Jonathan Swift, "Description of a City Shower" (1710) and "A Modest Proposal" (1729-30)

Genre: satiric verse and prose satire.

Form: "City Shower" is in heroic couplets, rhyming pairs of loose iambic pentameter lines (with a few extra syllables tucked in there when necessary.

Characters: Swift’s "Projector" persona, the Irish poor, and Irish and English readers, in "A Modest Proposal"; in "City Shower," a survey of typical "town" types, rather like the General Prologue of "Canterbury Tales," but concentrating on the new city-scape of the seventeenth century: Susan, the Templar, the "sempstress," Tories, Whigs, and beaux.

Summary: "Description of a City Shower":  A city shower ironically levels the pretensions and class differences which ordinarily divide the town's population, even as it exposes the disgusting waste that the new "mode" (viz. "modern") life now forbids one to mention.  All social surfaces suddenly are exposed, from low to high: Susan takes down her linens from the line, Tories and Whigs "forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs" (line 41), etc.   (Compare with Dryden's "Annus Mirabilus" which turns a city ruined by the great fire into a rising, angelic ruler of the world.)  Be sure to visit the U. Va. E-text of "City Shower" (link above) to see images of the poem's pseudonymous first edition in Joseph Addison's The Tatler, one of England's first periodical publications (i.e., a "magazine").  Better yet, see the real thing in Goucher's Rare Book Collection!

"A Modest Proposal": "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 public."  The essay satirically promotes the consumption of one-year-old children to eliminate the growing number of poor citizens in Ireland.   Swift uses savage irony to point out the inhumane condition of the colonized Irish.   Near the end, his "Projector" rejects several rational ways to help the poor, strategies Swift, himself, had previously proposed in pamphlets, including the series known as "The Drapier's Letters."  Part of the satire's effect derives from the thoroughness with which it works out its basic metaphor equating the English devouring of innocent babies and wealthy absentee landowners devouring the Irish economy.   This has the effect of literalizing the metaphor as the butchery, sale, and consumption of the "product" are worked out.  This also was a satirical strategy we saw in Jonson's Volpone (feigned madness becomes a real madness, leading to incarceration).  This proposal could be compared with More’s Utopia because they both use satire to discuss the welfare of society.  More used a more appealing alternative to create his utopia,  a place where everyone was equal and where sharing everything solved class divisions.  Distancing the subject from England helps readers play More's game since it reduces  their drive to test the utopian constructs against "reality."  By contrast, Swift used the horrendous proposal of devouring children to make a statement about the society in which he lived, in effect making England and Ireland seem strange, alien places, a negation of the popular vision.   Such a "negative Utopia" could be called a "dystopia."


Issues and Research Sources:  

1.    The mistake first-time readers of "MP" usually make is in identifying Swift's intended readers as "the English."  This is  probably suggested by the "Projector" persona's reference to "them" and "they" when referring to the Irish poor, but remember that not all the Irish were poor, though all were affected by the economic exploitation of Ireland by England.  Look closely at the pronoun "we" as it is used in the last paragraph on 2474, or "our merchants" on 2475, and especially "our" in the paragraph about "other expedients" on 2478.  Swift plays with his audience by implying that the Projector is Irish, and that his intended readers are Irish, as well.  This is borne out by the early publishing history of the essay--the first edition was published, anonymously, in Dublin, though the edition was reprinted with a new title page listing it as "By Dr. Swift" in London in the same year.  What effect would anonymous publication of such a pamphlet have upon the Irish readers?  What effect would it have upon the English readers who would be, in effect, overhearing this conversation about their colony being conducted by colonials.  A later edition in 1730 included two additional sections as a preface to the "Proposal," and it impishly refused to explicitly identify the author as Swift.  Why?

