Pope and Swift’s Satrical Shot at Society

Johnathan Swift and Alexander Pope used there literary skills to exploit the life of the upper class in England during the early 1700’s. Although both men had small segments of seriousness and rationale; they both used satirical techniques throughout the majority of their works, Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal and Pope’s narrative poem The Rape of the Lock,  to express their ideas on the ridiculous politics and lifestyles of the English upper class.

While Swift focused more on English and Irish politics, Pope divulged into the everyday lives of the upper class. Both were hoping to gain attention of their readers. Swift’s A Modest Proposal is written to expose the irresponsibility and oppressiveness  of the English. He uses several satirical techniques such irony and parody to help do this. Swift is attempting to find a solution to the poverty and population problems that has stricken Ireland. His proposal is to use children as source of food. He assumes that the children will be “dear, and therefore very proper for landlords” (Swift 2433). This is an example of Swifts use of irony. The reason that these children must be sold for profit is due to the absentee landlords, and that English don’t allow the Irish to use their land effectively. But to Swift this is turns out to be an advantage for English for the dish will be “introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom” (Swift 2435).  Swift then indirectly calls out England by using sarcasm to say that there is really no better option than his own.  He says that this is good because it does not run the risk of “disobliging ENGLAND”. He follows along saying that the children cannot be salted and therefore can’t be exported but he knows of a country that he believes wouldn’t seem to care, once again speaking indirectly of England and their leaders (Swift 2436). Pope has the similar goal to oust the complexion of high society England, but he focuses on the superficial lifestyle rather than politics. One example is the over dramatization of the card game “Ombre”. Pope speaks of this card game as if it is an epic battle and expounds on how the character views it in that manner. He describes the start of the game as troops beginning to “Draw forth to combat on the velvet plain” where it could be simply stated that they were ready to place the first cards on the table. When the protagonist Belinda believes she may lose this card game Pope describes her reaction as ” the blood of the virgin’s cheek forsook, A livid paleness o’er all her looks”(Pope 2481). These examples are Pope using detail and drama to poke fun at how serious these people of high society took their card games; while people in Swifts story are looking to sell there young for food. Pope also uses the over dramatization in Belinda’s reaction to losing the lock of her hair. Pope describes her as “Repaired to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen” which is represents the underworld and her friend Thalestris is so upset she asks Belinda “How shall I, then, your helpless fame defend” meaning that Belinda should get revenged for the ravished hair (Pope 2486). The reactions and views that the characters have on these insignificant situations are purposefully radical and stupid to show how far removed the upper class is from the rest of society.

The two authors creatively placed sections of their thoughts and ideas, in the text, that were more serious and rational. The majority of the two texts are expertly shrouded in satirical humor and drama to make their points but Swift and Pope were creative in putting straightforward views within the text. Swift gives a list of legitimate proposals to help Ireland and its suffering people. Continuing in his satiric voice he says “let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients till he hath at least some glimpse of hope that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice” and acts like there is no way that these could be as successful as his own (Swift 2436). The irony is Swifts proposals are very practical. They include “taxing our absentees…rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury”; these are direct shots at the English and how Swift has the answer to the problem right there. Pope seems to almost pause the plot of the play to put in his direct thoughts. He uses the seemingly clairvoyant thoughts of one of the minor characters, Clarissa, to express his views on the treatment and expectations of high society women. Clarissa asks the question why are people so concerned about how a woman looks if “locks will turn to gray” and “painted or not painted, all shall fade”(Pope 2488). She wonders why the men are more concerned about the looks rather than if the girl has good sense. This is different than his over dramatization in the rest of the passage, for Clarissa is genuine in her speech and tone. Pope immediately returns to his previous voice and uses this to make his point stronger. For as soon as Clarissa finishes her speech the other characters either are  upset or pay no attention and continue their silly feud. Pope is proving that even if the English heard rational thought they wouldn’t heed it.  These little pieces that are different from the rest of the text are used by the authors to further their points.

Johnathan Swift and Alexander Pope skillfully used structure and satirical techniques to catch the attention of their readers and place it towards the politics and lifestyle of the English upper class. These two are considered to of the best in the business as far as satire goes and it seems that they accomplished their goal for we are still reading there work almost 300 years later.

Works Cited

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed.

David Damrosch, Kevin J.H. Dettmar. Pearson Education Inc, 2010. 2472-2491.


Swift, Johnathan. “A Modest Proposal.” Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed.

David Damrosch, Kevin J.H. Dettmar. Pearson Education Inc, 2010. 2431-2437.