Remembering a Modest Proposer

The writer and essayist George Orwell was not a man who was generous with his praise for anything, so when he wrote in a review that ‘If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver’s Travels among them‘, that’s about as high a recommendation as could come.  Its author, Jonathan Swift, born exactly 350 years ago, was arguably the first writer to master the art of satire: he saw for himself the injustices and absurdities of the world around him and sought to assail them with his own weapon of choice, namely, ridicule. 

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on 30 November 1667.  His early years were marred by tragedy: he never knew his father – Jonathan sr had died seven months before, of syphilis – and his mother Abigail (originally from Goodrich in Herefordshire) left him in the care of his uncle shortly after Jonathan was born.  He was educated first at Kilkenny College and then at Trinity College Dublin, where he studied to be a priest.  Ireland in the 1660s and ’70s was struggling to recover not just from a bloody civil war that had claimed around 400,000 lives, but also from the after-effects of the Cromwellian land seizures.  The political disorder surrounding the Revolution of 1688 somewhat disrupted Swift’s Masters programme, and he moved to England to continue his studies, eventually graduating at Hart Hall in Oxford in 1692 and later being ordained a priest. 

Swift’s intention had been to make his Church career in England, but consistently throughout his life he was appointed to posts in Irish parishes, beginning with Kilroot near Carrickfergus in 1694, and much against his will.  The experience of being passed over for English posts left him with an abiding suspicion of the country, and fuelled his later writing.  It is thought that Queen Anne refused to consent to giving him a job in England because she considered his 1704 work A Tale of a Tub (a satire on the development of Christianity and the Reformation) to be blasphemous.  The hostility was mutual, and Swift’s next big oeuvre, 1711’s The Conduct of the Allies, was a stinging denunciation of the English government’s incompetent handling of the War of the Spanish Succession and its inability to deliver a knock-out blow to Louis XIV, despite the latter counting only Bavaria as a strong ally.  The ins and outs of the War and its politics also inspired Swift to create the island kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu in Part I of Gulliver’s Travels.  The words of the giant-king of Brobdingnag in Part II, in response to Gulliver’s attempt to explain why the English system of government is the best in the world, are essentially Swift’s verdict about the system:

I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.

Swift was certainly a proud Irish patriot: at one point in the 1720s he wrote ‘We must burn everything English – except their coal.’  Readers of Part III of Gulliver’s Travels can also see in the flying island of Laputa, in which the king periodically orders the dropping of boulders on the city of Lindalino (modelled on Dublin) whenever its inhabitants make trouble, the perfect allegory of English policy in Ireland.  This doesn’t mean that he was a religious pluralist: very much a product of his time, and the C of E environment in which he was brought up, he believed fervently in the Anglican settlement and loathed both Catholicism and Dissent.  At the very least, if he were around today he wouldn’t be welcome in conferences held by any nationalist or Unionist party.  Nonetheless, his dismay at English policy in Ireland led him to produce, in 1729, arguably his most controversial work: A Modest Proposal.  In it he suggests that the problem in poverty in Ireland can be best solved by persuading the impoverished to eat their children:

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… 

Predictably, most of his intended audience reacted with outrage and failed to get the joke – that Swift’s idea was no less callous than most that had come out of the English government when faced with the problem of poverty in Ireland. 

Since Swift’s death in October 1745, his reputation has continued to grow over the past three centuries, with the audiences for satirical treatment of contemporary issues remaining large and appreciative.  You can’t help wondering what he would make of Brexit, Trump, or the ongoing controversies in the Dail or Stormont – or how he would fare with social media and the internet, if he were around today.  His career does, however, underline Matthew Parris’s point in his 2002 BBC Radio documentary about the News Quiz, that satire offends a lot more easily than it reforms.  Indeed, one of Swift’s biggest fans, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, addressed the limitations of Swift’s genre in a recent Radio 4 interview by Pub Landlord creator Al Murray: 

MURRAY: How many governments have crumbled due to witty barbs? 

HISLOP: Er, none!  Peter Cook, who used to be the Eye’s proprietor, said ‘German satire in the ’30s – fantastic!  That really stopped Hitler!!’  And I have to say that Jonathan Swift, one of my heroes, essentially could probably point at one tax in Ireland that he got revoked.  In the end, I think, it’s the effort that matters, and what we’re there for is not to topple the government – you know, that’s your job, you’ve got to vote for it, in a democracy – we’re there to, sort of, point up an argument, try and clarify a debate, make some points, get some laughs, and then go home.


So Happy 350th Birthday, Jonathan Swift, wherever you are.  Thanks for all the great writing, and for pointing up all your arguments, clarifying debates, making points, and getting some laughs.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.