesses in the domain both of ‘learning’ (VII; I, 93-4), and of religion, notably Roundhead or Puritan enthusiasm, and ‘artificial Extasies’ (‘Mechanical Operation’; I, 175-6, 178).26 The Scythians were often thought of as a generalized type of barbarian, rather than as a very precisely defined race.27 For Swift, in particular, they clearly meant not only barbarism, but certain archetypal forms of human folly which he felt to be very close at hand. Such radical folly, for Swift, is both ‘modern’ and atavistic, and thus poses a perennially immediate threat of disruption, in which man, either by simple primitive reversion, or (as in the Tale) through excesses of arrogant intellect, brings himself back to an animal state. The descriptions of Scythian barbarisms among the Irish in the tracts of the late 1720s are shot through with pity, but the pity is an angry one, mixed with many kinds of resentment and contempt. And the same inextricable amalgam of fierce compassion and contemptuous fury lies behind Swift's description of himself in 1732 as soured and dispirited by ‘fighting with Beasts like St. Paul, not at Ephesus, but in Ireland’ (Correspondence, IV, 79).28 As Ferguson says of the Modest Proposal: ‘Swift is saying to the Irish, in effect, “You have acted like beasts; hence you no longer deserve the title of men.”’29

Swift's ways of animalizing Ireland and the Irish are clearly not ironic in that simple compassionate sense presupposed by many readers of the Modest Proposal. In an essay of the same date, ‘A Proposal that All the Ladies and Women of Ireland should appear constantly in Irish Manufactures’, Swift wrote:

the three seasons wherein our corn hath miscarried, did no more contribute to our present misery, than one spoonful of water thrown upon a rat already drowned would contribute to his death; … the present plentiful harvest, although it should be followed by a dozen ensuing, would no more restore us, than it would the rat aforesaid to put him near the fire, which might indeed warm his fur-coat, but never bring him back to life.

(XII, 122)

In the following year, on 21 March 1730, Swift wrote to Bolingbroke: ‘I would if I could get into a better [world than Ireland] before I was called into the best, and not die here in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole’ (Correspondence, III, 383). In the Drapier's second letter, it is William Wood, exploiter of the Irish, who is described as a rat: ‘It is no Loss of Honour to submit to the Lion: But who, with the Figure of a Man, can think with Patience of being devoured alive by a Rat?’ (X, 20). The latter usage is close to Pope's in a note of 1729 to Dunciad A.III.337, warning us not to underestimate the power of the dunces: ‘the Dutch stories somewhere relate, that a great part of their Provinces was once overflow'd, by a small opening made in one of their dykes by a single Water-Rat’. In ‘A Proposal that All the Ladies …’ it is Ireland herself that is a dead rat, and it is a characteristically teasing coincidence that he should on separate occasions have used the same image to describe a victimized Ireland, one of her more contemptible oppressors, and himself to boot. The drowned rat which is Ireland evokes a mixture of feelings. If the passage includes exasperation at the Irish, it also angrily mimics the contemptuous way in which the condition of Ireland is normally spoken of, and it contains an obvious gruff compassion on Swift's part, itself partly contemptuous.

The same compassion is clearly present in ‘An Answer to Several Letters’, also of 1729. Swift angrily answers those who explain or justify Ireland's troubles by the primitive and vicious squalor of the ‘poor native Irish’: ‘supposing the size of a native's understanding just equal to that of a dog or a horse, I have often seen those two animals to be civilized by rewards, at least as much as by punishments’ (XII, 88). Swift hints eloquently here at ‘how easily those people may be brought to a less savage manner of life’. But Swift was often as pessimistic as any of his objectors about the prospects of any improvement in Ireland through practical expedients; and if his Modest Proposer is mimicked as referring to the native Irish as ‘our Savages’ (XII, 111), Swift himself spoke without irony of ‘the savage old Irish’ (Correspondence, V,58), and often thought of them as sub-human Yahoos.30 Ferguson quotes a mid-century Lord Chancellor of Ireland as saying ‘“The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic”’, and adds that ‘In 1709, Swift could write of them with an easy callousness, “We look upon them to be altogether as inconsiderable as the Women and Children”’.31 Ferguson later points out that it was in the late 1720s that Swift's sympathies and commitment were extended beyond the Anglo-Irish interest to ‘“the whole People of Ireland”’.32 It is, however, sometimes held that this last phrase applies only to the Protestant Irish.33 Oddly, moreover, Swift's point in the passage of 1709, from the Letter … Concerning the Sacramental Test (II, 120), was actually to minimize the supposed dangerousness of the Irish Catholics, compared with that of Protestant Dissenters, whilst in the tracts of the 1720s and after we find many expressions by Swift of the kind of harsh contempt which he was at the same time, as in ‘An Answer to Several Letters’, quick to resent in others.

Swift's celebrated, proto-Malthusian use of dehumanized economic jargon must be seen in the light of these complexities. It is not simply, perhaps not even mainly, an ironic protest at the statistical reduction of human beings, in the manner of, say, Auden's ‘The Unknown Citizen’.34 The statistician's hard depersonalizing vocabulary, ‘males’, ‘females’, ‘couples’, ‘breeders’, ‘souls’, is mimicked with a kind of aggressive playfulness, as though Swift were flaunting his ability to play the statisticians' game with the best:

The Number of Souls in Ireland being usually reckoned one Million and a half; of these I calculate there may be about Two hundred Thousand Couple whose Wives are Breeders …

(XII, 110)

It is very like Swift, consciously or otherwise, to seize on the incongruous fact that the incorporeal term ‘Soul’ should be making the same point as the solidly animal ‘Breeders’, and the whole passage tingles with an unsettling, deadpan humour. But Swift had no disrespect for economic surveys as such, and his over-riding concern here is in any case well beyond parody. The warm, direct ballad protest of Auden's displaced person:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us,

(‘Twelve Songs’, I)35

is far removed from Swift's hard cold note. If there is, in Swift as in Auden, a complaint about inhumane attitudes as expressed through language, it has relatively less place in Swift's total effect. And his tendency to talk of the Irish Catholics as ‘things’ and ‘beasts’ is almost as great in his direct utterances as in the parodied voice of the Modest Proposer. Dehumanized terminology (‘Females’, ‘Couples’ etc.) and an insulting use of animal terms occur plentifully, for example, in the Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars. Thus Swift says of the beggar who stays within his own parish:

If he be not quite maimed, he and his Trull, and Litter of Brats (if he hath any) may get half their Support by doing some kind of Work in their Power, and thereby be less burthensome to the People.

(XIII, 133)

When a resident beggar becomes a strolling beggar, he becomes a still greater object of distaste:

But, when the Spirit of wandring takes him, attended by his Female, and their Equipage of Children, he becomes a Nuisance to the whole Country: He and his Female are Thieves, and teach the Trade of stealing to their Brood at four Years old.

(XIII, 134)

A little later, Swift says about the marriage-customs of the Catholic poor:

many thousand Couples are yearly married, whose whole united Fortunes, bating the Rags on their Backs, would not be sufficient to purchase a Pint of Butter-milk for their Wedding Supper, nor have any Prospect of supporting their honourable State but by Service, or Labour, or Thievery. Nay, their Happiness is often deferred until they find Credit to borrow, or cunning to steal a Shilling to pay their Popish Priest, or infamous Couple-Beggar.

(XIII, 136)

But Swift is equally harsh about the English Protestant beggars whom England exports to Ireland—in ‘large Cargoes’ (XIII, 136-7). And as to the wealthier, ruling Protestant Interest (the section of Ireland with which Swift, in the last analysis, identified himself) they are no more spared than the poorer classes. All the insulting exploitations of the mythe animal may occur just as fiercely when Swift has reason to complain of them. The ‘Answer to Several Letters’ says of Swift's favourite bugbear, the women who use foreign rather than Irish manufactures, that they are

a kind of animal suffered for our sins to be sent into the world for the Destruction of Familyes, Societyes, and Kingdoms; and whose whole study seems directed to be as expensive as they possibly can in every useless article of living, who by long practice can reconcile the most pernicious forein Drugs to their health and pleasure, provided they are but expensive; as Starlings grow fat with henbane: who contract a Robustness by meer practice of Sloth and Luxury: who can play deep severall hours after midnight, sleep beyond noon, revel upon Indian poisons, and spend the revenue of a moderate family to adorn a nauseous unwholesom living Carcase.

(XII, 80)

(One grotesque piquancy of the Modest Proposal, it may be noted in passing, is that it is a perverse application of Swift's insistently reiterated view that the Irish should consume their own, rather than imported, products).

The famous onslaught on the dead Lord Chief Justice Whitshed in An Answer to … A Memorial justifies itself by saying that though the memories of people like him ‘will rot, there may be some Benefit for their Survivers, to smell it while it is rotting’ (XII, 25). In the Vindication of … Lord Carteret (1730), Swift describes himself as a ‘political Surgeon’ opening up the carcase of Lord Allen before his death, and displaying his noisome innards (XII, 157-8). The same Lord Allen (nicknamed Traulus) is the subject of some of Swift's angriest verse:

Traulus of amphibious Breed,
Motly Fruit of Mungril Seed:
By the Dam from Lordlings sprung,
By the Sire exhal'd from Dung.

(Poems, III, 799)

The Modest Proposer, who thinks of the Irish as part statistical objects and part beasts, who speaks of children dropped from their dam, of carcasses, of couples and breeders and the rest, is not mainly parodying other pamphleteers, so much as giving vent to a certain side of Swift himself. Part of what parody there was would have, characteristically, to turn on himself, and on acts of verbal aggression of which he was as guilty as any real statistician, and which he shows no evidence of wanting to recant. There is a further coil of self-mockery which is never far from the surface, a wry sense (not always allowed to become fully conscious) that the predicament of those unhappy Irishmen he most pitied and despised was an image of his own. The Modest Proposal's ‘Child, just dropt from its Dam’ who might later regret that he had been allowed to live on in wretched Ireland instead of being ‘sold for Food at a Year old’ (XII, 110, 117) may not seem much like the Dean of St Patrick's. But was Swift half-remembering these phrases from the Proposal when he wrote to the Earl of Oxford in 1737 of his personal feelings about the ‘wretched Kingdom’ of his birth: ‘I happened to be dropped here, and was a Year old before I left it, and to my Sorrow did not dye before I came back to it again’ (Correspondence, V, 46-7)?

The ‘other Expedients’ passage in the Modest Proposal (XII, 116-17) and similar passages elsewhere confirm, as Ferguson has shown, that Swift was ‘not concerned with satirizing the proposals of other writers on Irish affairs’, many of whose schemes he had himself championed.36 The genuinely sane and practical suggestions included in the list of ‘other Expedients’ divert whatever mockery of economic projectors there may have been wryly back to Swift himself. The self-mockery is here one of Swift's ways of emphasizing not the culpability of economists but the hopeless incurability of the human material whose lot they are trying against odds to improve. The ‘malicious Pleasure’ he is half-tempted to feel, in An Answer to … A Memorial (XII, 22), at the dire realization of all his past warnings, is part of the same charge of hostility which makes him so ready to talk of the Irish as mere material, economists' fodder, cattle. But even such element of protest as there nevertheless was, on Swift's part, at the fact that people were being treated, or thought of, as animals, or as mere economic commodities, certainly does not mean (as Wittkowsky thought) that he was objecting to such specifically reifying doctrines of the economists as that ‘people are the riches of a nation’.37 Louis Landa has made it clear that Swift does not ‘attack’ this maxim ‘because he thinks it false’, but because the Irish situation is so unnatural that even such a universally valid economic law ‘does not apply to Ireland’.38 Nor is there evidence to suppose that he rejected such hard-headed mercantilist corollaries of the maxim as that large dense populations kept wages low and manufactures cheap, provided that the people were made productive and that idleness or beggary were kept to the minimum. Nor was he in favour of depopulation (e.g. through emigration).39 Some statements in support of this are in fact bitter upside-down ironies, expressing a deep dismay at how Ireland's unnatural economy made it a grimly special case. This irony he expressed very clearly in the ‘Letter … Concerning the Weavers’:

I am not in the least sorry to hear of the great Numbers going to America, though very much so for the Causes that drive them from us, since the uncontrolled Maxim that People are the Riches of a Nation is no maxim here under our Circumstances. We have neither [manufactures] to employ them about, nor food to support them.

(XII, 66-7)

Actually, Swift is very ‘sorry’ indeed. Again, in ‘Maxims Controlled’ he felt driven to say that the poverty and unemployment in Ireland had

made me often wish, for some years past, that, instead of discouraging our people from seeking foreign soil, the public would rather pay for transporting all our unnecessary mortals, whether Papists or Protestants, to America, as drawbacks are sometimes allowed for exporting commodities where a nation is over-stocked.

(XII, 136)

And yet there is another irony than the obvious one. Many of the emigrants to America were Ulster Presbyterians who ‘found the enforced payment of tithes to an Anglican clergyman not only an economic burden but also something that went against their consciences’.40 Swift would be no friend to them, and part of him, for reasons which cut across any economic maxims about population, would not be sorry to see them go. The recruitment of Papists by foreign armies introduced further complexities still. Swift opposed the idea, which he ironically made his Modest Proposer advocate in the ‘Answer to the Craftsman’. But again it seems possible to feel that he was not wholly and unequivocally dissociated from his callous Whig spokesman. The latter produces the following piece of political arithmetic based on the supposition, first, that the kings of France and Spain take away for their armies 6,000 ‘Bodies of healthy, young, living Men’ from Ireland:

by computing the Maintenance of a tall, hungry, Irish Man, in Food and Cloaths, to be only at Five Pounds a Head, here will be Thirty Thousand Pounds per Annum saved clear to the Nation, for they can find no other Employment at Home, beside begging, robbing, or stealing.

(XII, 174)

He then contemplates a more large-scale project:

But, if Thirty, Forty, or Fifty Thousand, (which we could gladly spare) were sent on the same Errand, what an immense Benefit must it be to us; and, if the two Princes, in whose Service they were, should happen to be at War with each other, how soon would those Recruits be destroyed, then what a Number of Friends would the Pretender lose, and what a Number of Popish Enemies all true Protestants get rid of.

The glimpse of Papist hordes of Irishmen destroying each other abroad is three parts mimicry of cynical Whigs, but also one part Swiftian animus. (The Papists in question would, after all, be allowing themselves, and had in the past illegally allowed themselves, to be bought, like cattle, into the service of potential enemies of Protestant Britain).41 It is one of a whole series of black jokes in which a mock-cynical compassion shades unsettlingly into a certain exasperated velleity for ‘final solutions’,42 a velleity which encompasses Papist slave and Protestant ruler alike. The country-beggars in Dublin are ‘fitter to be rooted out off the Face of the Earth, than suffered to levy a vast annual Tax upon the City’, he was to say in A Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars (XIII, 139), having first made the point that shopkeepers ought to order the whipping of ‘every Beggar from the Shop, who is not of the Parish, and doth not wear the Badge of that Parish on his Shoulder’, a practice which would quickly get rid of all the ‘sturdy Vagrants’ from other parishes.43 ‘As for the Aged and Infirm, it would be sufficient to give them nothing, and then they must starve or follow their Brethren’ (XIII, 138).

Similar outbursts occur against the ruling Protestant society, notably, as we should expect, against the women who do not use Irish manufactures. The Modest Proposer's extension of the cannibal project to include them is much more literal, and carries a much simpler hostile animus, than the rest of the work's exploitation of the cannibal formula. Indeed, the irony momentarily ceases to work in reverse, according to the formula, and moves instead in some kind of direct parallel with Swift's own feelings:

Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same Use were made of several plump young girls in this Town, who, without one single Groat to their Fortunes, cannot stir Abroad without a Chair, and appear at the Playhouse, and Assemblies in foreign Fineries, which they never will pay for; the Kingdom would not be the worse.

(XII, 114)

To this may be added this outburst against Bankers in the Short View: ‘I have often wished, that a Law were enacted to hang up half a Dozen Bankers every Year; and thereby interpose at least some short Delay, to the further Ruin of Ireland’ (XII, 11), and a similar passage in the ‘Answer to the Craftsman’ (XII, 177).

The ‘malicious Pleasure’ at Ireland's plight in the Answer to … A Memorial (XII, 22) is surely also one of the ingredients of that later, eloquent and compassionate sarcasm in ‘Maxims Controlled’, when, immediately after expressing a wry approval of the emigration of Papists and Protestants to America, Swift continues:

I confess myself to be touched with a very sensible pleasure, when I hear of a mortality in any country-parish or village, where the wretches are forced to pay for a filthy cabin and two ridges of potatoes treble the worth, brought up to steal or beg, for want of work, to whom death would be the best thing to be wished for, on account both of themselves and the public.

(XII, 136)


  1. All quotations from Swift's prose works are from the edition of Herbert Davis and others (Oxford: Blackwell, 1939-68, 14 vols), unless otherwise noted. References are to volume and page of this edition, and are generally given immediately after citation in the text or notes: sometimes to avoid a local ambiguity, the title is given in abbreviated form as Works, but in general volume and page only, without title, are given. Correspondence and Poems refer to the editions by Harold Williams (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963-5, 5 vols; and 2nd edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958, 3 vols, respectively).

    Oliver W. Ferguson, Jonathan Swift and Ireland (Urbana, 1962), is referred to as Ferguson throughout.

  2. George Wittkowsky, ‘Swift's Modest Proposal: the biography of an early Georgian pamphlet’, Journal of the History of Ideas, iv (1943), 88-9. This important article is full of valuable information, on which I have drawn, whilst not always agreeing with its conclusions. It is referred to as Wittkowsky throughout.

  3. Wittkowsky, loc. cit.

  4. The notion that beggars and vagabonds were above all a social nuisance was widespread; see Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution. Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century (1968), 218, 222-30; Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (1969), 251, 258, 262-87 passim (the whole chapter on ‘The Poor and the Parish’, pp. 251-87, surveys the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debate on the duty of charity and the opposite need for severity towards beggars. Hostility to beggars was a feature of Puritanism, but it was by no means confined to the Puritans.)

  5. Wittkowsky, 83-4. See also R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1948), 193; Hill, Puritanism and Revolution, 218, 226-30, Society and Puritanism, 264-87, passim.

  6. Wittkowsky, 84.

  7. Wittkowsky, 88n.

  8. Cited Wittkowsky, 84n. See Dorothy Marshall, The English Poor in the Eighteenth Century (1926), 24.

  9. Swift's qualified advocacy of charity schools (he ‘actively assisted in founding a charity school’, IX, 129n) distinguishes him from the much more hostile attitude which Mandeville expressed in his ‘Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools’, printed in the 1723 edition of the Fable of the Bees. But there are many similarities between Swift's and Mandeville's thinking, and some of Mandeville's harshness will also be found in Swift.

  10. On the possible date of the sermon, see IX, 136, where Louis Landa suggests various possibilities, and inclines to 1724-5.

  11. On the common notion that poverty and beggary are evidence of unrighteousness, and deserve harsh treatment, see Tawney, op. cit., 262-5; Hill, Puritanism and Revolution, 215, 218-19, 225, Society and Puritanism, 276-7 and 251-87 passim. Max Weber identified this attitude with the Puritan ethic (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trs. Talcott Parsons, 1971, 163, 177-8, 268nn), but it was by no means confined to Puritans or to dissenting sects. For some similar views to mine on the question of Swift's attitude, see David Nokes, ‘Swift and the beggars’, Essays in Criticism, xxvi (1976), 218-35, which appeared after this essay was sent to press.

  12. See also the sermon ‘On the Poor Man's Contentment’: ‘there is hardly one in a hundred who doth not owe his Misfortunes to his own Laziness or Drunkenness, or worse Vices’ (IX, 191).

  13. Ferguson, 174, shows that actual cruelty to children, among the Irish poor, was a known fact of the time, reported on by non-ironic observers. More generally, the Irish seem to have had a reputation for outlandish family life and marriage customs, including unusually early disposal of daughters in marriage, the eating of their dead parents' flesh, the feeding of male infants on the point of a sword, incest, easy dissolution of the marriage-bond and intense enmities arising from unhappy marriages (see, for example, William Camden, Britannia, facsimile of 1695 edn, 1971, cols 965, 1041, 1046).

  14. In a letter dated July-2 August 1732, however, Swift wrote to Charles Wogan, an Irish Catholic Jacobite exile who had served in Dillon's regiment in France and later took service with the Spanish army:

    Although I have no great Regard for your Trade, from the Judgment I make of those who profess it in these Kingdoms, yet I cannot but highly esteem those Gentlemen of Ireland, who, with all the Disadvantages of being Exiles and Strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their Valour and Conduct in so many Parts of Europe. I think above all other Nations, which ought to make the English ashamed of the Reproaches they cast on the Ignorance, the Dulness, and the Want of Courage, in the Irish Natives; those Defects, wherever they happen, arising only from the Poverty and Slavery they suffer from their inhuman Neighbours, and the base corrupt Spirits of too many of the chief Gentry, & c.

    He goes on to say that ‘the poor Cottagers’ of Ireland ‘have much better natural Taste for good Sense, Humour, and Raillery’ than their English counterparts, although ‘the Millions of Oppressions they lye under, the Tyranny of their Landlords, the ridiculous Zeal of their Priests, and the general Misery of the whole Nation, have been enough to damp the best Spirits under the Sun’ (Correspondence, IV, 51). Allowance must be made for Swift's desire to compliment his addressee. But the letter also shows the tendency to ambiguity and to fluctuation of emphasis in Swift's feelings about Ireland.

