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Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745)

Related: 1700s literature - British literature - satire

Years active: 1700s - 1710s - 1720s - 1730s - 1740s

Contemporaries: Daniel Defoe - Mary Delarivier Manley - Giambattista Vico - Edmund Curll


Jonathan Swift (November 30, 1667 - October 19, 1745) was an Anglo-Irish writer and satirist.

Jonathan Swift was born, after his father had been dead for seven months, to an English mother, and educated by his Uncle Godwin. After a not very successful career at Trinity College, Dublin, he went to stay with his mother, Abigail Erick, at Leicester. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Swift [Apr 2005]

A Modest Proposal

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 (1729) is a classic satire written by Jonathan Swift.

The proposal in question was to suggest that poor families of Ireland sell their children to be slaughtered for meat, thereby bringing in valuable income for the family.

Written as an attack on the indifference of landlords to the state of their tenants, and the political economists with their calculations on the schemes to raise income, the entire piece is written in a deeply sarcastic tone, with scathing comments about the state of the poor and their landlords such as: "I grant this food may 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."

The satirical intent of A Modest Proposal was misunderstood by many of Swift's peers, and he was harshly criticized for writing prose in such exceptionally "bad taste". He was close to losing his patron because of this essay. Misunderstanding of the object of satirical attack came about because of the disparity between the cannibalistic proposal and the sincere tone of the narrative voice.

In modern usage, the phrase "modest proposal" has come to indicate a proposal that is anything but modest. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Modest_Proposal [Apr 2005]

A Tale of a Tub

During the Restoration period in England, the print revolution began to change every aspect of society. It became possible for anyone to spend a small amount of money and have his or her opinions published as a broadsheet. It also became possible for nearly anyone to gain access to the latest discoveries in science, literature, and political theory, as books became less expensive and digests and "indexes" of the sciences grew more numerous. The change in British society brought about by the print revolution was roughly analogous to our own experiences with the Internet. Just as now a silly person may spend a small amount of money and publish silly opinions, so it was then. Just as now we are confronted with a staggering array of conspiracy theories, "secret" histories, signs of the apocalypse, "secrets" of politicians, "revelations" of prophets, alarms about household products, hoaxes, and outright fraud, so it was then. The problem for them, as for us, was telling true from false, credible from impossible. Swift writes A Tale of a Tub in the guise of someone who is excited and gullible about all the things the new world has to offer. This narrator is in love with the modern age and feels that he is quite the equal (or superior) of any author who ever lived because he, unlike them, possesses 'technology' and opinions that are just plain newer. Swift seemingly asks the question of what a person with no discernment but with a thirst for knowledge would be like, and the answer is the narrator of A Tale of a Tub.

Swift was annoyed by people who were so eager to possess the newest knowledge that they failed to pose skeptical questions. If he was not a particular fan of the aristocracy, he was a sincere opponent of democracy (which was often viewed then as the sort of "mob rule" that led to the worst abuses of the Interregnum.) The cultural stakes were high, and Swift's satire was intended to provide a genuine service by painting the portrait of conspiracy minded and injudicious writers. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Tale_of_a_Tub#Cultural_setting [Sept 2005]

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