Swift’s ties to Ireland and England as Backdrop in A Modest Proposal

Although Jonathan Swift speaks for the impoverished masses in Ireland holistically in his satirical piece “A Modest Proposal”, he had a personal beef with England and their relationship with Ireland stemming from his youth and young adulthood. 

Having lost his father at a young age in Dublin, Swift was left with enough money to receive the nicest education Ireland could offer, and quickly moved to England as an adolescent to work for retired political figure, William Temple. During this time he surrounded himself with political leaders and literary scholars, attempting, unsuccessfully, to anchor himself in England. During this period of commuting between Ireland and England, Swift felt deeply a sense of exile to Ireland.

Having gleaned a passion for politics from his experiences in England, Swift began to see the social and economic injustices and plights within Ireland’s suffering lower class. English Trade restrictions over Ireland were a major area of injustice. This ignited in Swift a bitterness that spurned him on to raise awareness and fight back against England’s poor control of Ireland. He first did this through a series of informational essays and tracts presenting bare bones facts and statistics. These efforts on the part of Swift were mostly ignored.

While Swift continued to ignite those in Ireland and in England to some kind of progressive action, he was still being denied complete and total residency and position in England, despite having proven himself in many areas. Belonging to social circles of well-known English writers and intellectuals, Swift realized that to gain relevancy in the spheres of English influence, he needed to come at his argument from another angle. During this time of both feeling embarrassed for having hailed from Ireland, yet a feeling a patriotism that pushed him to fight for her, Swift arrived at the concept of framing his argument through Satire.

Swift’s disgust with the increasing suffering in Ireland and the growing success in England, mixed with his lingering rejection from England to be welcomed as a citizen, pushed him to publish his most scathing essay yet—“A Modest Proposal”. His ‘straddling the fence’ so to speak between Ireland and England gave him profound foresight into satire as a expanding medium of social statements, as well as a close, personal attachment to the issue of poverty in Ireland. As Swift envisioned it, England was keeping Ireland at arm’s length, realizing that it was too weak to fight back, and Ireland was equally as passive as it was used. The way in which Swift proposed, with a blasé demeanor, the horrific concept of selling and eating children for food to stimulate the economy and feed the hungry, did not serve to shock English readers as he most likely intended. However, the growing love of satire in England did gain his proposal the notoriety that he indeed sought to put the issues at hand on the table. By parodying his own serious proposals, Jonathan Swift started conversations in both England and Ireland that were necessary for change.

Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th Edition.  David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. New York: Stuart Sherman. 2010. 2431-2437. Print.

Cody, David. “‘A Modest Proposal’: An Introduction.” VictorianWeb. Hartwick College. Jul. 2000. Web.

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