On the Style of Jonathan Swift

June 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

Jonathan Swift, an author whose life straddled the turn of the 17th century, is widely considered to be the greatest satirist in British literary history. Although he is well-versed in poetry and has written a prolific amount of private correspondences, Swift is best known for his prose fictions, such as The Battle of the Books, Tale of a Tub, and Gulliver’s Travels, and his pamphlets, namely A Modest Proposal. Swift’s works fall under the genre of satire, in which irony and sarcasm are used to deride or expose stupidity and folly, typically in society, politics, and human nature.The diction of Swift’s style can be best described as simple and prosaic. Only in rare circumstances does he deviate from a pattern of typical syntax and word choices and his normal writings exhibit no peculiarities in this respect. According to Scott-Kilvert (1980), Swift “tended to associate language with history, with politics, with religion… for his pamphlets, he needed a middle style, which would, in effect, avoid the extremes of decadent courtier or disloyal dissenter, of licentiousness and fanaticism. (29)” Sir Walter Scott, quoted by Read (1998), concurs about Swift: “His style, which generally consists of the most naked and simple terms, is strong, clear, and expressive; familiar without vulgarity or meanness; and beautiful, without affectation or ornament.”Indeed, the focus of Swift’s writings is not in the mechanics of the language, but rather, in the caustic irony and sarcastic tone of his satire. Swift artfully impersonates an awfully misanthropic economist or policymaker in A Modest Proposal, in which he sarcastically makes his case for the eating of Irish children as a panacea for overpopulation problems and poverty. Through the discourse, Swift refrains from breaking character during his straight-faced portrayal of this role, creating a ludicrous sense of sarcasm. In this premise, Swift created a heartless grotesque of actual politicians and economists who called for radical, imprudent measures or neglected to address the suffering of the impoverished Irish. Although they obviously never went to the extremes Swift went to in satirizing them (had they, the pamphlet would not have been shocking or out of the ordinary) their follies are mimicked in a sarcastic, almost asinine manner. While this would seem like a useless mockery — that is, commentary without explanation — Swift ingeniously works in his own genuine opinions and ideas towards the end, letting a reader already affected and amused by Swift’s acerbic sarcasm realize the piece’s social message. He writes:Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound… Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance… Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching our landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers…. (8)Thus, Swift’s writing is not only amusing in its sarcasm and frank irony, but it is also meaningful in its call for social change based on common sense. This mode of satire manages to evoke both amusement and consideration2E The importance here hinges on the popularity of humor — while most common citizens wouldn’t be excited by tiring political refutations, humor is widely enjoyed. Swift’s intelligent brand of political and social humor can be immensely popular and can have a major effect in shaping public opinion2EIn Swift’s parodies, the style is determined by the format of what’s being spoofed. A Modest Proposal is written in the form of an actual political pamphlet. Formal, although non-florid language is used and the entire argument is written in a professional format. The beginning of A Modest Proposal explains the situation; from there, a mock plan is posited and facts are brought in to back it up (although humanity and sympathy are conspicuously neglected). In Gulliver’s Travels, the style is that of a travel or adventure story. Narrated by Lemuel Gulliver himself, the book is written simply (some even consider it a fairy tale today), in the form that was common of similar stories of the time. Swift did not typically venture too far from the conventions of the genre he was mimicking — to have done so would have been asinine. Instead, he worked within the frameworks of these conventions to parody not the conventions themselves, but society, politics, religious hypocrisy, and mankind’s follies using the conventions — i.e., Swift did not mock adventure stories in the fantastical and ridiculous destinations and characters of Gulliver’s Travels, but rather, he mocked the aforementioned as embodied by these destinations and characters. These characters could either be allegorical or representative of common sense in that they find the conventions of mankind strange or appalling (such is the case with the giant Brobdingnags).In summation, Jonathan Swift is considered one of the greatest British authors of all time due to his contributions in defining and perfecting the style of satire and parody. Swift achieves the desired effect of combining humor with biting, often misanthropic social and political criticism by deftly utilizing irony, sarcasm, and grotesque mimicry. It is a testament to his skill that his writings are with us today as the fundamental human follies which he satirized some three hundred years ago remain unresolved and still need to be made painfully explicit to successive generations.Works CitedMagill, Farnk N., ed. Magill’s Survey of World Literature. Vol. 6. North Bellmore, New York: Salem Press, Inc., 1993.Read, Charles A. “Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745).” The Cabinet of Irish Literature 1880.Scott-Kilvert, Ian, ed. British Writers. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980.

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