  15. An official letter to the Duke of Dorset, who became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1730, argued that in view of Protestant emigration, the scheme to permit recruiting of Irish Catholics for the French army ‘might have the appearance of right policy, to diminish, on that account, the Number of the Popish Inhabitants’ (cited by Ferguson, 177).

  16. On this, see Ferguson, 19-23.

  17. Calling England ‘an Habitation of Saints in Comparison of Ireland’ seems to be a pointed irony. See Camden's Britannia, col. 969: ‘St. Patrick's disciples in Ireland were such great proficients in the Christian Religion, that in the age following, Ireland was term'd Sanctorum Patria, i.e. the Country of Saints’.

  18. Ferguson, 21. For a summary of the historical facts about Henry II's intervention in Ireland, see J. C. Beckett, A Short History of Ireland (1952), 17ff., and, for a more detailed treatment, A. J. Otway-Ruthven, A History of Medieval Ireland (London and New York, 1968), 42-65, esp. 48ff. The ‘Voluntary Submission’ was not unmixed with military conquest, of course. In his by no means original account of Henry's reign in the ‘Fragment of the History [of England] from William Rufus’, Swift notes that Henry II requested the Pope's ‘licence for reducing the savage people of Ireland from their brutish way of living, and subjecting them to the crown of England’ (V, 76: see V, 73-8 for Swift's overall account of Henry II). In his ‘Essay upon the Advancement of Trade in Ireland’, Temple had spoken of Henry II's ‘conquest’ of Ireland (Works of Sir William Temple, 1770, III, 7).

  19. I am indebted to Professor J. C. Beckett for some valuable comments on this whole question.

  20. Wittkowsky, 91-3, and Thomas B. Gilmore, Jr, ‘A Modest Proposal and Intelligencer Number xviii’, The Scriblerian, ii.i (Autumn 1969), 28-9, draw attention to the fact that Thomas Sheridan had in 1728 cited in the Intelligencer, No. xviii, an account from Fynes Moryson's Itinerary (1617), of Irish women eating children, and in one case children eating the flesh of their dead mother (see The Intelligencer, 1729, 195-6). Several numbers of the Intelligencer, including one by Swift himself (No. xix), dealt with the condition of Ireland. No. xv contained a reprint of Swift's Short View of the State of Ireland. See also Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland, in Spenser's Prose Works, Variorum Edition, ed. Rudolf Gottfried (Baltimore, 1949), 158, and (for other sources) annotation, 382. Spenser is advocating measures for subduing the Irish so that they will ‘quicklye Consume themselues and devour one another’, having already displayed their cannibal propensities anyway. Critics differ as to whether this is ‘a terrible proposal, uttered with cold deliberateness’, or more neutral or compassionate (p. 381).

    In Swift's own time, cannibal jokes and associated ironies about, for example, flaying the Irish and selling their skins, were evidently not uncommon, whether in a contemptuous or a compassionate or other context: see the examples cited in Clayton D. Lein, ‘Jonathan Swift and the population of Ireland’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, viii (1975), 436 (also cited in Works, IX, XX) and 452.

  21. Ferguson, 170.

  22. Spenser alludes to this throughout much of his View, and for other authorities see the Variorum Edition, 309-11, 320 etc. Sir William Temple devoted a whole section of his essay ‘Of Heroic Virtue’ to a (not altogether unfavourable) account of the Scythians, noting that those who conquered Scotland and Ireland ‘retained more of the ancient Scythians … both in their language and habit’ (Works of Sir William Temple, 1770, III, 347-68, 351; also III, 78-80, a passage from An Introduction to the History of England, which notes the habit of ‘eating blood they brew from living cattle’). For hostile analogies, see Donald T. Torchiana, ‘Jonathan Swift, the Irish, and the Yahoos: the case reconsidered’, Philological Quarterly, liv (1975), 195-212, esp. 197 (special number published separately as From Chaucer to Gibbon. Essays in Memory of Curt A. Zimansky, ed. William Kupersmith, Iowa City, 1975). Strabo reports that the Scythians used to castrate their horses like English Yahoos (Strabo, Geography, VII.iv. 8, Loeb edn, III, 249; Gulliver's Travels, IV. ix, Works, XI, 272-3).

  23. Spenser, Variorum Edition, 108, 112, and annotation, 340, 343-4. On the Scythians, see Herodotus, IV. lxiv, lxx.

  24. Strabo, Geography, IV.v.4; VII.iii.6-7 (Loeb edn, II, 259-61; III, 189, 195, 199).

  25. Noted by Johannes Boemus (1571), and cited in annotation to Spenser, Variorum Edition, 328. For the manufacture by the Scythians of various objects out of the parts of human bodies, see Herodotus, IV, lxiv, lxv; Strabo, Geography, VII.iii.6-7 (Loeb edn, III, 189, 197). Cf. the passage of 1716 by Archbishop William King, adapting these motifs to the sad predicament of the Irish poor: ‘I cannot See how any more can be got from them, except we take away their potatoes and buttermilk or flay them and Sell their Skins’ (cited Lein, op. cit., 452).

  26. At I, 178 it is also said that the ‘noble [Irish] Nation, hath of all others … degenerated least from the Purity of the Old Tartars’. On Tartars and Irishmen see also XII, 19 and the quotations from Berkeley in Torchiana, op. cit., 197.

  27. E.g. as ‘a vague “northern nation”’ (annotation to Spenser, Variorum Edition, 327). It is presumably as generalized Barbarians that the Scythians and Tartars are referred to in Blackmore's Satyr Against Wit (1699), ll.277-8 (Poems on Affairs of State, VI, ed. Frank H. Ellis, New Haven and London, 1970, 149).

  28. For scriptural echoes and allusions in Swift's Irish writings, see C. A. Beaumont, Swift's Use of the Bible (Athens, Georgia, 1965), 36-52. Beaumont, p. 66, says that the Modest Proposal ‘ignores the Bible’ because Biblical allusions would be inappropriate in a work purportedly written by ‘a modern economic projector’, but Robert A. Greenberg has suggested in a persuasive note that a source of the cannibal formula might have been the frequent and ‘almost conventional Old Testament admonition that unless the Hebrews mend their ways they will be reduced (amongst other extremities) to the eating of their children’ (‘A Modest Proposal and the Bible’, Modern Language Review, lv (1960), 568-9). For Swift's sarcastic exploitation of the cannibal formula, there may also have been a patristic model in Tertullian's Apology (see Donald C. Baker, ‘Tertullian and Swift's A Modest Proposal’, Classical Journal, lii (1957), 219-20, and J. W. Johnson, ‘Tertullian and A Modest Proposal’, Modern Language Notes, lxxiii (1958), 561-3).

  29. Ferguson, 173.

  30. For a fuller recent discussion of this point, see Torchiana, op. cit. For the widespread view of the Irish as savages, see especially ibid., 196-202.

  31. Ferguson, 17. See Works, II, 120, and cf. X, 104. I think Ferguson may here be exaggerating the ‘easy callousness’, which, in so far as it is evident, is partly ironic. But the general point that Swift often took a harsh view of the native Irish is undoubtedly right.

  32. Ferguson, 150.

  33. J. C. Beckett, ‘Swift and the Anglo-Irish tradition’, Focus: Swift, ed. C. J. Rawson (1971), 161-2.

  34. Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 (1966), 146-7.

  35. Ibid., 157. Compare with the first line a late eighteenth-century prose usage in John Howard's State of the Prisons, about Amsterdam: ‘In this city they compute 250,000 souls …’ (Everyman edn, London and New York, 1929, 54). Both the cold statistical and the compassionate usages were common long before Swift and remained common long after (see Oxford English Dictionary Soul 12 and 13; for some examples with a close bearing on Swift see Letters to and from Persons of Quality. Being the Third Volume of Irish Writings from the Age of Swift, ed. Andrew Carpenter (Dublin, 1974), 18, and passages cited in Lein, op. cit., 435, 441). Howard and Auden are perhaps merging the two usages, creating compassionate connotations by charging the statistical usage with bitterness or irony in varying degrees. Perhaps to some extent Swift does so too. For a specialized irony, exploited in Gogol's Dead Souls, see T. E. Little, ‘Dead Souls’, in Knaves and Swindlers. Essays on the Picaresque Novel in Europe, ed. Christine J. Whitbourn (London, New York and Toronto, 1974), 115.

  36. Ferguson, 175.

  37. Wittkowsky, 90ff. It has been suggested that an immediate source for Swift's reference to this maxim might have been Sir William Temple's essays ‘Upon the Advancement of Trade in Ireland’ and ‘Of Popular Discontents’ (F. V. Bernard, ‘Swift's maxim on populousness: a possible source’, Notes and Queries, ccx (1965), 18). The first of these essays has also been suggested as a possible source of the Modest Proposal in other respects (Thomas B. Gilmore, Jr, ‘Swift's Modest Proposal: a possible source’, Philological Quarterly, xlvii (1968), 590-2).

  38. Louis Landa, reviewing Wittkowsky in Philological Quarterly, xxiii (1944), 179. See also Landa's ‘A Modest Proposal and populousness’, Modern Philology, xl (1942), 161-70, and (for the larger question of Swift's general attitude to mercantilism) ‘Swift's economic views and mercantilism’, ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, x (1943), 310-35.

  39. Landa, review of Wittkowsky, 179, and the more complex discussions of the question of emigration in ‘A Modest Proposal and populousness’, passim, and Ferguson, 161ff. For two discussions of emigration by Swift himself, see XII, 58-61 and 75-7.

  40. Ferguson, 162. For Swift's concern ‘about the danger of depopulation’ and useful accounts of his attitude to the question of emigration, see Ferguson, 161-4, and Lein, op. cit., 431-53, esp. 443-5 (on emigration).

  41. See Ferguson, 176-7.

  42. It was not unprecedented for writers on Irish affairs to toy more or less ambiguously with notions of large-scale extermination. See n.20 above, and ‘A Brief Note of Ireland’, possibly also by Spenser, Variorum Edition, 240, 244, and cross-references at 439 n.328-9.

  43. On the legal basis, developed in the preceding century and a half in England, for whipping beggars back to their own parish, see Hudibras, ed. John Wilders (1967), 377 (note to II.i.817), and Hill, Society and Puritanism, 261.

Robert Hunting (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1962

SOURCE: Hunting, Robert. “Cathedral Dean and Patriot.” In Jonathan Swift, pp. 79-93. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hunting views Swift's A Modest Proposal not only as a warning to the Irish, but also to the British against taking advantage of them.]

A Modest Proposal is the most brilliant of a long series of Irish tracts by Swift. Ireland first learned about the Proposal in an advertisement in the Dublin Intelligence for 8 November 1729: “The late apparent spirit of patriotism, or love to our country, so abounding of late, has produced a new scheme, said in public to be written by D—— S——, wherein the author … ingenuously advises that one fourth part of the infants under two years old, be forthwith fattened, brought to market and sold for food, reasoning that they will be dainty bits for landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best right to eat up the children.”1

The character who “writes” the Modest Proposal is one, like Gulliver and the hack writer of the Tale volume, that Swift will condemn for moral obtuseness. The “modest” fellow who presents the Proposal invites our confidence (as Gulliver does), by a conversational and polite tone and by an appearance of common sense and objectivity, only to betray it (as does Gulliver also). More specifically, the narrator poses as an economic “projector.” His proposed “project” belongs to a well-defined genre popular in Swift's day. For example, just a year earlier (1728) the tireless Daniel Defoe had published his Augusta Triumphans: Or, the Way to Make London the most Flourishing City in the Universe, a publication that is a veritable portfolio of projects. It includes, among others, “A proposal to prevent murder …,” “A proposal to prevent the expensive importation of foreign musicians …,” and a proposal to save “youths” and “servants” by clearing the streets of “shameless and impudent strumpets.” As an economic projector, Swift's narrator belongs to the group of economic theorists of Swift's or any day who are either innately or perversely blind, perhaps in the name of religion or science, to the fact that people are neither animals, nor things, nor numbers. As Martin Price says, “the Modest Proposer is not only a typical projector but, more important, … [a] political arithmetician.”2 People are seen as numbers, and it is only with numbers, therefore, that our projector works.

In 1720 Swift had written to his friend Charles Ford: “I believe my self not guilty of too much veneration for the Irish [House of Lords], but I differ from you in Politicks [;] the Question is whether People ought to be Slaves or no.”3 Swift's unhappiness at England's unjust treatment of Ireland and the Irish people's own shameless and continuing willingness to be slaves was by no means new in 1729, when A Modest Proposal appeared, or in 1720, when he made his comment to Ford. In early years, the irritation was directed largely against the English. As early as 1707 this concern had found expression in his Story of the Injured Lady, an allegory of sorts in which the “Injured Lady” was Ireland, and the injurer was England. Over the years that followed, however, Swift came to see that the victims (the Irish) in this sad drama were also the villains. At this point one distinguished critic sees another example in Swift's works of le mythe animal as expressing, according to Oliver Ferguson, “a point of view integral to Swift's judgment of Ireland. Swift is saying to the Irish, in effect, ‘You have acted like beasts; hence you no longer deserve the title of men.’”4

With now two targets, the British and the Irish, Swift began in 1720 with his strongest onslaught on the terrible predicament his people were in. First came The Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720); the onslaught continued with the notorious Drapier Letters (1724-25); it was sustained by A Short View of Ireland (1727); and, though the attack did not cease in 1729, it reached its artistic culmination in that year with the publication of A Modest Proposal, one of the finest pieces of sustained irony in our language.

For this great series of Irish tracts, Swift earned his fame as patriot. He “received a silver box and the freedom of the City of Cork,” Louis Landa tells us. “It was the Dean of St. Patrick's,” he goes on to say, “who was gazed on affectionately as he walked through the alleys and streets of his Liberty. … It was the Anglican churchman who lived in easy intercourse with the great, the Lord Lieutenants and other statesmen, and whose literary genius was the admiration of friend and enemy alike.”5

Ironically, it must be remembered that when Swift fought for Ireland and its beleaguered but undeserving people against England, he had most in mind a small percentage of the total population, the Anglo-Irish who belonged to the Established Church.6 The Anglo-Irish Presbyterians were anathema, as were all “fanatics”; and the native Catholic Irish never did count very much at all in his calculations.

A good introduction to A Modest Proposal is Swift's Short View of the State of Ireland, published in 1727. It is an uncomplicated performance, presented by a nonironic persona (somewhat like the narrator in a Letter to a Young Gentleman) who in about half a dozen pages methodically presents the facts that later kindled the terrible satire of the Proposal. According to the Short View, the wretched and miserable state of Ireland was due to the fact that “[It] is the only Kingdom I ever heard or read of, either in ancient or modern Story, which was denied the Liberty of exporting their native Commodities and Manufactures. …”7 Moreover, “One third Part of the Rents of Ireland, is spent in England …,” and “The Rise of our Rents is squeezed out of the very Blood, and Vitals, and Cloathes, and Swellings of the Tenants; who live worse than English Beggars.” Also, “Both sexes [in Ireland], but especially the Women, despise and abhor to wear any of their own Manufactures, even those which are better made than in other countries. …”

Other facts were the dreadful Irish famines of the preceding three years,8 to which Swift does not refer explicitly, probably because they were on so many men's minds anyway. One pamphlet of 1729 told of people wandering about, searching desperately for food: “If they happen to hear of the death of a horse, they run to it as to a feast.”9 We learn additional “facts” from M. B. Drapier's Letter to the Whole People of Ireland (1724), in which Swift caused his persona (the Drapier) to declare to the Irish: “By the Laws of God, of NATURE, of NATIONS, and of your Country, you ARE and OUGHT to be as FREE a People as your Brethren in England. … The Remedy is wholly in your own Hands. …”10

In view of the sort of information listed above, the narrator of A Modest Proposal is entirely in character as a reasonable man when he suggests that Irish babies be butchered and sold for meat. In so terrible a situation, what else could be done? The narrator believed (as did Swift himself) that people were a nation's wealth. Babies are people. So sell them. He is also “reasonable” when he proposes a thrifty consequence of the slaughter: the babies' skins “will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.” As he methodically proceeds (“There is likewise another great Advantage in my Scheme”) to tote up his sums (“of the Hundred and Twenty Thousand Children, already computed, Twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed”), Swift's demurrals are perfectly distinct: these are not advantages; this is not a modest proposal; however disagreeable the child may be, she must not be considered an animal ‘reserved for Breed.’”

An arithmetical projector who believes that he has found a “fair, cheap and easy method of making … children sound and useful members of the commonwealth” ought to be listened to. The situation of Ireland was so bad that almost anybody who said he could improve matters would get a hearing. This particular projector was guaranteed a hearing because he had the persuasive qualities of objectivity, knowledgeability, and an engaging modesty. It would seem, in truth, that the distressing situation in Ireland could only be cured if fellow citizens would imitate the “Modest Proposer,” for there is no doubt that this man's method and his attitude toward the problem were right. “Come, let us reason together” was the appeal. Who could resist?

The trouble was not the method or the attitude, but the monster who employed them. Blind to human misery, he was incapable of realizing that people are not animals, or things, or numbers. He was a terrifyingly dangerous sort of person precisely because he was so objective, so knowledgeable, so modest, so limited, and so perfectly convinced that his conclusion was the best one thus far proposed. He insists, “I am not so violently bent upon my own Opinion, as to reject any offer … which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual.” And he concludes: “I have not the least personal Interest, in endeavouring to promote this necessary Work … I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny; the youngest being nine Years Old and my Wife past Child-bearing.”

Most immediately, The Modest Proposal was Swift's contribution to the human predicament in Ireland in 1729. I agree with Edward W. Rosenheim's valuable discovery that, originally, the essay was intended primarily to voice Swift's monumental anger against the ruling class in Ireland for enduring with such spineless stupidity a situation that it was in their own power to cure, and that this reading does give to the Proposal a unity that other readings lack.11 But I do not suppose that Professor Rosenheim would believe that isolating the contemporary “satiric target” necessarily explains the tremendous impact of the Proposal today. It will, to be sure, be long remembered in our language as a superb example of sustained irony, but more fundamental than a recognition of the rhetoric is the fact that people become upset and angry when they read this essay. The narrator is a monster: he has no right to talk about people as “breeders”; about babies, as meat. Thus by indirection is established the thesis most relevant to our times, and the main reason for its power among us. That this reason is not the primary one Swift intended is interesting but not terribly important. Neither did the architect intend his tower at Pisa to be remembered because it leans. Swift's A Modest Proposal is unforgettable not just as an indictment of the stupid and spineless Irish and of the British who took advantage of them; it is, I believe, unforgettable mainly as a warning. It warns that the very worst way to solve the problem of human misery is to give it to some modest-seeming, smooth-talking, thing-oriented political arithmetician and plug our ears when the screams begin.


  1. Cited by Davis, [Herbert et al., eds. The Prose] Works, [Works of Jonathan Swift. 14 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940-68.] 12:xix-xx.

  2. Price, [Martin. Swift's] Rhetorical Art, [New haven: Yale University Press, 1953.] 71.

  3. Williams, [Harold, ed. The] Correspondence, [of Jonathan Swift. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963-65.] 2:342.

  4. Oliver Ferguson, Swift and Ireland (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962), 173.

  5. Landa, [Louis, ed.] Swift and the Church of Ireland, [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.] 195.

  6. Ferguson, [Oliver.] Swift and Ireland, [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962.] 136, 186.

  7. This quotation and those that follow (all from the Short View) are taken from Davis, Works, 12:8-11.

  8. Ehrenpreis, [Irvin.] Swift [: The Man, His Works, and The Age. 3 vols. London: Methuen & Co., 1962 (vol. 1), 1967 (vol. 2); Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983 (vol. 3)] 3:714.

  9. Ferguson, Swift and Ireland, 170.

  10. Davis, Works, 10:63.

  11. Edward Rosenheim, Swift and the Satirist's Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 47-51.

Lloyd Davis (essay date May 1992)

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SOURCE: Davis, Lloyd. “Reading Irony: Dialogism in A Modest Proposal.Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 77 (May 1992): 32-55.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses dialogism and its role in the ironic portrayal of Ireland's sociopolitical situation in A Modest Proposal.]

That Swift's A Modest Proposal is firmly placed in two canons of English, those of composition and literature, suggests that it fulfils certain values emphasized across the discipline. Two discursive features that have been frequently valued in this work and have seen it elevated into the tradition are style and character. An ironical style produces its function as a model for imitation in composition textbooks, while the alternating personae of proposer and author, which affect the shifting responses of the reader, underlie its reputation as a piece of complex and esteemed literary characterization. Style and character would appear to offer certain critical grounds for the canonical place of A Modest Proposal.

If the criteria of literary interpretation and judgment are culturally based1, character and style cannot, however, be considered only as indices of textual quality. Instead, they can be viewed as reflecting types of cultural and critical idealism which both motivate readings of Swift's work and may structure the reading process itself. At each level of this process—that of specific interpretation and of the reading structure—this idealism works to efface the text's ability to generate alternative thematic functions for differently placed social readers and also to naturalize the cultural contexts in which a work like A Modest Proposal is relocated and used. We will see that these contexts and functions include pedagogical imperatives, myths of essentialist selfhood, and a critique of the process of political discourse. Before turning to these functions, I will review the discursive implications of dominant critical readings of style and character in A Modest Proposal. Then, through reconsidering these concepts in terms of Bakhtin's notions of dialogism, I will suggest that the ironic style and characterization of the Proposal inscribe, first, a dissension of voices and readings that results from ideological asymmetry, and then a movement beyond dissension to a dialogic, political discourse. Swift's text is a model proposal not simply for imitation but in revealing both the ideological stakes of reading and the relevance of Bakhtin's theories of discourse to cultural criticism.

