Jonathan Swift is best remembered as the author of Gulliver’s Travels.
He was a priest and a poet —almost obligatory occupations in Ireland— and he wrote some of the best essays the English language has ever seen.
After writing the classic Gulliver’s Travels, which sadly has become a children’s story and ceased to be the political satire it really is, he wrote A Modest Proposal. In this piece he recommends that the poor families of Ireland sell their children to be eaten.
This was really an attack on the unscrupulous English landlords who were oppressing the Irish poor. Swift admits “…this food may be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children.”
This piece is considered the greatest example of sustained irony in English literature.
Swift was an early example of a great tradition of Irish writers writing in English. Some people forget, and more don’t know, that Ireland has its own language, Gaelic.
Swift wrote essays, books, poems and sermons but as I said before, he will be remembered for Gulliver’s Travels.
The book is a parody of the traveller’s tale genre which was very popular at the time. It tells of the adventures of the eponymous Gulliver in the lands of Lilliput (where the people are twelve times shorter than he is) and Brobdingnag (where the people are twelve times taller). His ship is attacked by pirates and he spends time on a flying island infelicitously named Laputa. It is here that Swift describes “The Machine,” the first mention of a computer in world literature. He also describes aerial bombing, which had obviously never been thought of up to then.
If the book is a look at the good and bad in humanity, it seems clear to which conclusion Swift came. Gulliver starts off as a cheery optimist and ends up as a gloomy misanthrope. Swift’s own end was not a happy one.
He predicted that he would die like a tree “from the top” and indeed he did become mentally disabled before he died. The fortune he left was used to build a hospital for the mentally ill.