Swift and Gulliver's Travels:

Useful Quotations



I answered in a few Words, but in the most submissive Manner, lifting up my Hand and both mine Eyes to the Sun, as calling him for a Witness. – GT 1, i, 9

Although we usually call Reward and Punishment, the two Hinges upon which all Government turns; yet I could never observe this Maxim to be put in Practice by any Nation, except that of Lilliput. – GT  1, vi, 47

Providence never intended to make the Management of publick Affairs a Mystery, to be comprehended only by a few Persons of sublime Genius, of which there seldom are three born in an Age: But they suppose Truth, Justice, Temperance, and the like, to be in every Man's power; – GT 1, vi, 47

[...] your Friend the Secretary will be directed to come to your House, and read before you the Articles of Impeachment; and then to signify the great Lenity and Favour of his Majesty and Council; whereby you are only condemned to the Loss of your Eyes, which his Majesty doth not question you will gratefully and humbly submit to. – GT  1, vii, 60

I must confess, having never been designed for a Courtier, either by my Birth or Education, I was so ill a Judge of Things, that I could not discover the Lenity and Favour of this sentence, but conceived it (perhaps erroneously) rather to be rigorous than gentle.GT 1, vii, 61

Undoubtedly Philosophers are in the right, when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by Comparison. – GT 2, i, 75 [NB! allusion to Berkeley, Pascal]

Nothing angered and mortified me so much as the Queen's Dwarf. – GT 2, iii, 96

That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding and eluding them. I observe among you some Lines of an Institution which in its Original might have been tolerable; but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by Corruptions. [...] I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth. – The King of Brobdingnag, on the English; GT 2, vi, 120-121

And he gave it for his Opinion, that whoever could make two Ears of Corn, or two Blades of Grass, to grow upon a Spot of Ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of Mankind, and do more essential Service to his Country, than the whole Race. – GT 2, vii, 124-125
[NB! cf Drapier's Letters: "[F]ew politicians, with all their schemes are half so useful members of a commonwealth as an honest farmers; who, by skillfully draining, fencing, manuring, and planting hath increased the intrinsic value of a piece of land; and thereby done a perpetual service to his country; which it is a great controversy, whether any of the farmer ever did, since the creation of the world; but no controversy at all, that ninety-nine in a hundred, have done abundance of mischief." Also note that the Tories were united with the agricultural interest.]

It seems, the Minds of these People are so taken up with intense Speculations, that they neither can speak nor attend to the Discourses of others, without being rouzed by some external Taction upon the Organs of Speech and Hearing. – GT 3, ii, 149

But if they still continue obstinate, or offer to raise Insurrections; he proceeds to the last Remedy, by letting the Island drop directly upon their Heads, which makes a universal Destruction both of Houses and Men. – GT  3, iii, 162

[Those who refuse to follow the precepts of the "projectors"] were looked on with an Eye of Contempt and ill Will, as Enemies to Art, ignorant, and ill Commonwealthsmen, preferring their own Ease and Sloth before the general Improvement of their Country. – GT 3, iv, 169

He had been Eight Years upon a Project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers, which were to be put in Vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the Air in raw inclement Summers. – GT 3, v, 171
[NB! Swift and the Royal Society: It had been only recent
ly suggested that plants "respire" sunlight.]

Men are never so serious, thoughtful, and intent, as when they
are at Stool. – GT 3, vi, 182, A Lagado professor

For although few Men will avow their Desires of being immortal upon such hard Conditions [...] he observed that every Man desired to put off Death for sometime longer, let it approach ever so late, and he rarely heard of any Man who died willingly [...] – GT 3, x, 203

[...] if my Neighbour hath a Mind to my Cow, he hires a Lawyer to prove that he ought to have my Cow from me. – GT 4, v, 241

However, I could not reflect without some Amazement, and much Sorrow, that the Rudiments of Lewdness, Coquetry, Censure, and Scandal, should have place by Instinct in Womankind. – GT 4, vii, 256. [NB! "By instinct ..." – observation of female Yahoos.]

[...] her Countenance did not make an Appearance altogether so hideous as the rest of the Kind. – GT 4, viii, 259, on the young female Yahoo who embraces G. in his bath

And my Master thought it monstrous in us to give the Females a different kind of Education from the Males [...]; whereby, as he truly observed, one half of our Natives were good for nothing but bringing Children into the World: And to trust the Care of our Children to such useless Animals, he said, was yet a greater Instance of Brutality. – GT 4, viii, 261


The Question to be debated was, Whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the Face of the Earth. [...] That, as the Yahoos were the most filthy, noisome, and deformed Animal which Nature ever produced, so they were the most restive and indocible, mischievous and malicious: They would privately suck the Teats of the Houyhnhnms Cows; kill and devour their Cats, trample down their Oats and Grasses, if they were not continually watched, and commit a Thousand other Extravagancies. [...] That, the Inhabitants taking a Fancy to use the Service of the Yahoos, had very imprudently neglected to cultivate the Breed of Asses, which are a comely Animal, easily kept, more tame and orderly [...] That, he observed in me all the Qualities of a Yahoo, only a little more civilized by some Tincture of Reason; which, however, was in a Degree as far inferior to the Houyhnhnm Race as the Yahoos of their country were to me: That, [....] I mentioned a Custom we had of castrating Houyhnhnms when they were young [...] That this Invention might be practiced upon the younger Yahoos here, which, besides rendering them tractable and fitter for Use, would in an Age destroy the whole Species without destroying Life. – GT 4, ix, 263-265 [NB! The third point: G. is caught right in the middle, like between Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, but in morals and reason, not in size, and with disastrous consequences.]

