Swift invokes slavery at key points in his later work. He uses the word ‘slave’ quite frequently, makes slavery a rhetorical touchstone in the Irish writings, draws upon its language in A Modest Proposal, and meditates upon captivity and savagery in Gulliver’s Travels. What is more, many of the attitudes in these texts are similar to those in writings by Pope and Gay. Like Pope, for instance, Swift celebrates his own liberty in the Irish writings and his own heroic defence of it, and he tends to blur the distinction between the compelled slave and the consenting lackey. 1 There are, however, also two important features of this aspect of Swift’s work that distinguish it from Pope’s and Gay’s. The first has to do with purpose and genre. Gay’s major representations of slavery are dramatic, and Pope’s ideas about slavery and freedom occur in philosophical ‘essays’, poetic and prophetic visions, or representations of the conflict between an imagined self and the world. Swift, on the other hand, is less interested in the Irish tracts in representation and fiction than in making an immediate point. He raises ideas of slavery and liberty not primarily in order to represent himself, though self-representation plays some part in the writings, but in order to create an impact on the reader and to persuade. Gulliver’s Travels, of course, is not as directly polemical as this. The second difference is in what might be called imaginative temperament. There is an intensity of engagement in Swift’s writing that is different from the urbanity of (some of) Pope’s and from the good humour of Gay’s. In Gulliver’s Travels, and to some extent A Modest Proposal, this manifests itself with respect to slavery as an angry and frustrated struggle to come to terms with contradictory ideas and beliefs.
The fact that many of Swift’s references to slavery occur in the polemical Irish writings gives them an added interest. Like Pope’s and Gay’s, they are interesting in relation to the writer and his work, but they are also interesting for what they reflect of general attitudes in his contemporary Anglo-Irish audience. 2This takes us back to the first chapter. I argue there that literary works are not as a rule reliably representative of the ideology of their age because