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Swift’s Allusion to Contemporary Contexts of The 18th Century in a Modest Proposal

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Jonathon Swift’s satirical pamphlet, entitled A Modest Proposal (1729), portrays a composer who has conceived a plan to resolve the economic crisis that was prevalent within Ireland. The solution that was proposed was to eat the children of the poverty-stricken Irish. Alongside this depiction, Swift employs satirical devices to represent the disregarded poverty of Ireland by England and the reasons that led to this. The high land rents that were set by English landowners and by the tax on trade. As a result of this, contemporary contexts that were prominent in the early eighteenth century were also examined. For instance, there are numerous references to the economic affairs of both England and Ireland.

Swift declared the idea that it was a widely acknowledged fact that the high population of the poor situated in Ireland was an urgent issue that needed to be addressed. ‘it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance’. A reference to the economic crisis that Ireland suffered during the 18th century; which lead to the high numbers of poverty amongst the Irish population, an estimated population of 3 million people. Swift further employed dramatic irony and rule of three in depicting a solution to this economic crisis, that would be ‘fair, cheap and easy,’. Emphasizing that destitute Irish children that would otherwise be a burden, under certain circumstances can become productive members of society. Members of society who contribute to the wealth of England. These topics of the economy are explored within mercantilist views and beliefs towards labor throughout eighteenth-century England. Wittkowasky (1943) defined eighteenth-century English mercantilism as a belief system that viewed labor as a commodity. He conducted that this led to the assumption that the economic good of the state overshadowed the welfare of the individual’.

Moreover, this manner of operation focused on the economic expansion of England, by restricting Irish trade and growth. The consequence of limiting Ireland’s export of goods meant that people would have had to depend on the land for their livelihoods. However, many Irish people didn’t own their land, they rented it off English landlords, who would take most of any crops that were grown as rent. Resulting in poverty the of thousands of Irish individuals.

Furthermore, in contrast to another one of his works Swift, directs the blame for Ireland’s economic crisis and the increased levels of poverty on the ‘shameful practice’, of too, ‘many Irish Farmers’, who didn’t manage their farms professionally. Swift then followed by giving possible reasons as to why Irish farmers had let this incidence take place, that the reasons could have taken place ‘‘either through Poverty, Laziness or Ignorance’. Whereas in the present text: A Modest Proposal, noted in how the Irish had suffered under the ‘oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance’. Exhibiting Swift’s desire to improve the poverty-stricken lives of the Irish, alongside his dislike for the treatment of farmers by the aristocratic English landlords. This juxtaposition of Swift’s values may be an indication of a fluctuation of a set of ideas that were contrasting due to environments and conditions he was exposed to as a child. For instance, Ireland where he would have been confronted with the harsh realities of poverty and suffering. Compared to England, a setting that was abundant with views of religious righteousness and mercantilist views. However, these contrasting attitudes could also be in reference to Swift’s prejudice that Catholics were heretics and dangerous. His views towards Catholics can be seen in the line ‘it would greatly lessen the number of Papists’. Particularly in the Swifts use of the religious slur ‘Papists’, to denote an individual’s loyalties to the Roman Catholic Church.

Due to the actions of King James 1 goals, in the early 17th century, to enlighten Ireland to what he believed to be the true Christian belief. Which lead to an inflation in the number of English Protestants who immigrated to Ireland; residing on land that was seized from Catholic landowners. This occurrence produced a social of aristocratic England Protestants within Ireland, which resulted in a wide division between social classes. There were vast inequalities between the tenant and landlord populations within Ireland in the eighteenth century. In this instance, Swift uses symbolism to represent the social issues that examined how English landlords were benefiting from the hardships of their Irish tenants. Reflected in the line, ‘I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.’ Swift imposed caesuras in numerous positions within this line, to convey to the audience the significance of the subject that is being referenced in this instance. The subject to which Swift is referring to is the symbolically toxic relationship between Irish land tenants and English landlords. A relationship where the landlords were charged exorbitant rates for rent. A rent that meant that the farmers made essentially no profit from their labor, as the sale of their crop would be sold to pay the rent.

Subsequently, Swift imposed this realistic imbalance of power in a satirical manner. In the line ‘they have already devoured most of the parents’, conveying the harsh reality in which these farmers lived, a cycle of struggling to survive to benefit the fancies of their landlords. It could be considered that these Irish tenants were only living for one purpose to appease the lavish lifestyles of the English elite. By further inferring the landlord’s right a ‘title to the children’ of the tenants, illustrating the cruel cycle of a lifestyle that was reminiscent of numerous generations of Irish farmers of this era. And foreshadowing that if nothing to change the conditions within Ireland, the cycle of profiting would continue in following generations.

To conclude, Swift’s A Modest Proposal alludes to contemporary contexts of the eighteenth century. Through examining these contexts Swift was able to infer the effects of England’s profiteering of Ireland. Throughout the pamphlet, the composer endorses the consumption of destitute Irish children as a resolution to the issue of Irish poverty and would also profit England. These instances of endorsement can be seen at numerous points throughout the text. Particularly, in the context of the economy and the English mercantilist view of labor that lead to the economic expansion of England by restricting Irish trade and growth. Overall, allowing modern readers to understand an example of the issues that were prominent and how they affected people’s actions and views.  

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Swift’s Allusion To Contemporary Contexts Of The 18th Century In A Modest Proposal. (2021, November 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from
“Swift’s Allusion To Contemporary Contexts Of The 18th Century In A Modest Proposal.” GradesFixer, 10 Nov. 2021,
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