Jonathan Swift – “A Modest Proposal” (the end)

The sixth and final reason for introducing the author’s plan is that it is going to be a great inducement for marriage, as well as it is going to make mothers and husbands treat respectively their children and wives better. There are also many more advantages such as increasing the export of beef once the domestic meat consumption is sated with child meat and so on.

Summing up, the author says he can think of no objection to his plan other than it is going to decrease the population of Ireland. But that is its whole point and he doesn’t suggest it to any other country. Here Swift drops his mask of a “projector” and lets his anger show: he lists the whole list of other plans he suggested in his earlier pamphlets, such as limiting private spending to only home-made products in order to decrease trade deficit, raising taxes for absentee landlords and generally becoming better and more patriotic people. He has no hope of ever implementing any of them, and he thinks his last plan is the only one which has a chance of succeeding, because England can’t possibly object to it. The infant meat is too tender to be exported to England, even though he knows a country (of course he still means England) which would like to devour a whole nation. If you have any other ideas, I’m open to them, he says, but first tell me, how are you going to feed and clothe 100,000 people a year, and secondly, if you ask the parents of these children doomed to life of misery and starvation, wouldn’t they choose rather for them to be disposed of in the manner he suggested? At the end, he delivers one more poisoned dart, saying that he is completely objective in this matter, because he cannot gain anything by it: his youngest child is nine years old, and his wife is past child-bearing age.

Thus ends this text, which I think didn’t lose its acidity. In the early 1980s Peter O’Toole picked it for a performance at the opening gala for a Dublin theatre and the Irish radio cut off the transmission because they had received too many complaints from the listeners. (That’s why this YouTube recording is cut off.) It also ends the selection of Jonathan Swift’s writings in the NAEL. As a cynical teenager I used to adore him, but now after this big dose of Swift I think a little bit of him goes a long way. Am I getting too soft in my old age? Or maybe Swift is like horseradish, enjoyable in small doses, but not as the main dish. On the whole, I think he said it best in his epitaph, which, in Yeats’s beautiful translation, says that he left where “savage indignation there/cannot lacerate his breast”. He was a man extremely sensitive to the suffering and injustice around him, and he channelled it into his ice-cold satire which cuts to the bone.


Jonathan Swift – “A Modest Proposal” (ctd.)

The meat of children will be available throughout the year, but most plentifully around March, because as the unnamed French author (Rabelais, as the Helpful Footnote indicates) observed, children in Catholic countries are born in greatest numbers nine months after Lent, because the fish is “a prolific diet”. I’ve read that that’s because fish is salty and anything salty was considered aphrodisiac, but I’m not sure, Was salted fish really so prevalent in Ireland, the place where you can’t get any further than 100 km from the sea and there are lots of lakes and rivers? Also, if post-Lent baby boom were true, by my count it should occur in December/January. But the author doesn’t pay attention to these details and just announces triumphantly that that is one more advantage of his scheme, because it will help to get rid the country of papists, who are the primary breeders. One gentleman, with whom he shared his project, suggested even that adolescent boys and girls could be used instead of venison, which is growing scarce, but the author rejects it, because boys are too tough to eat and it is too wasteful to eat girls who can soon themselves become breeders. Besides, it would be too cruel and he emphasizes he wants to avoid unnecessary cruelty. But he quotes with approval the story of “Psalmanazar” (the then famous French charlatan, who claimed to be from Formosa [Taiwan]) that in his country the meat of a plump girl sentenced to death was sold at a very high price, and he says that he knows a couple of plump girls in Dublin who like only to spend the money they don’t have, and who, if disposed of in such a way, would bring much more profit to their country. As for the elderly and middle-aged people, the old die out fast enough, and so the younger people, being undernourished, so the author is not concerned about them.

So, summing up, in the author’s eyes his plan has only advantages, which he enumerates. Firstly, as he has already mentioned, decreasing the number of papists who are making Ireland unsafe, conspiring how to bring back the Pretender, while Protestants leave the country because they’d rather leave it to Catholics than “pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.” Swift, as a clergyman of the Church of Ireland was the representative of the episcopalian clergy, which represented only a small minority: the majority of the Irish were Catholic, and in the Protestant minority about half of them were Dissenters. I’m sorry to observe that in this one instance Swift’s usual intelligence didn’t help him to notice the injustice of the scheme where everybody had to pay taxes to support the Church they didn’t belong to. The second advantage is, the poor people finally would have some property at the stage when everything they owned has already been confiscated for debts. Thirdly, the GNP is going to rise because it’s not going to be encumbered by the cost of supporting these superfluous children, and their being sold for meat will generate additional income, which will be a boost to domestic economy. Fourthly, on the individual level, their mothers will earn money for selling their children and won’t have to spend any on supporting them past their first year. And fifthly, what a great benefit it will be to taverns, which can invent new dishes!

