Famous now only for "Gulliver's Travels," Swift proves more cogently in his other satires that he is the English master of irony. For example, there is nothing remotely modest about what he proposes in "A Modest Proposal," which is that Irish people who are starving because of English economic policies should remedy their situation by eating their own children, boasting the added benefit of reducing the number of "papists." Like an eighteenth-century George Carlin, Swift is funny just for the blatant outrageousness of his words, but there is also a truthful undercurrent in much of what he says.
Swift, hereditarily an Englishman born in Dublin who became an Anglican minister and who was eventually sent back to Dublin--"exiled" as he called it--for the remainder of his life, made himself a mouthpiece for the Irish people and a gadfly to any authorities who he felt overstepped their bounds. In his "Drapier" letters, he warns the Irish not to take any wooden nickels; that is, to reject the base-metal currency being foisted upon them by the English in order to scuttle their economy. In his poem on "The Legion Club" he hurls hilarious verbal salvos at members of the Irish Parliament who are selling out to the English, caricaturing them as monsters and demons.
"A Tale of a Tub" goes everywhere, but the main narrative thread is an allegory of the Reformation. Three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, inherit a fortune from their father and proceed to conquer the world, but entrapment by the vices (personified as women) incites them to squabble and results in a schism in which Martin (Luther) and Jack (John Calvin) leave Peter (the Roman church) for their own haunts. Interspersed throughout this tale are playful swipes at literary critics and pedants, including a fantasy on the professional windbags known as the Aeolists. Harold Bloom has called "A Tale of a Tub" the best prose work in the English language, and furthermore has said that he reads it on a regular basis to punish himself, which I think speaks volumes even if you don't value Bloom's opinion.
Religion is naturally one of Swift's concerns. He generally likes it, but he has the sensibility to say, "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." He advocates religious sobriety; in the "Mechanical Operation of the Spirit" he ridicules fanatics who claim to be able to communicate with God. His "Argument Against Abolishing Christianity" offers solid rationale for preserving the institution, one reason being that the criticism of it is the only forum which allows certain writers to exercise their rhetorical talents.
This edition also contains a short list of Swift's epigrams, at least one of which has achieved some notoriety: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." Mostly these are observations of human nature and its folly, and while not all may resonate, some are surprisingly timeless: "It is a miserable thing to live in suspense; it is the life of a spider." Remember that the next time you decide to buy a lottery ticket.