SaSe93: Antiquität: „Ironie als satirische Waffe im Werk von Jonathan Swift“

Ballast abwerfen. Aufräumen. Dabei fällt mir eine 25 Jahre alte Seminararbeit in die Hände, die nun statt in der Seniorenpapiertonne für alle Zeit vergessen zu werden auf diesem Blog thematisch passend eingenagelt wird: „Irony as a satirical weapon in Swift’s work“. Universität Konstanz, Wintersemester 1989/90, Hauptseminar bei Dr. B. Schleußner im Rahmen meines Studiums der englischen und amerikanischen Literatur (1. Nebenfach zur Linguistik und Philosophie als 2. Nebenfach). Satire war seinerzeit mein Themenschwerpunkt.

Das damals noch auf einer Schreibmaschine (!) getippte, im Original 19 Seiten umfassende „Werk“ über Jonathan Swift, m. M. n. DER Klassiker unter den Satirikern, gibt durchaus aktuell anwendbares Instrumentarium an die Hand; etwa die verschiedenen Formen von Ironie sowie den Unterschied zwischen Ironie und Lüge (heute euphemisierend als „Fake“ bezeichnet), etwa anzuwenden auf den fehletikettierten Beschiss von Kai Diekmann (Original; Aufdeckung) mit seinem angeblichen Interview Jan Böhmermanns.


Foto: Wikipedia /

Foto: Wikipedia / Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas


Hauptseminar:  Dr. B. Schleußner
Thema des Seminars: Jonathan Swift
Name der Referentin: Karin Burger
Thema des Referats:






  1.  Different forms of irony
  2.  Irony as an attitude to life
  3.  The  term “irony”
  4.  Swift’s irony within the theoretical rhetoric system
  5.  The different functions of irony in Swift’s work
    5.1 Function of defeating the enemy in a subtle way
    5.2 Function of communicating with the reader
    5.3 Irony as a reference to satire
  1. Irony and satire



Irony is an essential ingredient of Jonathan Swift’s satires. Certainly, Swift uses a variety of technical and rhetorical devices some of them were already talked about.  Irony differs from other rhetorical techniques inasmuch as it is a relatively well-known phenomenon. But if one read’s through the mass of commentaries and essays upon Swift’s satirical writing the inaccurate and ambiguous application of the attribute “irony” is striking.

In this paper I’ll try to distinguish between the different meanings and forms of irony. Irony is e. g. a comprehensive term for a differentiated rhetorical system. We’ll see which forms are used by Swift. Then we have to investigate how Swift’s irony works i. e. which are the different functions of irony? Finally, the relation between irony and satire shall be presented.


1. Different forms of irony

First of aII one has to differentiate between a) irony as a certain critical and moral attitude to life, irony as b) a rhetorical device in literature and c) irony under linguistic aspects. Hadumod Bußmann in her Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaften [1] emphasizes that the borderline between the aspects of literature and linguistics is not clear. In this paper we’ll concentrate on irony as literary phenomenon and a rhetorical technique.

AII forms of irony whether rhetorical or practical have something in common. Professor Bullit says:

[… ] its  [… = irony – K. B.] very essence […] whether considered as a rhetorical  trope […] or as a whole way of life, is dissimulation: the ironist appears to say or to be one thing while making it apparent to his audience that he means or is something quite different.[2]

We’ll talk about the term “dissimulation” later on and discuss its rhetorical meaning.  Bullit says that the ironist makes it apparent that he means something quite different i. e. that he is or writes ironically. But why, then, do we have problems in identifying irony? I’ll try to give an answer later on when we talk about the rhetorical system. Let’s consider briefly irony as an attitude to life.


2. Irony as an attitude to life

We’ve said that irony can be a certain critical and moral attitude to life. Although in this paper we’ll concentrate on irony as a rhetorical device the philosophical meaning is important when we talk about Swift.

Irony as an attitude to life implies first of a sufficient distance between subject (e. g. the individual) and object (e.g. life). Thus:

Irony can also become a mode of escape [… ]. To laugh at the terrors of life is in some sense to evade them. To laugh at oneself is to become Iess vulnerabIe.[3]

From the biographies on Swift we can tell that Swift suffered from the moral and political deficiencies of his time. So, irony for Swift was also a method of self-protection.

