Jonathan Swift, studio of Charles Jervas, 1709-10, National Portrait Gallery NPG 4407

For the second half of our summer oyster series, we’re talking about the saucy satire of Jonathan Swift.

First and foremost, Swift is credited with what is probably the most famous oyster quote in history: ‘It was a bold man that first ate on oyster.’ And while he did say this, the idea was actually cleverly borrowed from King James I, who was quoted in historian Thomas Fuller’s The history of the worthies of England (1662), as having said: ‘He was a very valiant man who first adventured on eating of oysters’.

Minor plagiarism aside, Jonathan Swift was a talented man. He wrote impressively on a number of topics from romantic poetry to religious sermons and political essays. His satire is some of the best in the English language – it’s funny, witty, scathing and scandalous. And most importantly, his oyster references are nothing short of genius.

Gulliver’s Travels

Swift was the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin when he wrote his most famous work, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. Or better known as Gulliver’s Travels. He published it anonymously in London in 1726. It was an immediate hit and has never been out of print since.

Although initially intended as a parody of travel literature (which was all the rage in 18th-century Europe), Gulliver’s Travels became much more. It wasn’t written for entertainment, but as an indictment. Swift really sticks the knife in, using his political savvy to overtly mock British and European society. Swift criticizes politicians, scientists, philosophers and writers, all of whom he thought had become self-righteous during the Enlightenment. And for the most part, the subjects of his critiques loved it. Swift also comments more widely on the human condition. There again he doesn’t pull punches, using low language to describe the human body. In fact, Gulliver’s Travel’s didn’t actually appear with its complete text until almost 10 years after its first printing because most publishers simply edited these sections. However, the presence of such base humor serves quite an important purpose: to ridicule the Enlightenment beliefs that mankind was a purely spiritual being, able to transcend the requirements of their flesh.

This is evident in Part IV of Gulliver’s journey, A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms. When Gulliver first lands on the island, he is nearly killed by a wild group of Yahoos, vulgar human-like creatures. Luckily, he is rescued by the intelligent horse race, the Houyhnhnms. To the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver appears to be a Yahoo and is kept as a sort of pet.

When living with the Houyhnhnms, food plays an integral part to the reader’s understanding of Gulliver’s integration into the Houyhnhnms’ social structure. The Houyhnhnms eat only hay, oats and milk. They understand that Gulliver cannot survive on this diet, and although Gulliver attempts to argue in favor of its benefits, ultimately biology wins:

It was at first a very insipid diet, though common enough in many parts of Europe, but grew tolerable by time…  And I cannot but observe, that I never had one hours sickness while I stayed in this island.  It is true, I sometimes made a shift to catch a rabbit, or bird, by springs made of Yahoo’s hairs; and I often gathered wholesome herbs, which I boiled, and ate as salads with my bread; and now and then, for a rarity, I made a little butter, and drank the whey.  

Despite Gulliver’s adoption of the rational Houyhnhnms’ way of life, they eventually cast him out, seeing him as a Yahoo who threatens their society. Gulliver is devastated by this and tearfully kisses his master’s hoof upon departure. He leaves by boat in search of a deserted island where he can live out his days. Gulliver now sees this as preferable to returning to Europe to live among humans again, who he sees only as Yahoos, full of vice and corruption. He finally reaches New Holland and upon going ashore sets out to find food:

I found some shellfish on the shore, and ate them raw, not daring to kindle a fire, for fear of being discovered by the natives. I continued three days feeding on oysters and limpets, to save my own provisions; and I fortunately found a brook of excellent water, which gave me great relief.

Gulliver’s sense of survival brings him back to the primal state he wanted to escape. He is dependent on scavenging oysters and eating them raw, a stark difference from the simple boiled oats and milk eaten by the Houyhnhnms. It is ultimately the food that shows us that no matter how much Gulliver wishes to be Houyhnhnm, he is Yahoo; he is human.

When scavenging, Gulliver encounters natives who attack him. He makes it back to his canoe but is shot with an arrow and badly wounded. Here we see how flawed Gulliver’s character has become. Throughout his journeys we have seen Gulliver as an antihero who, despite his grandiose travels, never fully realizes greatness due to lack of cleverness and ambition. He is often outsmarted and taken advantage of, and he is rarely capable of saving himself.

In Part IV, these qualities are extreme – as Gulliver drifts, bleeding, with no plan, a Portuguese ship rescues him. The sea captain, Pedro de Mendez, offers to carry Gulliver to Lisbon for free. This kindness and generosity is met with disgust. Gulliver, still aspiring to be a rational being like the Houyhnhnms, rejects Pedro de Mendez as a Yahoo. Gulliver has become a misanthrope, dissatisfied with humanity and, by association, himself. In doing so he ironically proves to be somewhat less civilized than his human rescuer.

Rude poetry

On a slightly lighter note, let’s have a look at another one of Swift’s oyster references, which comes in the form of a poem. It’s amusing and a little risqué, made funnier by the fact that Swift was a somewhat reluctant vicar:

Swift’s thoughts about the efficacy of oysters are abundantly clear, if not pretty graphic. He even spells out an interesting recipe in A Journal to Stella, a work of 65 letters to his close friend and possibly secret wife, Esther Johnson:

Lord Masham made me go home with him to-night to eat boiled oysters. Take oysters, wash them clean; that is, wash their shells clean; then put your oysters into an earthen pot, with their hollow sides down, then put this pot into a great kettle with water, and so let them boil. Your oysters are boiled in their own liquor, and not mixed water.


Oysters have been considered aphrodisiacs since the second century when Roman physician Galen prescribed them for impotence and satirist Juvenal wrote of their salubrious effects on women. Scientifically, the actual potency of oysters is unclear, but we do know that bivalves have high zinc levels, which can aid in the production of testosterone. Also, a 2005 study found that oysters are rich in rare amino acids that increase levels of sex hormones. Unfortunately for Swift, they need to be eaten raw for the effects to work.