History and its relevance for understanding Jonathan Swift's satirical works

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 32 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Historical knowledge as a prerequisite for reading Swift’s satires

3. The Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift and the importance of historical background knowlegde

4. Anglo-Irish History and A Modest Proposal

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In his great and exceptionally well-researched book Jonathan Swift. Political Writer, James Allen Downie writes that “true satire condemns society by reference to an ideal” and that “such is Swift’s satire”[1]. This statement by Downie not only serves as a good beginning for defining satire but also hints at an important aspect that should not be forgotten in any analysis of Swift’s satirical works. Swift, as any satirist in fact, needed and used certain occasions and persons in his times to trigger his satirical writing and refer to another ideal[2]. Because of his “fixation with politics and his temperamental inability to ignore public affairs”[3], his writings, and especially his pamphlets and satires, reflect prominent issues of his times. For a satirical writer who wants to expose human flaws it is, of course, essential to use examples that he expects his audience to know. It was therefore necessary that Swift in his satires referred to prominent persons or recent developments and issues of his days to make sure that his satirical messages were understood by the English and Irish readers of the early 18th century.

For this reason it is important to have at least a fundamental knowledge about political, but also cultural, religious and economic aspects of England’s and Ireland’s histories in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the time in which Swift lived and by whose historical developments he was influenced. Historical knowledge about his times will certainly help to understand which contemporary problems and persons Swift thought worth satirizing and will also make it much clearer what Swift believed to be more general problems or flaws of humankind that he tried to expose using contemporary examples.

In the summer term of 2006 Dr. Mascha Gemmeke held a seminar on satires written in 18th century England in which Swift, as probably the most prominent satirist of that period, and some of his texts had to be dealt with, too. Already when reading the first text in the seminar – Swift’s Satirical Elegy on a Late Famous General – it seemed obvious that historical background knowledge helps reading Swift. Since I had to focus on Great Britain in the 18th century for a history seminar that I was taking at the same time, I quickly realized that the butt of this satirical elegy could be no other that John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. And to know some basic facts about Marlborough’s military successes, his often reckless military strategies, his ambitions and his personal history certainly helped to gain access to Swift’s satire and to understand better why and what he was attacking Marlborough for – even after the latter’s death.

A similar experience was likely shared by all seminar participants when we were reading Swift’s bitterest satire, A Modest Proposal. Although a short survey on Ireland’s history in the 18th century in form of a presentation by one of the seminar participants helped to clear some basic problems before reading the text, other historical aspects that would further have simplified the understanding of the text were, regrettably, not mentioned.

In this paper I therefore want to show that it is actually preferable to have some historical background knowledge when reading Swift’s satires. This does not necessarily mean that his satirical writings are inaccessible to the modern reader, since Swift’s magnificent style and the problems and human flaws he believed worth satirizing are too deeply rooted in mankind, and therefore in many cases still modern and seemingly timeless problems, which is why Swift’s satires are still readable and often read today.

Before I will point out historical references in two of Swift’s satirical works, Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift and A Modest Proposal, and show in which way historical knowledge can help to understand these satires, I want to take a look at some developments in England and Ireland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that are essential to an understanding of Swift’s work.

2. Historical knowledge as a prerequisite for reading Swift’s satires

Although seemingly all secondary literature on Swift and his works mention some important historical aspects that are necessary to understand Swift’s life and his writings, the statement that historical knowledge is essential for understanding Swift is nowhere to be found.

Already the fact that Swift was able to have many of his works published, although many of them anonymously or under pseudonyms, needs to be explained historically. It is not important to go as far back in history as to the invention of the printing press, but rather to focus on developments which took place in England in Swift’s time.

The enormous rise in the literary production and the growing reading public[4] that characterized England much more than other European nations in the late 17th and early 18th century, a process labelled by Jürgen Habermas as growth of the “public sphere”[5], is unimaginable without a rise in literacy rates and especially the non-extension of the Licensing Act after a parliament decision in 1695. Already before that date, and even more so after 1695, the number of publications grew rapidly. Although it cannot be said, as Maurer claims, that since then English society practically enjoyed freedom of the press[6], it is obvious what the non-extension of the Licensing Act meant for writers and, even more, for writers and satirists like Swift. It is, in my opinion, impossible to imagine that many of Swift’s works, especially his satires, could have existed before his days, and before 1695, because although there were first signs of newspapers, periodicals and journalism in the early 17th century[7], the social prerequisites for Swift’s writing, as well as many of the topics that his writings were concerned with, became only prominent in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Only after the Licensing Act had not been renewed and publications could only be censored after, and not before, being published, it was possible for authors to publish works that were as critical and as biting as Swift’s satires.

