Jonathan Swift, by Brean Hammond, Irish Academic Press, 214 pp, £17.95, ISBN: 978-0716529507
A Modest Proposal and Other Writings, by Jonathan Swift, edited and with an introduction by Carole Fabricant, Penguin, 2009, 464 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0140436426
“Rather little is known by the general public – outside Ireland at least – about Swift, except that he wrote Gulliver’s Travels.” So Victoria Glendinning begins her 1998 biography Jonathan Swift. If true, this is regrettable. In a class I taught recently for which Gulliver’s Travels had been the set reading for one lecture, a student, a young man from China, came to the lectern, his body quite literally shaking with emotion, his cheeks flushed, eyes alight, sparkling with excitement. Swift was wonderful, he said, and Gulliver’s Travels the best, the most inspiring, book he had ever read. I imagine that all who have taught Swift in the past could recount similar stories. Swift is like that – disturbing and confronting, but always inspiring and rewarding.
In his wonderful “Verses on the Death of Dr Swift”, which he composed in 1731, Swift foresaw that on his death it would be discovered that “He gave the little Wealth he had, / To build a House for Fools and Mad”. Writing his will a decade later, he made sure to do just that. The first paragraph notes sadly that he is “at this Present of sound Mind, although weak in Body”. He then gives a detailed description of how, on his death, the bulk of his fortune is to be spent on establishing a new institution, to be called St Patrick’s Hospital, for as many “Idiots and Lunaticks” as can be sustained by his estate. If there happened to be more than enough money for the purpose, that is, “if a sufficient Number of Idiots and Lunaticks cannot readily be found”, he added, “I desire that Incurables may be taken into the said Hospital to supply such Deficiency” (St Patrick’s Hospital still exists). His various possessions and valuables are then assigned to a wide range of friends and servants. He left “my third best Beaver Hat” to the Vicar of Santry. As Hammond notices, even at the door of death, he “leaves us smiling”.
Swift is buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, beneath a Latin inscription he composed and set out in his will to be inscribed on a tablet above his remains. As is well known, WB Yeats rendered this epitaph as “Swift has sailed into his rest; / Savage indignation there / Cannot lacerate his breast. / Imitate him if you dare, / World-besotted traveller; he / Served human liberty”. “Savage indignation” indeed sums up something of Swift. His work is redolent with violent satire and fierce indignation. As the reader of Gulliver’s Travels knows, he was a militant pacifist, a passionate anti-colonialist and a trenchant moralist. He was able to write witty, scatological poems as well as political propaganda. He was at one time friends with Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729) – politics was to divide them – and a lifelong friend of John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), John Gay (1685-1732), Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and, in Ireland, Thomas Sheridan (1687-1738). He liked women, and his friendships with a number of women were among the most important in his life. His letters to those closest to him and private works such as his verses to Stella (Esther Johnson, 1681-1728) on her birthday show that he was (or at least could be) a deeply sensitive and affectionate man.
Swift was an Anglo-Irish Protestant, a career clergyman, an Anglican dean and High-Churchman. He was also a pamphleteer and political activist, satirist and poet. Indeed, one of his characteristics is his enormous versatility as a writer. He is a major poet – albeit not in the same class as his friend Pope, a fact that Swift himself was the first to acknowledge (“In Pope, I cannot read a Line, / But with a Sigh, I wish it mine”). His prose work covers several genres, from the intimate Journal to Stella to the polemical pamphlets that were a product of his political activism, to the great classic works such as A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels.
He attempted to say the unsayable, and so his language is satiric, parodic and ironic. He is often guarded and defensive, ambiguous and ambivalent. As a result, there is much debate on very basic issues such as his politics. Some of my students believed (and were deeply offended because they believed) that he was serious in proposing cannibalism as a solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland. As Swift knew, his complex irony can be challenging. He was aware that he had often been misunderstood, to his own detriment. Looking back on his own life, he concluded that “Had he but spar’d his Tongue and Pen, / He might have rose like other Men”. A Tale of a Tub, for instance, was often viewed as blasphemous. His irony, Hammond observes, “sometimes seems to saw through the branch of religious orthodoxy upon which he tried to perch”.