A classic study of Swift's work in terms of elocutio is Martin Price's Swift's Rhetorical Art. The key Swiftian figure of irony is conceived formalistically as a ‘condensed antithesis expressed. … in the balance of two meanings simultaneously expressed in one term’.2 Irony here transcends conflictual semantic or referential processes; it synthesizes the space and time of meaning into a ‘balance’ and simultaneity which a reader presumably perceives but does not disturb. Through expressing this kind of ideal semantic presence, Swiftian irony can serve an exemplary role in the western rhetorical-pedagogical institution. Bolstered by the authority of tradition—‘A Modest Proposal remains the finest example of sustained irony ever written’, announce the editors of a recently republished (for the sixth time), composition textbook3—the trope seems to crystallize one of the founding definitions in rhetorical pedagogy of language itself: ‘Language is based on reason, antiquity, authority and usage’.4

One effect of such definitions is to withdraw language from the reader, especially the student reader: ‘One way to acquire skill [ie. which you don't have] in composition is to look closely at what good writers [ie. as opposed to yourself] do and to ask yourself questions about it’.5 Interpellated as more or less inadequately literate, the student, as well as having the questions asked on his or her behalf, is given a set of answering maxims that provide an understanding of language as life and life as language. A moral process of comprehension and interpretation, in short, an ethically circumscribed reading position, is imposed, one through which the goals of Quintilian's pedagogical ‘quest’—the ‘perfect orator’ as ‘good man’ (I.Pref.9-10)—can be recapitulated. The student may learn from Swiftian irony, for instance, that ‘Moral outrage may be strengthened by being suppressed’.6 Beginning as a formal model of irony, A Modest Proposal starts to participate in an enduring program of socialization through rhetorical instruction.7 A central part of the trope and the work's cultural importance would appear to be their revelation of certain themes of identity and personal presence: ‘Often an essayist who uses “I” is creating a persona, a mask through which he speaks, but which is not identical to him’.8 The persona of the ‘I’ is manipulated to reveal the person of the ‘essayist’, suggesting a hierarchy of character and an authoritative source of identity and meaning that parallel the classroom structure of a preceptive pedagogy.

Criticism of Swift's work, and of A Modest Proposal in particular, is full of reflections on the use and effects of personae. Frequently, as the preceding maxim suggests, the study of personae is determined by a premise of essentialist selfhood, whereby ‘Swift’ functions as an authorial and authoritative figure that underpins and resolves the texts.9 There seem to be three aspects of this psychological essentialism in Swift studies. Each aspect is slightly different in emphasis, but all envision an authorial self at a point of textual origin, subjecting signs of self-difference to a preverbal self-identity. Such essentialism complements a prescriptive use of Swift's work which would maintain the reader's identity at the receiving end of the instructional and exemplary texts.

In the first case, the persona is seen as a ‘full’ self, even if created by Swift. Literary character imitates the self-sufficiency of a more general concept of social and personal character through:

the omnipotence in each fiction of a narrator who is not meant to be Jonathan Swift in propria persona, even if we think he sometimes sounds like him. The narrator in each fiction is a character in his own right, with his own psychology, style, and intellectual modus operandi. He may not be consistent but he is an unequivocal third person whose peculiarities we are forced to observe.10

This interpretation of mimetic characterization reinforces, as it is afforded by, key concepts of individuality—a psychology, style, and intellect that are all one's own. Rather than opening up rhetorical links between the two categories of character, the applicability of these concepts to fictive narrators consolidates their defining function for ‘real’ people. Although this tautological selfhood, wherein style represents the identity which presents the style, may become contradictory in an individual case, it is used to reinforce rather than question the notion of individuality. In A Modest Proposal, for example, the way the proposer undermines his own humane stance is frequently noted. Charles Pullen makes the general point: ‘The real power in Swift's use of personae lies in their existence as characters who make satirical meaning at their own expense, often despite themselves … saying things in such an outrageous manner that content and style together reveal the hollow center of their worlds’.11 Style plays a crucial part in a process of characterization which distinguishes the complex differences, even contradictions, of different individuals.

The second type of essentialism occurs when these contradictions, characterized in the texts, are derived from that epitome of enigmatic individuals, Swift himself, in Wyrick's terms, ‘the “real” Swift’. Michael DePorte has underlined the ‘two-sidedness’ of Swift's personal writings, giving the ambiguity of the personae an interpretative basis in biography.12 A familiar critical hierarchy that would abstract so-called ‘personal’ texts from others in terms of truth, motivation, and explicability is reimposed. In the case of Swift, this often seems to be done less to arrive at a definitive understanding of the personae than to illuminate the puzzle of Swift and, more generally, the mysteries of selfhood. So David Nokes ponders the ‘apparent contradictions between the “real” and “satirical” Swift’, exampling the discrepancy between A Modest Proposal (1729) and the seemingly unequivocal Proposal for giving Badges to the Beggars of Dublin (1737), whose title alone rocks the more comfortable, canonical image of Swift as humanitarian.13 Style is again used to reconcile such personal contradictions. Irony becomes the key to the mystery, as the tropic and discursive synthesis of the public and private Swift: ‘it gave him license to raise the sort of questions he publicly deplored as dangerous, but which he seemed privately to feel must be reckoned with’.14 Irony represents this split selfhood as a textual whole which reveals human(ist) truth. Nokes concludes his study of Swift's satire by emphasizing an ethically totalizing perception of humanity that recalls what we learn in the composition lesson: ‘the essential challenge of his satires lies in the grain of his style; in the instinctive movement and construction of his rhetoric, exploring the ambiguous moral values of all human actions’.15

The third effect of psychological essentialism in Swift criticism may seem to reverse the second, but in fact like it, works to synthesize the relationship between style and character. This conception of character resolves the split textuality signified by irony into an image of the preverbal whole self. ‘Swift’ becomes the answer to the stylistic and thematic problems posed by an ironic text. This approach is exemplified by Wayne C. Booth's readings of A Modest Proposal in both The Rhetoric of Fiction and A Rhetoric of Irony. On the limits of discourse, at times ‘outside’ and at times ‘inside’ it, stands the author (contradictory personal views as noted by Nokes—and hence the question of which author, which ‘Swift’,—notwithstanding). This ambiguous authorial position affords an abstracted semantic control over the text made manifest from within the text. In realizing the presumed hermeneutic goal, ‘to reconstruct a sound version of Swift's intentions’,16 Booth's own implied readers of Swift first question the ‘reliability of the narrator’, and then find that ‘we are forced to move behind the overt beliefs of the narrator to the implicit beliefs of the author’. The Proposal becomes ‘Swift's inverted statement of his own beliefs … the tabulations of Swift's true proposals, as rejected by his speaker’.17 The limits of literary and discursive character authenticate both a thematic ‘truth’ that preexists the text and an authorial figure who utters this truth. The ironic textual dialogue, ‘determined’, as Price remarks, ‘by the relationship of two voices’,18 serves only to ‘monologize’ the text, by revealing its single source, ‘a voice behind the narrative voice’,19 Swift.

These three readings of character in Swift's work are not exclusive. That they do overlap and develop each other reflects their shared basis in the idea of an essentialist self that originates discourse. In the rhetorical tradition, this idea has taken shape as the fusion of character and style which is signified by the term proper, with its implications of selfhood, origin, nature, and correctness.20 The ideal of the proper intertwines the concepts of style and character, and so influences the positive critical values traditionally assigned to Swift's work. As noted above, underlying these values are culturally centripetal pedagogical and psychological effects, namely the hierarchical fixing of author and reader as sender and receiver, and an interpretative system based on moral humanism and psychological essentialism. These concepts and effects can be reviewed by rereading the trope that is used to synthesize them, thereby making Swift canonically and discursively ‘proper’: the trope of irony. Through applying and developing Bakhtin's notions of dialogism, we can conceive irony as a discursive practice that registers social oppositions that are represented both within the text and in processes of negotiation between the reader and the text. Through its dialogic irony, Swift's Proposal reveals less a synthesis of style and character than their conflictual functions in discourse.

Bakhtin's work emphasizes the social conditions and ideological presuppositions of discourse. Speech, or more generally the sign, is represented as a major agent of ideology in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language: ‘every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation. … Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present, too’.21 The developing conception of the sign as dialogic then reveals speech as the field of semantic and ideological conflict, manifested most clearly in the varieties of double-voiced discourse. Parody is a basic example, for it ‘introduces into … discourse a semantic intention that is directly opposed to the original one’.22 Intention is a function of meaning and ideology rather than being simply a personal viewpoint:

Analogous to parodistic discourse is ironic, or any other double-voiced, use of someone else's words; in those instances too another's discourse is used for conveying aspirations that are hostile to it.

(p. 194)

The kind of conflict that is marked by parody and irony occurs on an overt semantic level. ‘Original’ and opposing semantic intentions are envoiced and clash ‘directly’. Parody and irony explicitly oppose a meaning that presumes its own completion. For many readings of the Proposal, this meaning would be the proposer's, and it would be superseded, as in the third construct of character examined above, by what Booth calls ‘Swift's intentions’. In this critical view, the intended authorial meaning realizes its semantic goal by incorporating parody and irony into its statements a priori, precluding the possibility of further semantic subversion.

A more subtle interaction between voices than the overt clashes of parody and irony is initially located by Bakhtin in the realm of ‘hidden polemic’. The author's text is opposed externally:

Another's discourse in this case is not reproduced with a new intention, but it acts upon, influences, and in one way or another determines the author's discourse, while itself remaining outside it.

(p. 195)

This influence can also take place within the text, and parody's tendency towards an internal process of polemic is noted as ‘an internal dialogization of the parodistic discourse’, in which

the author's thought no longer oppressively dominates the other's thought [ie. doesn't openly parody or ironize it], discourse loses its composure and confidence, becomes agitated, internally undecided and two-faced.

(p. 198)

This internal challenge to the author's semantic domination is labelled by Bakhtin as the movement from ‘Vari-directional double-voiced discourse’ to ‘The active type (reflected discourse of another)’.23 An important distinction emerges here in Bakhtin's schema: intentional double-voicing, the type often noted in Swift's work, is merely an overt case of the hidden indecision and doubleness across all discourse.24A Modest Proposal will be seen to reveal this general discursive condition rather than the marked literary case.

The conceptual movement from an external to an internal, general dialogism suggests that authorial control and intention—any ‘original’ meaning—is always less than fully operative. Closure is imposed ‘oppressively’: an act of hermeneutic power trying to restrict the range of meaning and interpretation. The possibility of closure is now questioned and thus the role and position of the reader in relation to the text are problematized. Parody and irony do not play a restricted role within an authorial system. They exemplify a dialogic dynamic of discourse, in which reading is a necessary part. Interpretation takes place alongside the author's discourse and not after it, as is imaged temporally and spatially by written criticism and the use of texts as pedagogical models. Reading becomes an ideological activity in dialogic interaction with the text.25 Such a notion of reading would also problematize a preceptive pedagogy, questioning the surrogate textual authority of the teacher.

In the essay ‘Discourse in the Novel’, Bakhtin emphasizes that the dialogic word is co-constructed by speaker and addressee and is received by a ‘responsive’ and ‘active’ understanding.26 Such understanding is a function of the word's dialogism; furthermore, it does not occur merely after the utterance is delivered. Responsive understanding ‘participates in the formulation of the discourse, and it is moreover an active understanding, one that discourse senses as resistance or support enriching the discourse’ (pp. 280-81). The speaker's expectation of active, responsive understanding affects or conditions the utterance both before and after its performance: ‘Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word’ (p. 280). Bakhtin contrasts such dialogism with monologic, single-voiced discourse, which is received with ‘passive understanding’ (p. 280). The style of the receiver's response contributes crucially to the style of the discourse.

One consequence of this dialogism, and specifically of responsive understanding, is that author and reader lose their supposedly predefined, individual positions at either end of a continuum (where, for example, a ‘process’ interpretation of Jakobson's ‘Closing Statement’ might fix them).27 Bakhtin claims that the dissolution or interplay of these roles, the speaker's ‘orientation’ towards ‘the alien conceptual system of the understanding receiver’, is manifested by textual style:

the relationship to the alien word, to an alien utterance enters into the positing of the style. Style organically contains within itself indices that reach outside itself, a correspondence of its own elements and the elements of an alien context.

(pp. 282-84)

In Bakhtin's dialogic rhetoric, style deconstructs the personal and stylistic presence of the proper.

Style is the process of intersection between the author's word and the reader's unspoken word. Bakhtin's stylistics is not static and formal but social and practical. A stylistic feature reveals its meaning and context as ideological functions realized by both author and reader within a cultural milieu that extends across varying stretches of time.28 The feature discloses that which is scriptually absent but dialogically present—the reader's word as ideological response. Textual stylistics implicitly involves a stylistics of reception. The reader's access to and effect upon the speaker's discursive position or stylistic stance represent a social dynamic at work, potentially undermining that stance and forcing it into ideological motion. The ‘absence’ of any stylistic accentuation is perceived only by a formalist subject, or an authoritarian speaker.29 For this absence is in fact the receiver's potential envoicing, which forever affects the textually present. The interrelationship of stylistic absence and presence deconstructs conceptions of static discourse and formal style. Bakhtin conveys this deconstruction in a formally illogical but spatially dynamic image: dialogism penetrating a word's conception of its object and its own expressiveness, disrupting its form as a penetration ‘from within’ (p. 284).

Analyzing the style of a text focuses on this process of internal penetration, the interplay of the verbally and ideologically absent and present. The perception of a work as ironic emerges from the alternating and contesting absences and presences of unironic and ironic meanings, contests played out between reader and author. The passive receiver of the author's self-contained utterance becomes its active reader, reenvoicing and reaccentuating it, making present (some) ironic traces in the surface signification and doubtless erasing others. Active reading is an ideological reenvoicing of the text. The interplay of the ironic and unironic means that a text can always be used and envoiced in other ideological terms, despite the author's ‘intentions’.

Irony is a function of the reaccentuation and rereading which are integral to Bakhtin's conception of responsive understanding. It represents a social semantic clash between author and readers, and is not a surface stylistic trait through which an intrinsic textual truth is revealed to a waiting receiver. As dialogism in process, it precludes the sort of controlled reading and imitation to which a rhetorical (as opposed to a dialogic) pedagogy subscribes. Michael Holquist has written that ‘what in the English novel is often written off as mere irony, actually constitutes a paradigm for all utterance’.30 Swift's Proposal does not simply present its ideas about Ireland ironically; through its irony it anticipates an active response. It moves beyond the constraints of formalized style and character to a dialogism that represents the conflicting actions and interpretations of discursive participants. The irony of the Proposal both inscribes its place in this conflict and discloses the conflict in action. Writing and reading the text are social, political praxis.

The full title of Swift's text emphasizes an overt social theme: 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.31 The proposal immediately posits itself and its author as seriously concerned with the fate of Ireland. Simultaneously, it reveals an orientation towards a receiver. As a ‘proposal’, it offers itself to be considered and evaluated. The self-presumed modesty attempts to fix the reader's response by effacing any impression that text and author are proclaiming themselves. However, the adjective ‘modest’, through its usual personal reference, directs the reader away from the proposal and towards the proposer. Imbued with personal values, ‘modest’ is figurally applied to ‘proposal’, and so opens up a range of possibly personal significations. The reader can begin to elicit these semantic possibilities, asking questions such as: who describes the proposal as modest and why? is the author the proposer, and consequently, does his use of modest reflect his self-opinion rather than an unbiased appraisal of the proposal? is modest used simply metaphorically to suggest short? or is the author exploiting moral opinion that modesty is a praiseworthy trait?

Reading becomes a process of interaction between the (re-)envoicings of an author and a reader. These questions about the title are a conspicuous example of an active understanding which seizes upon the utterance, constructs its stylistic variations, and explores their social and semantic values. Each of the questions reaccentuates the noun phrase ‘a modest proposal’, bringing a possible meaning and style to the text's surface. These possibilities arise because the phrase itself does not belong hermetically to this text; it has not begun to exist as the proposer announces it, or as the reader focuses upon it. The phrase enters the text from heteroglossia, the voices of social discourse which surround and pervade the proposer and reader's semantic intentions.32 An ironic possibility, judging the proposer as immodestly seeking renown, is only one of many interpretations pressuring the surface signification.

At this point, we might ask how there is any surface signification if the text is thoroughly dialogic. In this case, the surface signification would be unironic, that is, a reader would repeat the phrase in a style which did not contest the proposer's construction of meaning. The surface signification of the text is, then, a re-envoicing which would not contradict the putative intention of the speaker (an intention which is revealed by reading the text's reference and context). Such a surface is, then, a critical concept, a semantic fiction, which momentarily stops discourse for the purpose of disclosing the ways that dialogism, exemplified by irony, works to undermine that surface.33

In A Modest Proposal, the surface signification emerges through the proposer's attempts to weld the heteroglossic strains and active readings into a monologic discourse. The attempt proceeds in a twofold way. It includes and reconciles a number of moral viewpoints, such as utilitarianism, social reform, and a Christian ethic of charity, while excluding views that might question the resultant perspective (and which will construe the proposer's idea as cannibalism, a response that is never acknowledged). The proposer employs discursive strategies of concensus rather than suppression in order to win readers to his stance and enclose their reading within what Marie Maclean calls ‘a horizon of confidence’.34

Such a horizon, at the limit of interpretive vision, emerges in the first sentence, which would fuse perceptions, the verbal system recounting what is perceived, and the social values therein expressed. Through an intertextual echo which we shall return to, the breadth of cultural speculation of one of Montaigne's essays is confidently assumed:

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags. … I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children … is, in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance.35

The proposer presumes a synthesis first of perception, in presenting that ‘those who walk’ see what he sees; then of language, as he speaks for ‘those who walk’, relating what they see; and finally, of social significance, when he explains that ‘those who walk’ will agree with him on the causes and cures for what actually only he sees, describes, and emphasizes. Like a controlling preceptor, the arbiter of ethics and meanings, he constructs a discourse whose social representation is total. A word such as ‘melancholy’, when referred to the suffering women and children, works to elicit a rapport between himself and his readers based on moral sympathy—‘stereotyped declarations of humanity … entreat us into a conspiracy of silence concerning the reality of what is proposed’.36 Once established, this rapport is considered static or unchanging, as the proposer would coopt our concurring moral voice. Yet the initial reference, moral and charitable in tone and ‘appear[ing] to be founded on humanitarian principles’,37 becomes social and political as the plight of the sufferers is conceived in terms of their effects on the ‘kingdom’. A utilitarian emphasis emerges in the mathematical terms ‘prodigious number’ and ‘additional’, while ‘grievance’ turns the personal suffering into a socioeconomic ailment.

Moreover, the positivist focus of ‘object’, which tonally unbalances the emotive ‘melancholy’, also suggests a particular type of political response. The solutions to social problems are to be realized by altering the situation of the victims of the problems—typified here by impoverished women and children—and not by attacking the causal social structures. As part of the political system of the ‘kingdom’, these structures would comprise the dominant political, economic, and national groups, the men who talk and make proposals, and attempt to evade causal implication by retaining the privileged position of ‘primary definers’, who ‘establish the initial definition or primary interpretation of the topic in question’.38 Expressing a social or political viewpoint is itself a sign and exercise of power when many lack the means of such expression. Yet the monologic strategy of primary definition can also be thought of as a response to and within an already-existing situation of conflict. It is therefore a more or less belated attempt to re-order the contesting perspectives upon a widely recognized and experienced social problem by claiming its precedence to those other intepretations.39

This proposer's presumed fusion is therefore based as much on the political perspectives it leaves out and opposes as on those it includes and embraces. The attempt to homogenize the ideas and words of others constructs a surface signification supposedly free of conflict. The proposer authoritatively wields the language of the empowered in using the consensual tropes of euphemism and apostrophized agreement. Bakhtin calls such fusion the ‘common language’:

This ‘common language’—usually the average norm of spoken and written language for a given social group—is taken by the author precisely as the common view, as the verbal approach to people and things normal for a given sphere of society, as the going point of view and the going value.40

The common language aims to monologize perception and meaning, and so asserts and reinforces an ideology. As Hall et al note in their analogous conception of the ‘public idiom’, the monologic social effects of a ‘common language’ are felt most constrainedly when the discourse of one ‘sphere of society’ is transposed onto another: ‘the continual process of translating formal official definitions into the terms of ordinary conversation reinforces, at the same time as it disguises, the links between the two discourses … the media “take” the language of the public and, on each occasion, return it to them inflected with dominant and consensual connotations’.41 The surface signification of A Modest Proposal is an official, consensual language, imposed by the proposer to forestall divergent views, while it passes itself off as giving them their voice. Yet the recognition of its officialness, realized through exploring the accentuations of its opening words, is a first step in moving beyond its control, and towards perceiving social and ideological differences. It initiates an active understanding of the text, which generates irony and will eventually dialogize the proposer's argument.

The consensual process continues until Swift introduces a monologue-shattering device from the tradition of menippean satire. A fantastic image enters the official discourse without the proposer's awareness of its subversive, carnivalistic effect. This image, which becomes the keystone of the proposal, is introduced with the sort of insouciant tone that Montaigne adopts in his essay upon the cannibals of ‘Antarctic France’ (ie. Brazil). However, it lacks Montaigne's relativizing cultural insight:

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.