Jonathan Swift – “A Modest Proposal”

Today I started reading what is possibly Swift’s most famous political text. In this text, Swift assumes the persona of a benevolent projector, coming up with a scheme to solve poverty in Ireland. He begins by observing that women beggars, followed by a number of children, are a common sight in Dublin. These children are the drain on the country’s resources, because they require food and clothes, and their mothers can’t work while they take care of them. A child up to one year of age doesn’t require much apart from breast milk, but then the costs start to mount. You can’t put these children to any work, because Ireland’s economy is in shambles: “we neither build houses… nor cultivate land”, and you can’t even expect a child to become a decent pickpocket until it is six years old. They also can’t be sold (I assume he refers to some kind of illegal trade) until they are twelve years old, and the price will not cover the expense of raising them for so long. The solution the writer proposes will solve the issue once and for all, not just with beggars but also poorer working parents, and it will also end abortions and infanticides. The writer calculates that out of 200,000 married couples in Ireland only 30,000 are able to support their children, and he is afraid even that is too optimistic an estimate. Deducing 50,000 for miscarriages and children who die in infancy, Ireland is left with 120,000 children a year with which it doesn’t know what to do. The writer’s solution, inspired by a talk with an American acquaintance (he probably means a Native American), is to offer 100,000 children for sale as meat. The remaining 20,000 will be left for breeding purposes, with one-fourth of them being male, because these children are mostly illegitimate anyway, so “one male will be sufficient to serve four females” (here he makes a small error in his computation, because it would be actually three). A child can be enough for one dinner with guests, or even for several meals just for one family. The meat may be a bit expensive and so the author assumes it will be mostly sold to landlords, who “have already devoured most of the parents”.

Samuel Butler – “Hudibras” (the end)

This post is written in haste, as I wanted to complete Hudibras before I’d leave for holidays. Hudibras is a master of philosophy and theology, and we get a long list of jokes on his useless knowledge and ability to argue. But then comes the main point of Butler’s satire – Hudibras is a Presbyterian, “true blue” and is a fine representative of this sect whose members like to beat others into submission through their military force, their religion consists mostly of disliking all other religions and are so perverse that they’d rather “keep the holiday/the wrong than others the right way” (some extreme Puritans fasted on Christmas). As you can see, Butler doesn’t like Presbyterians at all. And now, time to bed, as I have to catch an early plane. Adieu!

Samuel Butler – “Hudibras” (ctd.)

But Hudibras, contrary to what people might say, is not a fool, the proof of which is that he can speak Latin and Greek and even some Hebrew. The thing is, he does not want to use his wisdom too often not to wear it out, just like some people save their best clothes for Sundays. But he is never afraid to show off his linguistic knowledge. He is also an able logician and rhetorician, because he never speaks but by using some metaphors and colourful language.His English is “cut on Greek and Latin”, like some articles of dress which were in fashion at the time and had coarser, cheaper cloth on the outside, but were slashed to show off the more expensive satin lining. So is Sir Hudibras’ speech a mixture of three languages, and like many Dissenters, he also loves to use some English neologisms. These new words are so hard Demosthenes could have used them instead of the pebbles he allegedly put in in his mouth to cure his stammer. And he is also an able mathematician because he can always tell whether a grocer tries to cheat him on bread or butter or when the clock is going to strike.

Samuel Butler -“Hudibras” (fragments)

This is a satirical poem against Puritans, published after the Restoration to much official acclaim (Charles II loved it). Of course nowadays we want our satirists to speak truth to the power and punch up, but it’s not so easy in the 17th century. Hudibras is a Puritan justice of peace who goes off on a mission (“a-coloneling”) a little bit like a knight errant. This happens during the Civil War, when men fight over Dame Religion like drunks over a prostitute, although they really don’t know why.  People are whipped into frenzy by preachers banging their pulpits, “drum ecclesiastic”. The authorities still quarrel whether Hudibras was wiser or braver, but it’s difficult to decide, because his brain is only slightly bigger than his rage, which makes some people call him a fool. Montaigne’s cat (Montaigne famously wondered in his Essays whether he was playing with his cat, or his cat with him) might consider him a fool too. All that is written in a vigorous, rather irregular tetrameter, which came to be known as hudibrastic verse.

John Dryden – “The Author’s Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic License”, “A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Saatire” (fragments)

More of Dryden’s theoretical writings with very long titles (I can’t blame him since I am guilty of it myself; it’s only in belles-lettres where you can get away with a one-word title). Both of them are a bit self-aggrandizing, as you are going to see. The first one comes from an introduction to Dryden’s libretto to a never produced opera based on Paradise Lost. In this text Dryden defends himself against the charges of using too high-flown and bombastic style, saying that the most severe stylists such as Virgil and Horace sometimes also used bold metaphors when appropriate. So when you judge  a poet for using too colourful language, perhaps the problem is with you, not with the poet. And why should Virgil and Horace be our yardsticks? Because they were admired by countless readers from all the later generations, so by taking issue with their language you also implicitly accuse all these readers of the lack of discernment. The reason why Virgil and Homer were the authors of such effective texts is because they studied Nature. In another fragment Dryden defines “wit” as “thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject”, which means that high and noble subjects require elevated style.

The next fragments, from Dryden’s introduction to a collection of translation of Roman satires, is about the difference between two modes of satire, named after two Roman poets “Juvenalian” and “Horatian”, the former being a savage attack on human depravity and the latter more of gentle mocking. Even though, as the Helpful Footnote informs us, Dryden seemed elsewhere to favour the Juvenalian, here he rather praises the latter, rather immodestly quoting his own portrait of Buckingham as Zimri in Absalom and Achitophel. He thinks rather highly of it himself and he thinks it is “worth the whole poem”.The real art of satire, Dryden argues, is to make somebody appear like a fool and knave without ever calling him thus. It’s like early English miniaturists, who could create an illusion of three-dimensional face without using shadowing. This mode of satire is preferable and safer also for the author, because “a witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not.” It’s like a masterful execution, when the victim hardly notices his being dispatched, as opposed to clumsy hanging.