Also in its topics and in its spirit, Swift’s satires are children of their time. Although the late 17th and the early 18th century were culturally often perceived as an Augustan Age during the period and even more after it[8], fears of instability, impeding chaos and degeneration that also play a role in Swift’s writings were quite common among the English elite and society of that time[9]. Therefore the demand for order and stability in political and religious matters that Swift often expressed[10] is understandable and characteristic for a period that brought with it so many, often unprecedented and frightening, changes.

Several developments in the course of history that Swift experienced during his lifetime alarmed and caused him to write against it. One event that surely changed the course of British history and that fundamentally influenced all aspects of British history in the 18th century was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which saw the replacement of the ruling monarch, the Catholic James II, by a foreign monarch – William of Orange[11] – and the subsequent establishment of a new British dynasty following the Act of Settlement in 1701[12]. Although Swift was a “whole-hearted supporter of William III”[13], he struggled, later in his life, to come to terms with the succession of the Hanoverian dynasty and even had some personal problems with William’s successor on the throne, Queen Anne, who was to be the only truly British monarch on Britain’s throne in the 18th century[14].

The process that came to be known as the Glorious Revolution was not, as several historians point out[15], a peaceful change in British politics and society but “a violent rupture, an ideological, political and diplomatic crisis”[16]. The threat of an absolutistic and Catholic regime, personified in the person of James II, that might have sided with the main continental power, Catholic France, was removed since one of France’s most able opponents, the Protestant William III, had been invited by representatives of England’s elite to intervene and to ensure a different development for England. The dynastic change also had its impact on foreign policy as the Protestant English monarchs – in 1689 the Bill of Rights settled that Catholics were excluded from the succession to the English throne[17] – and their governments were almost permanently at war with the Catholic and absolutistic France. Satirical allusion to England’s foreign policy and especially to the “incessant wars with France” as well as “persistent references to common cultural, religious and social practices” that characterized Swift’s time are also to be found in Gulliver’s Travels, especially in

Book I[18].

The Glorious Revolution also brought about other fundamental changes in society that are reflected in Swift’s satirical writing and are therefore provide a useful background knowledge for reading those works and for understanding the turns in Swift’s personal career. In the time of the early enlightenment the constitutional balance between monarch and parliament shifted further towards the latter. Although Swift supported the idea of separating executive and legislative power[19] like it had already been propagated by the progressive philosopher John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government in 1689[20], he sometimes had his difficulties with acknowledging the more restricted power of the monarch after 1689[21]. Nevertheless, Swift also had his fun with attacking even those who held the highest office of the state in his satires because he was “not afraid to speak the truth to power”[22].

As Ian Higgins analyses in his essay for the Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift, parts of the description of the Emperor of Liliput are meant to satirize George I., the first Hanoverian king, and his brutal suppression of the Jacobite rising in 1715[23]. As some more examples will show later, Swift often attacked powerful persons – monarchs, ministers, military leaders and other members of the social elite – and the follies and flaws of those in power in his satirical writings. Readers in Swift’s time were looking for and often finding references to contemporary political issues and satirical blows against famous and powerful persons in Swift’s satires[24], but for today’s readers it is often helpful to know a little bit about English and British history to understand those frequent attacks and references.

But was Swift really in a position to mock and satirize those in power? When we look back on Swift’s life we are sure to find many instances in which he got into touch with those yielding power and we therefore can say that Swift was fooling persons that he often knew and that he had all the necessary knowledge and experience, and therefore every right, to satirize politicians and political manoeuvres he is bound to have understood due to his personal experiences of them.