(p. 1769)

While the proposer continues to presume the stability of his speech, this pivotal sentence has a striking effect. The initiation of a powerful discursive irony is here contingent upon the very lack of coherence between style and character. The proposer misreads the stylistic possibilities of his own words.42 The lists of adjectives and participles aurally and rhythmically intensify the semantic shock of the cannibalism, until the two effects climactically combine in the fanciful names of French cuisine, ‘fricassee’ and ‘ragout’. Their exoticism and the niceness of the proposer's suggestions underline his detachment from the moral stance that appeared to be emerging as he spoke of ‘a young healthy child’.43 The intricately worded propositions of child-murder and cannibalism affront the benevolent presumptions of the preceding common language. This affront occurs through specifically inverting the chief accentuation which persuaded us to remain in league with the proposer despite the dubious strains noted from the start: the ethic of charity. As long as this intonation could be considered dominant, the class and gender biases of the utilitarian and political ideas were subsumed by the great goal of social reform and improvement. The tenuous ideological harmony among the voices is now broken. Its presumed existence as the fused surface signification was a dramatically ironic foreshadowing of the proposal's internal conflicts. A dialogic discord begins: the reader's accentuation of charity both contradicts the proposer's, who continues to presume his own benevolence, and confronts the strains of utilitarian expedience. The shared viewpoint has become fragmented. The basis of its unity, which was the exclusion of accentuations which would threaten it, can no longer be maintained. The proposer's perspective and authorial mastery are themselves objectified. Empowered by the ironic, carnivalistic image, the reader attacks the proposal with an ideological voice that penetrates from within.44

Bakhtin emphasizes that the carnivalistic affront is a prime example of the menippea's use of the fantastic: ‘it is free of legend and not fettered by any demands for an external verisimilitude to life. The menippea is characterized by an extraordinary freedom of plot and philosophical invention’. This freeing up of textual reference allows alternate ideological perspectives to appear more clearly. Initially, we could designate this new textual locus as ‘Swift’, whose voice appears to articulate ‘his’ views through the words of the proposer. However, Bakhtin also stresses that the fantastic is not used in the menippea ultimately to expose the personality of ‘an individual or social type’. The Proposal, then, does not exclusively satirize a social figure like the proposer, who utilizes the Enlightenment policies of ‘political arithmetic’,45 and whose egotistical motives are but weakly veiled by his concern for the ‘kingdom’:

whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

(p. 1767)

Rather, as Bakhtin emphasizes, the menippean use of the carnivalistic affront is,

internally motivated, justified by and devoted to a purely ideational and philosophical end: the creation of extraordinary situations for the provoking and testing of a philosophical idea, a discourse, a truth … the fantastic here serves not for the positive embodiment of truth, but as a mode for searching after truth, provoking it, and, most important, testing it.46

The reader is responding to meanings which, we might say, are voiced by ‘Swift’. Yet these meanings are also the absent ideas towards which the proposer's words were always orientated and by which they were tested. Thus ‘Swift’ is not the holder of authorial truth but, with the ‘reader’, personifies the heteroglossic context of the proposal.

In contrast to parody, irony does seek to make an ideological point from within the authoritative discourse. In envoicing a seemingly absent viewpoint, irony opens the text to other perspectives. The text comes to envoice social contradiction and conflict. ‘Swift’ enters A Modest Proposal, first to parody and undermine the proposer's words, and then, to reveal an alternative, contesting ideology through the ironic voice. This difference between irony and parody is observed by Bakhtin in Rabelais:

Turning away from language … discrediting any direct or unmediated intentionality and expressive excess (any ‘weighty’ seriousness) that might adhere in ideological discourse, presuming that all language is conventional and false, maliciously inadequate to reality—all this achieves in Rabelais almost the maximum purity possible in prose. But the truth that might oppose such falsity receives almost no direct intentional or verbal expression in Rabelais, it does not receive its own word—it reverberates only in the parodic and unmasking accents in which the lie is present. Truth is restored by reducing the lie to an absurdity, but truth itself does not seek words; she is afraid to entangle herself in the word, to soil herself in verbal pathos.47

In contrast to parody's rejection of truthful enunciation, a thematic truth rises ironically but conspicuously from A Modest Proposal, through its ‘internally persuasive discourse’.48 Its emergence here is more explicit not because it announces what Booth calls ‘Swift's personal proposals for Ireland’ but because these ideas are expressly dismissed by the proposer and so bring the text's dialogism to a head. Other, possibly more equitable solutions to Ireland's problems are the very views that the official discourse seeks polemically to quash as mere ‘expedients’. The proposer displaces his own system of utilitarian values on to opposing views and then criticizes those motives, calling for an end to further dialogue and the ‘talk’ of others:

Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: of using neither clothes nor household-furniture except what is of our own growth and manufacture [the list continues] … I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients.

(p. 1772)

The reader can agree with the internally persuasive truth of these suggestions by joining with ‘Swift's’ voice in contesting what the proposer authorizes or forbids, and endorsing these dismissed solutions.

At the same time, we might note that this dialogic ‘Swiftian’ voice comes far closer than the proposer to the equivocal, culturally critical perspective recorded in Montaigne's ‘On Cannibals’. It thus receives a type of intertextual support. The initial resemblance in the tone of ‘observation with extensive view’ between the proposer and essayist ironically masks and later reveals a critique of social practices beyond the proposer's conception. Compare the viewpoint of, ‘I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children’ (p. 1769), with its blunt condemnation of the land system, to Montaigne's observations on religion:

I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than to eat him dead … a practice which we have not only read about but seen within recent memory, not between ancient enemies, but between neighbours and fellow-citizens and, what is worse, under the cloak of piety and religion. …49

Montaigne attributes the sort of political and economic dialogism which underlies A Modest Proposal to the opinions of the three ‘cannibals’ who had visited France. These characters envoice the essay's closing critique. Although this perspective is overtly afforded by their non-western ‘common language’, it also seems to link up with the essayist's views and the focus on eating anticipates the discursive and ideological motif of Swift's text: ‘they had noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They found it strange that the poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses’ (p. 119). In a sense, Swift's text reverses the characterization that Montaigne employs; for in the later work it is the represented character whose discourse is disrupted. Yet both writers significantly deploy character as dialogic process in order to depict ideological and cultural conflict.

The realization of the internally persuasive truth through such intertextual allusions and the fragmentation of the proposer's ethos culminates irony's social, stylistic function. On the one hand, the reading of A Modest Proposal now closes, with the text's dialogism neatly effective and conclusive. Yet on the other hand, and perhaps puzzlingly, irony now seems only to have generated an inversion of the proposer's words, and our joining with ‘Swift's’ voice becomes another type of passive reception. Indeed, as inversions, the ironic meaning and persona of Swift may remain determined by the proposer's discourse, as its antithesis. The conception of irony that underlies this type of interpretation remains dialectically formal, and so denies the ideological process of style and character.

There is, however, a further ironic reading generated by the Proposal. For the endorsement of calculable social reforms—which might be called the ‘theme of A Modest Proposal’—this endorsement, uttered by ‘Swift’, will always remain dialogized by the proposer's discourse. The proposer's intentions, despite their dismissibility as crazy or immoral, signify the attacks on any supposed truth spoken within heteroglossia, a confrontation which is the condition of all utterance. We might realize parody's wise silence in its ‘Rabelaisian awareness’ of the conflict between truth and the word. Accordingly, the Proposal's final ironic theme, the revelation of its irony, is its own unfinished double-voicedness: that an utterance is always orientated towards the absent word which, conceived socially and stylistically, is its ironic and ideological subversion.

Social discourse cannot exist except as ironic and dialogic. The revelation of Swift's irony is the irony of social discourse, which is here represented by the lasting historical image of the profound poverty of Ireland, a poverty inflicted by England's restrictive legislation and worsened by the social and religious conflicts of the Irish and the famines of the 1720s.50 For despite ‘Swift's’ envoicing of solutions, the text cannot enact a real solution. This practical inefficacy, underlying the text's irony, allows it only one socially constructive possibility: to reveal the complexity of Ireland's position, which defies all ‘modest proposals’. The point is not that the Proposal's ‘practical effect is literary rather than political’, but that the text reveals a dialogic scepticism towards the practical effect of political discourse.

The phrase ‘a modest proposal’ ironizes both the immodest content of the proposer's words and the presumption of efficacy in any monologic, political process. The complexity of Ireland's social situation demands an equally complex, dialogic proposal. Such a proposal is represented in an ironic mode that also questions the mere inversion of the surface signification, previously labelled ‘Swift's thematic truth’. This dialogic proposal is fully aware of its material existence as textual and of its discursive reference—that the political truth of irony is the irony of political discourse. Through this revelation of the work's ideological and discursive significance, the complex social situation which it verbally addresses is emphasized, while it is also intimated that words are but one, perhaps the initial, part of the process of confronting social and political situations.

Just prior to dismissing Swift's suggestions, the proposer states: ‘I desire the reader will observe that I calculate my remedy for this one individual kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or I think ever can be, upon earth’ (p. 1772). He feels his proposal is already under attack by the reader, and that it will be dismissed or superseded. Yet there is also a sense in which the text's internally persuasive voice speaks these same words, emphasizing the Irish plight and the inevitable futility of all merely modest proposals. The same effect comes at the work's end:

I desire those politicians who dislike my overture … that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of weather, and the most inevitable prospect of entailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.

(p. 1773)

The reader can acknowledge the accuracy of the proposer's words but reject his intention of supporting his own ideas with them. More significantly, and beyond the representational scope of parody's silence, the irony of these words allows the oppressed and impoverished to speak for themselves and describe their own experience, shattering the statistical euphemizing and official definitions of their situation.

The starkness of this depiction of Irish suffering prevents the reader from complacently endorsing ‘Swift's’ solutions. We are left with the text's dialogic lesson, offered from amidst the proposer's, Swift's, and the reader's accenting of its words: the ironic truth of Ireland's sociopolitical position. Responding actively to this stylistic, ideological irony, the reader recognizes A Modest Proposal as discourse in process, the contesting voices of sociopolitical heteroglossia. Such recognition becomes the first step in envoicing and enacting an active response.


  1. See for example Terence Hawkes' recent study of Shakespearean criticism, That Shakespeherian Rag: Essays on a Critical Process (London: Methuen, 1986). In part, this essay attempts to take up Hawkes' suggestion that criticism confront ‘not the “great” works of art in themselves … but the ways in which those works of art have been processed, generated, presented, worked upon, in our own time and previously, as part of the struggle for cultural meaning’ (123).

  2. Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning (Hamden: Archon Books, 1963), p. 57.

  3. Writing Prose: Techniques and Purposes, ed. Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 405.

  4. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 4 vols, trans. H. E. Butler (London: Loeb, 1969),

  5. Kane and Peters, p. xi.

  6. Kane and Peters, p. 417.

  7. On the historical scope of this program cf. James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. ix: ‘The preceptive tradition, then, involved a fundamental concept of Western civilization—that of order and plan in discourse’. On the relation between education and ideology see for example, Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), p. 143ff.

  8. Kane and Peters, p. 417.

  9. Cf. Deborah Baker Wyrick, Jonathan Swift and the Vested Word (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 198 n. 4: ‘Seeking or seeing the author through his texts—often at the expense of his text—is a recurring strain in studies of Swift … rarely is Swift's work treated without the issue of the “real” Swift being addressed, the shadowy and powerful director behind the scrim of words’.

  10. Frances Deutsch Louis, Swift's Anatomy of Mis-understanding (Ottawa: Barnes & Noble, 1981), p. xix.

  11. ‘“The Greatest Art is to Hide Art”: Satire and Style in Jonathan Swift’ in Satire in the Eighteenth Century, ed. J. D. Browning (New York: Garland, 1983), p. 81.

  12. ‘Swift and the License of Satire’ in Satire in the Eighteenth Century, p. 62.

  13. Raillery and Rage: A Study of Eighteenth Century Satire (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), p. 183.

  14. DePorte, p. 69.

  15. Nokes, p. 196.

  16. A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 109.

  17. The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 317.

  18. Price, p. 57.

  19. Nokes, p. 75.

  20. Proper, from proprius, ‘one's own’. Note Quintilian's crucial remark, fusing the notions of essentialist (ie. natural, original and correct) selfhood, style and meaning: ‘Words are proper when they bear their original meaning; metaphorical, when they are used in a sense different from their natural meaning’ (I.v.71).

  21. V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (New York: Seminar Press, 1973), p. 10.

  22. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 193. Further references are included parenthetically in the text.

  23. See the taxonomy of double-voiced discourse in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. To preclude an implication of fixed categories, Bakhtin emphasizes that ‘A concrete discourse may belong simultaneously to different varieties and even types … [the] interrelationships … are of a dynamic and not a static character’ (p. 199).

  24. Cf. Ken Hirshkop, ‘A Response to the Forum on Mikhail Bakhtin’, in Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on His Work, ed. Gary Saul Morson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 75: dialogism is ‘both the natural state of being of language as such and a valorized category of certain discourses’. The New-Critical valorization of irony has served to efface a broader conception of language as dialogic, by setting literary language up as exceptional.

  25. Cf. John Fiske, Television Culture (New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 126-27: ‘The textual attempt to contain meaning is the semiotic equivalent of the exercise of social power over the diversity of subordinate social groups, and the semiotic power of the subordinate to make their own meanings is the equivalent of their ability to evade, oppose, or negotiate with this social power’.

  26. ‘Discourse in the Novel’, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), passim. Further references to this essay will be included in the text.

  27. Roman Jakobson seeks to avoid this formalism by emphasizing the interplay among the six functions in the communicative network in his ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’, in Style and Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960), p. 352: ‘for any speaker, there exists a unity of language, but this over-all code represents a system of interconnected subcodes; each language composes several concurrent patterns’. For a summary of process models of communication see John Fiske, Introduction to Communication Studies (London: Methuen, 1982), pp. 25-36.

  28. Cf. Angus Fletcher, ‘Style and the Extreme Situation’, in Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, ed. Mary Ann Caws (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986), p. 290: the concept of style allows for the critical play ‘between subjective response and objectively determinable features of text and context’. Also note Tony Bennett, ‘Text and History’, in Re-reading English, ed. Peter Widdowson (London: Methuen, 1982) pp. 223-36, and John Frow, Marxism and Literary History (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 170-206.

  29. Such a subject, presuming total control over speech, denotes a discursive essentialism. In The Concept of Irony: with Constant Reference to Socrates (trans. Lee M. Capel [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965]) Soren Kierkegaard notes such essentialism in the sophists' ‘egotistical quality in eloquence’ (p. 70), and contrasts it with a Socratic ‘irony … beyond subjective thought’ (p. 154). In S/Z (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), Roland Barthes sees a similar essentialism in the stylized irony of the readerly text: ‘Employed in behalf of a subject that puts its imaginary elements [i.e. its egoism] at the distance it pretends to take with regard to the language of others, thereby making itself even more securely a subject of the discourse, parody, or irony at work, is always classic language’ (p. 45). Yet Barthes also envisions a contrasting uncertain irony which could ‘breach the wall of utterance, the wall of origin, the wall of ownership’ (p. 45). Such conceptions of dialogical irony as Bakhtin's or Barthes', while emphasizing the reader's response, help to reveal the conceptual limitations and cultural limits of Stanley Fish's notion of ‘interpretive communities’ as developed in Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980). Based on ‘shared agreement’ and ‘a structure of norms’ (pp. 315, 318), such communities reify a consensual authority by excluding from the start the sort of discursive and ideological conflict that dialogism represents.

  30. ‘The Politics of Representation’, Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 5, 1 (1983), p. 4.

  31. Published as a pamphlet in 1729, in Dublin and London, the Proposal addresses an audience of colonizers and local inhabitants who could initiate reforms. As a pamphlet, the Proposal has some features in common with media texts which will be considered below.

  32. Cf. Morson, ‘Who Speaks for Bakhtin?’ in Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on His Work, p. 3: ‘all speech is a response to words that have been uttered before’; and Susan Stewart, ‘Shouts on the Street: Bakhtin's Anti-Linguistics’, in the same collection, p. 46: ‘utterances are always preceded by alien utterances which face them in the form of an addressee or social Other and which surround them with an always significant silence’. Also note John Hay and Marie Maclean, Introduction, ‘Narrative Issues’, AUMLA 74 (1990) pp. 6-8.

  33. Cf. Barthes' comment in ‘Where to Begin?’, in New Critical Essays (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), p. 89: ‘We cannot begin the analysis of a text … without taking a first semantic view (of its content), either thematic or symbolic or ideological … if we grant ourselves the right to start from a certain condensation of meaning it is because the movement of analysis, in its endless process, is precisely to explode the text, the first cloud of meanings, the first image of content’.

  34. ‘Narrative and the Gender Trap’, AUMLA 74 (1990) p. 83.

  35. A Modest Proposal, in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, Vol. I, ed. Frank Kermode et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 1767. Further reference will be included in the text.

  36. Nokes, p. 74.

  37. Downie, p. 299.

  38. Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 58.

  39. Cf. Hirschkop, p. 75: ‘monologism must itself be recognized as a strategy of response toward another discourse, albeit a strategy which aims to “ignore” or “marginalize” the opposite discourse’.

  40. ‘Discourse in the Novel’, pp. 301-02.

  41. Policing the Crisis, p. 62.

  42. Cf. Wyrick, p. 53: ‘when the verbal significance read one way by the persona is contradicted by intertextual evidence [as occurs through the echoes of Montaigne] or by common sense and comparison, a gap opens: the space of irony’.

  43. Nokes relates these details to a subgenre of Augustan satire against ‘New Cookery’ as a type of Europe-inspired moral decadence (pp. 167, 178).

  44. We could compare and contrast Barthes' ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image-Music-Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 148: ‘a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader … the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted’. Bakhtin's notion of the reader suggests a conception of multiple ‘reader-functions’ which represent heterogeneous histories, biographies and psychologies, and so have a material existence which Barthes' ‘someone’ lacks.

  45. Although the proposer nonetheless recalls Sir William Petty, who published Political Arithmetic in 1690. See Clive Probyn, Jonathan Swift: The Contemporary Background (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979).

  46. Problems, pp. 114-15. Cf. the notions of character as an ideological position, Problems, pp. 47, 78.

  47. ‘Discourse in the Novel’, p. 309; emphasis added.

  48. ‘Discourse in the Novel’, p. 342.

  49. Michel de Montaigne, ‘On Cannibals’, in Essays, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 113.

  50. See Oliver W. Ferguson, Jonathan Swift and Ireland (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962) for details on the socioeconomic and political background of the Proposal.

Robert Phiddian (essay date summer 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8008

SOURCE: Phiddian, Robert. “Have You Eaten Yet?: The Reader in A Modest Proposal.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36, no. 3 (summer 1996): 603-21.

[In the following essay, Phiddian considers the position of the reader in A Modest Proposal, who experiences revulsion at the suggestion of eating babies to bolster economic prosperity.]

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 Fricasie, or Ragoust.

We would prefer to believe that this is not funny, but we laugh.1 What is the quality of this laughter? What does it tell us about Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal? And what does it tell us about ourselves?


It is not, in any straightforward sense, laughter of release. Swift himself wrote that “the chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather then divert it,”2 and this rhetorical principle is nowhere more active than in A Modest Proposal. The essay is grotesque without being carnivalesque, and the feeling it induces in readers is one of unease rather than of pleasure or release. It unsettles the reader; here, for example, with the irresistible excess of a list that grinds on, long after we have accepted that it should never have been started. The relentless enumeration of culinary methods fascinates and (in a way) amuses—the sentence would be merely repellent if it stopped at the semicolon after “Food.”

One would think that the only half-decent thing in a discussion of cannibalism would be to maintain the greatest possible level of abstraction, and not to dwell on the details overmuch. Indeed, this is broadly Daniel Defoe's method in the genocidal proposals of The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), where the most extreme statements always appear disguised in the abstraction of metaphor. Defoe imitates the guilty logic of oppression in its most plausible form, naturalizing it and its implications even in the face of the objection that burning dissenters would be cruel:

I answer, 'TIS Cruelty to kill a Snake or a Toad in cold Blood, but the Poyson of their Nature makes it a Charity to our Neighbours, to destroy those Creatures, not for any personal Injury receiv'd, but for prevention; not for the Evil they have done, but the Evil they may do.

Serpents, Toads, Vipers, & c., are noxious to the Body, and poison the sensative Life; these poyson the Soul, corrupt our Posterity, ensnare our Children, destroy the Vitals of our Happyness, our future Felicity, and contaminate the whole Mass!

Shall any Law be given to such wild Creatures? Some Beasts are for Sport, and the Huntsmen give them advantages of Ground, but some are knockt on the Head by all possible ways of Violence and Surprize.

I do not prescribe Fire and Faggot; but as Scipio said of Carthage, Delenda est Carthago, they are to be rooted out of this Nation, if we will live in Peace, serve God, or enjoy our Own; as for the Manner, I leave it to those Hands, who have a Right to execute God's Justice on the Nation's and the Church's Enemies.3

The dissenters are dehumanized (transformed into noisome and poisonous animals), thus turning their threatening nature into a brute fact over which neither they nor reason has any control. Consequently, the reader is presented not with a moral choice so much as a matter of public health; the complex metaphor dulls reactions at precisely the same point where the Proposal sharpens them. Defoe's High-Churchman insists that he is not prescribing fire and faggot, but he does leave the matter in “those Hands [the queen's? parliament's? the army's?—the detail is not clarified], who have a Right to execute God's Justice.” Unwilling to be explicit in English, he is perfectly happy to advocate genocide under cover of quotation in the distant and scholarly language of Latin. Scipio was not skirting the issue when he insisted that Carthage had to be destroyed if Rome was to survive. The reference fits the persona's case well, because Rome did demolish Carthage and sow its fields with salt, and then Rome prospered as no other nation. By destroying the Dissenters, the analogy goes, England will both preserve itself from immediate destruction at the hands of its most implacable enemies and guarantee itself a glorious destiny. However, this allegorical connection is offered only in code for the possessor of schoolboy Latin, thus flattering the reader, escaping critical analysis (once one spots an analogy, one seldom scrutinizes it very carefully to see how well it fits), and avoiding an explicit statement of bloody intent. Here and throughout The Shortest Way, Defoe's narrator uses every trick of rhetoric in order to naturalize brutality.