Philosophical irony can produce rhetorical irony or vice versa:

It [= irony – K.B.] ceases to be a functional technique serving a moral purpose, and becomes the embodiment of an attitude to life.[4]

The philosophical or moral distance as the rhetorical one serves a second purpose: values and virtues are considered critically. The ironic distance demands a completly critical view upon life.

And Swift even goes beyond the critical view. Dyson terms this change as the metamorphosis of his irony:

The irony intended to “wonderfully mend the world” transmutes itself into a savage exploration of the world’s essential unmendability.[5]

This type of irony especially becomes obvious in Gulliver’s Travels.


3. The term “irony”

In every essay and treatise on Swift and his satirical work there appears somewhere the termin “irony”. I’ll give but a few exemples:

ironic opposition / ironic turn / ironic style / irony of perspectives / ironic method /  ironic speaker / ironic contrast / ironic exaggeration / ironic treatment / irony as a trap etc.

And although nearly every author cites the history of this word i. e. the  etymological background each one seems to have his own definition and his own application of the term irony. Thus, Rosenheim values “irony” as a completly “overworked term” [6]. On the one side “the meaning of irony is often confined to ‘inversion’” [7]; Rosenheim considers this definition as inadequate. At the other extreme irony is “applied to situations in which a ‘speaker’ professes a position which is patently not his own” [8]. “Irony” then becomes doubtless an “innocuous term” [9].

The first differentiation one has to make is that between IRONY AS A FORM OF SPEECH and IRONY AS A FORM OF THOUGHT.

Lausberg gives a well-known and commonly accepted definition of irony in form of speech:

Die Ironie ist der Ausdruck einer Sache durch ein deren Gegenteil bezeichnendes Wort.[10]

Lausberg has been criticized for this definition because even this definition not always works because the intended meaning very often is not quite the opposite of the literal meaning. To give an example from Swift’s work:

Because I have profess’d to be a most devoted servant of all Modern Forms […].[11]

Certainly, Swift is not a servant but a critic of all modern forms. The contrast between the used expression “servant” and the intended meaning “critic” constitutes the ironic effect. But the opposite of “servant” is “master”. Nevertheless, out of the context the reader is able to replace the intended meaning.

But Lausberg’s definition applies only to the strictly literal use of irony. Over and above this definition there exists a broader concept of irony – irony as a form of thought. In this concept irony is not to be defined by “words indicating the opposite of the intended meaning”. A very useful definition of this form-of-thought-irony is to be found in Eleanor Hutchens’ essay “The Identification of Irony”.[12] Hutchens criticizes:

Few terms in modern criticism are more useful than “irony”, and few are in more danger of losing their usefulness through indiscriminate application.[13]

Irony here becomes a sort of intellectual game. Hutchens fixes the playful element in her definition when she sees irony as

basically the sport of bringing about a conclusion by indicating the opposite.[14]

Here irony is not bound to single expressions but it is attached to an intended conclusion. To illustrate this definition I’ll give an example from The Intelligencer [15]:

It is true, that great Minister was demonstratively convinced, and publicly owned his Conviction, that Mr. Gay was not the Author; but having lain under the Suspicion, it seemed very just, that he should suffer the punishment; because in this most reformed Age, the Virtues of a Prime Minister are no more to be suspected, than the Chastity of Caesar’s Wife.[16]

Here we find both forms of irony. The form of speech irony can be explained according to Lausberg: when Swift writes: “it seemed very just” he means: “it is very unjust”. But there is more irony in this paragraph which results out of certain conclusions the reader has to draw. First Swift speaks, ironically again, about “this most reformed Age”. As an additional rhetorical technique he uses a comparision. He compares certain moral laws, especially those expected by Prime Ministers namely not to suspect one’s virtues, with habits and attitudes of an ancient age – the Roman Empire. This comparision is illogical.

The second ironic conclusion is suggested with the allusion to Caesar’s wife. Her name was mentioned in relation to another Roman statesman and she was not above the suspicion of a crime. More over, “chastity” is a word out of religious context and normally refers to unmarried women or to the clergy. So it is paradox to talk of the chastity of someone’s wife. The conclusion the reader has to draw is: it is paradox as well to trust blindly in a Prime Minister’s virtues.

This example may have shown the efficiency of Hutchens’ definition.

A further literary use is that of the ironic mask as it is described by Martin Price.[16]  Here the ironic effect between “literal” and “intended” meaning is reached through an ironic speaker (or: persona) who gives “coherence to moral solecisms”[17]. Irony here emerges as an effect from the distance between the author and the created ironic speaker. In An Argument e. g. there is an ironic contrast between Swift’s own view and the view to which he submits. Even more effective is the ironic mask A Modest Proposal.

