Leading Questions about Eighteenth-Century Authors

Members of Ms. Emerson's section, English 32, Brown University, 1998

1. "...the race of inferior Houhynhms bred up to be servants is not so strictly limited upon this article; these are allowed to produce three of each sex, to be domestics in noble families." — "Gulliver's Travels," p. 2164 (Norton)

"I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine..." — "A Modest Proposal," p. 2183 (Norton)

The Houhynhms, a race of horselike creatures set up as a model of rational thought in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, are logical to the highest degree. Their belief that certain races of Houhynhms are "inferior" to others border on something like the dispassionate logic that Swift mocks in his essay, "A Modest Proposal." Both theories work on the assuption that all human feeling is suspended. In the case of the Houhynhms, this suspension of feeling would create a peaceful utopia, while in the case of the "Proposal" it would lead to cannibalism. While the tone of "Proposal" is heavily satiric and leaves no doubt as to the real intentions of the author, the tone of Gulliver's Travels is more difficult to interpret. I was left a little cold by the Houhynhms' ultra-rational lifestly, though I could appreciate it in contrast to that of the barbaric Yahoos. My question is: are the Houhynhms supposed to be models, or extremes? Does Swift encourage logic above all else, or does he maintain caution against it? (Erin Suzuki)


True wit is Nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed;
Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.

— Alexander Pope, "An Essay On Criticism," Part 2, 297-300

In "An Essay On Criticism, Pope locates "truth" in "Nature" and the "true wit" of poetry in the clear, elegantly simple and stylistically appropriate expression of the truth of nature. By "Nature" Pope means all of the order of creation, both the physical world as well as the rational, spiritual and creative life of the mind. It is thus that in expressing "Nature," poetry gives us back the image of our mind."

Is Pope's an appeal for the universally accessible expression of a universal human nature or the justification and call for submission to a `natural' hierarchy of taste, talent and understanding that is part of the Chain of Being? Can "nature's common order" (2, 159) include the particular, the odd, the grotesque, the individual, the minority? If it cannot, then whose minds are imaged forth by the poetry that expresses it? Is this appeal to a Platonic ideal or a justification of the cliches or commonly held received wisdoms of the status quo? Does Pope anticipate (or precipitate) the conflict between high and low or high and mass culture and how would he resolve that conflict? (Susanna Cole)

3. In Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" Pope argues that true art should be an imitation of nature and in being so, an imitation of the classical past. In part one of "An Essay on Criticism" line 133-140 Pope writes:

"And but from Nature's fountains scorned to draw;
But when to examine every part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.
Convinced, amazed, he checks the bold design,
And rules as strict his labored work confine
As if the Stagirite o'erlooked each line.
Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy them."

** The debate Pope participated in was based on the question of whether poetry should be "natural" or written according to predetermined "artifical" rules inherited from the classical past (Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism": An Inroduciton). What is the difference in an imitation? If poetry is an imitation of Nature what makes it less "artifical" than being an imitation of the classical past? Whether poetry copies Homer or Nature is still copies. Pope, an innovative master of words, suggests that art should "follow," come from, or merely "copy" (nature); this suggests that poetry and true art are only derivatives or models. If this be true is art considered creation? Is not that what the poet strives for? to say what he or she feels is important and critical with the genius of originality? Can originality and imitation coexist? What has changed in the minds of artists and critics today that seems to emphasize the new, the original, and the unique? (Ama Codjoe)

4. When I was reading over Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man," I was interested by the notions of placing the earth and humankind on a scale which encorporated ideas of science and, if I read and understood corectly, the idea of life on other planets or worlds:

See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
Observe how systems into systems runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What varied beings people every star,
May tell why heaven has made us as we are.

Incorporated with his interest in the idea of part and whole which is raised in this passage as well as recurring in the following, I am interested by the role of religion in Pope's writings. It seems to me that the notion of any other planet's being 'peopled' would contradict religious beliefs, especially for a devout catholic, in a time when science was threatening. I am curious how religion and science dealt with such questions. (Damon Bayles)


In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.
Pride is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
And who but wishes to invert the laws
Of order, sins against the Eternal Cause. ( An Essay on Man, 123-130)

In his An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope strives to ". . . vindicate the ways of god to man." (16). In the above passage, Pope addresses Man's desire to be God's equal. Such a desire, he asserts, is the result of pride. This pride, however, is inherently self-defeating, as Milton illustrates in his Paradise Lost. When Milton's Satan proclaims, "Evil be thou my good . . ." (4.110), Satan clearly "invert[s] the laws / Of order [and] sins against the Eternal Cause." (Pope, 129-130). Pride, as depicted by Pope, is Man's desire to reach a higher state in the natural order or, by extension, to " . . . be the God of God" (122). Milton's Satan, however, defeats his own effort to overpower God by defining himself as God's opposite ("Evil be thou my good . . ." (4.110)). Milton's Satan, by his own decree, will forever be defined by God; namely, he will be God's opposite. Thus, not only is pride a sin ". . . against the Eternal Cause," (Pope, 130), but pride is also self-defeating.