Swift’s irony helps to create an ambiguity in his work which makes it difficult to identify his own convictions. George Orwell’s term “Tory anarchist” attempts to reconcile the authoritarian and libertarian elements in his character. FP Lock sees him as “Whiggish by nurture but Tory by nature”, a view echoed in Daniel Eilon’s “Tory by temperament and a Whig by principle”. Others follow Swift himself and see him as a Whig in politics but a Tory in church matters: in his own Memoirs, Relating to That Change which happened in the Queen’s Ministry in the Year 1710, Swift claimed to be a “Whig in politics” but a “High-churchman” in religion.
One of the first biographies, Remarks on the Life and Writings of Jonathan Swift (1751), by a former friend, Lord Orrery, claimed that his character could be read directly from his writings – in effect that Gulliver was Swift. This misunderstanding – the belief in the mad Dean (he was declared to be “of unsound mind and memory” in 1742), the misogynist Dean, the misanthropic Dean, the sexually neurotic Dean – has dogged Swift (or at least his reputation) ever since. The scatological poems of his later years, for instance, caused Middleton Murry to throw up his hands in despair. They are not merely “perverse” but “so perverse”, Murry says, “so unnatural, so mentally diseased, so humanly wrong”. Murry here repeats a familiar theme – writing on the fourth journey in Gulliver’s Travels, William Thackeray said Swift was “a monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind – tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame, filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene”.
In “The Author Upon Himself”, written perhaps in 1714, Swift writes:
Swift had the Sin of Wit, no venial Crime;
Nay, ’twas affirm’d, he sometimes dealt in Rhime:
Humour, and Mirth, had Place in all he writ:
He reconcil’d Divinity and Wit.
This is, at best, a partial self-portrait. “Humour and Mirth” certainly do feature explosively in his writing. And his Journal to Stella is sweetness itself. But much of what he wrote also featured savage satire, venom, and bile. Pat Rogers once wrote that Swift’s poetry “carries round its own canister of salt looking for open wounds”. This is equally true of much of his prose. Swift combines what could be described as a post-modernist approach with a classical set of concerns. And he combines the outrageously modern with the startling unfashionable. He enjoys disappointing the reader’s expectations and disturbing general decorum. At times he uses coarse and scatological language that offends even in our era, in which almost nothing offends – one can easily imagine how deeply disturbing and powerful his writings must have been to his contemporaries. He published, for instance, descriptions of defecation and even the consumption of excrement in the unadorned prose for which he is justifiably acclaimed. He is rightly known for his subversive and didactic writings, for the violent, inflammatory, and extreme language of his political tracts. He deliberately discomforts and confronts the reader.
One of many poems that illustrates both the scatological and the post-modern nature of some of his work is “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” (a poem sub-titled “Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex”), one of the so-called excremental poems of the early 1730s. The title suggests a conventional love poem, but Swift overturns and debases idealised conventions in order to ridicule the excesses of romantic feeling. His beautiful young nymph is in fact “Corinna, Pride of Drury-Lane, / For whom no Shepherd sighs in vain” ‑ in other words a prostitute. The poem describes her return home late at night and follows her as she prepares for bed.
Then, seated on a three-legg’d Chair,
Takes off her artificial Hair:
Now, picking out a Crystal Eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse’s Hyde,
Stuck on with Art on either Side,
Pulls off with Care, and first displays ’em,
Then in a Play-Book smoothly lays ’em.
Now dextrously her Plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow Jaws.
Untwists a Wire; and from her Gums
A Set of Teeth completely comes.
Pulls out the Rags contriv’d to prop
Her flabby Dugs and down they drop.
Corinna is in fact a very modern construct. Her body consists of a large number of removable pieces, and she quite literally takes herself apart before going to bed. In the morning,
Corinna wakes. A dreadful Sight!
Behold the Ruins of the Night!
A wicked Rat her Plaister stole,
Half eat, and dragg’d it to his Hole.
The Crystal Eye, alas! was miss’t;
And Puss had on her Plumpers p—st.
A Pigeon pick’d her Issue-Peas;
And Shock her Tresses fill’d with Fleas.
Corinna sets about putting herself back together again.
The Nymph, tho’ in this mangled Plight,
Must ev’ry Morn her Limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her Arts
To re-collect the scatter’d Parts?
Or shew the Anguish, Toil, and Pain,
Of gath’ring up herself again?
