Jonathan Swift at 350

December 15, 2017


By Jenny Farrell


Jonathan Swift belongs to both the literature of Ireland and to that of England. Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal formulate a radical position from an Irish point of view inside an English-dominated literary culture. They express the resistance and criticism of a literary oppositional culture.

Modern Irish literature in English begins with Swift and Gulliver's Travels is its first work. It is Swift's 'Irish point of view', his concern with Ireland, particularly with Ireland's colonial status and with Irish liberation, which defines Swift's literary radicalism.

The dominant culture in eighteenth-century Ireland - that of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy to which Swift belonged - was in not a specifically Irish culture. It was a culture that had more in common with English eighteenth-century culture than with that of the ordinary Irish people. It was an English-controlled culture. Its function was to ensure English hegemony in Ireland.

Swift’s commitment to the cause of Irish liberation and his passionate sympathy with the common people of Ireland only developed over time, after moving to Dublin when he became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in June 1713. Sixteen years later, with A Modest Proposal (1729), he had become the champion of the common people of Ireland: the masses of the Irish poor. A Modest Proposal is among the most vehement indictments of a ruling class in all literature, literally suggesting that the rich are cannibals: that they eat the children of the poor.

In his earlier book, Gulliver's Travels, too, Ireland's colonial status and the relationship between Ireland and England is paramount.

In Part III of this book Swift describes a visit to the flying island of Laputa ('the whore') and its enslaved neighbouring continent and capital Lagado and in chapter 3, he discusses "insurrections". The king has three ways of dealing with insurrection: either to "inflict the inhabitants with Dearth and Diseases", or to "pelt them from above with great Stones", or to let the island "drop directly upon their Heads which makes a universal Destruction both of Houses and Men".

However, this latter measure would destroy the King's own "Demesne", and the foundation stone on which it rests might "crack" or "burst" and "the whole Mass would fall to the Ground". Swift suggests that resistance and insurrection are commonplace in colonies and that such colonial war might end either with the destruction of the oppressor, or with the annihilation of both sides.

The reader is also presented with the parable of a successful Irish revolution. The inhabitants of Lindalino (Dublin) who "had often complained of great Oppressions" successfully rebel. The resistance they offer is so effective that the king, though "determined to reduce this proud People", "was forced to give the Town their own Conditions". "I was assured by a great Minister", the parable comes to a close, "that if the Island had descended so near the Town, as not to be able to raise itself, the Citizens were determined to fix it for ever, to kill the King and all his Servants, and entirely change the Government".

Swift's sympathies lie clearly with the "proud People" of Lindalino. There is nothing in the text that would imply a criticism, or even a 'distancing', of their methods and intentions. Unsurprisingly this whole section was omitted from all editions (including the first) until 1899!

The parable of an Irish Revolution anticipates a successful rebellion; Swift envisages complete national freedom and, by implication: the destruction of the oppressing island, the killing of the king, and an entire change of "Government". Historically, the parable anticipates the ideological position of the United Irishmen, i.e. that of revolutionary Republicanism at the end of the eighteenth century.

Colonial oppression and exploitation are major themes of the Travels, commenting on the condition of England. The most bitter indictment of the colonial system, is at the end of the book, after Gulliver's return to England. Gulliver gives the reasons for his hesitation to deliver "a Memorial to a Secretary of State" concerning his journeys. It is a passage of savage irony, anticipating the sarcasm of A Modest Proposal:

“To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with relation to the distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For Instance, a Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not wither; at length a Boy discovers Land from the Top-mast; they go on Shore to rob and plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for the King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a Couple more by Force for a Sample, return home, and get their Pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity; the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust; the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: And this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.”

Swift’s satire is first and foremost aimed at the condition of England. Part I criticises English society in dystopian terms: England seen as ruled by an oppressive, unjust, and "ambitious" royal family, assisted by a vain, selfish oligarchy, implicitly opposed to the idea of "a free people".

This is further developed in Part II where the satire gains considerably in depth and sharpness, in the ironic dialogue between the King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, which reads as utterly relevant to our own times. Take, for example, the theme of war. Gulliver is the ironic spokesperson of progress - in truth the point of view of an aggressive, expanding bourgeoisie - when he informs the king of the tremendous "Progress" made in Europe by the invention of gun powder. He offers him the "Secret" of this invention. The king, however, is "struck with Horror" at its barbarity.

The condition of England question is revisited in Part IV. In chapter 5, Gulliver informs the rational horse of the "State of England", the "Causes of War among the Princes of Europe" and begins to "explain the English Constitution". Swift's criticism is devastating; its principal object is the existence of war. The 'civilized' world is presented as permanently at war, ruled by the wolfish principles of selfishness, of lust for power and profit, of aggression, the true motives and causes of war. The reference to Ireland again is obvious: "If a Prince sends Forces into a Nation, where the People are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to Death, and make Slaves of the Rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from their barbarous Way of Living".

Any satire implies or presents some kind of ideal norm. Gulliver's Travels, too, contains a number of positive values Swift believed in, positive characters, e.g. the rational horse in Part IV, the farmer's daughter in Part II and the kind captain who rescues Gulliver at the end of Part IV. They are demonstrations in terms of practical living of how humans should act. The most radical statement of humanist political ethics is in in chapter 7 of Part III, where Gulliver sees Alexander and Hannibal, Caesar, Pompey and Brutus. Here, Swift lists positive moral and political qualities, which have lost none of their importance today.

Thus, Swift's radicalism is expressed in his devastating satire and total rejection of ruling-class culture, and in his passionate quest for a society free from exploitation and colonial domination, a society in which human liberty is a reality, a social order that deserves the name of humanity.

The information contained in this article is based on Thomas Metscher, The Radicalism of Swift (2015), Connolly Books, Dublin.

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