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30 Nov

In Our Time: Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most brilliant and shocking satires ever written in English – Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Masquerading as an attempt to end poverty in Ireland once and for all, a Modest Proposal is a short pamphlet that draws the reader into a scheme for economic and industrial horror.

Published anonymously but written by Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal lays bare the cruel presumptions, unchecked prejudice, the politics and the poverty of the 18th century, but it also reveals, perhaps more than anything else, the character and the mind of Swift himself.

With John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London; Judith Hawley, Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London and Ian McBride, Senior Lecturer in the History Department at King’s College London

The programme explains the background of the Proposal, including the confiscation of land, the growth of mathematical problem solving (referencing William Petty, surveyor of Ireland) and the conditions at the time.

17 Aug

Swift’s Crater

A diagram showing the orbits of Mars' moons, Deimos and Phobos.

From Giberne’s “The story of the sun, moon, and stars” (1898) – Public Domain

On the 17th of August 1877, the search of American astronomer Asaph Hall was finally successful. He had doubted the conventional wisdom that Mars had no moon. Using the giant 26-inch refractor of the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., he searched close to the planet and discovered not one but two moons, travelling so close to the surface of Mars that until now they were lost in the planet’s glare. These were named Phobos and Deimos (see more about the moons on the NASA website).

This discovery had been anticipated by a fictional research organisation. In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, describing Gulliver’s visit to Balnibarbi and to Lagado, the island that floats above it where its rulers live. The intelligentsia of Lagado, though unhealthily engrossed in their studies, are advanced in astronomy: Read More

12 Jan

“Censorship and deception in the printing of Swift’s works 1690-1758” , National Print Museum, 15th Jan 2015.

From ECIS: There will be a public lecture at the National Print Museum entitled ‘Censorship and deception in the printing of Swift’s works 1690-1758’, on Thursday, 15 January 2015, at 6.30pm. The lecture will be given by Professor Andrew Carpenter as part of the National Print Museum’s ‘Censored’ lecture series and is free of charge

Please visit the National Print Museum website, or call 01 6603770 for further details.

03 Dec

Reciprocal Referencing: Hutcheson and Swift

At the end of a downpour on a Dublin street

“Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.”
Downpour in Dublin (c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I came across an article, An image from Francis Hutcheson in Gulliver’s Travels, book IV, chapter 5 by Arnd Bohm, in which he points out the similarity between a passage by Swift and a passage by Hutcheson.

In Gulliver’s Travels (book IV, Chapter 5) Gulliver tells the gentle, horse-like Houyhnhnm master about wars among humans, and the death and destruction it involves:

And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, “that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators.”

The Houyhnhnm is horrified, as we might be well be, at the thought of wholesale death being a “great diversion”. Bohm suggests that the moral indifference shown is emphasised when we realise the likely source of the example Swift is using.
Read More

13 Jun

Yeats on Swift and Liberty

What was this liberty…served through all his life with so much eloquence? ‘I should think,’ he wrote in the Discourse, ‘that the saying, vox populi, vox dei ought to be understood of the universal bent and current of a people, not of the bare majority of a few representatives, which is often procured by little arts, and great industry and application; wherein those who engage in the pursuits of malice and revenge are much more sedulous than such as would prevent them.’ That vox populi or ‘bent and current,’ or what we even more vaguely call national spirit, was the sole theme of his Drapier Letters; its right to express itself as it would through such men as had won or inherited general consent. I doubt if a mind so contemptuous of average men thought…that it found expression also through individual lives, or asked more for those lives than protection from the most obvious evils.

Yeats on Swift (specifically his favourite tract of Swift’s, the Discourse of the Contests and Dissentions…in Athens and Rome) in Wheels and Butterflies (London, 1934), pp. 23-24

The quote was included in W. B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, and Liberty, which links Swift and Yeats in their fight for a particular vision of liberty, coupled with elitism:
“He knew that the Irish intellect must continue the fight that Swift had led in Ireland against those perpetuations of seventeenth-century materialism–optimism, faith in utopian schemes, trust in democracy–that lay behind the new pious legislation and hedged about modern life. Outside of Ireland he had been accustomed to the extreme opinions of youth, often outrageous and contrary to his own opinions. But not in Ireland. Therefore Yeats felt mightly obliged to be the Swift of his day and outrage youth itself.”

19 May

Swift Matters

One of the claims Damrosch makes near the beginning of his book to explain the need for a new biography is that “Swift matters”. This is, I think, justifiable. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” used to be his most famous (and most misquoted) soundbite but in recent years changed priorities and transformed relationships have pushed another of his statements to the fore, one in which Swift calls for a law to be passed that would make it mandatory to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year”. Swift matters not just because he said some things which, taken out of context, can be readily assimilated to modern populist sentiment. He perfected the art of crafting phrases snappy enough to become slogans but which, on closer inspection, yield disturbing and contradictory meanings. He also (naturally) had an epigrammatic statement for this reading process, likening satire to “a sort of glass” in which beholders are likely to discern everyone’s face but their own. Not all his reflections will appeal. “

From “This life a long disease” by James Ward in The Dublin Review of Books, reviewing a new biography of Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch

02 May

Swift, satire and censorship

Clip from The First Georgians, which covers an important but often overlooked time in British and Irish history.