Earlier in his An Essay on Man, Pope writes, "what future bliss, [God] gives not thee to know, / But gives that hope to be thy blessing now." (93-94). So, hope for blessing is actually a blessing itself. How, if, as Pope argues, hope for future blessing is a gift of God, does pride contaminate this hope and turn it into self-defeating sin? How effectively does Pope address this conflict in his An Essay on Man? (Darren Smith)

6. For as the males, my American acquaintance assured me that from frequent experience that their flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our school boys, by continual exercise, and their taste disagreeable." (Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Norton 2184)

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is obviously a satire on the severe poverty of Ireland. However, Swift also aims some of his satirical jabbing at Americans, for an American was supposedly the one to provide him with the idea of infant cannabalism. Why did Swift choose to aim his humor at a fellow colony of the oppressor? Is there a connection there that Swift is trying to make? Is there an implied envy of American for it's removal in miles from England? He also wrote, "I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual kingdom of Ireland and for no other that ever was, is, or I think ever can be upon earth" (2185). So do Americans only eat babies for the fun of it? (David McKinley)


"The Author's great love for his native country..../../ Let me deal so candidly with the reader as to confess that there was yet a much stronger motive for the freedom I took in my representation of things. I had not been a year in this country, before I contracted such a love and veneration for the inhabitants , that I entered on a firm resolution never to return to humankind...." (Chapter 7. 2157-2158)

As the above quotation implies, the text of Gulliver's Travels presents the reader with a number of seemingly contradictory and, at times, irreconcilable impressions and statements; which, as is the case in any endeavor of art or science, must not be ignored if the text is to be fully understood. Assuming the chapter heading is not written with tongue in cheek we must ask, why does Swift allude to Gulliver's love for his country when the rest of the text indicates not just a condition of neutrality in the issue, but infact a flat refutation thereof? We learn, through Gulliver, all (or at least many as it would indeed seem quite impossible to learn of all the virtues a creature which is "The Perfection of Nature" must posses) of the Houyhnhnm virtues; their devotion to reason, their lack of words for evil (which Swift variously attacks), their physical perfection etc. And certainly, if man would abide by such virtues he would have no war, no suffering, no avarice, no duplicity, no fraud etc., but, is such a system, 'good' if it leads Gulliver to leave his wife "big with child" and feel not even a tinge of remorse, and even, in the absence of regret, downright abhorrence towards her and his family upon his return? It would seem that, against his 'better' reason, for the good of his family and society at large, Gulliver should have been more forgiving towards humankind upon his return, and not so lost in his adherence to a moral code which has little relevance to basic human interactions. Would not Gulliver have reflected better upon his master's teachings if he had infact been more accepting, as his master accepted Lemeul into his home? The Houynhnhnm value love (at least on some level) and yet Gulliver seems, upon his return, incapable of it. Which brings us to the larger question: can we accept the text prima facie as being a satire of humankind or rather, on a deeper level, as being, at once a satire and a celebration of some basic human virtues? (Gabriel Pilar)

8. In part 4 of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Swift gives a very dark and negative critique of human beings by way of the Houyhnhnms teaching Gulliver. For example, the Houyhnhnms cannot grasp the concept of truth vs. falsehood and other institutions in human culture such as war, economy and trade, and the concept of money. Life for the Houyhnhnms is control by reason. There is perfect order in the land of the Houyhnhnms. In contrast, the Yahoos, the savages beasts inhabiting the same lands, are portrayed as savage and cruel and in addition are likened to human beings. By Gulliver's resemblance to the Yahoos and his acknowledgement of the evil vices of man such as pride, greed, and selfishness, Swift is making an obvious criticism of real man's vices.

However, in part I, is Swift making another criticism on the behavior of mankind? We know that Swift allegorically portrays and satirizes different aspects of English government such as the Whig vs. Tory factions, his real-life enemies. We can also argue that the behavior of the Lilliputians whom Gulliver encounters also reflects the behavior of humans. There is the fear, uncertainty, and caution with the unknown, jealousy over women and the want of attention, and covert plotting as an act of revenge and as a result of jealousy. Are these criticisms of human beings as viable as the more obvious criticisms in part IV? Is it Swift's intention to compare the behavior of the Lilliputians and Blefuscans with that of humans? Can the reader learn something about behaving more rationally and recognizing their vices from the story of the Lilliputians? (John Yang)


"The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by my laboring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile...preserved from destruction...I had done a very eminent piece of service." (Swift, 2067)

This passage from Gulliver's Travels touches on the tension between domination and subordination in Gulliver's interactions with the Lilliputians. At first, Gulliver is chained and controlled by the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput, the reader sees him as alien/other through their perspective, especially in their inventory of his belongings. Later, Gulliver seems to fight back by beginning to otherize the Lilliputions in his descriptions of their "very peculiar" laws and customs (Swift, 2068), and we see the ways in which he begins to feel powerful through his experience as a giant or "Man-Mountain." His glee in quenching the palace fire with his stream of urine is an extreme example of his proof of power.

