Jonathan Swift – Literary Life & Works
Jonathan Swift is the greatest genius and most tragic figure of Anne’s generation. Everyone recalls being enthralled as a child by the sturdy figure of Gulliver helpless among the Lilliputians and living in constant fear of the enormous Brobdingnagians’ stupid clumsiness. Swift, whether he realised it or not, was trapped in a cruelly misfit world. He either walked among helpless, pitiful, silly pigmies as a proud giant, or his sensitive and tender heart was bruised and trampled by the world’s stupid great.
Swift was descended from two ancient English families. He and Dryden shared a common great-grandfather. He was a posthumous child who was born into poverty in Dublin’s Hoey’s Court. He was taken to England for three years by a devout old nurse, during which time he was able to read any part of the Bible. He may have overlooked young Congreve at Kilkenny’s school. At Trinity College, Dublin, he excelled in classics but failed at everything else, earning his degree through “special grace.” Poor, proud, and unloved by the uncle who supported him, he sought refuge with his good mother in her old home in Leicester, England, and was soon hired as Sir William Temple’s secretary or amanuensis at Moor Park near Farnham at the age of twenty-two. Except for two brief interruptions, he spent the next ten years here. Temple was gracious to him and acknowledged his developing abilities; however, to Swift’s proud spirit, it was a servile and vexing business. Nonetheless, he produced two of his greatest works at the time, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, and attempted to be a poet. “You will never be a poet, Cousin Swift,” Dryden declared. Perhaps as a result of Swift’s gradual acceptance of the truth of this expert opinion, he never said a kind word about Dryden. He produced hundreds of verses, primarily octosyllabics, which occasionally rise above the level of clever doggerel, as in the lines written many years later On Stella’s Birthday and On Dr. Swift’s Death. The years at Moor Park provided ample opportunity for ferocious and massive reading of classics and foreign literature. Then, following Temple’s death in 1699, he entered the world. He was appointed vicar of Laracor, a small parish located approximately 25 miles northwest of Dublin. Despite his extended absences from London, he was meticulous in his care of his people and parish affairs here. Each day, he read the service, and when the congregation consisted solely of his man-servant, he began the Confession waggishly: “Dearly beloved Roger, the Scripture moveth you and me….
In London, this “mad parson” startled and amused people in coffee houses before charming and electrifying them with his wit; so much so that Addison soon addressed him as “the most agreeable companion, the truest friend, and the greatest genius of the age,” which is pretty close to the truth. As a result of his associations with Temple and others, he became associated with the Whigs, lending them his able pen for pamphlets, and having his head filled with promises and dancing hopes of preferment—perhaps a bishopric—all of which came to bitter naught.
Swift’s soul was a battleground of perplexing and tragic paradox throughout his life. As with Spenser, he desired position and worldly consequence despite his natural greatness and genius. While the pain and suffering of others made him wince and recoil, he could be ruthless in his words and actions toward those he loved the most. Then, his irrepressible sense of humour and ingenious drollery burst forth like a kitten’s pranks. Yet he is said to have laughed only twice, and no man’s heart has ever been subjected to greater agony.
At least two of his practical jokes are instantly recognisable. As Lord Berkeley’s secretary, he was obligated to read Boyle’s tedious Meditations to Her Ladyship. He slipped in a parody Meditation upon a Broomstick one day, which appeared to be highly edifying and solemn on the surface but was brimming with fun and wit for those who knew.
However, the entire world was complicit in the other jest. John Partridge established a high reputation as a prophet of events through his almanacks. In February 1708, a pamphlet purporting to be from “Isaac Bickerstaff” appeared, prophesying Partridge’s death on the 29th of the following month. On the third, another letter arrived, this time describing John Partridge’s final illness and death the day before. Partridge, poor witless block, denied the storey in his next almanack and expressed gratitude to God for his continued good health. Bickerstaff replied that he must be dead, as he had admitted it; and Isaac could not be held accountable for an uninformed carcass going around calling itself Partridge. The town was ecstatic. Partridge was indeed infamous, while Swift was well-known.
