Ireland. Ire. Irony. This euphonious trio of words explains the humor of Jonathan Swift; though he reportedly bore the most dour countenance in history, his wit could make readers laugh through his bile. Swift's "Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of... [more]
Ireland. Ire. Irony. This euphonious trio of words explains the humor of Jonathan Swift; though he reportedly bore the most dour countenance in history, his wit could make readers laugh through his bile. Swift's "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" (1729) suggests that the Irish, suffering from dire poverty under racist English rule, should eat their young to neatly banish both starvation and overpopulation. His pamphlet provides detailed instructions for the cooking, eating, and tanning of baby flesh -- all while maintaining its jovially official tone and lively argumentation. By combining horrid images of cannibalism with coldly cheerful utilitarianism, Swift created one of the most disturbing and effective satires of all time.
Swiftian satire packed a political punch that was generally aimed at the jaw of English government -- as an Irishman, Swift relentlessly questioned English rule and disparaged English character. But Swift also employed self-ridicule as a deft tactic in the ambush of the imperialist interlopers. "A Modest Proposal" utilizes nasty stereotypes of the Irish in order to move beyond them, proving by self-abasement the witlessness and idiocy of England's oppressive forces. By taking the innocence of the low road, Swift was free to fire missiles at all who loomed higher.
At a time when humorless governments frequently imprisoned satirists -- just for writing -- the line between activism and intellectualism was more than a little blurry. Ireland still reveres Swift for attacking and effectively blocking English efforts to introduce worthless metal as Irish currency. He raised consciousness not only about Ireland's maltreatment, but also about slavery and the lack of liberty in general. Swift placed his bile at the service of positive social ends; for one who claimed to hate mankind on the whole, he rallied vigorously and sometimes viciously for its rights.
"The more I read your works, the more I am ashamed of mine," wrote Voltaire, that great champion of free speech, in a letter to Swift. Swift's writing does indeed insist upon an admirable and unstinting honesty. He anatomized most of the important political issues of his time in "Gulliver's Travels" (1726), which was (and often still is) read as a children's tale. The fantastical societies and characters that Gulliver meets are delightful and inventive, but also represent the most scathing allegories for social pretensions and human behaviors. The book's nuances are too sophisticated for many adults, let alone children, but its humor and clarity of speech do make it accessible to all readers on some level.
No one was safe from Swift's pen: in his "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," the satirist even pokes fun at the doddering old fool he might become. At the same time, he hopes to be remembered for his equanimity. It is this tension between belief in goodness and contempt for folly that gave Swift's work its impetus. At the end he states of himself: 'Yet malice never was his aim; He lashed the vice, but spared the name.' Ultimately Swift's belief in humanity's potential for improvement is the quality that makes him great, for the funniest of barbs can only be tossed with love. [show less]