Jonathan Swift Had More Than Just Pissing On Fires And Cannibalism Up His Sleeve
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Jonathan Swift Had More Than Just Pissing On Fires And Cannibalism Up His Sleeve

He also wrote one of the ugliest poems in existence.

Jonathan Swift Had More Than Just Pissing On Fires And Cannibalism Up His Sleeve
Wikipedia Commons

Few can forget reading "A Modest Proposal" (or, by its full name, "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick") in high school. For those who did forget or haven’t had the pleasure of reading the essay yet, it’s Jonathan Swift’s case for solving hunger and poverty by eating Irish babies. It, along with "Gulliver’s Travels"—which, among other absurd events, depicts a normal-sized man putting out a tiny-sized people’s palace fire by urinating on it—are arguably Swift’s best-known works. While the distinction is well-deserved, it shouldn’t distract from the rest of the satirist’s hilarious writings. Out of his trove of prose and poetry, I’ve selected three short, memorable examples of Swift’s ability to mock anything and everything humanity threw at him.

On Falling Asleep In Church

Being a dean, Swift was giving sermons on a regular basis. Being a humorist, he couldn’t resist giving a sermon about falling asleep during sermons. It opens with an actual passage from the Acts of the Apostles in which a man, Eutychus, falls asleep while Paul was speaking. Because the Ancient Greeks seemed to have never grasped the concept of safety, Eutychus was sitting in a high window and fell when he dozed off, killing him on the spot. As Swift points out, while modern sleepers may be choosing safer spots to rest, modern preachers far “exceed St. Paul in the art of setting men to sleep.” Though Swift admits that preachers, like people, may be dull or uninspiring, he doesn’t give those listening a free pass as a result. “Do they think it a small thing to watch four hours at a play, where all virtue and religion are openly reviled; and can they not watch one half hour to hear them defended?” People who text in movies 300 years later would’ve made the dilemma much clearer for Swift.

The Lady’s Dressing Room

The joke of this poem has likely been used in a terrible romantic comedy at some point. Young Strephon thought it’d be sexy to sneak into his lover’s dressing room while she was away. What he discovered was no different than any bathroom of today: a smelly, dirty, wretched place. It never occurred to him that his beloved Celia sweated, grew body hair, got sick and (Heaven forbid) pooped. After such a horrid revelation, Strephon couldn’t bear to look at a woman the same way ever again, though the narrator suggests that he eventually comes to appreciate “such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung.” Due to its raunchiness, “The Lady’s Dressing Room” received a negative response from many (and even today, still gets Swift accused of sexism). Lady Mary Wortley Montagu hated it so much, she wrote an entire poem in response. In it, she describes how Swift, unable to satisfy a prostitute, writes a poem out of frustration about her disgusting dressing room. And some people believe we’re the ones living in uncivil times.

An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity

In true Stephen Colbert fashion, Swift wrote an essay defending the practice of Anglicanism against its critics, real or not, that sought to ban it. Such an absurd notion seems to have demanded an equally absurd (and obviously sarcastic) response. He points out that money spent on “Freethinkers” rather than clergy would be wasted on ridiculous luxuries and sham marriages, turning a sickened English population into “one great hospital” for bohemian hipsters. Anglicanism’s critics, Swift jokes, don’t appreciate how easy a target and point of debate religion is to distract politicians and philosophers. Worse yet, dismantling the Church of England would piss off the nation’s religious allies and make room for “Popery” (a mocking term for Catholicism). The essay is so poignant and well-written that one could easily take it seriously.

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