Swift's Proposer, on the other hand, discusses recipes for stewed baby. If Swift's plan for the readers was first to trick us into temporary assent to the proposal, and then to follow this with an instructive catharsis when we recognize our error and revise our view of the political situation, it would seem that Defoe was a more skillful parodic ironist than he. The Modest Proposal is simply too aggressively alienating to be successful as a hoax, and I would suggest that we should not try to read it that way. The text does not make a serious attempt to lull us into a false sense of security. Rather, it attacks us; everywhere it makes us vulnerable. We are exposed to the vicissitudes of moral choice, stretched between the polar claims to authority made, on the one hand, by the delinquent and lunatic Proposer, and, on the other, by an angry but fugitive Swift. What I want to do in this essay is to look carefully at how we readers are positioned in the text and in relation to these polar authorities. My argument is that, while we are exposed to desperate choices and ironies, the textual dislocation is not absolute. We can say nothing final about the pamphlet, but we are not entirely cast adrift on a stormy sea of warring discourses or pure textuality. Swift wrote to vex us, indeed, but this vexation has a meaning and a mood. As readers, we are drawn into the insanity of the situation (both historical and rhetorical), and egged on to a grim sort of laughter (or, at least, a humorless anxiety), the implications of which are not easily resolved.


From very early on—perhaps even from the title—the text presents us with a problem of decipherment. Certainly, by the time we have reached the discussion of cooking instructions quoted in the epigraph to this article, we are not inclined to accept the pamphlet as the serious expression of a sane mind. There is little point in attempting to mark a precise point in the text where we begin to realize that the author's meaning diverges from the narrator's. This will vary from reader to reader.4 Furthermore, the search for such a point makes a couple of assumptions about the reading process that will not bear inspection. First, it assumes fictionally that interpretation goes on in an eternal present of the first reading, that we somehow manage (or ought to manage) to repeat the original fall from innocence to experience on every occasion we read the text. Second, it assumes that, in this first reading, we have no prior knowledge of the text's actual author and his character. Let us review these propositions in turn.

In her illuminating reading of the Modest Proposal, Patricia Meyer Spacks aims “to recapture the initial response” and to fend off the “contamination” of second and third readings.5 As she presents it, this assumption is a hypothesis which enables a certain kind of reading. As a hypothesis it is perfectly valid, but it should not be allowed to harden into a dogma, for it figures forth a sort of reading that does not in fact happen very often, if at all. It assumes that only the ur-reading of a text is valid, and that interpretation should confine itself to the attempt to replicate this ideal and fleeting experience. The fallacy of this kindergarten phenomenology has been effectively exposed by Frederick Crews in his devastating characterization of Stanley Fish's affective stylistics:

Though Fish's theory was clever to a fault, the reader it invoked was a dunce—a Charley Brown who, having had the syntactic football yanked away a hundred times, would keep right on charging it with perfect innocence, never learning to suspend judgment until he arrived at the poet's verb.6

Even on the first reading, we are likely to suspend judgment about the Proposal's final meaning. A lot of analysis tends to ignore this very obvious point. Moreover, the actual reader of the essay is likely to be a re-reader, trying to work out why it is such a disconcerting piece (why, for example, does one find it funny?) and trying to resolve what Swift might have meant by it.

And I say Swift rather than “the author” advisedly. Swift clung tenaciously to the fiction of anonymity throughout his career, but the Modest Proposal is the least anonymous of his unsigned works. Even if we are willing to privilege the response of Swift's first readers above our own (another proposition that is not unassailable), the Proposal's anonymity was nothing like as significant (or successful) as, for example, A Tale of a Tub's. The pamphlet was published at the height of Swift's notoriety, in Dublin in late October 1729, “with the same imprint and in the same format as A Short View and the Drapier's Letters.7 By 8 November, the Dublin Intelligence was describing it as “said in public to be written by D—— S——.”8 When you add internal evidence such as the rhetorical style and the list of “Expedients” which appears near the end of the essay and outlines with some precision the content of Swift's career in pamphleteering, it is hard to imagine that his authorship of the piece was ever much of a secret in the small world of literary Dublin. And when it was “immediately reprinted in London,”9 where it might have retained a degree of anonymity, the title-page proclaimed it to be “By Dr. Swift.”10 In 1730 another edition, without Swift's name, was published in London and Dublin, and it was reprinted twice, but by that stage the essay's anonymity was emptily formal. Further tacit acknowledgment of Swift's authorship ensued when the Proposal was included in the third volume of the expanded Miscellanies of 1732, retained its place in all the editions of the Pope/Swift Miscellanies of the 1730s, and was published in volume 4 of George Faulkner's 1738 edition of Swift's Works. Though Swift's authorization of none of these collections was publicly explicit, it was never in doubt, and it seems that Swift was never particularly concerned at being recognized as the Proposal's author.

My point, essentially, is that the typical reader, whether of 1729 or today, has always known that she or he is reading a text by Swift, the author of that deceptively complex masterpiece, Gulliver's Travels. According to legend, some readers went to their maps in search of Lilliput, but most did not; and I suspect that a similarly small percentage of the Proposal's readers has been slow enough to take it seriously.11 Consequently, the text has normally been approached as a problem of decipherment rather than one of simple evaluation. We are inventing a historically groundless fiction of readerly innocence in pretending otherwise, and (especially in the face of Swift) it does not seem reasonable that we should pretend to more foolishness than we naturally possess. The interpretation of the Proposal has always involved an awareness that it is not a “straight” piece of economic projection, and that Swift is operating independently of the narrator, in a covert manner. We recognize that there is a gap between the narrator's meaning and the text's, and that a moral-political argument is being carried out by means of parody. However, this recognition is not a solution; it is merely the beginning of our problems.


As David Nokes has pointed out, “the key to the Proposal is the voice of the proposer.”12 In order to negotiate the ironies of the piece, the reader must learn to distinguish between Swift's voice and the Proposer's. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as the opposing monisms of persona scholarship and biography would have us believe. The battle between these positions is an old one, and does not need a long rehearsal from me.13 On the one hand, it is argued that the text operates by remote control, on the other that we hear the unmediated voice of Swift. What these approaches have in common is that they center the text securely outside the reader, either in the dramatically coherent character of the eighteenth-century economist or in the biographical Swift. In the practice of actually reading the text, however, neither center will hold. By the same token, neither center is dispensable. Keeping the concepts of Swift and Proposer apart is a complex task, because the margins are not stable, but we need both voices if we are going to get anywhere with this text.14 Let us set up the poles of Swift's and the Proposer's voices as they operate in reasonably clear examples. The text is most securely in the hands of the Proposer when he lists the six signal advantages that his plan offers to the public. Of these, I will instance only the second: “SECONDLY, The poorer Tenants will have something valuable of their own, which, by Law, may be made liable to Distress, and help to pay their Landlord's Rent; their Corn and Cattle being already seized, and Money a Thing unknowne” (12:114-5). From within the narrow confines of economic discourse, nothing is more obvious than that anything which has a money value should be “liable to Distress” in the event of bankruptcy. That is the way the free market works. As the poor are permanently bankrupt, any benefit they might glean from the market in babies' flesh will not (indeed, should not) remain with them. Rents must be paid. The money will “trickle up” (to invert a modern economic metaphor, and perhaps to right it) to those with the power to demand it. Inevitably, the lawyers will collect their margin as this redistribution of wealth takes place. “Distress” is precisely the Proposer's turn of thought and phrase. It is apparently clinical and bureaucratically neutral (a mere technical term that describes the legal position precisely), but it also masks a violence in the system. The narrator does not “mean” to cause distress. Indeed, he means to disguise the violence as the operation of impersonal and immutable forces. But those resonances in the word are implicit, the iron fist in the economist's (rather moth-eaten) velvet glove. He needs no more than a veneer of respectable legality to cover the fact that the powerless are being pillaged. He knows his audience: in the Irish context, those who can read are among the distrainers. They have already “seized” (another simultaneously legal and violent term) the “Corn and Cattle,” and they have a similar right to the babies. As a good economist, the Proposer knows his business better than to appeal to anything higher than selfish greed.

The point is that there is nothing higher than selfish greed within the terms of economic discourse. An ironic (Swiftian) reading is figured beneath the surface, in the structure of the situation, and we readers are expected to decipher this. We are meant to find the greed appealed to cruel and repellent, and to learn to reject the terms of economic discourse that regularize the tyranny. We are meant to see that economies continue to work this way, such that (in our own day) the World Bank insists that poor debtor nations should concentrate on growing cash crops so that they can repay their debts, rather than growing subsistence crops, so that their people should not starve. However, Swift does not breach the parodic decorum of economic language here. He may manipulate that language, but the “voice” we “hear” is the Proposer's, and the conclusions we draw work on the silent side of irony. Swift is the architect of this irony, but not directly its enunciator.

That is not the case toward the end of this sentence: “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” (12:112). Again we have the distancing effect of legal terminology, and again we have the focus on opportunities for the wealthy rather than necessities of the poor. However, there is something here in excess of the requirements of parodic impersonation; and there is no good reason to call that excess by any other name than the voice of Swift. The point of the breach in decorum is the word “devoured.” Its power goes beyond the needs of the dialect of economic discourse, and it points to a completely different way of “hearing” the text. The sudden savagery follows on through the rest of the sentence so that we are shocked directly by the economic violence of the situation, where landlords are seen to be devouring the tenants whom they should be protecting. The excess of “devoured” also works retrospectively to awaken puns in the words “dear” and “proper.” As the Proposer speaks it, the dearness is merely an index of money value. In the market, the infants' flesh will have to attract buyers willing and able to pay a premium for the quality or novelty of the product. However, seen (or, rather, heard) from the broader and more humane perspective of the rest of the sentence, this food becomes “dear” in an emotional sense. A child is dear to her or his parents, and human life should be dear to all. Descend to bathos for a moment; we note that “dear” is one of the most common adjectives to attach to a baby. And something similar occurs with “proper,” which means little more than appropriate in the Proposer's idiolect. Revised by the Swiftian force of “devoured,” however, it recovers much of the weight of its etymology, reminding us of property, propriety, and the act of appropriation by which landlords assume ownership of their vassals, without assuming an appropriate sense of responsibility.

These resonances come from a source other than the economic projector, an ostensibly genuine voice which can usefully be called Swift's. Neither voice is ever solely or indisputably present, and the demarcations between them cannot be firmly marked, but they are necessary hermeneutic tools in any attempt to negotiate the text's ironies. An important qualification of the validity of this project is that voice can only be a metaphoric description in a discussion of written texts. As readers, we invent the concept of the voice. If you doubt this, turn up your hearing-aid, lift this text to your ear, and listen carefully—anything you hear will not have come from me.

This is a glib way of pointing out that the idea of voice is a hermeneutic fiction. Jacques Derrida would have us believe that we should do without the metaphor, and look on language as a silent, sourceless, characterless, and duplicitous written artifact.15 However, disembodied écriture is neither a necessary nor a useful conclusion to the complication of voice figured in the Proposal. It withdraws language into a vacuum where moral and political arguments cannot obtain, and where satire has lost all its social referents. You do not explain Swift's writing by draining it of the possibility of meaning anything. An altogether more useful Derridean concept in this context is the idea of erasure. The “voices” of both the Proposer and Swift appear not as stable and integral centers of authority, giving voice to a fullness of presence. Rather, as mutually antagonistic patterns of absence and presence, they appear under erasure, with the sense of voiced authority flickering back and forth between the two poles.

These erasures are neither neutral nor identical. They operate in critical ways that shape our reactions and judgments as readers. To generalize for a moment, the Proposer is erased in a degenerative or deconstructive manner. The apparent authority with which he commences is incrementally erased, and there are points near the end of the text where it seems meaningless to suggest that he is even a voice being ridiculed; in places he disappears almost completely. On the other hand, the voice of Swift is emergent, becoming clearer through the erasures. Any suitably suspicious reader will sense Swift as a presence looming behind the text from the beginning (an erased and none-too-amused authority), but his actual voice emerges only sporadically and unpredictably. We can hear genuinely Swiftian excess emerging from the Proposer's judicious restraint in the passage which opened this essay: having been informed by the Proposer that babies are a “wholesome Food,” it is really Swift who labors the point by suggesting recipes, “whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled”; and, should we somehow have missed the point or managed by some ruse to maintain our complacency, he goes on with “and, I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust.

This Swift is a sort of guerrilla warrior, camouflaged by irony and hiding in the jungles of the Proposer's misapprehensions and indirections, only to appear explosively in moments such as these: “THOSE who are more thrifty (as I must confess the Times require) may flay the Carcase; the Skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable Gloves for Ladies and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen” (12:112). The initial attention to thrift is very much the Proposer's, but the flaying of the carcass and the leather-work are Swiftian. Indeed, the attentive reader will hear echoes of A Tale of a Tub's flayed woman and the Yahoo-skin shoes with which Gulliver furnishes himself in Houyhnhnmland. This pattern of savage emergence is common, but it is not systematic enough to offer a stable hermeneutic perspective. Swift flickers. He never emerges completely and unproblematically from the erasures to constitute his authority unequivocally.

This is even the case in that most obvious example of Swift's emergence in the Proposal—the list of “Expedients” rejected near the end. In this passage, the irony is a function of simple reversal, and the “true” meaning is signaled by the extensive use of italics, which set off Swift's real proposals from the Proposer's lunacy in a clear and typographic manner. Even here, however, the emergence is not quite complete, and the irony is not entirely evaporated. The list is not simply Swift's unironic description of a ready and easy way to national salvation. A suspicion remains that these proposals might be little more than palliatives to a political and social condition that cannot seriously be expected to recover. You could argue that Swift is protecting himself from ridicule as an enthusiastic projector, proclaiming his nostrum for the public good while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability and not appearing foolishly hopeful. On the other hand, you could argue that he is rejecting even these sober and practical programs (even though they are his own, which he has advocated busily over more than a decade) and descending into despair. Even where he is being most straightforward, “Swift” can be made to “say” both these things.


It is obvious but important to recognize that the Proposal's decipherment is not simply a matter of being shocked into action by the Proposer's obscenities and then reversing the negative in front of the so-called “Expedients.” We do not simply discover Swift in the italics. The reading process is not just a matter of moving from one false center in the text to a true one. The erasures blur the voices we hear to make the margins disconcertingly negotiable, and the negotiations are not merely functional or playful. They define the reader's vexed condition, especially in the pamphlet's final paragraphs: “THEREFORE I repeat, let no Man talk to me of these and the like Expedients; till he hath, at least, a Glimpse of Hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere Attempt to put them in Practice” (12:117). The obvious reading here is to see this as the last words of Swift, signing off with a snarl after his description of the expedients which just might work and handing control of the text (and the world) back to the lunatic projector. Symbolically, he is despairing of the efforts he has made in more than a decade of pamphleteering on Irish problems, and giving up the battle to wrest control of public policy, leaving the field to the fools and the knaves, to the projectors and the apologists.

I agree that this is the gist of the Proposal's conclusion, but it is premature to assume that this is the point in the text where Swift leaves, slamming the door. Through the final three paragraphs he stages a last, savagely ironic battle between his voice and the mercenary voice of modern scientific projection, a voice which obscures social truths and covers fecklessness and injustice with a veneer of legitimacy. As readers, we are drawn into the implications of this irony, to be shown that we, as a group, prefer to hear the dishonest voice of greedy complacency (the Proposer's) instead of the prophetic voice of condemnation and social regeneration (Swift's). We are made to construct the paradoxes of the situation and relate them to ourselves.

These are large and grandiloquent claims, but we can see how they work in this next paragraph. The trick is to remember to read “my self” ironically, and double the voice throughout: “BUT, as to my self; having been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary Thoughts; and at length utterly despairing of Success, I fortunately fell upon this Proposal; which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no Expence, and little Trouble, full in our own Power; and whereby we can incur no Danger in disobliging ENGLAND: For, this Kind of Commodity will not bear Exportation; the Flesh being of too tender a Consistence, to admit a long Continuance in Salt; although, perhaps, I could name a Country, which would be glad to eat up our whole Nation without it” (12:117). If we read this as the Proposer's discourse, it makes clear sense and offers few difficulties. It commences with a more-or-less empty trope of integrity, asserting the importance of the (fictional) writer's long career of public service. And it continues to speak in tropes of conciliation and calculated persuasion, exhorting the readers to take this ready and easy way to comfort and prosperity, and reminding them (none too subtly) that the English will tolerate only limited kinds of self-help. The prudential rhetoric is slick and hollow, through to the last flourish of italics, which is little less than an open threat. If we imagine this as “speaking” in the Proposer's “voice,” the language is all mechanical rationalization. It is absolutely cynical, a public language of manipulative rhetoric rather than a search for the public good, let alone a genuine expression of passion. The Proposer cowers before power and bullies the weak.

We can, however, also read this paragraph as a continuation of Swift's voice, and this gives it a very different resonance. While the Proposer “fortunately fell” upon this idea merely by happy empirical coincidence, Swift calls up the religious idea of the fortunate fall with savage irony. Moreover, instead of being a rehearsal of the Proposer's empty tropes of mock frustration, the revision of Swift's career as “having been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary Thoughts” rings with pathos. This is, indeed, what happened to Swift. What follows is a grim exposure of the unspoken and oppressive conditions under which anyone takes up her or his pen to write on the condition of Ireland. English mercantilism sets a perimeter around what can possibly be proposed, and English political interests ensure that this line is carefully guarded. The Proposer may align himself with England's unjust authority and edit his thoughts to fit in with the oppression, but Swift rages magnificently at the selfish limitations put upon liberty by venal rulers. He makes the fact of his subjection very clear, and his anger at the devouring nation is only just contained by the sarcastic italics which conclude the paragraph.

The Proposer's voice of reason, and Swift's voice of dark frustration, continue:

AFTER all, I am not so violently bent upon my own Opinion, as to reject any Offer proposed by wise Men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that Kind shall be advanced, in Contradiction to my Scheme, and offering a better; I desire the Author, or Authors, will be pleased maturely to consider two Points. First, As Things now stand, how they will be able to find Food and Raiment, for a Hundred Thousand useless Mouths and Backs? And secondly, There being a round Million of Creatures in human Figure, throughout this Kingdom; whose whole Subsistence, put into a common Stock, would leave them in Debt two Millions of Pounds Sterling, adding those, who are Beggars by Profession, to the Bulk of Farmers, Cottagers, and Labourers, with their Wives and Children, who are Beggars in Effect;


I am loath to stop in the middle of a sentence, but the semicolon marks an important turning point in the logic of the paragraph. Up to this point, the two authors (Swift and the Proposer) continue on their separate ways in their uncomfortable plurality. Indeed, in this section, the duplicity of Swift's and the Proposer's voices is very neatly dove-tailed. Swift (bitterly) and the Proposer (vaingloriously) assert their willingness to withdraw their opinions if a better solution to Ireland's problems can be put forward. Moreover, both are rather sinister in their rhetorical aggression. The tone of Swift's voice is one of repressed anger perched on the edge of despair. He sees this proposal as a recognition of the value actually put on human life in Ireland—as a systematization (or perhaps no more than a clear view) of what is actually happening. There is something of King Lear's savage vision of “unaccommodated man” as no more than “a poor, bare, forked animal”16 about the anatomical minimalism of “a Hundred Thousand useless Mouths and Backs” and “a round Million of Creatures in human Figure.” In a fertile land, they are reduced to numbers, reduced to animals, merely by the casual stupidity of the colonizers and the landowners. These “Mortals” (as the paragraph goes on pointedly to describe them) have no life worth living. Without the prospect of a change in this bestial condition, they might as well be consumed sooner as later. At least that way the sum of misery would be less. In his rage, Swift is determined to draw our attention to the fact that the present situation is intolerable and that something needs to be done. He taunts us with the fact of our careless brutality in letting such a situation continue. And the Proposer taunts the readers too, though not with our inhumanity. It is our weak-minded, soft-hearted stupidity that he preens himself against. As he sees it, the material facts of the situation preclude any course of action other than the one he has outlined. We might find this hard, but (as politicians never weary of insisting when prescribing misery for others) there is no alternative. From this perspective, the humility of “AFTER all, I am not so violently bent upon my own Opinion, as to reject any Offer proposed by wise Men,” is mock humility bordering on sarcasm and arrogance. We will all recognize this aggressive trope. It is followed by grueling mathematical reductionism, which reduces humans to their economic essentials: their basic physical needs and their capital worth. There is none of Swift's militant humanity in the Proposer's version of “a round Million of Creatures in human Figure.” As George Wittkowsky explains, this phrase “is obviously soaked in the spirit of political arithmetic,”17 and, in this sense, language is being used as a buffer against feeling. Thus, the readers are crushed in the pseudo-scientific mechanism of the economist's rhetoric of power, subordinated to his callous sense of vindication.