After having received a good education at Kilkenny Grammar School and at Trinity College in Dublin, and later at Oxford University, he worked as a sort of private secretary and, later, publisher for the influential diplomat Sir William Temple. As Temple’s secretary, Swift had his “first experience with power”[25] when he was sent to Court to unsuccessfully present Temple’s opinion on the Triennial Act that was discussed and later passed by parliament at that time. The time with Temple is often seen by critics as essential for laying the basis to Swift’s often conservative attitudes towards phenomena of his days[26]. The parliamentary debates at that time which were concerned with the influence that the Court took on parliament trough patronage and corruption – the parliament at that time was also known as The Pension Parliament or The Officer’s Parliament[27] – also “informed Swift’s view of politics in a striking way”[28] and provided him with targets that he was to satirize later. Especially corruption – as he believed it to see in Walpole’s ministry –, avarice that he spotted in the Duke of Marlborough[29] and vanity and corruption he believed to see in Lord Godolphin were vices that he attacked along with the great and powerful persons that were, in Swift’s opinion, guilty of them.

The Glorious Revolution and the Revolution Settlement – the following period that ensured that the results of the Glorious Revolution were defended and constitutionally settled – brought about many more changes in the political landscape. The Privy Council, like the monarch, lost power in favour of a cabinet that consisted of several ministers[30], the most important being the Lord Treasurer. This office later developed into the office that is comparable with the one of the Prime Minister today and already in Swift’s time some ministers who became Lord Treasurers were referred to as Prime Ministers[31]. Swift, who was not afraid to criticize and satirize those in power, often launched fierce attacks on those holding this office. The first one to get a taste of Swift’s brilliant satirical abilities was the former Lord Treasurer Godolphin whom Swift satirized in 1710 in the poem The Virtue of Sid Hamet the Magician’s Rod[32]. Since Swift thought Godolphin to be guilty of corruption he saw a need to publicly lash him with his writing. Although I could not find hints in either the books on Swift or in those on the history of Swift’s days that the accusation of Godolphin as being corrupt or corrupting others is true, it seems to be very likely that the Lord Treasurer played a role in preparing the union between England and Scotland that was settled by the Act of Union in 1707. The process that united Scotland, Wales and England under the name Great Britain and that also played a role for Britain’s rise as the most dominant world power in the 18th century was partly achieved by bribing Scottish Members of Parliament to accept the union[33]. For Swift, who, like many other writers of his days, perceived his role as a writer and satirist also as being a moral and political guardian for society[34] and therefore “a kind of literary public servant”[35], bribery and corruption in this case would have been a very obvious reason to satirize Godolphin as the representative of this process.

That Swift and so many other writers of his days were seeing themselves as moral and political guides can be understood when we keep in mind that “Swift and his contemporaries shaped and”, at the same time “were shaped by the public sphere”[36]. As Michael F. Suarez points out “prompting Men of Genius and Virtue, to mend the World as far as they are able”[37] was, in Swift’s own words, one of his satires’ aims. Because of this aim it is only too logical that Swift often attacked great persons of his time for not mending the world but, and that was one of Swift’s biggest personal fears, for making it worse[38].

The early 18th century saw other developments that Swift satirically commented on, too. Historians today often refer to this time as the period of the early enlightenment that brought about philosophical works on the modern state and on empiricism by persons like David Hume, John Locke and George Berkeley. The time became also known as the Age of Reason. But Swift perceived the time he lived in different ways than his philosophical counterparts. He often parodied and satirized man’s naivety and gullibility in a time that can only be described as championing enlighted ideas but that still had a large percentage of the population believe in supernatural entities and holding superstitious beliefes[39].

The often conservative Swift[40] furthermore took a disapproving attitude towards progress and changes he believed to be harmful or at least going into the wrong direction. Scientific progress and religious toleration, like the perversion of learning and religion, modern writing and the often fierce political debates, were all mocked in his satires.

His first satirical work, A Tale of a Tub (1704), mainly aimed at satirizing and parodying the modern way of writing and the perversions and divisions in religion. It is here useful to keep in mind that the late 17th and especially early 18th centuries did not only feature novelists and writers like Defoe, Fielding and Pope but also mediocre and bad writers whose style, or lack of it, offended Swift. Many writers that, in Swift’s eyes, lacked the prerequisites for producing and publishing texts could make a living in the culturally booming metropolis London[41] by writing pamphlets and all other sorts of texts for money[42]. These Grub Street wits were one of the main targets of A Tale of a Tub as Swift partly imitated their style by including almost completely senseless paragraphs and numberless digressions in this work[43]. But he didn’t fear to make fun of much acclaimed writers either. Thomas Hobbes, whose major work Leviathan (1651) with its ideas on the state was quite out of date by then, was also mocked in Swift’s first satire[44]. With his attack on some particular writers and especially bad writers in general in A Tale of a Tub, Swift questions the authority of the written word[45] - as he would do more often later - in a time that saw not only good literature but even more bad writers’ works published due to the rising demand and the growing publishing activity mentioned earlier. Therefore it can be really helpful here too, to know which cultural developments typical for British history in Swift’s days he opposed in A Tale of a Tub. Otherwise it might be even harder to appreciate what the greatest satirist of his time, who is, as is often pointed out[46], difficult to understand, wrote about or against. Along with A Tale, Swift also had The Battle of the Books and The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit published. Not just the Tale but all of these “three satires have very specific historical targets”[47].