The ironic forms here described have one feature in common: there must exist an opposition either between words and thoughts or between the author’s view and that of his speaker.


4. Swift’s irony within the theorectical rhetoric system

As mentioned above irony may occur in form of speech or in form of thought. Both forms are used by Swift.

Irony in form of speech is often recognizable by the Iinguistic context:

I profess to Your Highness, in the Integrity of my Heart, that what I am going to say is literally true this Minute I am writing.[18]

Signals to detect this form of irony are the semantic contrast here of “true” und “Minute”; if something is really true it cannot be limited to a minute.

Irony as a form of thought is much more difficult to detect. The intended meaning may occur either through intonation (not relevant for written irony) or through the extralinguistic context. Concerning Swift one has to know a lot of historical, political and biographical details to recognize his irony:

My Reason for mentioning Courts and Ministers (whom I never think on, but with the most profound Veneration), is [… ].[19]

Here we find no semantic contrast. To understand this form of irony one has to know Swift and his critical attitude towards courts and ministers. As a formal help for the reader the ironic remark is put in brackets and printed in italics. Authors sometimes use such formal devices to indicate: attention reader! This is irony!

Irony as a form of thought may assume two different degrees of intensity. It occurs either as dissimulation (Bullit mentioned this term in his definition) or as simulation.

Dissimulation tends to conceal the speaker’s own opinion. Rhetorical devices are e. g. synecdoche, emphasis or litotes. Although Swift generally is eager to convey his opinions he sometimes uses this form of irony. Then, irony has the function to protect the author e. g. when he covers up the real authorship by pretended letters of “The Bookseller to the Reader” (in: A TaIe of a Tub) or “The publisher to the Reader‘ (in: Gulliver’s Travels).

But in most cases Swift uses simulation that is he pretends that his own opinion agrees with that of his enemies, e. g. when he writes in favour of “nominal Christianity”. This simulation-irony is the main form of rhetorical irony. The agreement with the opposing opinion can be expressed by single words [20]. Such expressions are “Liberty of Conscience”, “soldiers of great Hopes, bright Wit, and profound Judgement”, “thorough Examination of Causes and Effects” [21] etc. In this paragraph gradually Swift prepares his punch-line which cumulates with the word “blasphemy” intensified by “only”.

An Argument is often given as an example for the ironic mask and this paragraph shows which means constitute an ironic speaker or persona.

Both, irony by dissimulation and irony by simulation can be expressed in different degrees of evidence. The rhetorical irony of Swift seeks for a high degree of evidence. In contrast to the low degree of evidence this form is addressed to an audience who is expected to be judge. The speaker or author wants to show up the enemy’s deficiencies e. g. the brutality of English policy against Ireland or the decay of real faith to nominal Christianity.

Irony in a high degree of evidence tends to be understood as irony (the form lop degree of evidence is used for political-dialectic purposes and tends to veil its ironic meaning).

The form of speech irony picks out single from the enemy’s world of thought (e. g. “reason”, “wit” etc.) and shows up their insufficiency by mere application.[22]

The rhetorical simulation irony as a form of thought can understood as a sort of allegory; the literal meaning here is not the object of comparison but the opposite of the intended meaning. Allegory means similarity of literal and intended meaning; irony means its contrary.[23]


5. The different functions of irony in Swift’s work

5 .1 Function of defeating the enemy in a subtle way
As we have shown especially irony in a high degree of evidence tends to make the enemy ridiculous by assuming their opinions and showing their defaults. Swift uses this tendency of irony very often:

For altho’ Your Highness is of hardly got clear of Infancy, yet has the universal learned World already resolv’d upon appealing to Your future Dictates with the lowest and most resigned Submission:  Fate having decreed You sole Arbiter of the Productions of human Wit, in this polite and most accomplish’d Age.[24]

The speaker imitates ironically the literary style of modesty and so attacks the “modern” forms of writing. The whole “Epistle Dedicatory” is filled with simulations.

To use irony as a destructive weapon is certainly one of its most important and classical functions. Aristotle was the first to recommend irony as a weapon for the speaker in his Rhetorik.