There are other poems that are just as shocking. “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732), for instance, follows Strephon, who sneaks into the empty dressing room of Celia, whom he has admired from afar. Closer up, Celia proves to be quite different.
But oh! it turn’d poor Strephon’s Bowels,
When he beheld and smelt the Towels,
Begumm’d, bematter’d, and beslim’d
With Dirt, and Sweat, and Ear-Wax grim’d.
The discovery of towels however is as nothing when Strephon next sees a chest and, still curious, opens it to see what secrets it hides. Of course, he has found Celia’s toilet. The “excremental Smell” is emphasised. His romantic views, together with those of Swift’s readers, have been shaken.
Thus finishing his grand Survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
Here Swift is again attacking the artificiality of the conventions of the day. He is also emphasising his belief that knowledge can make us unhappy – for Strephon, ignorance and illusion is bliss. Swift’s great strength is his unsentimental and realistic understanding of human nature. He draws attention to vices public and private, to political corruption and personal pride, to vanity. He demands to be read, but he is not to be read lightly. He still retains the power to shock. He says the unsayable in a straightforward, deadpan tone. He overstates, but can also understate – and the two are often combined, as, for instance, in a famous line from A Tale of a Tub: “Last week I saw a Woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse”.
Swift’s more popular works are available in many editions. Cambridge University Press has also recently started a new complete works, the first of a proposed fifteen volumes being English Political Writings 1711-1714: ‘The Conduct of the Allies’ and Other Works. David Woolley has recently completed the four-volume The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, D.D. These new collections will lead to a renewed interest in the life and the work. This year alone, several new books on Swift are promised. The first, a volume in the monograph series Visions and Revisions: Irish Writers in Their Time, is Brean Hammond’s Jonathan Swift, which combines a chronological, thematic, and textual approach to its subject. According to the inside cover flap of the hardback edition, it is “Primarily a work of biographically-inflected literary criticism” (elsewhere, Hammond writes that his work is a “biographical criticism”). Combined with primary materials issued in collections such as that edited by Carole Fabricant, A Modest Proposal and Other Writings, the work provides a solid but not unproblematic introduction to Swift.
Hammond’s book consists of chapters on Swift’s life, early writing, English political writing, and Irish writing. These are interspersed with thematic chapters which examine his religion and the vexed question of his relationship with women – in particular with Stella and Vanessa. Finally, one textual chapter is devoted to his poetry (this was thoroughly enjoyable), and the work ends with two others on Gulliver’s Travels. Hammond’s Swift is full of contradictions ‑ a Christian who lacked Christian charity, a feminist who treated the women closest to him badly, and a Hibernian patriot who was not infrequently abusive about Ireland. He also liked to shock his reader, showing “a wholesale disregard for the boundaries of the tasteful”.
Swift was born in Dublin close to St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1667 and died there in 1745. His father, Jonathan Swift senior, was an imigrant to Ireland who died before his son and namesake was born. His Irish-born mother was from a non-conformist Leicestershire family. It was, Hammond says, a marriage “of loyal Anglicanism and Puritanism”, perhaps an “incompatible” union. Before he was even a year old, Swift’s nurse left for Whitehaven, on the northwest coast of England, taking her young charge with her. A kidnapping? Perhaps. But Swift stayed in Whitehaven for three years, which suggests maternal consent. Moreover, there is no evidence that he saw his mother again until he was in his twenties, which certainly reinforces the suggestion.
After leaving his nurse, he was raised by a paternal uncle and educated in Ireland (meanwhile, his mother left Ireland for Leicester). He attended Kilkenny College from 1673 and then Trinity College in Dublin from 1682, graduating from the latter in 1686 after a mediocre academic performance (he graduated speciali gratia), although he did continue his studies. Following the outbreak of civil war between King James II and William of Orange, Swift, like many of the Anglo-Irish of his class, left Ireland. After visiting his mother in Leicestershire, he was employed by Sir William Temple, the subject of one of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s essays. When Swift knew him, Temple had retired from an active public life as a diplomat to live as a man of letters and to work in his garden, for which his residence, Moor Park, was famous – Temple had thus combined the Aristotelian understanding of the good life as either vita activa or vita contemplativa. Macaulay views him as “a man of the world among men of letters, a man of letters among men of the world”. In Temple’s employ, Swift tutored the eight-year-old Esther Johnson, known to posterity as Stella. He graduated MA from Oxford in 1692 as a step to ordination. Again according to Macaulay, “Little did Temple imagine that the coarse exterior of his dependant [Swift] concealed a genius equally suited to politics and to letters, a genius destined to shake great kingdoms, to stir the laughter and the rage of millions, and to leave to posterity memorials which can perish only with the English language”.