So, for their very different reasons, both available authors are turning on the readers at this point. As the paragraph continues, the text turns on us in a third way:

I desire those Politicians, who dislike my Overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an Answer, that they will first ask the Parents of these Mortals, Whether they would not, at this Day, think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old, in the Manner I prescribe; and thereby have avoided such a perpetual Scene of Misfortunes, as they have since gone through; by the Oppression of Landlords; the Impossibility of paying Rent, without Money or Trade; the Want of common Sustenance, with neither House nor Cloaths, to cover them from the Inclemencies of Weather, and the most inevitable Prospect of intailing the like, or greater Miseries upon their Breed for ever.


The vivid shock here lies not in the ironic modulation between Swift's voice and the voice of the Proposer. That game is suspended for the moment as the paternalist decorum of eighteenth-century public discourse is broken and we attend for a few rare lines to the voice of the oppressed. I do not wish to present Swift as a sort of belated Leveler—on any reading of his biography, especially his recorded opinions on the Irish peasantry,18 that is quite absurd—but there is enough anarchy in his wild Toryism to allow for an impersonation of that voice. He asks the question his readers do not dare to ask: What do the poor think? The fact of a paternalistic conspiracy of silence flickers suddenly into focus from the perspective of the poor and the starving. All the way through the Proposal, and all the way through eighteenth-century public culture, the language and concerns of the ruling class offer the only points of reference. The Proposer only attends to the fact of poverty from the ways it impinges on the lives of the gentry. This is exposed most clearly in the various advantages enumerated for the proposal (12:114-6), and the various objections entertained against it, which clearly inhabit a discourse whose coordinates are bounded by the class interests of the moneyed and the literate. However, throughout the Proposal the problems addressed are those of the relatively wealthy rather than the destitute. At the beginning, it is our delicate sensibilities as witnesses of misery which are assailed: “IT is a melancholy Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country; when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags” (12:109). Thus we are addressed throughout, discomforted subjects assailed by the melancholy and nearly inanimate objects of misery. In eighteenth-century culture at large, this glass floor of concern is usually transparent and unproblematic. “Our” concerns tend to transmute themselves insensibly (as Gibbon would put it) into universalities. Beneath polite and civilized society there is a blank, covered (if at all) by the pieties of religion and the nostrums of economics.

This moment in the Proposal where we are desired not to pontificate in a disembodied way about the poor, but to “first ask the Parents of these Mortals, Whether they would not, at this Day, think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old, in the Manner I prescribe” brings the glass floor of public discourse to our attention. We realize that there are people beneath it, people beneath our concerns, “Mortals,” “Creatures in human Figure,” who suffer in ways that we can scarcely imagine. Suddenly we recognize the fact of their erasure from public discourse. They are, occasionally, the objects of discussion, but never discoursing subjects. To give voice to their position is to breach an unacknowledged and potent decorum, not just of economic discourse, but of all eighteenth-century public language. To attend to this voice causes acute discomfort in the ruling-class reader because it throws our morality and prudential concerns into sharp relief. Even horror at cannibalism is a luxury which some cannot afford, yet we continue to worry about rents, religious differences, commerce, the institution of marriage, and variety on the menus of tavern-keepers.

I mean “we” in two senses, one historical and the other current. In the historical sense pertaining to the readership of 1729, Swift and the Proposer are very aware that their audience is a coherent group with certain common interests. The Proposal is deliberately addressed not to oppressing England (who would not care) or to all the Irish (most of whom could not read), but to the Anglo-Irish, a class debilitated in part by English colonialism and in part by its own fecklessness.19 The members of this class are being called to their responsibilities and reminded of the guilt they share for the condition of their country. They are, quite literally, Dublin merchants, Cork clergymen, Limerick gentry, being vexed both by a hard look at their own condition and at the condition of those who depend on them. Just how narrowly the Proposal is targeted at the concerns of this group is made clear by this momentary attention to the voice of the oppressed.

To attempt to include ourselves in this group is, obviously, an extreme and improbable act of historical imagination, but we are the readers in another sense, which explains much about the Proposal's abiding power to discomfort. While people continue to starve and to live in abject poverty, an analogy exists between Swift's readers' situation and our own, and, as readers, we remain on the guilty side of the divide between oppressors and oppressed. In the subversive light cast by this moment, it is made very clear that there are the eaters and the eaten in this world, and we are among the eaters. The prospect of thinking it “a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old” continues to accuse us because, as participants in the public sphere, we do not belong to the group from whom the eaten will be chosen. And neither is the eating as theoretical a proposition as we would like to believe. It does not stretch the metaphor very far to suggest that the present system of starvation and grinding poverty (both in eighteenth-century Ireland and in the twentieth-century world), though less subtly articulated than the Modest Proposal's scheme for making the poor “beneficial to the Publick” (12:109), is, in its own clumsy way, morally and physically equivalent to it. From below, the alternatives do not look very different. Indeed, one comfortable, well-fed year followed by an easeful oblivion has a lot to recommend it. It is only from above (from the reader's perspective) that the prospect of eating those we call our fellow mortals is nauseating. But we are eating them anyway.


I would argue, then, that at the heart of the Proposal's abiding power to unsettle readers lies Swift's positioning of the readers among the eaters. The sudden, defamiliarizing shock when we hear an outside voice confirms us in this associational guilt, and we can never entirely escape this guilt without repudiating the text and our position in it. Obviously, all this had very sharp and particular connotations in the historical moment of the essay's publication. The English were eating the Irish in general and the Anglo-Irish were eating the Teagues. Those who could read such a pamphlet almost by definition had sufficient wealth and social power to be implicated in the oppression. The essay insists that they had better learn to call what they are letting happen by its true name. However, the bite on the reader is not just a period piece, a historic reconstruction of distant readers' hypothetical experience. While people continue to starve, and continue to lead brutalized lives, the Modest Proposal remains as a standing accusation to those of us who can read it. The story of our reading is the uneasy story of our implication in injustices which we contribute to and allow to continue. It confronts us with the consequences of our indifference.

For Swift has always been there ahead of the reader, not to prepare the way but, rather, to lay mines in it. The last twist of this entrapment comes in the final paragraph: “I PROFESS, in the Sincerity of my Heart, that I have not the least personal Interest, in endeavouring to promote this necessary Work; having no other Motive than the publick Good of my Country, by advancing our Trade, providing for Infants, relieving the Poor, and giving some Pleasure to the Rich. I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Child-bearing” (12:118). Swift is tracking us on the way out of the text, frustrating our natural desire for a comfortable disengagement. Certainly, this is the last crazy reprise of the Proposer, his voice reasserting control over a text that has wandered. His slimy insistence that he will not profit is clearly absurd, because he and his children belong to the eating classes, like us readers and our children. He (and we) will at least get a new dish and a healthier economy; he (and we) may even profit more directly from the new trade in babies. However, the spectacularly hollow trope of disinterestedness springs a further, final trap, in that it bars the path of disinterest for us as a way out of the situation. We cannot escape this text simply by proclaiming that we are not involved. That would be a return to the guilty bad faith which has just been exposed. Unless we are prepared to follow the Proposer into the land of self-righteous moral lunacy, we are confronted again with our complicity in the situation and with the necessity of doing something significant for the “publick Good.” So we leave the text laughing at the Proposer, but it is bitter and uneasy laughter, because it is also turned on ourselves.


  1. Jonathan Swift, Prose Works, ed. Herbert Davis, 14 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1939-68), 12:111; all subsequent references to Swift's prose are to volume and page in this edition, hereafter Prose, and may appear parenthetically in the text.

  2. Letter to Pope, 29 September 1725; Jonathan Swift, Correspondence, ed. Harold Williams, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963-65), 3:102.

  3. Daniel Defoe, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters and Other Pamphlets (Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press by Basil Blackwell, 1928), p. 126.

  4. Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 107-9, maps the reader's process of discovery in this manner, and shows that there is no single point at which the text determinately stops being impersonation and becomes irony. However, he also identifies the entrance of the idea of babies being food as a point of no return.

  5. Patricia Meyer Spacks, “Some Reflections on Satire,” Genre 1, 1 (January 1968): 13-30, 18; rprt. in Satire: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Ronald Paulson (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 360-78, 365.

  6. Frederick Crews, Skeptical Engagements (New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), p. 124. Crews rather inconveniently goes on to make a point that tends to undermine my own and all reader-oriented positions, stating that “‘the reader’ is simply the critic's marionette” (p. 127). This is true, but I do not see that a certain degree of puppeteering is avoidable in any act of interpretation. Crews advocates a renewed faithfulness toward the author, but “the author” has a long and guilty history of acting as the critic's marionette, and it seems even more impertinent to make statements on her or his behalf than on “the reader's”—a critic can at least speak with authority as a reader of a text. My other defense against this accusation is that I do not use the term “the reader” in an altogether abstract and universalizing sense. As I will go on to explain, it is important to have a historical sense of who actual readers of the Proposal were and are. Swift's essay was and continues to be a political document: its reception does not occur in an abstract hermeneutic vacuum.

  7. Prose, 12:xix.

  8. Quoted in Prose, 12:xix-xx.

  9. Prose, 12:xx.

  10. See Hermann Teerink and Arthur Scouten, A Bibliography of the Writings of Jonathan Swift, 2d edn. (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1963), #677. Given Swift's long history of anonymous publication, it is inconceivable that he would have approved of being named, but the fact is that it did happen.

  11. There is very little recorded response to the Proposal at its first appearance in the world. Lord Bathurst alludes to it extensively in a letter to Swift, 12 February 1729/30, Correspondence, 3:371-3, in a bantering tone which suggests that he realizes that eating people is wrong. He does not, however, appear to have picked up the political implications of the piece. It is a depressing prospect to consider how so explosive a piece as the Proposal should have exploded in almost total silence.

  12. David Nokes, Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), p. 348.

  13. For a clear rehearsal of the issues and a convincing demonstration that persona versus author is not really an either/or argument, see Fredric V. Bogel, “Irony, Inference, and Critical Uncertainty,” Yale Review 69, 4 (June 1980): 503-19.

  14. For a reading of the Proposal in terms of voices and Bakhtinian dialogue, see Lloyd Davis, “Reading Irony: Dialogism in A Modest Proposal,AUMLA 77 (May 1992): 32-55.

  15. This is the broad thrust of much of Derrida's philosophy of language, especially of Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974). Even Derrida cannot get by altogether without the metaphor of voice. See Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 332: “But the death of that representative voice, that voice which is already dead, does not amount to some absolute silence that would at last make way for some mythical purity of writing, some finally isolated graphy. Rather, it gives rise to an authorless voice, a phonic tracing that no ideal signified or ‘thought’ can entirely cover in its sensible stamp without leaving something out.” This is still more abstract than the concept of voice I wish to use here, but I quote this to indicate that belief in “some mythical purity of writing, some final isolated graphy” is not a necessary consequence of skepticism concerning the sources of written “utterances.” Texts do generate “phonic tracing[s]” in their readers, and I am following these in the Proposal.

  16. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Russell Fraser (New York: Signet-Penguin, 1987), III.iv.109-10.

  17. George Wittkowsky, “Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,” Journal of the History of Ideas 4, 4 (January 1943): 75-104, 100.

  18. See Nokes, Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed for a general view of this. For arguments more closely related to the Modest Proposal and its context, see Nokes's two articles, “Swift and the Beggars,” Essays in Criticism 26, 3 (July 1976): 218-35, and “The Radical Conservatism of Swift's Irish Pamphlets,” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 7 (1984): 169-76; and, for a reading of the Proposal in similar terms, see Claude Rawson, “A Reading of A Modest Proposal,” in Order from Confusion Sprung: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature from Swift to Cowper (London: Allen and Unwin, 1985), pp. 121-44.

  19. The nature and interests of this group have recently been surveyed in S. J. Connolly, Religion, Law, and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland, 1660-1760 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). For the purposes of this essay, Connolly's book offers a very full and important description of the Proposal's historical target audience.

Robert Mahoney (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Mahoney, Robert. “Swift's Modest Proposal and the Rhetoric of Irish Colonial Consumption.” In 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, Vol. 4, edited by Kevin L. Cope, Laura Morrow, and Anna Battigelli, pp. 205-14. New York: AMS Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Mahoney discusses the religious implications of A Modest Proposal, suggesting that Swift is actually alluding to the fear that Ireland's Catholics might “consume” the Protestant colony.]

The satire of Swift's Modest Proposal turns on the theme of consumption, with cannibalism as its governing trope. The specifically Irish orientation of that trope however, has not been well accommodated in the emphasis laid on its forensic values or psychological import by longstanding and more recent conventions for reading the work. Yet the cannibalism trope evokes images of consumption with strong historical resonances for the Irish Protestant colonial readership to which the Modest Proposal was originally addressed. These resonances, often literally mordant and bound to traditional fears that Ireland's Catholics might “consume” the Protestant colony, amplify Swift's satire and sharpen our sense of his own colonial ambivalence as a “patriotic” Irish Protestant.

Any colonial enterprise is a project in consumption, often rationalized as impelled by security concerns. Thus the English and Scottish Protestant plantations in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, initiated to buttress Britain's defenses against Catholic Spain and France, displaced from Irish governance an “Old English” elite, suspected of potential disloyalty because of its Catholicism.1 Ireland was consumed, that is, to forestall England's consumption. Such defensive aggression was also justified as progress, for their adoption of Protestantism would both ensure the loyalty of Irish subjects, and civilize them according to British standards. Left to their own devices, the Irish were “wild,” barbarous; their style of government seemed to the colonizers bullying and brutality, for which the remedy was rule by English law. As Nicholas Canny has noted, Elizabethan colonizers often “came to Ireland with a preconception of what a barbaric society was like, and they found features in Gaelic life to fit this model. The ultimate hall-mark of barbarism was the practice of cannibalism.”2 Hence Sir John Davies, James I's Attorney General for Ireland, described the Gaelic Irish as “little better than Canniballes, who do hunt one another, and he that hath most strength and swiftnes, doth eate and devoure all his fellowes.”3 Cannibalism, that is, was no more than could be expected of the savage Irish. From the early stages of the Protestant colony, therefore, the consumption of Ireland could be justified as restraining the temptation to consume among England's enemies, Spanish Catholics or Irish barbarians alike.

Among the colonists themselves, of course, any satisfaction gained from imposing such restraint was tempered by fears of Irish savagery, which widespread atrocities at the beginning of the 1641 Rebellion proved well-founded. Refugees landing in Britain described tortures and massacres in terms that quite matched local stereotypes of the barbaric Irish,4 and prompted the London preacher, John Goodwin, just three weeks after the rebellion broke out, to ascribe it to a “Butcherly, and bloody faction of Rome” before which the Protestant colonists were “but as a flock of Kids, before an Host, or Army, of Lyons.”5 Such a pattern of description was reinforced by depositions taken from witnesses and survivors in 1642: the variety of horrors visited upon the colonists included stabbing, throat-cutting, disembowelling, womb-ripping, hanging, mass burnings in dwellings or churches, and mass drownings. Many victims were reported to have been stripped naked and left to perish in the severe winter, while Catholics were warned by their clergy against clothing, sheltering, or feeding them.6 The concentration upon the sufferings of the most innocent Protestants—children, the elderly, the pregnant—together with recurrent images of sexual indignities, render the depositions, as R. F. Foster puts it, “a pornography of violence” that “may indicate more about contemporary mentality than actual massacres.”7 They also gave rise to astonishing exaggeration of the numbers killed, which modern historians estimate as falling somewhere between two and four thousand, but contemporary Protestant commentators placed in the hundreds of thousands, even to the point of including a large majority of the colonists.8 And by accounting for the massacres as inspired, even supervised, by Catholic priests, the depositions corroborated the popular belief that Catholic doctrine approved the killing of heretics; the innocent Protestants suffered this holocaust, that is, because they were Protestants.

As T. C. Barnard has pointed out, “whatever violence was offered to the Protestant newcomers in 1641 could hardly have surpassed the brutality, casual and calculated, meted out to the Irish in the preceding century and in the last stages” of the rebellion, yet “The 1641 massacres were distinguished from other episodes by the thorough and effective methods by which they were publicized,” constructing a myth of “enduring and dismal impact for several generations.”9 The totalizing character of the myth owes much to Sir John Temple's Irish Rebellion, first published in 1646 and frequently thereafter, which relentlessly contrasts Irish Catholic savagery with colonial Protestant virtue and agony. Temple refrained from exaggerating the evidence of the depositions, not even citing claims of outright cannibalism in a few of them;10 but his imagery of Protestants consumed by ravenous Irish Catholics enabled the massacres to be construed as a holocaust indeed, a sacrifice propitiating divine wrath and sanctifying the colonial remnant at the expense of the Catholic multitudes. This construction privileged Cromwell's zealous brutality in crushing the rebellion at the end of the 1640s, transplanting Catholic landlords to the western province of Connacht and distributing their lands to his soldiers and supporters: the Irish propensity to consume the settlers could best be prevented by advancing the English consumption of Ireland.

In 1662, moreover, after the Restoration, the Irish Parliament declared October 23, the date the rebellion began in 1641, an annual statutory holiday to be marked in each Church of Ireland parish by attendance at divine service to commemorate the massacres and give thanks for the deliverance of the Protestant remnant they had left. The statute itself, echoing the claim that the rebellion was prompted by the Catholic clergy, described it as “so generally inhumane, barbarous and cruel, as the like was never before heard of in any age or kingdom,” and was to be read out in full to conclude the service.11 Together, the statute and the service rubric assembled a rhetoric of Irish Catholic consumption from the images of slaughter in the depositions, and perpetuated by Temple and others (e.g. “For it was thy goodness alone that we were not delivered over for a prey unto their teeth”).12 The ultimate source of that rhetoric is biblical, which confirmed the mordantly sacrificial context for remembering such consumption. Indeed, though Temple had refrained from mentioning instances of actual cannibalism claimed in some of the depositions, his images and the contemporary rhetoric of remembrance promoted Irish cannibalism as a metaphor for the massacres. Thus in 1682 Richard Lawrence, a commentator whose admonitory view of the Irish economy often anticipates Swift's own, depicted the rebels of the 1640s as

those Irish Sabeans or Chaldeans, or rather Cannibals, for the first did but spoil Job of his Goods, but these eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of the English, in a metaphorical sense; as Psalm 14:4 Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread? These, as the Prophet complains, devoured Israel with open mouth, and drunk their Blood as sweet wine.13

As they were to Sir John Davies in 1613, the Irish might as well be cannibals.

It would have been blasphemous, of course, to press the metaphor to its New Testament formulation about the consumption of Christ's flesh and blood; and that was precisely the complaint about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation pressed by Anglican controversialists in the 1860s. The Catholic insistence that Christ's injunction to consume his flesh and blood is not metaphorical invited charges of blasphemy, absurd literalism and abject superstition, even idolatry. Dating from the Reformation, such charges figured often in anti-Catholic diatribes. The London sermon of 1641 already cited, for instance, referred to the “breaden God” of the Catholic rebels, the “God and creature of theirs which they make of bread.”14 Perhaps tangential to Irish circumstances, this pattern of Anglican thought recurs in theological controversy during the 1680s, when Bishop James Gordon raised the spectre of cannibalism directly:

If the Cannibals be abhorred as inhuman for eating the Flesh of their Enemies, must it not be great inhumanity to eat the Flesh of a friend, and the best in the World? … How much more horrible must it be to feed upon the Very Body of the Son of God (that was born of the Virgin) Knowingly.15

And while the Rev. Samuel Johnson agreed that Catholics were misguided in believing that they were eating Christ's body, the fact that they so believe renders their action cannibalistic.16 Fanatical Catholicism thereby made the Irish rebels of 1641 as much as cannibals in practice—an anonymous commentator in 1689 even called them cannibals outright17—but a central tenet of their faith makes all believing Catholics cannibals in fact.

Fears of Irish consumption gained new force after the Glorious Revolution, when a brief Jacobite regime in Ireland displaced Protestants from political and military office, and to a considerable extent from the lands they held under Cromwellian or earlier Stuart titles, restoring these to Catholic families. While this period saw no massacres on the scale of 1641, the anticipation of comparable outrages18 and the temporary actual threat to Protestant power justified even stronger, if less physically brutal, suppression of Irish Catholics than Cromwell had inflicted. The earlier rebellion, some thought, accounted for the comparative paucity of Protestants outside urban areas,19 and their numerical inferiority in its turn informed the colonial sense of being threatened in later years. The consumption feared, indeed, could take the form of absorption as well as extermination, as Lord Molesworth noted in a pamphlet of 1691; earlier generations of settlers had become Gaelicized, and this seemed to be happening again among the descendants of Cromwellian settlers.20 In fact, the ostensible purpose of the penal legislation enacted against Catholics by the Irish Parliament from 1692 through the 1720s was to encourage reverse assimilation by subjecting Irish Catholics to a variety of political, economic and religious disabilities they could escape by converting. And in sermons on the October 23 observances that began to be published from the later 1680s, the theme of humble gratitude for divine deliverance in 1641 slowly gives way to a triumphalist consciousness of being spared to rule over a lesser breed. Just as the Irish Catholics of the 1640s were demonized for an historical savagery inspired by an absurd faith, their descendants were described as still barbarous, and so deluded by Popery that they could not even recognize their self-interest, clarified for them by the Penal Laws. This became an argument for still more stringent legislation, and stricter enforcement, in the interest of Protestant self-protection.21 As late as 1731, Bishop Edward Synge of Clonfert made this argument: since Catholics still held to the bloodthirsty inclinations toward Protestants that their forefathers had exercised in 1641; and in fact had even more reason for them, since they were more severely penalized than their ancestors; therefore Protestant self-protection demanded maintaining those penalties.22

Appeals to Protestant fears, then, were as always appeals to self-interest. Granting that sermons do not necessarily represent the minds of their congregations, and that the published October 23 sermons were often preached by bishops themselves English rather than colonial, it remains that these sermons comprise the most consistent arguments demanding and defending the Penal Laws. Notably, however, they dwell much less on the factor that actually guaranteed Protestant supremacy in Ireland, the assurance of English military power to defend the colony from threat. Since that assurance brought with it a degree of English political and economic control that the colonists deeply resented, there were good reasons to refrain from invoking it overmuch. But in emphasizing instead the ideology of Protestant consumption of Ireland as justified by the barbaric condition of the native Irish (evidence of which was easy to find in rural areas, as Swift indicates in his 1727 Short View of the State of Ireland) and indeed by the religious and political implications of such barbarism, the October 23 sermons reflected and perpetuated that state of dependence, including a psychologically compensatory but politically ruinous economic irresponsibility. The ideology of Protestant consumption, in other words, actually eroded self-respect.