The effects that those satires had can also be seen in a historical light. At least for Swift’s personal history, the satires were both, a great starting point for his literary career and, at the same time, an obstacle for his career as a clergyman. Although the three satires were well received in literary circles and laid the basis for his future career[48], Queen Anne and many influential conservative clergymen misunderstood A Tale of a Tub as being critical of religion in general[49].

Even in the days of the early enlightenment, religion was still a very prominent topic and even more so in a country like Great Britain with its religious divisions[50]. Great Britain in the early 18th century can be characterized by a growing number of Dissenters and the suppression of Catholics because of the fear that Catholic France and its fellow believers in England could support another dynastic change by helping the Stuarts return to the throne.

With criticising and satirizing religious fanaticism in A Tale of a Tub, Swift hit the nerve of his time. But as a staunch supporter and defender of the established Church[51] he surely did not mean to attack the Anglican Church with the monarch as its head. He rather wanted to make the point that the religious group he belonged to and even represented was not as corrupted in the course of time as other Christian denominations or groups. But as Queen Anne misinterpreted the work she, being in charge of appointing persons for high church offices like bishoprics, would not fulfil Swift’s hopes for a higher position within the Anglican Church[52]. Though Swift was disappointed to see his high expectations for a career within the Church shattered the following generations of his readers can only be happy about this, for his time not at all unusual, turn of events. Since Swift could only secure the position of a clergyman in Ireland for himself, caring for a small flock in Kilroot before receiving a prebend and later the deanery at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, he found enough time and bitterness to spike his pen and write his works and especially the satires that are still read today.


[1] Downie: Jonathan Swift, p. 126.

[2] Robert Schneebeli writes about Swift’s pamphlets and satires: “Die Streitschriften und Satiren richten sich gegen bestimmte Mißstände oder Personen, haben besondere Vorfälle in der Gesellschaft, im Staat, in der Kirche zum Anlaß.”, Schneebeli: Jonathan Swift. Satiren und Streitschriften, p. 487; similar opinions are expressed by Tucker: Jonathan Swift, p. 72; McMinn: Swift’s Life, in: Fox (ed.), Cambridge Companion, p. 23; Suarez: Swift’s satire and parody, in Fox (ed.), p. 126.

[3] McMinn, in: Fox (ed.), p. 23.

[4] Downie points out that the new genres like periodicals and the increasing number of pamphlets also contributed “markedly to the enormous growth in the reading public”, Downie, p. 121.

[5] Jürgen Habernas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, quoted in: Hunter: Gulliver’s Travels and the later writings, in: Fox, Cambridge Companion, p. 219.

[6] Maurer writes that since 1695 different ideas and opinions could be expressed „da seit 1695 faktisch Pressefreiheit bestand“, Maurer: Geschichte Englands, p. 184.

[7] Maurer, p. 198.

[8] among others, Downie points out that Swift feared a decline in society, the loss of religion and the degeneration of the aristocratic class; Downie, p. 6.

[9] Black: A History of the British Isles, p. 152f; as Black points out only few contemporaries saw the late 17th and early 18th century as an “age of stability”.

[10] even a historian like Black acknowledges that “political division was echoed in culture” and especially in the works of Swift which are characterized by him as “spiked with bitterness and sometimes savage satire”; Black, p. 152.

[11] William of Orange, son in law to James II. and later crowned as William III., was invited by Tory and Whig party leaders to intervene in England since he was seen as the most able leader of the European anti-French coalition; Maurer, p.172; Kluxen, p. 367.

[12] Kluxen, p. 376.

[13] Downie, p. 37.

[14] Randle: Understanding Britain, p. 89.