The most frequently used mechanism of this form is that of praise-by-censure or censure-by-praise. The famoust example is that of Antony’s repeated phrase “But Brutus is an honorable man” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Some commentators consider this technique especially developed by Swift’s satirical technique literature e. g. in A Tal of a Tub and in Gulliver’s Travels:

Imagine with thy self, courteous Reader, how often I then wished for the Tongue of Demosthenes or Cicero, that might have enabled me to celebrate the Praise of my own dear country in a styIe equal to its Merits and Felicity.[25]

The allusion to the rhetorical tradition becomes evident when Gulliver’s wishes for the tongue of e. g. Cicero that classical example of rhetorical skill. What follows is a long and elaborated literal praise intended as criticism:

Judges, those venerable Sages and Interpreters of the Law […].[26]
[…] prudent Management of our Treasury [27]

An even more illustrous example for the function of this censure-by-praise-irony is to be found in Gulliver’s Travels Chapter VII when Gulliver proposes to the King of Brobdingnag to instruct his workmen how to build “Tubes with explosiv“ [28]. The king’s horror about “those terrible engines” [29] reflects Swift’s attitude towards such destructive weapons. Thus he depends not only on the function of the censure-by-praise-irony but elaborates expressively his point of view.

5.2 Function of communicating with the reader
To refer once again to the topic of this paper – “Irony als as a satirical weapon in Swift’s work” – I want to I want to quote Dyson again:

A state of tension, not to say war, exists between Swift and his readers. The very tone in which he writes is turned into a weapon.[30]

This is another important function of irony in Swift’s satires. Dyson refers to Swift’s technique of misdirecting his readers e. g. in Gulliver’s Travels when the reader is politely encouraged to identify himself with Gulliver. But here Dyson, I guess, is in danger of extending the term irony in a way too vague and inaccurate because her some other devices are used.[31]

But there are other examples to illustrate this function of Swift’s irony. I’ll show this process of communication with the reader with an example again, from The Intelligencer:

My Reason for mentioning Courts and Ministers, (whom I never think on but with the most profound Veneration), is […].[32]

The ironic remark in brackets has a certain effect upon the reader. Even if he doesn’t know Swift but knows the Beggar’s Opera he has to be suspicious: if this critic is really in favor of courts and ministers he is expected to condemn the Beggar’s Opera. Thus Swift controls the reception of his audience. A contradiction emerges and the reader has to solve this conflict. Swift gives another indicator for the reader’s job:

[…] that in the Beggar’s Opera, there appear to be some Reflection upon Courtiers and Statesman where of I am by no means a Judge.[33]

Of, course Swift judges this reflection – but in an ironic way. And when he says he is by no means a judge the reader is asked to judge by himself.

Another example is the preface of A Tale of a Tub. Superficially Swift questions his own capability of writing a preface. Thus he attacks the modern form of writing prefaces. In this way the reader has to become suspicious of modern writing. Swift stirs him up and tries to transfer the intended conclusion that perhaps the modern genius may not be capable of writing prefaces.

Irony here functions to keep the reader alert, to encourage him to read critically, to draw his own conclusions and to question permanently the author’s or speaker’s sincerity.

5.3 Irony als a reference to satire
Another function of irony in Swift’s work is the reference to satire.

Again the Preface of A Tale of a Tub gives an obvious example:

Tis a great Ease to my Conscience that I writ so elaborate and useful a Discourse without one grain of satyr intermixt.[34]

The irony is so obvious that if the reader hadn’t noticed it before he can’t fail to recognize it now. Irony here refers directly to satire. It is a form of self-reference. In this way too Swift controls the reader’s reception.

But he doesn’t depend on this single hint and again he uses irony to empasize the satirical quality of, his prose:

But I forget that I am expatiating on a Subject, where in I have no concern, having neither Talent nor an Inclination for Satyr.[35]

In this paragraph he underlines the connection between irony and satire.


6. Irony and satire

Before we talk about the relation between irony and satire it may be useful to work out the difference between irony and Iying. One distinctive feature is that irony has got to be recognized – in contrast to lying. But as I have shown there is a form of irony – irony in a low degree of evidence for political-dialectic purposes – which also tends to veil its character. Thus the intention to be recognized cannot be the only distinction even if it is decisive in most cases.

The borderline between irony and lying becomes blurred when dissimulation-irony is concerned because dissimulation means concealment of one’s own opinion and that is concealment of the truth.[36]

An important difference between irony and lying becomes evident when we concentrate on the purpose for which they are used. Eleanor Hutchens considers the utilitarian character of unironic acts of deception as the distinctive feature. Those acts are “means to ends without any separate value of their own”[37].