Swift himself concurred with the Penal Laws, in the misplaced confidence that they would at length vitiate not only the political power of Catholics (which they did) but their religion as well, enabling the masses ultimately to accept the established church. But for the interim he disdained to fear those Catholic masses; and as the Penal Laws checked any Catholic political resurgence, he sought to encourage Irish Protestant self-respect, to offset the corrosiveness of dependence upon England and irresponsible neglect of their own economy. These were the objectives of his “patriotic” messages in the 1720s—the Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures, the Drapier's Letters, the Short View, and more. All avoid the rhetoric of anti-Catholic apprehension and Swift counters the appeal of short-term selfishness by fostering self-respect, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency. Such qualities, in fact, are the goals of the measures mentioned in the Modest Proposal, too, which are listed only to be discarded, since they had, by the time of its publication in 1729, not been enacted by the colonial administration nor, indeed, adopted by most of the colonists. What the “modest proposer” suggests instead is to accelerate the consumption of Irish Catholic natives in the stark terms of cannibalism heretofore used rhetorically to characterize the natives' own desires with regard to the Protestant colonists. By inverting this image of consumption embedded in the colonial consciousness, Swift is not only satirizing the rhetoric of consumption, but indeed mocking his own promotion of Irish economic self-sufficiency: cannibalism would enable Ireland to feed itself. In the Modest Proposal, then, we find Swift's advocacy of reforms in Irish habits of consumption intersecting with his despair of gaining their adoption. His inversion at once of his fellow-colonists' style of thinking, and of his own solution to the irresponsibility those habits foster, compares in bitterness to the inversion of human and equine relations in Gulliver's Travels; indeed, its brevity in the Modest Proposal gives that bitterness greater concentration. And accompanying it, perhaps even deepening it, is a monitory note: since Swift not only ridicules the rhetoric of Irish colonial consumption by inverting one of its significant emblems, but simultaneously evokes the fear that justified that rhetoric historically. For the unspoken, yet unmistakable, premise of the Modest Proposal is that the Catholic natives are already bestial, no more really human than other animals we might eat. But that same bestiality is inextricable from their historical construction, in colonial eyes, as the “wild Irish,” who are even readier than the putatively civilized to consume those who would consume them. At the base of Swift's bitterness, then, is the old Catholic threat—long in check, but latent as the wages of Protestant political and economic irresponsibility.


  1. The “Old English” were descended from the Norman invaders of Ireland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While in many respects well assimilated into the majority Gaelic population, they generally preferred a more fervent loyalty to the English crown and often insisted upon their cultural distinctiveness from the “native” Irish. Cooperating with the civil aspects of the Reformation, most of the “Old English” resisted its religious features, and by the early seventeenth century had been effectively replaced as a governing elite by more recent, and Protestant, British “planters,” the “New English.”

  2. Canny, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland (London: Harvester Press, 1976), 126. Cannibalism had long before, however, been associated with the Celtic Britons by Diodorus, Library V, 32.3, and with the Irish by Strabo, Geography IV, 5.4.

  3. Davies, A Discoverie of the State of Ireland (London: John Jaggard, 1613), 166-67.

  4. See Keith J. Lindley, “The impact of the 1641 rebellion upon England and Wales, 1641-5,” Irish Historical Studies 18 (September 1972), 143-76; and David Hayton, “From Barbarian to Burlesque: English Images of the Irish c. 1660-1750,” Irish Economic and Social History 15 (1988), 5-31.

  5. [Goodwin], Ireland's Advocate: Or, A Sermon Preached upon Novem. 14, 1641 (London: Wm. Larnar, 1641), 26, 28.

  6. The thirty-three volumes of depositions, now in Trinity College Library, Dublin, are summarized in Mary Hickson, Ireland in the Seventeenth Century, London: Longmans, 1884.

  7. Foster, Modern Ireland (London: Penguin, 1988), 86.

  8. The numbers of noncombatant deaths has been perhaps the longest-disputed aspect of the historiography of the 1641 Rising, first reviewed at length by Mathew Carey, Vindiciae Hibernicae (Philadelphia: Carey, 1819) and most recently by two studies in Ulster 1641: Aspects of the Rising, ed. Brian MacCuarta (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast, 1993): Hilary Simms, “Violence in Country Armagh, 1641,” 123-38, and T. C. Barnard, “1641: A Bibliographical Essay,” 172-86.

  9. Barnard, “Crises of Identity among Irish Protestants, 1641-1685,” Past and Present, 127 (May 1990), 50.

  10. Hickson, Ireland in the Seventeenth Century, 134-35, notes that the depositions citing cannibalism are “unmistakably exaggerated and untruthful.”

  11. “An Act for Keeping and celebrating the Twenty-Third of October,” The Statutes at large Passed in the Parliaments held in Ireland [13 vols, 1310-1786], (Dublin: George Grierson, 1786), 2:256.

  12. [Second Collect], The Book of Common Prayer (Dublin: Crooke, 1680), n.p.

  13. Lawrence, The Interest of Ireland in its Trade and Wealth stated (Dublin: North et al., 1682), 82 [second pagination].

  14. Goodwin, 28, 29.

  15. [Gordon] A Request to Roman Catholics to Answer the Queries upon these their following Tenets … xi. Transubstantiation, Fourth Edition (London: B. Aylmer, 1687), 17.

  16. [Johnson], The Absolute Impossibility of Transubstantiation Demonstrated. (London: W. Rogers, 1688), 48-49.

  17. Anonymous, An Abstract of the Unnatural Rebellion and Barbarous Massacre of the Protestants … In the Year 1641 (London: Richard Janeway, 1689), 16.

  18. To the Rev. Andrew Hamilton, among the Catholics “nothing wanted but the signal to perfect what had begun in Forty one,A True Relation of the Actions of the Inniskilling-Men (London: Richard Burton, 1690), vii.

  19. Bishop Ralph Lambert of Dromore noted in 1717, for instance, that so many were killed in 1641 that “not one fourth part of the whole Protestant Inhabitants of the Kingdom were left alive,” A Sermon Preach'd in Christ's-Church,[sic] Dublin, on Wednesday October 23d, 1717 (Dublin: S. Fairbrother, 1717), 4.

  20. [Molesworth], The True Way to Render Ireland Happy and Secure (Dublin: A. Crooke, 1679), 17.

  21. These sermons are discussed fruitfully by T. C. Barnard, “The Uses of 23 October 1641 and Irish Protestant Celebrations” English Historical Review 106 (Oct. 1991), 889-920.

  22. Synge, A Sermon Preach'd at Christ-Church, Dublin, on Saturday, the 23rd of October 1731 (Dublin: Robert Owen, 1731), 13.

John Richardson (essay date October 2001)

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SOURCE: Richardson, John. “Swift, A Modest Proposal, and Slavery.” Essays in Criticism 51, no. 4 (October 2001): 404-23.

[In the following essay, Richardson suggests that the attitudes of a society of slavery influenced and shaped the irony of A Modest Proposal.]

There are two key elements to A Modest Proposal: a dreadful familiar situation, which has grown to seem less dreadful for being so familiar, and a dreadful unfamiliar solution, which seems more dreadful for its strangeness. The rhetorical effect of this ought to be simple. The strangeness of the solution ought to resurrect the reader's sense of the dreadfulness of the familiar situation, and perhaps prompt a determination to seek change. To some extent, that is how the proposal works, but only to some extent. The old idea that the pamphlet's purpose and effect were ‘purely propagandistic’ or the presentation of ‘trenchant social criticism’ has long been replaced by readings that stress its complexity, that see it, for example, as a ‘deeply personal, deeply alienated joke’.1 Claude Rawson has been particularly influential in promoting this kind of interpretation. In 1978 he described A Modest Proposal as ‘an explosive mixture’ commenting on ‘the complicated interplay of compassion and contempt’. More recently he has written in these pages of ‘Swift's conceit’ belonging to ‘a sphere of cruel play’ and ‘black humour’ which he defines as ‘an unmoralised surreal eruptiveness which transcends or exceeds, in a mode of unfettered ludic aggression, the borders of satiric or hortatory discourse’.2 But grimly and aggressively humorous as the pamphlet is, that is not the whole story of its nasty, unnerving power. Just as important is the way in which the irony, by insistently assuming that the proposal will be given a fair hearing, edges the reader towards agreement. It is an irony of complicity, in which, as Thomas Lockwood has argued, the ‘putative audience’ is quite as shocking as the ‘putative author’.3 The key informing elements of this irony are the proposer's commitment to the argument and his conviction of the reader's readiness to agree with it; behind both lies a powerful sense of collective responsibility, even collective guilt. That sense seems to have had its source in the complicity of Swift and his contemporaries not only in the catastrophe in Ireland, but in what was probably the greatest atrocity of their day, transatlantic slavery.4

Scholars have followed up many of the references in the proposal, but this has usually taken the form either of noting and querying specific allusions, or of identifying the ironic proposer as a parody of one or another type of contemporary speculative economist. Thus, Hermann J. Real and Heinz J. Vienken list a number of suggested sources for the cannibalism, and offer a new possible source in a traveller's account of the treatment of offspring as commodities.5 As for the proposer himself, George Wittowsky's early identification in him of the kind of thinking by which ‘the labourer had come to be regarded as a commodity’ has been generally accepted, and modern commentaries frequently contain confident asides concerning the proposal's ‘savage parody of contemporary economic writing’.6 What has not been recognised in the text is the presence of slavery. By ‘presence’ I do not mean allusions, although there are a number of these, but rather a pervasive sense of human commodification that derives from the existence of slavery in Swift's society. Slavery, though not much openly discussed, cast a long shadow across the early eighteenth century, a shadow visible in the shipping reports of the daily newspapers, the business of stock companies, the manufactures made for Africa, and the goods received from the Caribbean. From the slaving economy of the period a culture of enslavement naturally developed, and it is this culture which enters and shapes A Modest Proposal.

The proposal's rhetoric of human calculation is not merely a parody of abstract economic theory, but a reflection, albeit exaggerated, of the real world: of the slaving company, the slave ship, the slave plantation, and the population that connived at these things. Edward Rosenheim has singled out A Modest Proposal's ‘artifice’ and ‘invention’, as the mark of its greatness, commenting on ‘the shocking totally original conceit of the cannibalistic proposal itself’.7 Other writers have praised its prescience rather than its origins in truth, apparently assuming that reality has only approached such a degree of gruesomeness in our century. In 1962 Gilbert Highet made what was to become an almost standard observation when he saw ‘Swift's outrageous fantasy almost rivalled by reality’ in Nazi Germany.8 Rawson has also pondered the connection with Nazism, with much care and scrupulosity, and Carole Fabricant has argued that ‘the world of A Modest Proposal is not only very much with us, but has expanded to the point where there is very little outside of it capable of functioning in a normative or critical capacity’.9 But, if I am right, the power of the satire derives neither from fiction nor from prescience but from its roots in a pervasive actuality, in the linguistic habits and mental attitudes of a slaving society.

The connection between Ireland and Africa was not hard to make, and in a pamphlet associated with A Modest Proposal Swift ironically suggests the potential advantages for the country of ‘the African custom or privilege, of selling our useless bodies for slaves to foreigners’ (Prose, xii. 135).10 There are certainly a number of echoes of and allusions to slavery in A Modest Proposal itself. The Irish are referred to as ‘our Savages’, a word that in the eighteenth century embraced Africans in its general sense of primitive humanity, and the ‘very knowing American’ who provides the information about the edibility of children could have had as much experience of Caribbean or continental American slavery as of, say, Amerindians (Prose, xii. 111).11 More specifically, at the end of the proposal's first paragraph, Swift suggests that one future for the starving children might be to ‘sell themselves to the Barbadoes’ (Prose, xii. 109), returning to the idea of sale a little later when he suggests that a 12-year-old ‘will not yield above Three Pounds, or Three Pounds and half a Crown at most, on the Exchange’ (Prose, xii. 111). The age of 12 is common in documents concerning slavery as the dividing point between child and adult slaves, but Swift's price seems rather low. Instructions to Captain William Barry in 1725 expected him to be able to obtain 240 slaves and some ivory on the coast of Africa for goods worth £1338, while £15 was the 1721 price of an adult slave in Lisbon.12 There are even occasional references in slaving literature to parents selling their own children. Father Jerome Merolla da Sorrento, for example, reports mulattos sleeping with African women in order to conceive and sell children, something Hans Sloane dismisses as a common myth.13

Cannibalism provides another link with Africa and the slave trade. Swift owned a copy of Sir William Herbert's Relation of Some Yeares Travaile which refers to Africans as cannibals,14 while The English Acquisitions in Guinea and East-India, published the year before A Modest Proposal, includes a gruesome account of sailors butchered and eaten in Africa. These Africans are, unusually, given a voice in the text and explain that their cannibalism is revenge for earlier abductions by Europeans.15 Another faint African voice, and one of peculiar relevance to A Modest Proposal, can be heard in reports of the widespread fear among slaves of being eaten by their European captors. William Bosman, in his New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea published in England in 1705, is repeating a common rumour when he tells of slaves persuading one another ‘that we buy them only to fatten and afterwards eat them as a Delicacy’.16 There is no direct evidence that Swift had read either the English Acquisitions or the New and Accurate Description, but the kind of information and rumour they contain must often have been passed orally. In 1711, for instance, he dined at least twice with a former governor of Barbados, a real ‘knowing American’, and such contacts, together with published sources, make it likely that he knew of African fears of European cannibalism (Journal, pp. 272, 292).

Far more important to the pamphlet than any such details, however, is the rhetoric of calculation. Swift's unremitting insistence on costs, yields and profits, on the two shillings needed to rear a child to a year old and the ten shillings ‘its’ carcase will fetch (Prose, xii. 112), has its counterpart in the language of slavery. Robin Blackburn has argued that ‘the actions of planters and traders can best be understood as reflecting narrow economic calculations and a market rationality rather than delight in dominion and cruelty for its own sake’.17 That chilling concept, ‘market rationality’, is everywhere evident in public slaving documents. A Royal African Company doctor, in a pamphlet of 1725 addressed to the company's directors, repeatedly uses the word ‘merchantable’ for healthy slaves and dismisses sick ones as ‘not worth one Shilling’ and as ‘old, lame, decrepid Invalids, not worth a Farthing’.18 The first article of the Asiento contract, finalised and published in 1713, is less personal but just as inhumanely calculating when it sets out the number of slaves that the South Sea Company is to supply to Spanish America:

One hundred and forty four thousand Negroes, Piezas de India, of both Sexes, and of all Ages, at the Rate of Four thousand and eight hundred Negroes, Piezas de India, in each of the said Thirty Years.19

Although the detached legal language and the numbers have their parallels in A Modest Proposal, it is the casual parenthetical phrase, ‘of all Ages’, that is most reminiscent of Swift. There is a similar casualness in the recommendation of seasoned infant's flesh on the fourth day, ‘especially in Winter’, in the assumption that butchers ‘will not be wanting’, and in the assurance that the old represent no problem since they are dying quickly enough as it is (Prose, xii. 112-14).

Further examples of slaving ‘rationality’ are to be found in the smouldering controversy about free versus monopoly trade on the West African coast which occasionally flared up in pamphlet publication. The Royal African Company, the would-be monopolists, argued in 1709 that, given the need for slaves on the plantations, ‘the Sole Question … is by what means the said Trade may best be preserved, and the Plantations furnished with great Plenty, and on the cheapest Terms’. Two years later, the free traders put a question of their own: ‘Whether one Seller will sell cheaper at Market than 40 Sellers?’ Three years after that, the Company fulminated against the ill effects of too unregulated a market:

The Excessive Dearness of Negroes in Africa, and selling 'em dear in the Plantations, is the bitter Fruit of this Open Trade; for the Open Traders vying and striving with the Company, and with one another, who shall give most, hath exalted the naked Africans, and raised the Price of Negroes, to the Intollerable Rate they are now at.20

It is all price and calculation, with the occasional emotional words like ‘bitter’ and ‘intolerable’ saved for the wrong subjects, just as Swift's proposer's strongest feelings concern his own impatience at having been ‘wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary Thoughts’ (Prose, xii. 117).

A similar vein of calculation often appears in travel literature concerning Africa and the plantations. One pair of travellers report of the use of young Africans as a kind of currency21 and, writing of Jamaica, Hans Sloane assesses the qualities of slaves in the way that farmers assess the qualities of cattle, or Swift's proposer those of Irish breeders:

The Negros are of several sorts, from several places in Guinea, which are reckoned the best Slaves, those from the East-Indies or Madagascins, are reckoned good enough, but too choice in their Diet, being accustomed in their own Countries to Flesh Meat, etc. and do not well here, but very often die.22

Moreover, in the worlds of both the plantation and the proposer, marriage is a matter of pure economics, though where the proposer suggests keeping only one male in five among the breeding reserve (Prose, xii. 111), the plantations maintain a more equal balance: ‘The care of Masters and Overseers about their Wives, is what keeps the Plantations chiefly in good order, whence they ever buy Wives in Proportion to their Men.’23 The conclusions may be different but both the proposer and the overseer are working from the same assumption that efficiency and gain are the only imaginable reasons for considering the proportion of men to women.

The public face of ‘market rationality’ was a reflection of the private character of the slaving companies. There were cases of sadism and gratuitous cruelty in the African factories and on the ships and plantations, but the driving force of the whole enterprise was profit rather than passion, and its wickedness was not a delight in suffering but a calculated indifference to it. Swift works out the cost of rearing a baby for one year to be two shillings (Prose, xii. 112), just as the slaving companies carefully totted up the expense of maintaining a slave. Writing to their factors at Panama, the South Sea Company conceded:

We are willing for the better reducing the Charge of their Maintenance to a Certainty to allow You 6d. per head per diem from the Time they shall be first receiv d into Yo'r possession to the Day of their being ship'd off for any of the Factorys.24

An example like this is only faint illustration of the ledger book mentality that was so much part of the trade and which is so evident at even a cursory look at documents associated with it.

Trading, even fair trading, in people leads to gaping moral depths and contradictions. Swift's proposer famously sentimentalises the deaths of ‘poor innocent Babes’ (Prose, xii. 110), abhors domestic violence, and speaks warmly of marriage and maternal tenderness (Prose, xii. 115), all in the context of his scheme for mass infanticide. There is a similar contradiction in the Spanish practice of baptising captive Africans (‘it being forbid, under pain of Excommunication, to carry any Blacks to Brazil that are not baptiz'd’25), and in attitudes towards certain methods of enslavement. One traveller priest becomes very indignant in Africa at the ‘certain brutish Custom these People have amongst them in making Slaves’, that is, a husband ordering a wife to seduce a man, then enslaving him for his crime. The writer primly considers it ‘not to be lawful for any Person of good Conscience’ to buy someone made a slave in this way.26 This kind of moral confusion can also be seen in the journal of Thomas Phillips. Although published after A Modest Proposal, it illustrates aspects of the slaver's mentality that may have been familiar enough in a society of which slaving was such an important part. Phillips is not without feeling for his captives, calling them ‘poor creatures’, denying ‘any intrinsick value in one colour more than another’, and recognising that the Africans ‘are as much the work of God's hands, and no doubt as dear to him as ourselves’.27 However, when it becomes his ‘hard fortune to have great sickness and mortality among them’ during the middle passage, his feelings change to self-pity:

No gold-finders can endure so much noisome slavery as they do who carry negroes; for those have some respite and satisfaction, but we endure twice the misery; and yet by their mortality our voyages are ruin'd, and we pine and fret our selves to death, to think that we should undergo so much misery and take so much pains to so little purpose.28

The unwitting irony here in the phrase ‘noisome slavery’ and in Phillips's sense of his own misery and ruin at other people's deaths exposes a kind of selfish, moral blindness like that in A Modest Proposal. The pamphlet's opening, ‘IT is a melancholly Object to those’, implies that the distress of others is an ‘object’, and that the aim of the proposal is to alleviate the melancholy of ‘those’ like the proposer who have to witness it (Prose xii. 109).