In 1710, he lost his mother, whom he used to walk the hundred and odd miles to see while residing at Moor Park. In London, the Whigs, who had been unkind to him, were losing ground. Swift’s genuine pity had never been directed toward them. As a clergyman and ardent defender of the English Church, he naturally gravitated toward the Tories, who welcomed him with open arms; and over the next three years, his intelligence, counsel, and ability as a writer elevated him to the status of a truly significant figure in public affairs. All patronage transactions passed through him. He possessed the ear of the powerful and was close with the ministers Harley and St. John. No wonder he strutted a little, but his devotion to the government was unwavering, as were his numerous acts of assistance and relief for authors, clergy, and others in need.
Swift first saw Esther Johnson when he arrived in England from Trinity College as a young man of twenty. She was an exquisite six-year-old ward of Sir William Temple, and Swift had the fortunate task of instructing her. At Moor Park, he witnessed her development from a delicate child to a spirited, but gentle, intelligent woman, “beautiful, graceful, and agreeable, if a little too fat.” This was Swift’s Stella, “the truest, most virtuous, and most valuable friend I, or perhaps any other person, has ever had.” She was also a courageous woman, having shot and killed a burglar on several occasions. Swift convinced Stella and a friend to relocate to Laracor when he visited. Almost no other literary relationship has spawned as much gossip as Swift and Stella’s. Were they husband and wife? The evidence is stacked against it. They lived in segregated quarters and never met alone. Swift lived to be eighteen years old. Following his demise, a lock of her hair was discovered labelled “Only a woman’s hair” in his desk.
Throughout his three years of prominence among the Tories, he kept a sort of letter-journal, which he sent to Stella in Ireland on a regular basis and which is now known as the ]ournal to Stella.
It’s an odd, intimate thing, in which grave politics, playful reprimanding, trifles, and pure nonsense coexist strangely. However, nothing else enables us to live under the same roof with him on a daily basis. He also recounts the meetings of the Brothers’ Club, which brought together men of letters, aristocrats, and commoners on an equal footing. There were the adored Dr. Arbuthnot, Prior, and St. John; and in the Scriblerus Club, which grew out of it, Congreve, the rising young Pope, and the affable John Gay were added.
Swift’s mind and pen had worked tirelessly for three years on behalf of the ministry, saving it from disaster on numerous occasions, swaying the country’s opinion, and discrediting the Whigs. All of this he did voluntarily, but with an eye toward the future. Queen Anne despised him, and he was rewarded with the deanery of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. The following year, 1714, with the death of Anne, the Tories were exiled for nearly fifty years, and Swift was left with no choice but to accept exile for the remainder of his life. It was not entirely unexpected; he had written to Stella about politicians, “I treat them like dogs, because I expect them to treat me similarly.”
Stella travelled to Dublin with him. To their embarrassment, a Miss Vanhomrigh arrived in Dublin, who had fallen madly in love with Swift in London and whose case Swift had not handled wisely. She was a determined woman who was not entirely circumspect. “Vanessa,” as he referred to her, lingered for nearly a decade in a hopeless passion, risking scandal. Swift maintained the acquaintance until a crisis in 1723, shortly after which she died.
Swift was met with suspicion and threats during his tenure as Dean of St. Patrick’s. However, their misery touched his sensitive heart, and he set about redressing past wrongs and resisting new ones. He instilled new courage in the Irish, reduced crime in Dublin, rescued Irish trade, improved the clergy’s lot, and, with his magnificent Drapier’s Letters, fought off an English attempt to debase Irish currency and ruin what remained. He lived modestly himself, but was constantly donating to the poor and saving for a charitable foundation to be established upon his death. From their initial abuse, the Irish idolised him, celebrated his birthday, and were content to learn that an advertised eclipse had been postponed on the Dean’s order.
However, he despised Ireland and feared that he would “die here in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole.” In 1726-7, he paid two visits to London, to which the now-famous Pope and survivors of the old Scriblerus greeted him with delight. He witnessed the accession of a new king, the Hanoverian George II, who admitted that he did not “love boetry and bainting.” At this point, the immortal Gulliver’s Travels, which he had devised in conclave with the Scriblerus years before, burst upon an enchanted world.
After Stella’s death, the seventeen years that followed were a long and gradually deepening twilight of mental illness, melancholy, and violent despair. His old friends were dying, and Ireland seemed hopeless, but he continued to do untold good. Deafness set in, followed by giddiness, memory loss, pain, and three years of vacant aphasia. “God bless you, good night,… I hope I never see you again,” he said to friends.
