Swift, Jonathan

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Swift, Jonathan

Swift, Jonathan (1667-1745) Anglo-Irish essayist, poet, and satirist

A deft hand at sarcastic SATIRE, Jonathan Swift championed the Irish against English conventionality. A Dubliner born fatherless, he began his education at Kilkenny Grammar School and continued his studies at Trinity College, Dublin. He weathered the anti-Irish backlash during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (when King James II was overthrown) by leaving home to attend graduate school at Oxford University and to work as an estate secretary. In his mid-30s, he entered the Anglican clergy and sought a doctorate in theology. During his free time, he edited the Examiner and issued broadsides, parodies, and invective condemning the British government for heartless mercantilism and for lengthy imperial wars against Spain.

During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), Swift failed to secure a church appointment, upon which he returned to Ireland. There he vexed the queen and her ministers with humanitarian tracts. His most famous, the persuasive pamphlet “A Modest Proposal” (1729), vilified England's treatment of the Irish and proposed an investment in livestock that would turn Irish children to profit as table delicacies for discriminating English gentry. For the sake of irony, he subtitled the essay “For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.” With a tweak at the Western Hemisphere, the fictional speaker remarks, “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London; that a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled; and, I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust” (Swift 1958, 490). Asides charge landlords with victimizing the Irish through high rents and taxes and with limiting sources of income for able-bodied workers. A proposal to turn human skin into gloves and summer boots anticipates the Nazis' recycling for profit of gold teeth, hair, and skin of death camp victims during the Holocaust.

Swift's best-selling masterwork, the mock TRAVELOGUE Gulliver’s Travels (1726), allegorizes imperial pettiness and court fiascos under George I through the wanderings of a naif, Lemuel Gulliver, a ship's surgeon, among the pygmy Lilliputians, giant Brobdingnagians, and horse-people called Houyhnhnms. The shortsighted surgeon, an unreliable narrator, satirizes the idea of empire through disjointed episodes of chauvinism. Occasional epiphanies remind him that his homeland and church veil colossal flaws, which he symbolizes by the high-wire acts of courtiers seeking promotion and by the fanatic antipathies between diners who crack their eggs on the small end or the large end. In Lilliput, in a description of the rearing of infant males, Gulliver admires training “in the Principles of Honour, Justice, Courage, Modesty, Clemency, Religion, and Love of their Country” and notes as an aside, “They are never suffered to converse with servants” (39), a direct jab at the treatment of Irish domestics in English employ. Upon the surgeon's return to England, he bridles when “a little contemptible Varlet, without the least Title to Birth, Person, Wit, or common sense, shall presume to look with Importance and put himself upon a Foot with the greatest Persons of the Kingdom” (93). Implicit in Swift's criticism of imperial snobbery is his faith in Irish individualism and his distaste for the British lordliness toward its tributary nations. The imaginary voyages influenced the imaginative satires of the French writer VOLTAIRE, screenwriters of a cartoon series in 1992, and a television miniseries in 1996, featuring Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.


Brown, Laura. Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels and Other Writings.

New York: Modern Library, 1958.