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Poverty and Society in Britain during the Age of Reason - Essay Example

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The author examines the works of Swift and Gay A Modest Proposal and The Beggar’s Opera and states that they made use of the ironically absurd in order to drive home their true points. Both clothe their arguments in the formal attire of high culture so as to reach their audience.  …
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Poverty and Society in Britain during the Age of Reason
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of Prof. of Poverty and Society in Britain during the Age of Reason The greatest works of literature throughout history have always employed some device, be it parody, satire, or simple metaphor, to criticize something (a king, an institution, a culture, etc.) without directly avowing the criticism. A situation is created which somehow resembles or recalls the real-world issue/situation but in a way which, if pressed, could be construed as not actually concerning that same issue. The works of Jonathan Swift and John Gay, A Modest Proposal and The Beggar’s Opera, respectively, are exemplars as much as they are embodiments of this sentiment and method. Each author employs, in his own right, extremely ridiculous scenarios and/or ironic character development which ultimately serves to belittle and criticize the society in and about which they were written, in this case early 18th century Britain.
In A Modest Proposal, Swift, in order to criticize and make public the English crown’s shameful policy and practices towards Ireland, employs irony. So as to address the rampant and widespread poverty of Ireland, he sagaciously proposes that England ought to begin eating the children of mendicant women so as to alleviate the need to feed them. That is, Swift declares that cannibalism is the answer to solving poverty. “....[A] young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout” (Swift 1949, p. 883). Swift is counting on the reader to be so disgusted by the idea that he/she will find solace in the criticism he makes of the English landed gentry, which is in fact the true intent of the work. He writes, “I grant this food will 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” (Swift 1949, p. 883). The proposal is ridiculous only to make a point: the aristocrats, having exploited the poor, would not mind also enjoying the “benefit” of their offspring.
In similar fashion, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera employs satire for the purpose of social criticism. Opera, for the most part, has traditionally been the preserve of the well-to-do. Gay, knowing that his audience would include many members of the upper classes, creates characters and settings which highlight the abject poverty in which much of England’s poor lived. It opens with the narrator, intentionally chosen to be a beggar, stating “If Poverty be a Title to Poetry, I am sure nobody can dispute mine. I own myself of the Company of Beggars; and I make one at their Weekly Festivals at St. Giles’s. I have a small Yearly Salary for my Catches, and am welcome to a Dinner there whenever I please, which is more that most Poets can say” (Gay 2009, p.9) Thus a piece of high culture (opera) is placed in a setting of lower-class poverty. The high meets the low. The obvious intent is to depict the “run-of-the-mill” social perspective as not being that of the gentleman, but rather that of the street urchin. Society, in Gay’s description, is run-down, depraved, and dishonest. “A Lawyer is an honest Employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double Capacity, both against Rogues and for’em; for ‘tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage Cheats, since we live by them” (Gay 2009, p. 11). Everyone in society is a cheat or one who seeks to benefit from a cheat. This somber depiction was no mistake. Gay knew that upper-class types would be in the audience and thus could not ignore the insinuation.
In both cases then Swift and Gay made use of the ironically absurd and/or the satirically poignant in order to drive home their true points. Both clothe their arguments in the formal attire of high culture so as to reach their audience and appeal to its sense of decency. The “real world” is satirized with the hope of one day seeing it bettered.
Works Cited
Gay, John. “A Beggar’s Opera.” Google Books. 24 November 2009
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” English Literature and its Backgrounds: Vol. 1. Ed. Bernard D. Grebanier. New York: The Dryden Press, 1949. 882-886. Read More
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