A Modest Proposal and Other Satires

A Modest Proposal and Other Satires Swift's "Muses"

Swift, as a satirical writer, often gained inspiration from men and ideas that he considered to be ridiculous. He was motivated to write in parody of them. Others he admired greatly. A few of his contemporaries, however, were more “muse-like” than others in terms of their influence on Swift. Here are a few of these men.

Lord John Somers (1651-1716)

Somers appears in A Tale of a Tub. Swift hailed Somers as “one of the greatest men of his age and nation.” Somers was a Whig politician who was crucial in the Revolution Settlement and the creation of the Bill of Rights in England. He rose to the position of Lord High Chancellor under William III. He published several treatises about politics with which Swift undoubtedly was familiar. While Swift was an admirer of his, Somers’ own record was mixed. He advocated for greater rights, but, ultimately, these rights were only enjoyed by an elite. In Tale of a Tub, Swift parodies the figure of the unliterary bookseller by having the bookseller write a dedication to Somers (a truly powerful and influential figure), but Somers is not spared either in Swift’s parody; the bookseller says that he is writing to Somers because the author says the book is about vanity, and Somers is a vain man.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691)

Boyle may be best known for Boyle’s Law, which states that the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely proportional at constant temperature. Boyle was a writer who Swift parodied in “A Meditation Upon a Broomstick.” Like Swift, Boyle was a Renaissance man, writing on a variety of topics including science, politics, and theology. Swift called Boyle “a very silly writer.” The book that Swift was parodying specifically was Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects, which Butler also parodied with his book An Occasional Reflection on Dr. Charlton’s Feeling a Dog’s Pulse at Gresham College. Occasional Reflections is far from being Boyle’s most well-known work, or most influential; if it hadn’t been for the parodies, it may have been forgotten. The book was ripe for parody, however, as it was a bizarre grouping of unrelated thoughts and musings presented in a deadly serious manner. Note that Robert Boyle is not the same person as the hero at the end of “The Battle of the Books”—that person is Charles Boyle, a translator of the ancient writer Phalaris (a tyrant known for allegedly having eaten human babies).

Sir William Petty (1623-1687)

Petty was most influential on Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Petty was an economist and scientist known for his theories of “political arithmetic.” He believed that all one needed to solve political or social questions was to ask and solve the right math questions. He was one of the early proponents of laissez-faire economic policy. Swift considered Petty, and those like him, to be taking a hard-hearted approach to social questions. Swift’s many numbers and cold economic calculations in “A Modest Proposal” come in large part from Petty’s “political arithmetic.”

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Pope was one of Swift’s friends and a fellow satirist. Pope was best known for his heroic couplet style of poetry. Pope and Swift came from similarly disadvantaged positions from an English Protestant perspective: Pope was Catholic; Swift was Irish. They both exposed social prejudices in their writing. Specifically, Pope’s masterful “The Rape of the Lock,” an epic poem about a minor event (the unwanted cutting off of a lock of a girl’s hair), was influential on Swift’s commentary on economic inequality in both Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal.” Swift was likely also thinking of Pope when writing “The Battle of the Books,” because Pope was a champion of the Ancients. The two men corresponded often by letter, which also suggests the degree to which Pope was important in Swift’s life. Although Pope’s medium was poetry and Swift’s was prose, the two were both satirists, and Pope undoubtedly influenced Swift’s projects.