No man could more verify the Truth of these two Maxims, That, Nature is easily satisfied; and, That, Necessity is the Mother of Invention. – GT 4, x, 268. [NB! "Nature..." = Epicurean theme common in Horatian satire. Swift satirizes this type of satire.]

At first, indeed, I did not feel that natural Awe which the Yahoos and all other Animals bear towards them [the Houyhnhnms]; but it grew upon me by Degrees, much sooner than I imagined, and was mingled with a respectful Love and Gratitude, that they would condescend to distinguish me from the rest of my Species. – GT 4, x, 270

But as I was going to prostrate myself to kiss his Hoof, he did me the Honour to raise it to my Mouth. I am not ignorant how much I have been censured for mentioning this last Particular. Detractors are pleased to think it improbable, that so illustrious a Person should descend to give so great a Mark of Distinction to a Creature so inferior as I. – GT  4, x, 274

[...] my principal Design was to inform, not to amuse thee. – GT 4, xiii, 283

I imposed on myself as a Maxim, never to be swerved from, that I would strictly adhere to Truth; neither indeed can I be ever under the least Temptation to vary from it, while I retain in my Mind the Lectures and Example of my noble Master, and the other illustrious Houyhnhnms, of whom I had so long the Honour to be an humble Hearer. –– Nec si miserum Fortuna Sinonem / Finxit, vanum etiam, mendacemque improba finget.
– GT 4, xi, 284
[NB! From Virgil, Aeneid: "nor, if cruel Fortune has made Sinon miserable, shall she also make him a deceitful liar." These words are spoken by Sinon as a preface to a wholly untrue story, designed to persuade the Trojans to take the wooden horse into their city. So much for "veracity".]


Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets with in the world, and that so few are offended with it.
– The Battle of the Books, `Preface', 1704

You fetter a man for seven years, then let him loose to show his skill in dancing and because he does it awkwardly you say he ought to be fettered for life.
– Letter to Charles Ford, regarding the situation in Ireland

Seamen have a custom, when they meet a whale, to fling him out an empty tub by way of amusement, to divert him from laying violent hands upon the ship.
Tale of a Tub. Preface.

The reason why so few marriages are happy is because young ladies spend their time in making nets, not in making cages.
– Thoughts on Various Subjects.
[NB! Attitude to women: The fault appears to lie with the women; but: for a marriage to be happy, the man has to be caged. Most women in GT are fairly negative characters; still, things are always ambiguous when we take a closer look.]

What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not we are told expressly, that they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.
– Thoughts on Various Subjects 1711

I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.
– Thoughts on Various Subjects 1711

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
– Thoughts on Various Subjects 1711

If Heaven had looked upon riches to be a valuable thing, it would not have given them to such a scoundrel.
– Letter to Miss Vanbromrigh, Aug. 12, 1720.

I never saw, heard, nor read, that the clergy were beloved in any nation where Christianity was the religion of the country. Nothing can render them popular, but some degree of persecution.
– Thoughts on Religion 1765

Religion supposes heaven and hell, the word of God, and sacraments, and twenty other circumstances, which, taken seriously, are a wonderful check to wit and humour, and such as a true poet cannot possibly give into, with a saving to his poetical license; but yet it is necessary for him, that others should believe those things seriously, that his wit may be exercised on their wisdom for so doing; for though a wit need not have religion, religion is necessary to a wit, as an instrument is to the hand that plays upon it.
– A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet



Less useful for the exams, but inspiring none the less:


(Surprisingly many 'idiomatic phrases' go back to Swift.
Some of these are, in fact, not originally by him;
whenever I could find an earlier source, it is noted.
Some might have been common sayings
in Swift's time, but survived and become
famous because Swift used them in his works.)

The two noblest things, which are sweetness and light.
Battle of the Books.

I shall be like that tree, – I shall die at the top.
Scott’s Life of Swift.

A penny for your thoughts.
– Introduction to Polite Conversation.

Do you think I was born in a wood to be afraid of an owl?
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue i.

The sight of you is good for sore eyes.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue i.

I won’t quarrel with my bread and butter.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue i.

She’s no chicken; she’s on the wrong side of thirty, if she be a day.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue i.

She looks as if butter wou’dn’t melt in her mouth.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue i.
[NB! In reality by John Heywood (1497?-1580?), Proverbs]

If it had been a bear it would have bit you.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue i.

She wears her clothes as if they were thrown on with a pitchfork.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue i.

She has more goodness in her little finger than he has in his whole body.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue ii.

You must take the will for the deed.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue ii.
[NB! This idea is not by Swift but by Ovid, Letters from Pontus: "Ut desint vires, tamen est laudanda voluntas." ("Although the power is lacking, nevertheless the will ought to be praised.") There's a striking parallel between the two men: Ovid's another poor chap who had to go into exile (to Pontus, on the Black Sea coast) and grew depressed over it.]

He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue ii.

Lord! I wonder what fool it was that first invented kissing.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue ii.

They say a carpenter’s known by his chips.
Polite Conversation. Dialogue ii.

I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue ii.

I thought you and he were hand-in-glove.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue ii.
[NB! This is a variant of William Shakespeare (1564-1616): "See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! / O that I were a glove upon that hand, / That I might touch that cheek!" (Romeo and Juliet. Act ii. Sc. 2. 1)]

She watches him as a cat would watch a mouse.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue iii.

She pays him in his own coin.
– Polite Conversation. Dialogue iii.


© 2002 Chris Waigl. Last modified 17th July, 2002.