[15] Maurer even doubts that the term ‘Glorious Revolution’ is adequate and provides several good arguments for his view of the inadequacy of the term; Maurer, p. 176f.

[16] Black, p. 143.

[17] Kluxen: Geschichte Englands, p. 371.

[18] Hunter: Gulliver’s Travels and the later writings, in: Fox, Cambridge Companion, p. 225.

[19] Downie, p. 9.

[20] although Locke already wrote his Treatises between 1679 to 1681 they were not published until 1689; Kluxen, p. 370; Wende, p. 170.

[21] Downie, p. 8.

[22] Fox, in: Fox, Cambridge Companion, p. 1.

[23] Higgins: Language and Style, in: Fox, Cambridge Companion, p. 150f.

[24] although it was much more likely for rather educated readers in Swift’s time to understand what or who was being satirized even Swift’s contemporaries “spent hours puzzling out references, allusions, and possible coded meanings” as Hunter puts it; Hunter, in: Fox (ed.), p. 216.

[25] McMinn, p. 6.

[26] McMinn writes about Swift that “most shaping influences on him”, therefore also his time with Temple at Moor Park, “were deeply conservative”, McMinn, p. 17.

[27] The name Officer’s or Pension Parliament of the parliament that came together in 1693 was applied because so many Members of Parliament were at the same time holding offices for the crown by which the king could yield influence on parliament and its decisions; Maurer, p. 181.

[28] Downie, p. 39.

[29] for instance in his poem The Fable of Midas Swift attacks Marlborough for his avarice; Oakleaf: Politics and history, in Fox (ed.), p. 35; Marlborough was in fact, after his fall from grace with Queen Anne, almost impeached for keeping public money for himself and only the intervention of Prince Eugene of Savoy saved him from a process; Schilling: Höfe und Allianzen, p. 264.

[30] Randle, p. 84.

[31] although Robert Walpole is often referred to as Britain’s first Prime Minister the term was first applied to Lord Treasurer Godolphin (1704-1710); Kluxen, p. 384; in a narrow modern sense neither Walpole, nor Godolphin can be seen as Prime Ministers; Randle, p. 90.

[32] Downie, p. 139f; Oakleaf, in Fox (ed.), p. 33.

[33] Randle, p. 86.

[34] Hunter, in: Fox (ed.), p. 220.

[35] McMinn, in: Fox (ed.), p. 19.

[36] Oakleaf, in: Fox (ed.), p. 43.

[37] Suarez, in: Fox (ed.), p. 113.

[38] McMinn emphasizes that Swift believed individual persons could be blamed for the course of history, p. 49.

[39] Black, p. 152.

[40] McMinn writes that Swift had an “early admiration for principled conservatism”, McMinn, p. 5.

[41] Maurer points out that London’s reputation as a cultural metropolis grew enormously in the 18th century and that it was actually possible to earn money as writer or even musician; Maurer, p. 206.

[42] McMinn, in: Fox (ed.), p. 44.

[43] Which leads the narrator, that has to be clearly distinguished from Swift, to conclude in the end to “write upon nothing”, Mueller: A Tale of a Tub and early prose, in: Fox (ed.), p. 206; on parodying modern writing in A Tale also see: McMinn, p. 15.

[44] Mueller, in: Fox (ed.), p. 207 and 212.

[45] Mueller, in: Fox (ed.), p. 207f.

[46] Mueller, in: Fox (ed.), p. 208;

[47] McMinn, p. 13; in The Battle of the Books that was prompted by a contemporary discussion about whether Ancient or modern writers had more knowledge to impart to readers, Swift actually lets the books do the fighting; Mueller, in Fox (ed.), p. 205.

[48] Schneebeli, p. 499.

[49] McMinn, in: Fox (ed.), p. 23; McMinn, p. 14.

[50] Black says about this time that “there were bitter political and religious disputes”; Black, p. 151.

[51] McMinn, p. 29; Downie, p. 10

[52] the publication of The Windsor Prophecy, a poem critical of the influence of court favourites, did not help to increase Swift’s chances with the Queen either, Tucker, p. 52; Downie, p. 180.


ISBN (eBook)
File size
577 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Institut für Anglistik / Amerikanistik
History Jonathan Swift Century Satire




Title: History and its relevance for understanding Jonathan Swift's satirical works