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A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift

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Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. His father died before he was born, leaving the family with relatively modest means. Nevertheless, as a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class, Swift received the best education Ireland could offer. As a young man, he worked as private secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired Whig diplomat, at Moor Park in southern England. During his ten years in this position, Swift took advantage of Temple's vast library to round out his education and immersed himself in the politics and opinions of this prominent intellectual. Swift took orders in the Anglican Church in 1694, and he was named dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin in 1713. For many years he worked, anxiously and unsuccessfully, to secure himself a permanent appointment in England; during this period he considered his life in Ireland a kind of exile. Shuttling back and forth between Ireland and England with some regularity, he became increasingly embroiled in English politics. He also established himself in the literary circle that included Addison and Steele. Later, he changed both political and literary loyalties and befriended Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot, who would be his lifelong friends.

Swift's Ireland was a country that had been effectively controlled by England for nearly 500 years. The Stuarts had established a Protestant governing aristocracy amid the country's relatively poor Catholic population. Denied union with England in 1707 (when Scotland was granted it), Ireland continued to suffer under English trade restrictions and found the authority of its own Parliament in Dublin severely limited. Swift, though born a member of Ireland's colonial ruling class, came to be known as one of the greatest of Irish patriots. He, however, considered himself more English than Irish, and his loyalty to Ireland was often ambivalent in spite of his staunch support for certain Irish causes. The complicated nature of his own relationship with England may have left him particularly sympathetic to the injustices and exploitation Ireland suffered at the hand of its more powerful neighbor.

Particularly in the 1720s, Swift became vehemently engaged in Irish politics. He reacted to the debilitating effects of English commercial and political injustices in a large body of pamphlets, essays, and satirical works, including the perennially popular Gulliver's Travels. A Modest Proposal, published in 1729 in response to worsening conditions in Ireland, is perhaps the severest and most scathing of all Swift's pamphlets. The tract did not shock or outrage contemporary readers as Swift must have intended; its economics was taken as a great joke, its more incisive critiques ignored. Although Swift's disgust with the state of the nation continued to increase, A Modest Proposal was the last of his essays about Ireland. Swift wrote mostly poetry in the later years of his life, and he died in 1745.

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