“I am 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 fricassee, or ragout.”
This is perhaps the most famous line in the essay. It is in this sentence that Swift grounds the gastronomical side of his satirical “modest proposal” that the people of Ireland should eat their young. Swift introduces this idea in the most shocking way possible with his claim that one-year-old babies are “delicious” whether they are “stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.” The image of a baby in a fricassee or a ragout is equally horrifying and absurd. The idea is so extreme that it demonstrates the overall irony of the piece. It is also worth noting that this line comes late in the essay. Swift lulls the reader into a false sense of trust in the narrator's good intentions by beginning with descriptions of the position of the poor in Ireland. The reader may think at first that this is a serious essay, making the point all the more jarring when it eventually appears. The idea itself comes from "a very knowing American," suggesting something of the wild barbarism of the Americas and American colonies.
“For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of papists, with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our dangerous enemies ...”
The plain argument is that if the Irish children are eaten, there will be fewer Irish Catholics to contend with. This line is emblematic of the religious prejudices Swift intended to expose with “A Modest Proposal.” The “papists” are Catholics, those who believe in the spiritual primacy of the Pope. Swift is writing in the voice of an extreme, bigoted English Protestant in order to mock such a person. He reveals the stereotype that the Irish have lots of children by having his narrator call them “the principal breeders.” Swift’s narrator also asserts that the Irish Catholics are “our dangerous enemies.” Swift was not suggesting that he believed any of these things. He more likely was suggesting that such beliefs were destructive and foolish, since he put those ideas in the writing of a very prejudiced narrator.
“I can think of no one objection that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom.”
This line, late in “A Modest Proposal,” heightens the piece’s overall satirical effect. Up to this point, the satire has derived chiefly from the absurd proposals. When the reader encounters the "unless," the reader might think that the writer is about to acknowledge that, after all, the idea of eating babies is morally wrong. Swift subverts this expectation by continuing the satire, naming the unexpected objection of mere population depletion. Although the Irish are the enemy and it is better to have few of them, at least they help develop the economy and the countryside. With this added irony, Swift is further heightening the satire, suggesting that the writer does not even conceive that the idea of killing and eating Irish one-year-olds could be morally wrong.
"A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased in discoursing on this matter to offer a refinement upon my scheme."
The writer suggests that he is not the only one prejudiced enough to support such an idea as eating Irish children. It is "a very worthy person" who truly loves England who agrees with him and even has offered to improve the narrator's original idea. This "worthy person" is supposedly a modern thinker of the English upper class. The person suggests eating the flesh of fourteen-year-old children in addition to infants, which would reduce a child-bearing Irish generation as well. Thus the satire is extended to an entire class of Englishmen.
This quarrel first began, as I have heard it affirmed by an old dweller in the neighbourhood, about a small spot of ground, lying and being upon one of the two tops of the hill Parnassus; the highest and largest of which had, it seems, been time out of mind in quiet possession of certain tenants, called the Ancients; and the other was held by the Moderns.
This line sets up the “Ancients” and “Moderns” dichotomy, which later was attributed to Swift and reformulated by other writers such as Leo Strauss. Here, these are the two sides in the literal “battle” which commences among the books of the British Royal Library. According to the "old dweller," the argument began when the Moderns, occupying the lower place on the Parnassus, grew jealous of the Ancients, who were on the higher peak.
"As when a skilful cook has trussed a brace of woodcocks, he with iron skewer pierces the tender sides of both, their legs and wings close pinioned to the ribs; joined in their lives, joined in their deaths; so closely joined that Charon would mistake them both for one, and waft them over Styx for half his fare."