Swift left Temple’s employ in 1694, taking up holy orders in Ireland, but after an unhappy year in Kilroot, Co Antrim, where he had obtained a church living, he returned to Moor Park in 1696. Having access to Temple’s library, over the next three years he wrote The Battle of the Books and much of A Tale of a Tub. In 1699, Temple died. Swift had hoped for a position as a clergyman in England, but was disappointed in his hopes of patronage (disappointment was to be a major theme of his life). After travelling to Dublin as chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, Lord Justice of Ireland, he was offered the living of Laracor, Co Meath.
While Stella moved to Dublin with a companion, Rebecca Dingley, Swift – who had gained a DD from Trinity College in 1702 and so was now Dr Swift – was spending much of his time in London. A Tale of a Tub, perhaps his most brilliant work, was published in 1704. With the publication of this dazzling display of satiric wit, the young man secured his reputation as a writer, but dashed the hopes he was to entertain as an older man for an English bishopric. As Hammond says, “By the time the 1710 edition … was published … he was an established clergyman anxiously seeking ecclesiastical advancement from the incoming Tory ministry, an endeavour not assisted by the reputation A Tale of a Tub had gained”.
In 1707, Swift was sent to negotiate with the Whigs on behalf of the Irish church, in an attempt to have repealed the taxes known as the First Fruits and Twentieth Parts. As the representative of the Church of Ireland, Swift spent long periods in London. During the period from 1707 to 1709, he met and became friendly with a number of individuals, including Addison and Steele. In London, he entered a community of talent and wit – Pope was also a friend – which was engaged in active political discourse and which made a living by writing. Here he saw how successful a marriage of political influence and literary output could be. Meanwhile, the Whigs were not receptive to his pleas to resolve the First Fruits and Twentieth Parts issue. The Lord Treasurer’s condition was that the Irish bishops, in return, agree to repeal the Test in Ireland. The Test Act, or Sacramental Test, proved to be an insurmountable hurdle. As Hammond says rather inelegantly, “Whatever Whiggish principles might find favour with Swift, repeal of the Test marked the boundary of acceptability.” The Test stipulated that those interested in public office had to swear allegiance to the established church. Those dissenters who refused to take communion in the Anglican church were debarred from holding public office. However, there was a loophole – to take the sacrament at least once annually in the established church – a practice known as occasional conformity. Swift’s famous An Argument against the Abolishing of Christianity in England (1708) is in fact a facetious argument in favour of disestablishing the Anglican church.
His negotiations with the Whigs had not been successful. When the Tories won power in 1710, he embraced and was embraced by them. “Swift admired to idolatry” two leading Tories, the treasurer Robert Harley (later Earl of Oxford) and the secretary of state Henry St John (later Viscount Bolingbroke). The years from 1710 to 1714, those of Queen Anne’s final Tory ministry, saw him firmly embedded in the centre of English political life. We know this period especially well because much of it is so marvellously documented in his lively, jocular and affectionate letters to Stella (published and known as Journal to Stella). As had been the case with Temple, Swift entertained high hopes of his new Tory patrons. But this time at least, his hopes were tempered by realism. As he said in the Journal, “They call me nothing but Jonathan; and I said, I believed they would leave me Jonathan as they found me”. In London also, Swift met Esther (or Hester) Vanhomrigh (1688-1723), or “Vanessa”. Hammond claims that “Swift did have a consummated physical relationship” with her. Vanessa was later to follow him to Ireland in 1714, where she was to remain until her death in 1723.
While Tory ministers controlled parliament, Swift wrote for and then edited the government periodical, The Examiner, and established a reputation as a leading Tory. Still in London, he published The Conduct of the Allies in 1711. His relationship with Addison and Steele did not survive his taking up cudgels on behalf of the Tories. Instead he struck up a friendship with Pope. In about 1713, the Scriblerus group was formed, with Swift, Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot and Thomas Parnell. In the same year, 1713, he was appointed Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin.
