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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IV. Swift

§ 19. Pamphlets on Irish affairs: Drapier’s Letters

The pamphlets relating to Ireland form a very important part of Swift’s works. His feeling of the intolerable wrongs of the country in which he was compelled to live grew from year to year. He saw around him poverty and vice, due, as he held, partly to the apathy of the people, but mainly to the selfishness of the English government, which took whatever it could get from Ireland and gave little in return. Swift’s concern was mainly with the English in Ireland; he had little sympathy for the “savage old Irish” or with the Scottish presbyterians in the north. But his pity for cottagers increased as he understood the situation more clearly and saw that they were so oppressed by charges which they had to bear that hardly any, even farmers, could afford to provide shoes or stockings for their children or to eat flesh or to drink anything better than sour milk and water. The manufactures and commerce of the country were ruined by the laws, and agriculture was crippled by prohibition of exportation of cattle or wool to foreign countries. No doubt, Swift was influenced by a feeling of hatred towards the whig government; but he was certainly sincere in the long series of pamphlets in which he denounced the treatment of Ireland by the English. This series began in 1720 with A proposal for the universal use of Irish manufacture, in which Swift puts forth a scheme for rejecting everything wearable that came from England. Someone had said that Ireland would never be happy till a law was made for burning everything received from England, except their people and their coals: “Nor am I even yet for lessening the number of those exceptions.” Swift quoted the fable of Arachne and Pallas. Pallas, jealous of a rival who excelled in the art of spinning and weaving, turned Arachne into a spider, ordering her to spin and weave for ever out of her own bowels in a very narrow compass.

  • “I confess,” says Swift, “I always pitied poor Arachne, and could never heartily love the goddess on account of so cruel and unjust a sentence; which, however, is fully executed upon us by England, with further additions of rigour and severity, for the greatest part of our bowels and vitals are extracted, without allowing us the liberty of spinning and weaving them.”
  • Before long, the want of small change in the coinage of Ireland began to be felt acutely, and, in 1722, a new patent was issued to an English merchant, William Wood; but Wood had to pay £10,000 to the duchess of Kendal for the job, and the Irish parliament, which had not been consulted, passed resolutions protesting against the loss that would be sustained by Ireland. A committee was appointed to enquire into complaints; while it was sitting, Swift published the first of the brilliant series of pamphlets known as Drapier’s Letters. It was called A Letter to the shopkeepers, tradesmen, farmers and the common people of Ireland concerning the brass halfpence coined by Mr. Woods, and purported to be by “M. B. Drapier.” It was written in the simplest language, which could be understood by all, and the arguments were such as would appeal to the people. From motives of prudence, Wood, and not the government, was attacked, and the main argument was that the coins were deficient in value and weight. Many of the allegations are baseless, while the reasoning is sophistical, but they served the purpose of stirring up the people to a sense of ill-treatment. Swift foretold that the country would be ruined; that tenants would not be able to pay their rents; and, alluding to Phalaris, he said that it might be found that the brass which Wood contrived as a trouble to the kingdom would prove his own torment and destruction. The committee of enquiry recommended a reduction in the amount of coin that Wood was to issue, and Walpole obtained a report from Sir Isaac Newton, master of the mint, to the effect that the coins were correct both as to weight and quality. Swift, feeling that any compromise would amount to defeat, brought out another pamphlet, A Letter to Mr. Harding the printer, in which he urged that the people should refuse to take the coins: the nation did not want them; there was no reason why an Englishman should enjoy the profit. It was not dishonourable to submit to the lion, but who “with the figure of a man can think with patience of being devoured alive by a rat?” Swift now openly widened the field of the controversy: the grievance of the patent became subordinated to the question of the servitude of the Irish people. He was afraid that concessions made by the government might result in the return of the people to their wonted indifference. The third letter was called Some Observations upon a paper called the Report of the Committee of the most honourable the Privy Council in England relating to Wood’s halfpence. “Am I,” he asked, “a free man in England and do I become a slave in six hours by crossing the Channel?” The country was now deluged with pamphlets and ballads, some of which were certainly by Swift, and no jury could be persuaded to convict the printers. At this point, Swift produced his Letter to the whole People of Ireland, which was intended to refresh and keep alive the spirit which he had raised, and to show the Irish that, alike by the laws of God and man, they were and ought to be as free a people as their brothers in England. The affair ended in a triumph for Swift. Bonfires were lit in his honour and towns gave him their freedom. It is not necessary to refer in detail to subsequent pamphlets: Wood’s patent was cancelled, and he received a pension.