Swift's sense of that blindness and his relation to it are for a satirist unusually close and intimate. His irony is not a sanitising, distancing device, but one that enfolds author and reader alike. Such entanglement implies both the author's and the reader's guilt, an implication that had its source, I suspect, at some deep level in Swift's own involvement in the slave trade. In 1727, he wrote to Archbishop King in the context of a cathedral dispute a ringing declaration of his own libertarianism: ‘My Lord, I have lived, and by the grace of God will die, an enemy to servitude and slavery of all kinds’ (Correspondence, iii. 210). This was not true. As the chief propagandist, or what a recent biographer has called the ‘spin-doctor’, of the Tory ministry of 1710-14 Swift was closely associated with a government among whose main achievements was a potentially great enlargement of the slave trade.29

There can be no doubt that the South Sea Company in 1711 and the associated securing at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 of the Asiento contract for trading slaves to Spanish America were central to Oxford's ministry. As G. M. Trevelyan's still trenchant analysis put it, ‘the finances of the country were based in May 1711 on the assumption that the Asiento … would be wrested from France’.30 It is possible to trace fairly accurately when Swift learned of the ministry's hope of resolving its financial problems by securing the lucrative slave-trading concession. The early negotiations, in the summer of 1711, were entrusted to Matthew Prior, but despite their friendship, Swift was not privy to them (Journal, p. 339). In September he frequently guessed about a coming peace, and finally, on 24 September he was ‘told so much, that we shall certainly have a Peace very soon’ (Journal, pp. 348, 358, 365, 366). A few days later, he ate with St. John, Prior and two secret French envoys, writing afterwards that, ‘We have already settled all things with France, and very much to the honour and advantage of England’ (Journal, p. 372). Two weeks after that a furious public debate was started by the publication of the peace preliminaries in the Whig Daily Courant.31 These do not refer specifically to the Asiento, but Swift knew, at the latest by the end of October, that ‘the secret is, that the French have agreed to articles much more important’ (Journal, p. 394). One of these articles was Britain's proposed obtaining of the Asiento, which though not mentioned once in the pamphlet, is a shadowy presence behind The Conduct of the Allies, on which he was working at the time.

The following year, the likelihood of obtaining the Asiento was made public. In a speech to Parliament quoted by Swift in The History of the Four Last Years of the Queen, Queen Anne singled out the contract as the real prize of peace:

BUT the Part which we have borne in the Prosecution of this War entitling us to some Distinction in the Terms of Peace, I have insisted, and obtained, that the Assiento, or Contract for furnishing the Spanish West-Indies with Negroes, shall be made with us for the Term of thirty Years, in the same Manner as it hath been enjoyed by the French for ten Years past.

(Prose, vii. 132)

It is salutary to reflect in the light of this that Swift retained a deep admiration as well as affection for Oxford, writing as late as 1737 that he had been ‘the most Virtuous Minister, and the most able that ever I remember to have read of’ (Correspondence, v. 46).

Swift's implication in the slave trade went beyond being the spokesman of a ministry that promoted it. In September 1711, when he may have known of its proposed business, he busily engaged himself with the South Sea Company, boasting to Esther Johnson that he had landed a directorship for one friend and was working on getting the printing contract for another (Journal, p. 351). By November, when he certainly did know its business, he had decided to invest heavily in the company, and anxieties about securing his stock ran on through December and into January (Journal, pp. 411, 463). It is true that since no peace and no Asiento contract had been signed by then this investment was something of a gamble, but it was a very different kind of gamble from that made by the investors in 1720. Swift was not gambling in the famous bubble company hoping for sudden wealth from nothing, but in the much more solidly based company of 1711, with the shrewd investor's hope of growing gradually rich from the trade in people.

However, if the slaving contract was the cornerstone of Oxford's peace plans and the financial hope of individuals like Swift, it was also either invisible or only partly visible in public debate. Some publications did address it directly. The contract itself was eventually published, and in the debate leading up to the peace A Letter from a West-Indian Merchant warned against Britain being ‘impos'd upon in this matter’.32 In the aftermath of the treaty, there was also some discussion of the news that the queen had conferred her share of the Asiento on the South Sea Company,33 as well as a number of stories concerning the difficulties slave traders were still experiencing in Spanish America.34 More usual, however, are the veiled references to ‘Measures … to secure and improve our Trade’ or ‘peculiar Advantages’ in the humble addresses to the queen of various corporations on the peace.35 Similarly, Defoe's Essay on the South-Sea Trade, a pamphlet expressly concerned with the company's proposed business, concentrates on trade in general and refers to the slave trade only in passing.36 As common as that kind of coyness is the silence that Swift generally chose. There are references to the Asiento in The History of the Four Last Years of the Queen, intended for publication in 1713 but unpublished until 1758, and a manuscript memoir mentions it during a passage of anti-Dutch vituperation (Prose, vii. 170-1). But Swift, like other contemporaries of his, avoided using this trading advantage—won at the cost of so much care and negotiation on the part of the ministry—to aim his paper missiles in the pamphlet wars of 1710-12.

Although it is impossible to identify the reasons for such silence, it may have arisen, as it may still arise, from a communal, suppressed guilt at the country's involvement in slavery. Gretchen Gerzina has explained ‘the often cold-hearted eighteenth century view of slaves and slavery’ by placing it in the context of ‘a cold-hearted and violent era’,37 but partly true as this is, I suspect it is a simplification. Such callousness, far from being a natural condition in a harsh world, could only be achieved by the deliberate suppression and avoidance of other attitudes and of contradictions. Certainly, eighteenth century observers were capable of sympathising with the plight of slaves. Other travellers besides Thomas Phillips describe it as ‘a pitiful sight to behold, how all these people were bestow'd’,38 and the same understanding of the slaves' plight occasionally appears elsewhere in early eighteenth century documents. In 1727, for example, The British Journal published a letter supposed to be from an enslaved African prince bemoaning the wrongs done to him. The situation is reminiscent of Oroonoko's, and one might attribute to the newspaper what Wylie Sypher argues of Aphra Behn, that it ‘is repelled not by slavery, but by the enslaving of a prince’.39 The letter, however, draws quite general conclusions from its supposed author's plight:

What in the Name of God is the Curse of Africk, that her Sons are born to Bondage in a Land of Freedom, and doom'd to Slavery in a Kingdom where Liberty is the Boast and Blessing of a happy People.40

The passage implies both a sympathy for the situation of slaves and a realisation of the contradiction between the early eighteenth century love of liberty and involvement in the slave trade.

The word ‘liberty’ was a key term in contemporary politics, and there was a sustained and increasing sense through the early decades of the eighteenth century that freedom was an essential part of the British constitution and character. ‘Liberty should reach every Individual of a People’, wrote the moderate Whig Spectator in 1712, ‘as they all share one common Nature.’41 Civil liberties were a Tory rallying cry after the Whig Riot Act of 1715,42 and the independent Whig Cato's Letters declared in the early 1720s that ‘All Men are born free’.43 Indeed, liberty became such a political necessity that when the Tory, or Country, opposition became organised and vocal in the second half of the 1720s they too cried freedom. Early numbers of The Craftsman devote space to the ‘prevailing depravity of the age’ but also to the history of liberty and the desirability of free speech.44 People of the early eighteenth century, then, possessed both the emotional capacity to sympathise with the plight of slaves, and the intellectual and ideological resources, through their beliefs about liberty, to know that enslavement was wrong. Given that, their silence on the subject may well have derived from a guilty wish to avoid confronting it.

Such taciturnity throws a grotesquely ironic light on some of the political testimonies at the time of the Peace of Utrecht. One of the most famous of these was Addison's Cato. Whigs and Tories competed to be loudest in their applause for an author who ‘has taken the most effectual Method to make his Audience in Love with Liberty’.45 Yet while London audiences were shouting their approval of Cato's stand, the ink on the Treaty of Utrecht was still drying and the details of the Asiento contract were being finalised. Further ironies are added by the characteristic eighteenth century choice of a slave-owning Roman as the champion of liberty and by Addison's later untruthful praise in the first issue of The Freeholder of George I, ‘who is not willing to have a single Slave in His Dominions’.46 There is similar irony in some of the accounts of the peace celebrations of 7 July 1713. The Examiner, for example, draws comparisons first with a Roman triumph, then with Cyrus's liberation of the Jews, his eye ‘unable to survey the Immense Numbers of Fellow-Creatures whom his Humanity and Godlike Mercy had that Day made Free and Happy’. The article finishes with a description of the day's end: ‘I shall only say, that it concluded with another Peace, Sign'd between Us and Spain, which came over, by Express, that very Evening.’47 Far from making immense numbers of people free and happy, this new peace sealed Britain's part in the continuing and growing enslavement of Africans.

Swift was acutely aware of the disjunctions between what people profess and what they do. An early description of him as a ‘hypocrite reversed’ has been used by David Nokes as a key to his personality and as the title of a biography, and Swift's fear of pretence is evident in his almost obsessive joking, ironising and avoidance of sentiment. How this ferocious self-examiner dealt with the contradiction between his hatred of slavery and his investment in a slaving company we cannot know. Nor can we know by what process the slaver's habit of treating and speaking of people as commodities was shaped into the irony of A Modest Proposal. What is clear, though, is not only that the irony mimics slavers, but that it implies the author's and reader's complicity in the business, a sense of common responsibility that may have derived from Swift's experience with the Oxford ministry. Like his semi-fictional proposer, Swift knew that he could be involved in something as dreadful as the sale of people; he knew that his readers would be prepared to be investors in such a trade for their own comfort and profit; and he knew the sleights, mendacities and silences that belong with such an enterprise.

The author's complicity is evident throughout A Modest Proposal. Of course, Swift is not quite the proposer, since the latter is married and a father (Prose, xii. 118), but he is close to him. This is most evident in the remarks that follow the ‘other Expedients’ passage:

BUT, as to my self; having been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary Thoughts; and at length utterly despairing of Success, I fortunately fell upon this Proposal; which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no Expence, and little Trouble, full in our own Power; and whereby we can incur no Danger in disobliging ENGLAND.

(Prose, xii. 117)

The weariness is Swift's, and the arguments for the proposal seem to be his as well, if only because they are valid; the scheme is, as he says, new, substantial, cheap, easy and (almost) within Irish power. Elsewhere in A Modest Proposal, hard as it is to pin down, there is a certain pleasure in the manipulation of the language that is Swift's as much as any fictional proposer's. When he first suggests that a child might be food, he lists four methods of preparation, then delightedly adds two more, ‘it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust’ (Prose, xii. 111). Later, he relishes applying the language of the farmyard when he writes that ‘one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females’ (Prose, xii. 111), of the abattoir in the phrase ‘Carcase of a good fat Child’ (Prose, xii. 112), and of the kitchen in the suggestion of ‘dressing them hot from the Knife’ (Prose, xii 113). Far from distancing the author, the irony of A Modest Proposal constantly indicates his engagement and complicity in the project as well as his revulsion at it.

As guilty as the author is the reader. Our guilt is implied chiefly by the absence from the text of any hint that we might reject the proposal on moral grounds. When the idea is first put, the proposer hopes it ‘will not be liable to the least Objection’ (Prose, xii. 111), and that hope becomes the underlying assumption of the whole piece. Occasionally, Swift teases his reader by pretending to be about to concede our moral qualms: ‘I CAN think of no one Objection, that will possibly be raised against this Proposal; unless it should be urged …’ (Prose, xii. 116). But he raises the expectation only to quash it by urging depopulation rather than inhumanity as the single imaginable objection. Occasionally, too, he defies the reader to disagree, most notably in the command at the end of the ‘other Expedients’ passage:

THEREFORE I repeat, let no Man talk to me of these and the like Expedients; till he hath, at least a Glimpse of Hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere Attempt to put them in Practice.

(Prose, xii. 117)

The invitation here to find other solutions is cancelled by the force of the subordinate clause that follows, for we have to concede that determined action on the problems of Ireland is unlikely. The effect of the clause is to return us to the assumption of agreement and complicity that informs the whole piece. Lord Bathurst was in one way responding appropriately when he wrote to Swift that the ‘more I think upon this scheme the more reasonable it appears to me’ (Correspondence, iii. 372). A Modest Proposal elicits a horrified, or blackly humorous, assent because it is a reasonable plan, once we allow that a whole society might countenance a trade in people. Swift could make such an assumption confidently because he knew both that the Irish situation had been allowed to arise and that the slave trade had been accepted.

But there is still another complicity implied in A Modest Proposal, the imagined complicity of the slave. The most common use of the word in the early eighteenth century, at least in contexts not directly connected with slavery, is as a term of contempt, and behind the contempt is the assumption that slaves deserve to be slaves. The same assumption is powerfully at work in A Modest Proposal. Swift is certain not only that butchers will be ready to prepare the children and that gentlefolk will be ready to buy them, but that mothers will be ready to breed and sell. He dwells upon the profits that will fall to the ‘constant Breeders’, and argues that the likelihood of a future profit will ‘encrease the Care and Tenderness of Mothers towards their Children’ (Prose, xii. 115). What is present here is not Swift's knowledge of British acceptance of slavery, but a slave society's ameliorating and dishonest justification of its practices. It has to be the slave's fault, suggests the slaver, otherwise slavery is too awful. In the same way, Swift's rhetoric implies the responsibility and complicity of the Irish poor.

I do not want to suggest that A Modest Proposal is about slavery, but rather that the habits and attitudes of a slaving society influence and shape its irony. The whole question of the influence of the slave trade on early eighteenth century literature is one that remains insufficiently explored. What do we make of Pope, for example, who greeted the Treaty of Utrecht with Windsor-Forest, who worried about offending the Director of the Royal African Company in the portrait of Timon's villa, and who seems, in The Dunciad, to think that overproduction of books is the chief evil of a society involved in slaving?48 Or of Defoe who promoted the South Sea Company, and who could mix a real understanding of slavery's injustice with a hard-nosed mercantile commitment to profit, even when the goods were people?49 As far as Swift is concerned, once the presence of the slave trade in the pamphlet is conceded, there are fewer of the worries about avoidance, confusion and dishonesty than arise with Pope and Defoe. Rather than denying the guilt attached to slavery, Swift uses its characteristic language and patterns of thought to expose complicity. He did invest money and energy in a slaving enterprise, but when he borrowed the experience back for A Modest Proposal, he did so in such a way as to point an accusing finger not only at his society and at what he saw as the potential slaves in it, but also at himself.


  1. Louis Landa, ‘A Modest Proposal and Populousness’, Modern Philology, 40 (1942-3), 165. William Bragg Ewald, The Masks of Jonathan Swift (Oxford, 1954), p. 169. Thomas Lockwood, ‘Swift's Modest Proposal: An Interpretation’, Papers on Language and Literature, 10 (1974), 257.

  2. Claude Rawson, ‘A Reading of A Modest Proposal’, in J. C. Hilson, M. M. B. Jones and J. R. Watson (eds.), Augustan Worlds: Essays in Honour of A. R. Humphreys (Leicester, 1978), pp. 29-50: 35; ‘Killing the Poor: An Anglo-Irish Theme?’ Essays in Criticism, 49 (1999), 112.

  3. Lockwood, ‘Swift's Modest Proposal’, 258.

  4. The relation of slavery to Swift's works has not been much researched. The only article I know that deals specifically with it is concerned rather with ‘Ireland's bondage’ than with the slave trade: Anne Cline Kelly, ‘Swift's Explorations of Slavery in Houyhnhnmland and Ireland’, PMLA 91 (1976), 847. In an article on Pope's relation to slavery, Howard Erskine-Hill argues in passing that in the Asiento Clause can be seen ‘a kind of baseline for Swift's Modest Proposal’: ‘Pope and Slavery’, in id. (ed.), Alexander Pope: World and Word, Proceedings of the British Academy 91 (Oxford, 1998), p. 34.

  5. Hermann J. Real and Heinz J. Vienken, ‘Child-Killing and Child-Selling Once Again: A New Source for Swift's Modest Proposal’, Notes and Queries, 231 (1986), 53-4.

  6. George Wittowsky, ‘Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of a Georgian Pamphlet’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 4 (1943), 80; Patrick Kelly, ‘“Conclusions by no Means Calculated for the Circumstances and Condition of Ireland”: Swift, Berkeley and the Solution to Ireland's Economic Problems’, in Aileen Douglas, Patrick Kelly and Ian Campbell Ross (eds.), Locating Swift: Essays from Dublin on the 250th Anniversary of the Death of Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745 (Dublin, 1998), p. 49.

  7. Edward W. Rosenheim, Swift and the Satirist's Art (Chicago and London, 1963), p. 105.

  8. Gilbert Highet, The Anatomy of Satire (Princeton, 1962), p. 61.

  9. Rawson, ‘Killing the Poor’, 116; Carole Fabricant, ‘Swift's Political Legacy’, in Locating Swift, p. 184.

  10. Quotations from Swift are taken from the following editions: The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams (Oxford, 1963); Journal to Stella, ed. Harold Williams (Oxford, 1948); The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis, 14 vols. (Oxford, 1939-68).

  11. Rawson discusses the connections with Amerindians in ‘“Indians” and Irish: Montaigne, Swift and the Cannibal Question’, Modern Language Quarterly, 53 (1992), 338. References to the Caribbean as ‘our American Islands’ are quite common in the period. See, for example, Medley, 36 (23 Mar.-4 June 1711).

  12. Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America (Washington, DC, 1931-5), ii. 293 and 257.

  13. Father Jerome Merolla da Sorrento, A Voyage to the Congo, and several other Countries, Chiefly in Southern-Africk, in John Churchill, A Collection of Voyages and Travels, 6 vols. (1704; 1732), i. 739. Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieve, S. Christophers, and Jamaica, 2 vols. (1707-25), i. pp. lvi-lvii.

  14. Wylie Sypher, Guinea's Captive Kings: British Anti-Slavery Literature in the XVIIIth Century (1942; New York, 1969), p. 31

  15. Robert Burton, The English Acquisitions in Guinea and East-India (1728), pp. 57-8.

  16. William Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea: Divided into The Gold, The Slave, and The Ivory Coasts (1705), p. 365. John Atkins reports the same fear, in A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil and the West Indies (1735), in Donnan, Documents, ii. 281.

  17. Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (1997), p. 379.

  18. James Houston, Some New and Accurate Observations (1725), in Donnan, Documents, ii. 288.

  19. The Assiento, or Contract for Allowing the Subjects of Great Britain the Liberty of importing NEGROES into the Spanish America (1713), p. 3.

  20. Some Considerations On the Late Act of Parliament, for Setling the Trade to Africa (?1709); Some Queries relating to the present dispute about the trade to Africa (1711); The Case of the Royal African Company and the Plantations (1714), p. 2.

  21. Michael Angelo and Denis de Carli, A Curious and Exact Account of a Voyage to the Congo, in the Years 1666 and 1667, in Churchill, Collection, i. 620.

  22. Sloane, Voyage, i. xlvii.

  23. Ibid., p. xlviii.

  24. Donnan, Documents, ii. 311.

  25. Angelo de Carli, in Churchill, Collection, i. 637.

  26. da Sorrento, in Churchill, Collection, i. 668.

  27. Thomas Phillips, A Journal of a Voyage from England to Africa, and so forward to Barbadoes, in the Years 1693 and 1694, in Churchill (1732), vi. 219.

  28. Churchill (1732), vi. 230 and 237.

  29. Victoria Glendinning, Jonathan Swift (1998), p. 101. Glendinning, like so many other biographers, is silent about the connection with the slave trade. I write ‘potentially great enlargement’ because the Asiento contract proved less of a prize for the South Sea Company than was at first hoped. See John Carswell, The South Sea Bubble (1960), p. 66.

  30. G. M. Trevelyan, England Under Queen Anne, 3 vols. (1934), iii. 123.

  31. Brian W. Hill, Robert Harley: Speaker, Secretary of State and Premier Minister (New Haven and London, 1988), p. 166.

  32. A Letter from a West-Indian Merchant to a Gentleman at Tunbridg (1712), p. 19.

  33. The Post-Boy, 2987 (29 June-1 July 1714).

  34. The Flying Post, 3504 (17-19 June 1714); The Evening Post, 774 (22-24 July 1714).

  35. The Post-Boy, 2799 (16-18 Apr. 1713); 2828 (23-25 June 1713).

  36. Daniel Defoe, An Essay on the South-Sea Trade (1712 [1711]), p. 40.

  37. Gretchen Gerzina, Black England: Life Before Emancipation (1995), p. 25.

  38. Angelo and de Carli, in Churchill, Collection, i. 637.

  39. Sypher, Guinea's Captive Kings, p. 110.

  40. The British Journal, 246 (11 June 1727).

  41. Spectator, 287 (29 Jan. 1712).

  42. See Marie McMahon, The Radical Whigs, John Trenchard and William Gordon: Libertarian Loyalists to the New House of Hanover (Lanham, Md. 1990), p. 74.

  43. Cato's Letters: Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and other Important Subjects (New York, 1971), p. 216.

  44. Craftsman, 6 (23 Dec. 1726); 2 (9 Dec. 1726); 4 (16 Dec. 1726).

  45. The Flying-Post, 3309 (30 Apr.-2 May 1713).

  46. Freeholder, ed. James Lehany (Oxford, 1979), p. 41.

  47. Examiner, 4/16 (6-10 July 1714).

  48. On Windsor-Forest see David Dabydeen, ‘Eighteenth-Century English Literature on Commerce and Slavery’, in id. (ed.), The Black Presence in English Literature (Manchester, 1985), p. 44; Laura Brown, Alexander Pope (Oxford, 1985), p. 40. For a vigorous defence of Pope, see Erskine-Hill, ‘Pope and Slavery’.

  49. In Captain Singleton, William Walters, a benevolent Quaker pirate, persuades his shipmates not to massacre a shipload of slaves who have killed their captors. His reasoning is ‘that the Negroes had really the highest Injustice done them, to be sold for Slaves’. Nine pages later, Walters has taken on the task of disposing of the human cargo, gone off to the coast of Brazil, and traded with the planters with the result that ‘in less than five Weeks, William sold all his Negroes’: The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton, introd. James Sutherland (1963), pp. 191, 200. Patrick J. Keane has written persuasively about Defoe and slavery: ‘Slavery and the Slave Trade; Crusoe as Defoe's Representative’, in Roger D. Lund (ed.), Critical Essays on Daniel Defoe (New York, 1997), pp. 97-120.


Principal Works


Further Reading