Swift’s political influence in London was at its peak during these years. In 1714, Queen Anne’s death and the collapse of the Tory government saw him back in Ireland (Viscount Bolingbroke fled into exile, while the Earl of Oxford was incarcerated in the Tower of London). In “The Author Upon Himself”, Swift says:
By Faction tir’d, with Grief he waits a while,
His great contending Friends to reconcile.
Performs what Friendship, Justice, Truth require:
What could he more, but decently retire?
He was however much less resigned to his enforced retirement than he here pretends. Swift saw (or at least portrayed) Ireland as exile. In “Verses on the Death of Dr Swift”, he wrote as follows:
In Exile, with a steady Heart,
He spent his Life’s declining Part;
Where, Folly, Pride, and Faction sway,
Remote from St. John, Pope, and Gay.
Swift saw the deanship as less than he deserved. Disappointed hopes of preferment cast a shadow over his life. Although the deanery provided him with some authority, he had little power. This perhaps helps to explain the impotent fury of his language.
As Fabricant notes, it is tempting to view Swift’s writings up to 1714 as English, and those after that date as Irish (Hammond in fact does seem to do just that). Perhaps another way of viewing his career, if not his life, is to see it as in some ways mirroring that of Temple – following the classical and then neoclassical model in which an active career in the public sphere or vita activa is followed by a quiet life of thought in the private sphere or vita contemplativa. The difference is that, unlike Temple, Swift’s post-1714 life away from the centre of political power was not one he chose – Temple was reconciled to a life of retirement, Swift was not. As Fabricant emphasises, “in later years he would construct a life – as a Dubliner, a fierce critic of English policies in Ireland, a Tory and an Anglican churchman – which rejected most aspects of the Temple model of existence”.
Away from London, Swift was able to contemplate broader issues of imperialism, colonialism and poverty. He did enjoy a position in Anglo-Irish society, and was able to reposition himself, not as a party propagandist, but as a great moral thinker and patriot. He was Dean of St Patrick’s for three decades, and a clergyman in the Church of Ireland – that is, the Anglican church in Ireland – for almost his entire adult life. The Church of Ireland was an embattled institution under considerable pressure, which explains why Swift could not countenance a compromise on the Test. Not only were the indigenous Irish predominantly Roman Catholic but many of the immigrants were Presbyterian dissenters. The Anglican church in England being much more secure, policies designed in and for England, Swift believed, did not necessarily suit Ireland. Perhaps the notion that the religious interests of Ireland (as he saw them) were being subordinated to English interests led him to question the broader economic and political relationship. In any case, once settled down in Ireland, Swift published some remarkable writings on the relationship, in which the subordination of Irish economic and commercial interests was harshly criticised.
Emer Nolan once observed as characteristic of Swift his ability “to apply polite styles to intractable realities”. The Ireland Swift knew was indeed an intractable reality, and, after a period of quietness, it stimulated him to take up his pen again. Many of his major writings on Ireland have been included in A Modest Proposal and Other Writings. They are, according to Fabricant, “distinctive for their concreteness and immediacy”. Moreover, “Their contributions to Irish nationalist, anti-colonialist and anti-war ideologies are universal in scope while at times remaining firmly tied to the specific conditions in which Swift lived and wrote”. In her introduction, Fabricant explains that she has deliberately left out of her collection well-known works such as Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub in order to be able to include other, less familiar pieces. Her collection includes some letters to, among others, Stella, Vanessa, Arbuthnot, Pope and Sheridan, and selections from The Examiner and Journal to Stella. It also includes a number of seminal pieces on Ireland – together with Robert Mahony, Fabricant is about to publish an edited monograph on Swift’s Irish Writings: Selected Prose and Poetry later this year. These include A Modest Proposal (1729) of course, but also the early The Story of the Injured Lady (1707), the later A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), two of The Drapier’s Letters (1724), and A Short View of the State of Ireland (1728). In these pieces, Swift shines as a scabrous writer of savage irony and biting satire. Fabricant has also found room for excerpts from The Bickerstaff Papers (1708-1709), An Argument against the Abolishing of Christianity in England and others. Since to read Swift is to wish for more, the critic will inevitably complain that any collection is too short (why only two of The Drapier’s Letters, why not all?). However, given the increasing availability of Swift’s works in other relatively cheap collections – for instance, Swift’s Major Works, edited by Angus Ross and David Woolley (Oxford University Press), or A Tale of a Tub and Other Works, again edited by Angus Ross and David Woolley (also Oxford) – it must be said that Fabricant has done her readers proud. “The selections in this edition are intended to reveal both the towering figure who lent his name to an age, becoming one of the most eminent authors in the Great Literary Tradition, and the gadfly who flitted along the margins of respectable literary (and political) society, engaged in activities that alternated between falling under the radar screen and falling foul of established canonical institutions.” The selections do just that.