This line is at the climactic conclusion of the "battle" as recorded, though the battle continues. Boyle, on the side of the ancients, stabs Bentley and Wotton, who are on the side of the moderns, and the two friends are so close together (being speared together) that they seem as one. This is most likely because both authors appeared literally in the same book, bound together. In "The Bookseller to the Reader," the introductory material to "Battle of the Books," it is remarked, "The controversy [between Ancients and Moderns] took its rise from an essay of Sir William Temple’s upon that subject; which was answered by W. Wotton, B.D., with an appendix by Dr. Bentley." As for Charon, one had to pay him a toll to be ferried across the River Styx, which is how dead people got to the Underworld, which is where these friends would be headed if they were not actually books. Giving the two friends the demeaning "woodcock" imagery suggests that Swift is on the side of Boyle and the Ancients, but since we do not know the conclusion of the battle, Swift might be making only the more limited point that Boyle may have had the better argument, for now, against the other two writers.
“However, I know not how, whether from the affectation of singularity, or the perverseness of human nature, but so it unhappily falls out, that I cannot be entirely of this opinion [that we ought to abolish Christianity].”
This is another good example of satire. Swift suggests that it may be “affectation” or perversity that causes him to want to keep Christianity from being abolished. At the time he was writing, abolishing the religion would have been absurd. This is about as absurd as the idea about eating babies from “A Modest Proposal.” It is extreme and shocking to imagine Christianity being abolished in that culture, but it is especially shocking to imagine a situation in which to being opposed to abolishing Christianity would make a person “perverse.” As in “A Modest Proposal,” Swift is taking certain ideas to the extreme for effect. He hopes, with this line, and with this piece, to liken the abolishing of Christianity to the repeal of the Test Act of 1673, which required individuals who wished to hold public office to take Communion. He wants to mock those who wish to repeal the Test Act, suggesting that doing away with a test of proper religious faith (Anglicanism) would be like repealing Christianity itself.
"Once upon a time there was a man who had three sons by one wife, and all at birth, neither could the midwife tell certainly which was the eldest."
In Section 2 of "The Tale of a Tub," Swift is introducing the three brothers who will represent the three forms of Western Christianity: Catholicism, The Church of England, and Protestant Dissenters. The father represents God. Swift writes that the midwife could not tell "which was the eldest," implying that it is difficult to discern which form of Christianity maintains the original Christian tradition. This plot element recalls the situation in Genesis when two twins are born at the same time in such a way that it is impossible to say with certainty which twin is older. Also, "Once upon a time" immediately establishes this text as a kind of allegorical fairy tale.
"But a broomstick, perhaps you will say, is an emblem of a tree standing on its head; and pray what is man, but a topsy-turvy creature, his animal faculties perpetually mounted on his rational, his head where his heels should be, grovelling on the earth! and yet, with all his faults, he sets up to be a universal reformer and corrector of abuses, a remover of grievances, rakes into every slut's corner of nature, bringing hidden corruption to the light, and raises a mighty dust where there was none before, sharing deeply all the while in the very same pollutions he pretends to sweep away."
This passage is from a very short parody of Robert Boyle's Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects. Swift is mocking Boyle's literary style, with its almost stream-of-consciousness reflections that seem to go almost nowhere. This satirical passage exposes what Swift truly thought about Boyle: that he was a "silly writer," characteristically writing silly reflections like this. The serious point in the passage as written is that people often set themselves up as moral judges, nosing into other people's dirty laundry, which means getting their own noses dirty, not unlike what happens to a broom when it is used to sweep away the dust. To really investigate the gutter, one must put part of oneself in the gutter. "Rakes into every slut's corner" seems like an intentionally bawdy double entendre; a "rake" is an immoral man as well as a device used to stir up a fire. A "slut" could be any untidy or dirty woman, or a maid; the word has roots in the idea of being muddy.
"All the quality and gentry were perfectly ashamed, nay, some utterly disowned that they had manifested any signs of religion."
Here, Swift is mocking religious excess and hypocrisy. In "A True and Faithful Narrative," when Mr. Whiston makes the prediction that a comet will strike the earth, the town goes into a frenzy of repentance and religious extremes. When the comet fails to strike, they return to their old ways, as this line illustrates. Swift is suggesting that none of this religious feeling was genuine.
A Modest Proposal and Other Satires Questions and Answers
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Swift's intent is to portray himself as a modest, rational individual. His eogotistical persona is evident in the way he presents himself, his proposal, and his calculations to justify his proposal. Although satirical, his proposal is based upon...
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