Irony, in contrast, is an intellectual game, a “sport the neat trickiness of which is felt to be enjoyed by the ironist for its own sake, quite apart from his purpose in employing it”.[38] According to this explanation the ironist veils the truth out of mere fun; the liar veils the truth in order to reach a certain aim. The liar’s intention is to deceive; the ironist’s intention goes beyond this end: he wants to convey a deeper truth and uses deception only as mean. It needs to inform of the concealment in order that it can be decoded. Thus it conceals only fictionally.

Irony we’ve said is a satirical weapon. But what is the relation between irony and satire? Which features do they have in common?

Irony is generally independant of satire; satire needs no ironic elements. Why then do they occur together so often?

As Rosenheim emphasizes all satire is an attack.[39] This element of aggression is also attached to irony. The “acting” equivalent to irony is, according to Lausberg, provocation:

Der sprachlichen Ironie [] entspricht als Handlung die Provokation.[40]

Therefor irony is a weapon and with this characteristic of aggression it is very useful for satiric ends.

And there is another similarity between irony and satire: both need the fictional element. Rosenheim says that satire needs reference to reality and reference to fiction. And irony too needs the element of fiction; it only pretends to be ignorant. So the fictional element is a further feature satire and irony have in common.

On the one hand irony is a technique of satire. But as it is independant it is also a mode of behaviour.


[1] Bußmann, Hadumod. Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. Stuttgart, 1983, S. 221
[2] Rosenheim, p. 20
[3] Dyson, p. 673
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid, p. 676
[6] Rosenheim, p. 19
[7] ibid., p. 20
[8] ibid, p. 21
[9] ibid.
[10] Lausberg, Vol I, p. 302
[11] Swift. A Tale of a Tub, (Preface) p. 286
[12] In: English Literary History, 27, (1960), p. 352-363
[13] ibid., p. 352
[14] ibid., p. 358
[15] The Intelligencer, Number II, 1728
[16] Price, Martin. Swift’s Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning. 1953.
[17] ibid., p. 66
[18] Greenberg, Robert A. The Writings of Jonathan Swift. A Tale of a Tub, p. 282
[19] The Intelligencer. Number III, 1728
[20] The following examples are from An Argument, Greenberg, p. 462, last paragraph
[21] ibid.
[22] Example in A Tale of a Tub. “The Preface”, Greenberg, p. 285, – the extended definition of what is a wit.
[23] Knox, Norman. “Die Bedeutung von Ironie”: Einführung und Zusammenfassung“. In: Hass, Hans-Egon. Ironie als literarisches Phänomen, p. 21-31
[24] A Tale of a Tub. Greenberg, p. 279
[25] Gulliver’s Travels. Greenberg, p. 103
[26] ibid., p. 104
[27] ibid., p. 104
[28] ibid., p. 109
[29] ibid., p. 1190
[30] Dyson, in: Greenberg, p. 675
[31] e. g. a variety of techniques to accomplish authenticity; cf. Real/Vienken, p. 37
[32] The Intelligencer, Number III, 1728
[33] ibid.
[34] A Tale of a Tub, Greenberg, p. 288
[35] ibid., p. 390
[36] cf. Lausberg, Vol. I, p. 446, § 902
[37] Hutchens, p. 358
[38] ibid.
[39] Rosenheim, p. 12
[40] Lausberg, Vol. I, p. 112



Bußmann, Hadumod. Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. Stuttgart, 1983

Dyson, A. E. „Swift: The Metamorphosis of Irony“. In: Greenberg, Robert (ed.). The Writings of Jonathan Swift. New York, p. 672-684

Greenberg, Robert (ed.). The Writings of Jonathan Swift. (Norton Critical Edition)

Hass, Hans-Egon (ed.). Ironie als literarisches Phänomen. Köln, 1973

Hutchens, Eleanor. „The Identification of Irony“. In: English Literary History. Vol. 27, 1960, pp.352-363

Lausberg, Heinrich. Elemente der literarischen Rhetorik. 1963

Rosenheim, Edward. Swift and the Satirist’s Art. Chicago, 1963

Price, Martin. Swift’s Rhetorical Art. A Study in Structure and Meaning. 1953

Real, Hermann J. und Heinz J. Vienken (eds.). Jonathan Swift „Gulliver’s Travels“. München, 1984.


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