Swift’s active participation in Irish affairs was eventually to give him the reputation of a patriot. The first published work devoted solely to Ireland was A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720). In this mercantilist pamphlet Swift urged the Irish to burn everything from England, “except their People and their Coals” and to cease importing goods so as to promote self-sufficiency. There are echoes here of Thomas More’s criticisms of the enclosure of the commons: Swift, for example, protests that “the politick Gentlemen of Ireland have depopulated vast Tracts of the best Land, for the feeding of Sheep”.
Throughout his life, Swift deployed an enormous range of pseudonyms, adopting a number of positions and characters through which and through whom to speak, in addition to, or perhaps rather than, speaking in propria persona. In Ireland, one such pseudonym was the Drapier (one might also argue that another was the Dean). As the Drapier, Swift enjoyed his greatest political success when he successfully opposed William Wood’s proposal to coin three hundred and sixty tons of copper as Irish halfpennies and farthings. In 1725, “Fraud Detected: or the Hibernian Patriot”, an edition of The Drapier’s Letters, was published, and Swift became the Hibernian Patriot.
A famous line from the third of the The Drapier’s Letters (not in Fabricant, but cited in Hammond) was “Were not the People of Ireland born as free as those of England? … Am I a Free-man in England, and do I become a Slave in six Hours, by crossing the Channel?” In the Letters, Hammond reminds us, “Swift’s［economic］arguments were neither original nor in every respect well judged”. However, they are politically significant as Swift clearly articulates the idea that the interests of Ireland do not necessarily coincide with those of England.
A Modest Proposal discusses in general the truth that man is wolf to man, but also in particular emphasises, in Hammond’s words, “Englishman’s inhumanity to Irishman”, and “callous Irishman’s fecklessness in the face of it and resultant inhumanity to other Irishmen”. The proposal is, in the words of the sub-title, “for Preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick”. The contents are still deeply disturbing. “I have been assured … that a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled.” Swift calculates that there are 120,000 poverty-stricken children in Ireland. He proposes that twenty thousand of these be set aside to “Breed”. The rest, “Infants Flesh”, are to be eaten. “A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends; and when the Family dines alone, the fore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish; and seasoned with a little Pepper or Salt, will be very good Boiled on the Fourth Day, especially in Winter”. Swift retains his power to shock.
Fabricant’s collection has much more, such as short excerpts from the witty, gossipy, and at times catty Journal to Stella. In London, after sending off one “lampoon” to the printers, Swift owned to Stella that he had “more mischief in my heart”. “I saw two lady Bettys … this afternoon; the beauty of one, the good breeding and nature of t’other, and the wit of neither, would have made a fine woman”. Who could not wish for more? Fabricant’s collection is thoroughly enjoyable.
Meanwhile, Hammond’s Jonathan Swift is certainly a book to be read, but it is also one to be quarrelled with. He is knowledgeable about both Swift and Swift’s era, and makes many valid points. However, some readers might dispute some of his conclusions, especially in the thematic chapters on religion, women, and Gulliver’s Travels. Read at a single sitting, it tends to jump about awkwardly for lack of a chronological narrative. Several chapters, particularly in the second half of the book, are largely independent of the others and could be read alone. Indeed the books seems to have been written with two largely incompatible objectives in mind, to provide an introductory text, and to provide a scholarly monograph. Much of it reads as an introductory text. However, at times Hammond launches into academic debate, pushing his views on particularities at the expense of providing overall clarity. Much, for instance, of what he says about Swift’s Christianity is perhaps required in a book for undergraduate students but really has no place in an academic work for specialists.