    Swift wrote many other pieces about Irish grievances. In one of these, The Swearers Bank (1720), he dealt with a proposal to start a bank to assist small tradesmen. He argued that the scheme was not needed in a country so cursed with poverty as Ireland, and his satire was fatal to the project. In The Story of the injured lady, he again poured forth his wrath against English misgovernment, and, in the Answer to this pamphlet, he told Ireland that she ought not to have any dependence on England, beyond being subject to the same government; that she should regulate her household by methods to be agreed upon by the two countries; and that she should show a proper spirit and insist on freedom to send her goods where she pleased. In A short view of the state of Ireland (1728), he gives a touching account of the condition of the country: though it was favoured by nature with a fruitful soil and a temperate climate, there was general desolation in most parts of the island. England drew revenues from Ireland without giving in return one farthing value. “How long we shall be able to continue the payment I am not in the least certain: one thing I know, that when the hen is starved to death there will be no more golden eggs.” In another piece, On the present miserable state of Ireland, he said,

  • We are apt to charge the Irish with laziness because we seldom find them employed: but then we do not consider that they have nothing to do: the want of trade is owing to cruel restrictions, rather than to any disqualification of the people:
  • The series reached its climax in A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burden to their parents or the country, and for making them beneficial to the public (1729), in which, with terrible irony and bitterness, Swift suggested, in a spirit of despair at the helplessness of Ireland, that the poverty of the people should be relieved by the sale of their children as food for the rich. With the utmost gravity, he sets out statistics to show the revenue that would accrue if this idea were adopted. It would give the people something valuable of their own, and thus help to pay their landlord’s rent; it would save the cost of maintaining very many children; it would lead to a lessening of the number of papists; it would be a great inducement to marriage. The remedy, Swift took care to point out, was only for the kingdom of Ireland, “and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon earth”; and it did not involve any danger of disobliging England, “for this kind of commodity will not bear exportation.” The suggestion was quite disinterested. “I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny, the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.”

    In An Examination of certain Abuses, Corruptions and Enormities in the City of Dublin (1732), Swift, writing as a whig, burlesqued the fashion of charging tories with being in sympathy with papists and Jacobites, and of finding cause for suspecting disaffection in the most unexpected quarters. Under the guise of an attack on the earl of Oxford, he charged Walpole with avarice, obscurity of birth and profligacy.

    One more pamphlet was published in 1733, A serious and useful scheme to make a hospital for Incurables, in which Swift dwelt on the necessity of dealing with the number of fools, knaves, scolds, scribblers, infidels and liars, not to mention the incurably vain, proud, affected and ten thousand others beyond cure. He hoped that he would himself be admitted on the foundation as one of the scribbling incurables; he was happy to feel that no person would be offended by his scheme, “because it is natural to apply ridiculous characters to all the world, except ourselves.”

    On literary subjects, Swift wrote little. In 1712, he published his Proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English Tongue, in the form of a letter to Harley. In this tract, to which he allowed his name to be affixed, he urged the formation of an academy, which was to fix a standard for the language. New words, abbreviations, slang, affectation, phonetic spelling—of all these Swift complained, and he thought that an academy could stop improprieties, and find a way for “ascertaining and fixing our language for ever.” Some time before, he had written to the same effect in no. 230 of The Tatler, “by the hands,” as he says, “of an ingenious gentleman [Steele], who, for a long time, did thrice a week direct or instruct the kingdom by his papers.” There, he pleaded for the observance in our style of “that simplicity which is the best and truest ornament of most things in life.” He ended his Proposal by urging that, in England, as in France, the endowments of the mind should occasionally be rewarded, either by a pension or, where that was unnecessary, by some mark of distinction.

    Nine years later, Swift published in Dublin an amusing satire, A Letter of Advice to a young Poet; together with a Proposal for the encouragement of Poetry in this Kingdom (1721). The professional poet, he says, would be embarrassed if he had any religion, for poetry, of late, had been “altogether disengaged from the narrow notions of virtue and piety.” But the poet must be conversant with the Scriptures, in order to be “witty upon them or out of them.” Scholarship was now quite unnecessary to the poet; and, if we look back, Shakespeare “was no scholar, yet was an excellent poet.” Swift was for every man’s working upon his own materials, and producing only what he can find within himself. Taking part in games will often suggest similes, images or rimes: and coffee-house and theatre must be frequented. The profession was in a sorry plight in Dublin, though poetic wit abounded. The city had no Grub street, set apart as a safe repository for poetry, and there was much need for a playhouse, where the young could get rid of the natural prejudices of religion and modesty, great restraints to a free people.

    In the rather patronising Letter to a very young Lady on her Marriage (1727), Swift advises his friend to listen to the talk of men of learning; it is a shame for an English lady not to be able to relish such discourses, but few gentlemen’s daughters could be brought to read or understand their own native tongue; they could not even be brought to spell correctly. Elsewhere, Swift combated the general view that it was not prudent to choose a wife with some taste of wit and humour, able to relish history and to be a tolerable judge of the beauties of poetry. There were, however, so few women of this kind that half the well educated nobility and gentry must, if they married, take a wife for whom they could not possibly have any esteem.