Power of Words

The persecution of the poor is an issue that has arisen over the centuries. The rebellion against the elitist is noticed currently in countless countries across the globe, in places like Egypt, Libya, and Syria. In the past the fire of such controversies has been passed along through the written word and now with advances in technology, such fire is passed on much more rapidly. Jonathan Swift was one of those authors in the 18th century that pushed for the rights of the unfortunate through the written word. His main focus was on the inhumanity of poverty in the Anglo-Irish era, producing one of his most famous pieces, A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public (1729). This unanimously published work became one of the most prominent satirical works of its time.

A Modest Proposal begins its first six paragraphs with the author’s observation of the Anglo-Irish situation of the 1720s. This description takes on a melancholy, detached, economical tone in which he illustrates the poverty stricken environment. Swift uses detailed calculations on the lives and prospects that the bulk of the Irish population is condemned to for the first six paragraphs in order to bring the reader into the atmosphere of the time. Arriving at the seventh paragraph, Swift shocks his readers with his proposal, or thesis of the essay. He states, “I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one forth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the person of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good tab le. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter (Swift, 1729).” As previously noted, Swift uses detailed and emotionally detached economical analysis his thesis paragraph as he proposes cannibalism to the state of Ireland. Swift continues on providing abundant detail of the cost of child rearing, portion of population affected, the number of servings a child might provide, and how this type of meat would be considered a delicacy to both English and Irish landowners. These details bring not only his obvious use of satire but also insert the concept of political satire aimed at the Irish and English landowners. In the next eight paragraphs the author lists the advantages he sees in such a venture; he states the advantages to be: the lessening of the number of Papists, the poorer tenants will have increase in valuable goods of their own (the meat of their year old children), the nation’s stock will increase by fifty thousand pounds per year,  the breeders no longer have to care for their offspring after the first year in addition to the monetary increase they would receive, the new great customs that taverns would receive, the great inducement to marriage, the addition of some thousand carcasses in our exportation, and finally a decrease in the population of Ireland.  After listing eight advantages of his proposal the author introduces his true purpose while using the tradition of Roman Satire, he introduces the reforms he is actually suggesting by deriding them. The tradition of Roman Satire is shown in paragraph eight of A Modest Proposal, Swift requesting that  “therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it (Swift, 1729).” The author uses this satirical tool to transition from the pride he has in the cold logic of his proposal to a call to action of those in power. The purpose of the proposal continues on till the end of the piece, explaining that until a country’s people can be treated better than the agricultural, they may as well be treated as such. He defends his proposal with the fact that none have attempted to create a solution to “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 to practice (Swift, 1729).”

In order to fully understand the necessity of Swift’s call to action, one would need to understand the situation of the Irish plight in the 18th century. While much of Europe took part in the industrial revolution, English taking part in it in the yearly 1700s, Ireland was plunged into agriculture in response. Ireland depended on the exportation of agricultural good in order to generate national income, such as meat and vegetables (potatoes). “Nevertheless, the poorest classes did not see much of this money because the benefit of higher export prices was cancelled out by the rise in food prices. In some ways, this polarization towards food production increased the poor’s vulnerability to crop failure. As the farmers got poorer they were forced to sell more of their crops (usually oats) for money while eating more potatoes (a crop that couldn’t be transported easily) (Prelude to the Irish Famine: Economics).” It was a time of poverty in which elitist of the Irish landlords and English landlords thrived at the expense of their tenants. At the time of A Modest Proposal the country was on the brink of the infamous Great Famine (Potato Famine), so while Swift’s call to action went unheeded, the famine reduced the population twenty to twenty-five percent.

There are scholars who have argued that Swift’s proposal was largely influenced by Tertullian’s Apology.  “While Tertullian’s Apology is a satirical attack against early Roman persecution of Christianity, Swift’s A Modest Proposal addresses the Anglo-Irish situation in the 1720s (A Modest Proposal, 2011 ).”  The scholars point out the similarities in the central themes of cannibalism of infants as well as a stylistic similarity of the two authors in their sarcasm, language, times and use of irony.  The “justification of ownership over the subject of sacrificing children – Tertullian while attacking pagan parents, and Swift while attacking the English mistreatment of the Irish poor” was another similarity that caused scholars to link these two pieces (A Modest Proposal, 2011 ).

There are many reasons Swift’s proposal has gained such merit. What is most discussed within the piece is the author’s many uses of satire.  Satire is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly (Satire, 2011).” Nearing the end of the piece the sarcasm of the author becomes more and more evident as he aims his satirical remarks at both church and state. He logically proposes cannibalism to be the solution of the “melancholy object” to those elitist.  The narrator uses details of poverty and his cool approach towards them to create “two opposing points of view that alienate the reader, perhaps unconsciously, from a narrator who can view with ‘melancholy’ detachment a subject that Swift has directed us, rhetorically, to see a much less detached way,” this strategy allows the audience to pity the poor and detest the narrator and all his accessories through his sarcastic rationalization (political satire). The reader notices his political satire in many places within A Modest Proposal, but a prominent satirical statement of Swift’s takes place in the ninth paragraph where he states, “I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expense and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it (Swift, 1729).” Successfully this statement illustrates to the reader the cannibalistic treatment that England had of Ireland; to England the nation was nothing more than poultry. As previously defined, satire is meant to expose and discredit the vices of others, and through political satire of neighboring England, the religious satire of the mistreatment of Catholics (although the majority) of that era, and the overall satire of desensitization towards the lack of human dignity towards the poor of Ireland, Swift successfully portrays the necessity of change by the closing of A Modest Proposal.

While the diction of 18th century Ireland presented difficulty in the analysis, once deciphered provided a blow that was the original intention of Swift’s work. It was the last two paragraphs of the piece in which Swift of the piece that drove the most impact into this reader as the mask of satire is stripped and the author reveals the true message of the piece: the need to treat his fellow Irishman with dignity, no matter their monetary value or lack thereof. With the poverty in Lebanon evident on the streets with beggars of its own, this satirical essay allows us to open our eyes to the treatment of the unfortunate and to create our own call to action. While this reader noticed that there was no true proposal that was projected, it only showed the complexity and difficulty of a solution.

A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public (1729), while being originally published unanimously it became one of the most prominent satirical works of its time; with the chaste pursuit of humanity of the Anglo-Irish poor, Jonathan Swift was one of those authors in the 18th century that pushed for the rights of the unfortunate through the written word. The persecution of the poor is an issue that has arisen over the centuries. And as technology has evolved it does not necessarily take the same form. But throughout the eras we see, hear, speak, and feel the rebellious words against the elitists. “For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience (Bengis).”

Works Cited
(n.d.). Retrieved from Prelude to the Irish Famine: Economics: http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/famine/economics.html
A Modest Proposal. (2011 , July 20). Retrieved from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Modest_Proposal
Bengis, I. (n.d.). Retrieved from Classic Literature: http://classiclit.about.com/od/basicsliteratureintro/a/aa_words.htm
Satire. (2011). Retrieved from Merriam-Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire
Swift, J. (1729). A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them benefical to the public.
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