2.  Dublin and London, where Swift first published "MP," both considered themselves "worlds," centers of culture and learning, and sources of the new norms of behavior that well-informed people sought to follow.  Novelty becomes a quality sought for its capacity to surprise, just as tradition once was sought for its calming familiarity.  And just as some traditions deserved to be changed even though they comforted those they privileged, so some novelties needed to be condemned before they ruined conversation, the economy, or people's lives.  See the events associated with the founding of the London Stock Exchange, especially the "South Sea Bubble," for an example of the last.  "Projectors," such as the one using socio-economic analysis to solve Ireland's poverty problem, were behind the "Bubble," too.  The satirist takes upon her-/himself the risky task of arbitrating the modes of each new day, to praise those which deserve it while mocking those which do not with just enough savagery to stunt their growth or to ensure their extinction.  Unfortunately for the Irish people, Swift's satire in "MP" did not succeed and the economic situation actually continued to get worse for over a century.  Why didn't this satire stop the exploitation of the Irish poor?  Remember Sidney's ("Defense of Poesy") assertion that "praxis" (deeds) rather than mere "gnosis" (knowing) was the true test of poetry's powers.

3.  Swift's most potent weapon against readers' indifference toward the Irish poor was his satire's rhetorical style.  All satirists take advantage of readers' willingness to believe that they are reading "normal truth-telling" unless warned otherwise, and from the title to the introductory description of the economic problem besetting the Irish, this strategy is pursued by Swift's speaker (usually called "the Projector," as in one who proposes "projects" to remedy social ills).  Swift may be more skilled than any other English satirist in the speed with which he leads readers from their comfortable absorption in the "normal truth-telling" discourse to the Projector's sudden descents into foolish (Horatian) or criminal (Juvenalian) assumptions.  For an early clue that something is wrong with the Projector's calm description of the socio-economic disaster, see the first sentence's numeric sequence of poor children following their begging mothers from door to door.  Do the math.  What does that sequence look like as a graphed curve?  See #8 below for the consequences of the culture's ignorance of Swift's warning.

4.  In this proposal, Swift has mentioned other ways to increase the prosperity of Ireland (2478).    Why do you think that Swift chose to use the devouring of children’s flesh as the basis of this proposal?

We have many precedents for this strategy.  For instance, Montaigne's essay "Of Cannibals" argued that, though they ate human flesh, the cannibals were more noble than we were in their other conduct; Jonson's Volpone, suggested that Europeans' greed turned them into animals who preyed upon one another (see the I.1 "duet" between Volpone and Mosca in which they praise Volpone for what he will not do, but others will, in pursuit of money); Behn's Oroonoko, argued that sophisticated Europeans were more debased than the "Natural Man" (compare especially the behavior of the Native Americans vs. the colonists' debauchery on Sundays, the day of the slaves' revolt).

5.  What use has English literature made of the supposed binary opposition "civilized-savage" and how have they defined those terms?

Note that even Behn makes her most debased European "the wild Irishman, Bannister" and moderate Marvell's "Horatian Ode" guardedly praises Cromwell's suppression of the Irish, while Milton positively dances on Irish graves in his commendatory poem to Cromwell on the same expedition. 

Think about how we conceive of our identities by making comparisons and contrasts with others.  In our most deeply buried layers of character, there are visions of the Other by which we anchor our separateness, our notion of a discrete identity.  The use of the Irish as the Other happens in America, too, with even in the works of revered writers like Thoreau and Hawthorne.

6.    In C17 editions of "Modest Proposal" some of the text was italicized in order to emphasis the meaning of these sections. Usually these sections contained Swift’s personal feelings or attitudes toward modern issues of poverty and poverty (esp. the "other expedients" passage).

7.     One of the infuriating things about the "Proposer"'s or "Projector"'s voice is its serene rationalism.   All of its rhetoric imitates the ideal C17 public speaker's tone of sweet reason and enlightened concern for the well-being of others.  He never descends to polemical ranting.  The scariest part of the essay may be when the argument turns to the suggestion that, if the Irish were offered the chance to kill their children, they might prefer it to seeing them grow up in such total poverty (cf. Oroonoko's decision to kill Imoinda so that their unborn children would not be raised as slaves).

