I’m currently rereading and revisiting some of the texts I studied at school and university to see how different my attitude is to them now I am at the age of the teachers rather than the pupils. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is one of the texts that I remember my English teachers raving about, for the elegance of its language and its perfect example of how to convey even the most outrageous arguments persuasively.
I think I really “got” this one even as a teenager, and it came as no real surprise to discover that this essay by such a master of the English language (albeit Irish – Swift was Dean of Trinity College, Dublin) has stood up so well to the test of time. It continues to be the perfect model of the essayist’s art.
What is Swift’s Proposal? You’ll Have to Read It To Find Out…
For the benefit of anyone reading this review who has not yet read it, I am reluctant to explain exactly what the proposal consists of, but I urge you to read of yourself to discover exactly what it is. (You can download a Kindle copy for free, as it’s long out of copyright.)
Prepare to be surprised – and also astonished at how persuasive his argument is of something that should be entirely abhorrent.
The Power of Irony
Of course, Swift was being entirely ironic, but his approach is a much more skilful way of drawing attention to his cause – the social deprivations and inequalities in the Ireland of his day – than if he had written a simple plea or description of those conditions.
The power of his argument continues to resonate to this day and sadly is still relevant to the twenty-first century world. Swift’s easy rhetoric is a masterful and timely reminder of how easily we may be swept along by skilled politicians or even leaders of cults. I think this essay should be compulsory reading on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whether or not you are interested in politics, read this essay to be amazed by how readily its message would slot into a twenty-first century political comedy sketch show, or, god forbid, into the mouths of some of our current political leaders without the saving grace of irony.
I am forever grateful to my (American) English teacher in high school for introducing me to it.