Stabbing Pain with Words


科教创新与实践 2021年9期

Zhang Yuan

If you want to criticize and criminate an annoying person or an abominable thing, instead of using force or speaking vulgar words, the best way is to use gentle words as weapons, stabbing it invisibly and bloodlessly, which makes relative people feel ashamed. I think this method is deeply reflected in three essays among all those I have been exposed to: Samuel Johnson’s A Letter to Lord Chesterfield, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Edward Morgan Forster’s My Wood.

These three articles are all highly ironic, with many rhetorical devices, but their styles and writing techniques are different, each having its own merits. In my opinion, we can compare their similarities and differences. I will analyze their satirical means one by one as follows.

(1)Samuel Johnson’s A Letter to Lord Chesterfield

A Letter to Lord Chesterfield is known as the “Declaration of Independence” in the literary world. In this letter, Samuel Johnson tactfully uses ironic way to respond to his patron Chesterfield and his two puffing articles, and fiercely attacks the brazen dignitaries who are reckless to seek fame.

First of all, pretending to cater to the literati politicians and unveracious patron, the writer puts himself very low. The word “Lord”, a polite calling, appears many times. At the end of the letter, the author even skillfully connects the signature with the letter body. It seems that these show the author’s respect and gratitude, but in fact these highlight his satire and anger incisively and vividly. Samuel keeps his elegant and magnanimous style throughout the letter.

Secondly, the author makes good use of long sentences. Triple parallelism are used twice, which are very concise and forceful to explain the experience of being rejected by the patron for seven years, to vent the anger and resentment accumulated in the writer’s heart[1], and to satirize Chesterfield’s shameless and profiteering psychology. The author prefers to use periodic sentences to arrange the words order according to the principle of “end weight”. As a kind of ironic expression, it creates tension, suspense and dramatic climax. “I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of The World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public, were written by your lordship.” In this example, Samuel specially mentioned that it was the owner of the newspaper who told him about this thing, and put Chesterfield at the end of the sentence.

The writer also uses metaphor, allusion, etc. Here I want to analyze the allusions in detail. “Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre”, a French quote in this essay, shows Johnson’s naive desire to be the conqueror of Lord, which produces a strong mock-epic resonance effect. [2] In another allusion, “The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks”, which is from the ancient Roman poet Virgil’s poetry Eclogue, metaphor is used to compare the patron to the stone, and people cannot believe such a hard-hearted crank.

In a word, the various writing techniques makes the text vivid and powerful, with profound satire to Chesterfield.

(2)Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal

The two writers both use polite words as sharp weapons, but Swift’s writing style is quite different from that of Johnson. The most prominent writing feature of this essay is the use of irony throughout the text. The “modest” in the title is the most direct display of irony, which shows the author’s deep satire. The proposal in the article is not mild at all, but bloody and cold. The author suggests that they can solve the national problems by eating their babies, which sets off the ruthlessness of the British government.

The article is written in the first person, but we can easily see that the “I” is not the author himself, which is a lifelike projector he depicts. He had lived in Ireland for a long time, having quite a range of social contacts, so he knew the major subjects. The projector, with much verisimilitude, is restrained, stiff-backed and eloquent, it seems that he is sincere in working for the country and the people.

Secondly, the essayist deeply satirizes the authorities by citing data and describing many details. Aiming at the problem of the increasing number of Irish children, the author gives a mathematical calculation, which is very complicated and elaborate. Then, when it comes to detail description, the author lists many cooking methods, such as Stewed, Roasted, Baked, Boiled, Fricassee and Ragout. Through the data and the details, readers can realize the calm and seriousness of the projector and feel the leader’s cruelty.

There are still several hints Swift sends to the readers, or those are what he can’t help to write down to denounce the British government. In the twelfth paragraph, the author directly uses sarcasm, through which readers can feel his attitude and understand the projector is not the author, which is a deep ironic hint for the readers.

All in all, from the perspective of a projector, the author pretends to be sincere in putting forward suggestions, but in fact he exposes and condemns British government’s abominable rule over the Irish people.

(3)Edward Morgan Forster’s My Wood.

This essay is different from the above two essays. Although this one is also ironic, people feel more relaxed to read it than the previous two essays. The author tells the changes of his mind after he bought a small wood in a sarcastic and humorous tone, and then discusses the bad psychological impact of the property on human beings.

Like A Letter to Lord Chesterfield, this essay also uses a lot of figure of speech, such as allusion, mock seriousness and so on. In the second paragraph, the author says that property makes people feel heavy, and heavy people can’t enter heaven. There, the author uses the allusions in the Bible, and mentions that heavy people always lose the chance in the allusion of being baptized in the Jordan River. Once people have property, they will bear a heavy mental burden, being easy to hesitant before doing anything, and finally miss the opportunity.

The author uses the rhetorical device of mock seriousness many times to highlight satire and humor. “Mock seriousness” refers to the fact that the author expresses some unimportant trifling things in a more serious and formal way. For example, in the first paragraph of the article, the author expresses his dissatisfaction with the his property, using very formal words and reflecting the author’s tone of self-mockery. And in the fourth paragraph, one day the author heard the sound of a branch breaking in the wood. He first thought that someone was stealing blackberries. He immediately felt that the person who had stolen his blackberries would “predict the value of the undergrowth”. And the word “depredating” is very exaggerated, which shows the author’s heart become cautious and anxious because of the acquisition of his property. And his panic mood is written in a humorous and spicy way.

This essay is also characterized by its logical clear organization, from four aspects to elaborate. First, “it makes me feel heavy”, means property shoulders owner heavy burden, with a lot of considerations in mind. Second, “it makes me feel it ought to be larger”, reflects people’s greed and avarice. Third, “property makes its owner feel that he ought to do something to it”, means greedy thoughts make people to be at a loss what to do. And the last, “the blackberries” may represent his ownership of property. The author envisions that he will become a stingy property owner, fencing the wood for his own use. Even if you have property, you may not possess joy and happiness. Forster satirizes the miser and points out that the external things seldom bring the internal rewards.

We know that the above three essays are all ironic articles despite their totally different contents, writing techniques and their styles through our analysis and elaboration. The three writers all use words as sharp tools to touch people’s hearts, and hope their words can bring the readers a shock and insight. The three essayists’ exquisite satirical writing methods, each has its strongpoint, deserve our learning and reference.


徐鹏. 英语辞格[M]. 北京: 商务印书馆,2000.

[2]Leech,Geoffrey. A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry[M]. 北京: 外 语 教 学 与 研 究 出 版 社 ,2 0 0 1 .

Communication University of China


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