8.    .  Though the typical student reading of this "proposal" is that the morally bankrupt "Proposer" wishes to sell Irish babies to the absentee English landlords, the narrator specifically points out that this is impossible because "this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, the flesh being of too tender a consistence to admit a long continuance in salt, although I perhaps I could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it."  That's Swift's closest approach to the "English landlords eating Irish babies" reading, and he turns it into a hypothetical metaphor in the end.   Instead, it appears the Irish, themselves, must be the "customers" for this new Irish delicacy that's too dainty to export.  How does that affect your sense of the experience of the satire's first readers when they picked it up in Dublin bookstalls?   

9.    The conditions Swift describes in "A Modest Proposal" are not hyperbole.  Only his Projector's solution exaggerates, and perhaps only a little.  The situation continued to deteriorate for another 150 years, during which English landlords exported from Ireland the grain and livestock Irish tenant farmers raised, while the farmers increasingly had to live on a limited range of vegetables, mainly potatoes.  In 1845, a previously unknown fungus named Phytophthora infestans attacked the potato crop.   For the first two years of the great famine, while England continued to export most other edible crops from Ireland to England, the Irish starved, and even after grain started to flow back into the land, people continued to die of starvation and opportunistic diseases which afflict the malnourished.  Those who could not pay rent with crops which would not grow were evicted from their homes, caught cholera, typhus, and typhoid fever in the workhouses, were shipped to Australia, Canada and America by the hundreds of thousands only to die on the ships or shortly after reaching land.  An Irish population of eight to nine million souls was reduced to between five and six million.  Swift tried to tell them what would happen.  Which satirists are we ignoring, to our peril, today?

10.    As the previous discussion issue suggests, good satire must have, at its root, a copious fund of truth about its subject--only its subject's imbalances, follies, or crimes must be exaggerated, and those only a little.  The best satire is nearly persuasive even as it undercuts its own aims (see #3 above).  Lest you think the proposal's basic  reasoning is inherently unpersuasive, consult the writings of Robert Malthus on population growth and the human condition.  For the short version, click here and notice who is paying attention to Malthus. 

11.    If King Lear imagined a world without the Christian notion of God and redemption and salvation, "A Modest Proposal" also might be said to imagine a world without something many modern English-speaking persons would have begun taking for granted by 1729: human rights.  Just as the fear of divine retribution was thought to restrain the human tendency to sin against one's spirit and one's neighbors, the respect for human rights might be expected to restrain other kinds of misbehavior when circumstances make inhumane action appealing.  Does the essay's satire implicitly appeal to divine power or to "natural law" as a solution to the plight of the Irish people?  In the context of Swift's era, scholars identify him clearly with "Tory" politics, as opposed to the "Whig" government then in power.  See the Norton era introduction (2046) for a quick overview, but generally speaking, Tories supported the Crown and landed aristocracy because they were deeply conservative, whereas Whigs supported the bankers and merchants, as well as progressive social causes, though they also supported slavery as being "good for commerce." 

12.    If you liked Swift's satire, look here for the story of the famous "Isaac Bickerstaff," who notoriously predicted a famous London astrologer's death.  If you would like to work with an accurate, online edition of the "Proposal," I would recommend Richard Bear's Renascence Editions page at the University of Oregon. 

13.  Click here for Sebastian Vrancx' early seventeenth-century painting of street vendors, including a pamphlet seller of the type whose wares later in the century might have included Astell's Some Reflections upon Marriage, Swift's A Modest Proposal, and Rochester's handbill advertising the services of Doctor Alexander Bendo.  One of my long-term research projects involves trying to figure out when independent booksellers with fixed "shops" became the norm, and how their relations with printers, and later publishers, and authors, evolved.  The current trend toward Internet self-publishing (fan fiction, blogs, Amazon e-books) presents us with a "devolving" marketplace for literature which flattens out the intermediary levels of production between authors and readers.

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