He picked up a copy of A Tale of a Tub one day, took a look inside, and exclaimed, “Good God, what a genius I was when I wrote that book!” Perhaps it startled him with the strange electric shock emanating from all of Swift’s numerous writings, which are charged with his agile wit, vigour, fun, irony, and thrust. His numerous volumes contain satire, letters, memoirs, sermons, tracts, “column-stuff,” poetry, and editorials; but wherever you touch him, you will find the same electrifying, energising mind.
While much of his work is merely journalism, three of his works will endure: A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books, and Gulliver. The first two were almost certainly completed in his twenties. The Tale is primarily a parable about Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, as represented by the brothers Peter, Martin, and Jack. Each inherits a substantial coat, which he lavishly trims. However, when Peter becomes arrogant, the others rip the trimming off, Jack violently, Martin carefully. Interspersed throughout the storey are digressions of scathing satire directed at all forms of bigotry, hocus-pocus, pedantry, critics, and sciolists, such as the Aeolists or Wind-philosophers. None is more amusing than the tailor-religion, which viewed the universe as a gigantic suit of clothing. “What is that which some refer to as land if not a fine coat of green? or the sea, but a water-tabby waistcoat? … Consider how a beech’s head is adorned with a sparkly periwig, and how the birch wears a fine doublet of white satin.” It is a brief passage, but like others, it is charged with great potential for any reader, as Carlyle demonstrated in his most original work, Sartor Resartus.
Swift’s merriment is exuberant, spontaneous, and appears to spring from an infinite supply. It frequently acts as a lubricant for his satire, facilitating its flow; but when the fun runs out, the satire grinds and shrieks: “Last week, I saw a woman flayed, and you would not believe how much it changed her person for the worse.”
The Battle of the Books revels in an age-old feud among the learned, recently resurrected in France, over whether the Ancients were, after all, as great in science and literature as the Moderns. When a bee blundered through the window into a spider’s web, the books in the King’s library were debating the issue. A heated argument ensued. Swift reports it in mock-heroic style in the books. Regrettably, he chose Bentley as one of his burlesque champions, despite the fact that he was not a pedant and has proven to be the greatest scholar of his generation. As in the Tale of a Tub, a sudden poetic passage emerges amid the riot, in which Aesop, speaking for the Ancients, asserts that, like the bee, “we have preferred to fill our hives with honey and wax, thus providing mankind with the two noblest of things, sweetness and light.” From where Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase originates.
Swift’s scorn for men’s petty bickerings, in which he had frequently participated, is another paradox. And yet another that this bereaved and embittered man should have unintentionally written one of the most successful children’s books ever created. Unlucky the child who has never been apprehended and delighted in the Lilliput illusion. It survives for adults as well, as evidenced by the man who scoured the atlases in vain for Lilliput and the Irish bishop who declared that the book was full of improbable lies and that he barely believed a word of it. Swift possessed a touch of Peter Pan.
However, re-reading Gulliver in manhood is akin to succumbing to Swift’s disillusionment. He appears to pose and disturb us with another paradox—that in order to see the world as it is, one must view it through both ends of a telescope, both small and large. You must see it inverted, detached, and flying through space like Laputa, or swap places with a horse and observe your repulsive kind as Houyhnhnms view Yahoos. As the real world crumbles around one in increasingly horrific fashion with each successive chapter of the tale, one struggles to maintain one’s equilibrium and save oneself; and herein lies perhaps the salutary effect of Swift’s satire. Of course, it is beneficial to view men’s trivialities—party politics, religious quarrels, emulation and pretense—as trivial; human grossness and sensuality as gross; and human vaporings as up in the air. However, writhing and agonising over the inherent limitations, physical and otherwise, of being human is futile.
“I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heart. ily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth.” Swift wrote this to Pope in a paradoxical manner. Throughout Gulliver’s bizarre and topsy-turvy worlds, certain fixed points of human stability remain unaffected by changes in scale or physical dimension—high-minded Gulliver’s friend, the counsellor Reldresal, the devoted little maid Glumdalclitch, forty feet high, and, above all, the sturdy, intelligent, resourceful, inquisitive, and affectionate Gulliver.
The entire book embodies what is perhaps Swift’s central paradox—a fervent, impassioned protest against passion and a plea for Reason and Moderation as the only means of a secure existence.
Swift was buried in St. Patrick’s at midnight, next to Stella, as he had hoped in his epitaph, “Ubi saeva indignatio cor ulterius lacerare nequit”—”Where savage indignation can tear the heart no more.”