In criticising the nature of Swift’s Christianity, Hammond makes the point that “There is obvious danger in applying directly the standards of our own time to Swift’s writing”. Having said that, however, he goes on to claim that Swift’s writing, at times at least, “lacks any vestige of Christianity, because it lacks any vestige of compassion”. Swift’s well-known opposition to the repeal of the Test, he says, was a “rabid” one – so rabid, in fact, “that he could not consider the question of human rights that underlay it”. Elsewhere he adds that Swift’s satire refuses to grant “any vestige of credibility to the sincerely held and sacred beliefs of another faith. Catholic dogmas are not merely wrong or mistaken: they are either absurd delusions or wickedly propagated lies.”
Hammond here misreads the nature of Swift’s religion. It was a belief – and because Swift believed, he was intolerant of those who differed. This explains his “way of relating to those outside the pale of the Anglican Church, the acerbity and intolerance of his writings on those he constructed as his enemies”, which, as Hammond rightly observes, “is exceptionally challenging for subsequent generations of his readers”. As AC Grayling writes in What is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live, “The instinct of a religion, when it has power, is to coerce compliance with its orthodoxy, and to pursue or punish those who will not conform”. Moreover, “It is only where religion is on the back foot, reduced to a minority practice, with an insecure tenure in society, that it presents itself as essentially peaceful and charitable”. This is not to criticise (or to praise) Swift – merely to emphasise that, in reading him and writing about him, it is crucial to remember that he lived in a world very different from ours.
Moreover, and more importantly, despite what Hammond implies, Swift was without question a charitable and compassionate man. Indeed, his charity is one of his most positive virtues. It is well known that he treated the poor who lived in the Liberties (the slum area surrounding his deanery) kindly. And he is said to have devoted about a third of his decanal income to charity. Finally, as we have already seen, the bulk of his fortune was left to establish St Patrick’s Hospital. It is true that his compassion was completely unsentimental, and that it had its limits – but to criticize him for a lack of this Christian virtue is not justified.
Hammond argues in favour of the assumption that Swift’s relationship with Vanessa was consummated, and that Swift was not a Jacobite. He may well be correct on both counts – but an introductory textbook might have attempted to give equal weight to scholars such as Louise Barnett, who, in her Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women, argues that the relationship was not consummated, and to Ian Higgins, who, in his Swift’s Politics: A Study in Disaffection, argues for a Jacobite reading of Swift.
However, Hammond’s book does stimulate the reader to rethink and argue about Swift, and it is with Swift that we should end. In several autobiographical pieces, the older Swift looks forward anxiously to his future reputation and bitterly backward on his past. He considered his own death in his “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”, imagining how his friends would react to it. “Poor Pope will grieve a Month; and Gay / A Week, and Arbuthnot a Day.” He was also anxious about how posterity would see him. After his death, Swift thought, he would be mourned – but not for long.
Why do we grieve that Friends should dye?
No Loss more easy to supply.
One Year is past; a different Scene;
No further mention of the Dean;
Who now, alas! no more is mist,
Than if he never did exist.
Where’s now this Fav’rite of Apollo?
Departed; and his Works must follow:
Must undergo the common Fate;
His Kind of Wit is out of Date.
This is followed by a sly dig at metropolitan tastes. The London publisher Bernard Lintot predicts that Swift’s works will not last, and has in fact already recycled his own copies.
Some Country Squire to Lintot goes,
Inquires for Swift in Verse and Prose:
Says Lintot, “I have heard the Name:
He dy’d a Year ago.” The same.
He searcheth all his Shop in vain;
“Sir, you may find them in Duck-lane;
I sent them with a Load of Books,
Last Monday to the Pastry-cooks.
To fancy they cou’d live a Year!
I find you’re but a Stranger here.
The Dean was famous in his Time;
And had a Kind of Knack at Rhyme:
His way of Writing now is past;
The Town hath got a better Taste:
I keep no antiquated Stuff[.”]
Swift may be here suggesting that, unlike frivolous and fashionable metropolitan readers, unfashionable, down-to-earth country folk, as represented by the “country squire”, will continue to value him. Despite the unfashionable nature of his ideas and outlook, and despite the predictions of the Lintots of the world, this remarkable man and towering intellect continues to be read and appreciated and to touch new readers– even the occasional Chinese student.
David Askew is an Associate Professor of Law at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. Recent works include David Askew (with P Close and X Xin), The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-Event (Routledge, 2006), and chapters in BT Wakabayashi ed, The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-8: Complicating the Picture (Berghahn, 2007).