Freud has said that primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. He continues that "the legends that we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot upwards." Gulliver's act of extinguishing the fire can then be seen as a competition between phalluses for domination, in which he is victorious. And Gulliver later tells us that the Lilliputians (though disgusted) feared and awed this form of his power — they lived in horror that he might some day "raise an inundation by the same means, to drown the whole palace" (Swift, 2076). What are other examples of his lack of respect for, or need to dominate, the Lilliputians? Why does he let them dominate him for so long in the beginning, and beg for freedom, etc...when he is so comparatively physically powerful — does he *need* a rite of passage like the urination scene through which to channel his power as dominant? (Alexis Adams)

10. A Simple Question For A Modest Proposal : "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young, healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled."

Jonathan Swift is obviously satirizing the state of affairs in Ireland with his biting wit, but exactly who's side is he on? Sometimes satire can come across with a mixed message because it inherently makes fun of everybody. During his caustic diatribe, he ponders the merit of eating poor children. After reading his proposal, I completely understood the basis of his strange argument. Yet I am not sure whether he is writing this satire to benefit or taunt the destitute mothers with many children. Swift could argue for the realization of the dilapidated state of public assistance just as easily as he could argue for the need for population control among the poor. Exactly what opinion does he want to impose on the reader? (Renold Rose)

11. In the last lines of A Modest Proposal , Jonathan Swift states that he has no thought of personal gain in proposing his "modest" proposition:

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past childbearing.

Despite the obvious benefits that would stem from utilizing this rich resource, Swift clearly indicates that he himself will not (or is not able to) partake in the providing of this "most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food." In what may seem like a selfless gesture, this statement, in fact, forcefully adds to the irony that is prevalent through the entire text. How does this and other examples of the way Swift subtly introduces his plan and bitingly satirizes the situation in Ireland and the country that caused its condition contribute to the way we, the readers, are drawn into his shocking strategy? (Tien-Tien Chen)

12. The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children...There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is how this number shall be reared and provided for, which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed.

Jonathan Swift's satire "A Modest Proposal" derives power from subtle surprise and subsequent shock value, and this is greatly a result of the author's careful and clever diction throughout the piece. The passage above is crucial to this, for it is here that the language turns and Swift snares his reader. Originally referred to as "souls," children become "this number." Words such as "breeders" and "reared and provided for" reflect a growing attitude toward children as livestock. Such elements of the text are crafty alarms warning that Swift's proposal is more extreme than his calculating logic suggests.

The impact of Swift's diction on the reader when he or she realizes the extent of Swift's proposal and his mockery of society is similar to the twisting surprise in Roald Dahl's poem "Hansel and Gretel" when Gretel (and the reader) realizes that an old woman, actually a witch with whom she is staying, eats children. Dahl writes, "The woman said, "This special meat/ S'the only kind I like to eat.'/ Then Gretel says, "I'll make a bid — / This meat is either goat or kid.'/ The woman says, "Well, no-o-o and yes-s-s,/ I must say kid's a clever guess.'" Both authors lure their readers into a linguistic trap, playing with words and waiting to reveal their true argument or tale.

How does such a delay change the impact of a work? Does Swift's (or Dahl's) originally deceptive use of diction alter the way in which the reader approaches the subsequent diction, text, and message? Do the authors' words gain power through horror, humor, or both? (Wendy Eberhart)

13. On Swift's "A Description of a City Shower":

Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town." (31-32)

"Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow, And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell." (53-56)

Sweepings from butcher's stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down in the flood." (61-63)

In a sense, the title of Swift's poem doesn't fit. Be it his ironic and satiric humor or an intentional attempt to mislead the audience from the beginning, "A Description of a City Shower" contains enough carnage and disquieting images to justifiably be called a description of a colossal (not to mention deadly) flood. Upon reading the title, one immediately expects—and envisions—a gentle drizzle falling over a bustling metropolitan center. This assumption is further reinforced by the first several lines, which paint an almost naïve picture of a town waiting patiently under gray skies for the drops to fall.

What the speaker gives the reader, however, is a deluge that seems second only to the Great Flood, complete with "blood" and "dung," "Drowned puppies," and "Dead cats." Far from an innocent spring shower, the rain described in the work is magnificent and awesome in its sheer power and destructive force. It begins lightly, as a "first drizzling shower" (18), but in a matter of lines, it becomes "contiguous drops" and is finally labeled a "flood." From here, the speaker begins focusing not on the rain itself, but on the destruction it is causing. He speaks of "swelling kennels" bearing "trophies" and "filth," expanding on this image to include all manner of disgusting refuse. It is after this description, after the reader is told of this repulsive stew of garbage and mud "tumbling down the flood," that the poem ends.

My question is really divided into two parts: 1)The flood described in Swift's poem is clearly a metaphor for something else. Given what is known about the nature of Swift's humor, his affiliation with both the Anglican church and the political arena, and his consistently bleak view of mankind, analyze, metaphorically, the poem. What is the function of the flood metaphor? How does the refuse swept away fit in the metaphoric context of the poem? Lastly, why does Swift offer no recovery from the deluge? What are we to assume from such an ending?

2)Why does Swift elect to mislead the reader by calling the flood a "shower?" Is the buildup of the storm significant? Why? What are some potential strategies that Swift might have considered in titling (and beginning) this work? (Taylor Parsons)

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