What is said about censorship is true. Britain was freer than most after the legal mechanisms for policing print lapsed in 1695. Still, many works were published anonymously, for fear of public reaction. Swift is an excellent example…even though his satire was so entertaining that Gulliver’s Travels is widely read today without any notion of its satirical intent (nicely explained in this video).

Works judged blasphemous or seditious could still get you arrested. Toland, Emyln and Swift himself (not to mention his printer) could all attest to that.

Still, to steal a title from Swift, this was truly a time when a “Battle of the Books” was first allowed to take place. More on the political and philosophical background to Gulliver’s Travels here on Cliffs Notes.

24 Jun

A Swift solution for Irish banking

The lowness of interest, in all other countries a sign of wealth, is in us a proof of misery, there being no trade to employ any borrower. Hence alone comes the dearness of land, since the savers have no other way to lay out their money.
[…]
I have sometimes thought, that this paradox of the Kingdom growing rich, is chiefly owing to those worthy gentlemen the BANKERS, who, except some custom-house officers, birds of passage, oppressive thrifty squires, and a few others that shall be nameless, are the only thriving people among us: And I have often wished that a law were enacted to hang up half a dozen bankers every year, and thereby interpose at least some short delay, to the further ruin of Ireland.”

Jonathan Swift on banking in his 2008 1728 Tract, A short view of the state of Ireland.

His account of rising prices, and Dublin being full of new buildings as builders hire each other is oddly familiar.

18 Jun

Swift Crowned

Swift Crowned

This year (2013) marks the 300th anniversary of Swift becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral (he was installed on 13th June, 1713). The picture above is from the title page to Jonathan Swift’s Works of 1735. Beneath Swift’s feet lies a figure, probably Mr. Wood, with his brass half-pennies strewn below. Ireland kneels before Swift to thank him. The Latin inscription, from Horace, says, “I have made a monument more lasting than brass.” This all refers to Swift’s work that combines political philosophy with rhetoric, the Drapier Letters,

Drapier’s Letters were a series of pamphlets, supposedly written by a Mr. Drapier, a draper by trade. They were written in response to the decision in 1722 to allow Mr Wood to create new copper coinage for Ireland up to the value of £180,000, a right obtainedafter payment of £100,000 as a bribe to the Duchess of Kendal, mistress to King George I. New coinage was needed in Ireland but this measure was imposed on Ireland without the consultation or control of the Irish government.

The first Drapier’s Letter was A Letter to the shopkeepers, tradesmen, farmers and the common people of Ireland concerning the brass halfpence coined by Mr. Woods (1724) . His analysis of the faults of the inferior coinage and its probable effects on the Irish economy due to hoarding of good quality coinage triggered an enquiry, which advised reducing the number of coins. It also produced a report by Isaac Newton, head of the Mint arguing that the coins were good.

Swift continued on the offensive, however. In  A Letter to Mr. Harding the printer, he criticised the assay process and urged that the Irish people should refuse the coins. Mr Wood, “Drapier” says, will force the coins onto a nation who do not want them, and profit greatly thereby. Who “with the figure of a man can think with patience of being devoured alive by a rat?” In this way, Swift widened the field of the controversy: the question of the patent is framed by the wider question of the lack of freedom of the Irish, whose indifference “Drapier” can scarcely credit. As a result of this letter, a group comprising bankers, merchants and tradesmen gathered together to declare they would not accept Wood’s coins. However Walpole’s government pressed on with the plan, despite a noticeable lack of support from the Irish parliament.
Read More

23 May

The Logicians Refuted

Read by Gregg Margarite. Written by Jonathan Swift (or Oliver Goldsmith, see note).

Very much in the tradition of Diogenes, who on hearing Plato had defined humans as “featherless bipeds”, presented him with a plucked chicken, the poet satirically punctures humanity’s supposed elevated status.

He explicitly argues against Aristotle and Smiglesius (1564 – 1618, Polish Jesuit philosopher, known for his 1618 Logica, commonly used as a textbook), and implicitly against those in his own time who presented reason as all important. The poet retorts that man is weak and erring, and instinct is a better guide. He makes a long list of man’s follies and foibles (including a dig at Sir Robert Walpole or “Bob”, who employed party-writers to write his praises). He claims animals avoid these errors (though his knowledge of beasts is not as accurate as that of man). He finally notes human similarity to apes, and that humans at court yet manage to out-ape the apes.

Full text of the poem.

Note: This video attributes the authorship of this work to Jonathan Swift, but it is also attributed to Oliver Goldsmith. Continue reading