Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).
Except for the occasional brief trip to England to visit his friends or to attend to publication of his works, Swift remained in Ireland until his death. He never married; as a lifelong sufferer from attacks of vertigo, Swift feared eventual madness. He had, however, what he called a "violent friendship" with Esther Johnson, a woman whom he had met when she was a girl in the Temple household and who came to live near him in Dublin in later years. She is the "Stella" of his poems. His letters to her have been published as The Journal to Stella. Swift's services to Ireland included a series of pamphlets, The Drapier's Letters, in which he advised and exhorted the Irish to assert economic independence, and his Modest Proposal, which he wrote to thwart some of the more outrageous exploitative policies of England.
One constant of Swift's technique in both prose and verse is the use of a persona, that is, of a narrator who is a character created by Swift rather than Swift himself. This speaker has weaknesses or blind spots that the reader comes to understand, so that there develops a significant difference between what the speaker/persona says and what the acute reader perceives to be the actual truth of the matter. Thus Gulliver is not Swift; Gulliver is more naive and ultimately unsound of mind. The only works in which Swift speaks in his own voice are the poems to Stella and the first part of verses on the Death of Dr. Swift. Even in this last poem, he mocks himself by pretending to be a jealous and selfish person. Swift's skill lies in being able to imitate the verbal style of many different sorts of people, all of whom reveal their shortcomings in their own voices.
Steel's Tatler was the first to publish Swift's poems; A Description of a Morning and A Description of a City Shower (1710) are brief street scenes written in heroic couplets capturing moments in the lives various passersby. Later, Swift composed a series of complimentary and affectionate poems for the birthdays of Esther Johnson, his "Stella."
Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift
Written in 1739, this was Swift's most ambitious poem. It is a study of his own reputation as a satirist and a justification of his career as a corrector of public morals. In tetrameter couplets, Swift describes what he imagines would be the reactions of his friends and acquaintances and of the reading public to the news of his death. He pictures ladies chatting about his illness and his legacies while they play cards. Finally, he pictures a discussion about himself in a London tavern, where an impartial speaker gives a fair and ultimately positive judgment of the value of Swift's work and of his honor as a man.
Tale of a Tub
This prose satire was first composed at the end of the previous century, but Swift revised it several times before its publication in 1704. The targets of his satiric attack are two: religious hypocrisy and the shallowness of modern philosophy. An allegorical narrative of the Christian church in the even-numbered chapters follows the progress of three brothers, Pater (the Roman Catholic church), Martin (the Church of England, inspired by Martin Luther), and Jack (the fanatical Dissenters, followers of John Calvin) and shows how each faction deviates in its own way from the essence of Christianity. The alternate chapters contain a series of digressions, the absurd musings of the supposed author, a dull and nonsensical modern thinker who becomes more and more engrossed himself, even to the point of madness. The book does not conclude so much as disintegrate into crazy confusion.
The Tale of a Tub was published in the same volume with The Battle of the Books, a defense of ancient against modern learning.
This prose satire was the product of Swift's "exile" in Ireland, during which he looked back with revulsion on the social and political events of the first two decades of the century. The work is a political allegory reflecting on the corruption of English government under the Whigs. Published in 1726, it is written in the form of four travelogues, each mocking the outrageous lies and exaggerations that travelers are liable to tell. Swift's persona is the ordinary man, Gulliver, caught in a series of adventures that exhaust his capacity to understand himself or the world. After some puzzling front matter, in which the old man Gulliver chastises his readers for not having reformed themselves, there are four parts covering four different travels.
Gulliver goes to the land of Lilliput, where the folk are only about six inches tall. The two Lilliputian political parties, the High Heels and the Low Heels, represent the absurd differences between the Tory and Whig parties. Similarly, the Big Endians (the Roman Catholics) and the Little Endians (the Anglican church) are divide by the issue of which end of an egg to break before eating it. In capturing the fleet of the enemy Blefesoue (France), Gulliver tries to be a loyal Lilliputian, but he is undermined by enemies at court. His fate parallels the trouble of Swift's friends, Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, and Henry St. John, viscount Bolingbroke, and it also reflects some of Swift's own disappointment at suffering suspicion as a reward for his public service.
This section reverses the proportions; here Gulliver is tiny and his hosts gigantic. Likewise, Gulliver is a moral pygmy compared with the benevolent and wise king of Brobdingnag, which is portrayed as a utopia. At the heart of Book II is a dialogue between Gulliver and the king in which Gulliver finds that his exaggerated descriptions of the glories of England all backfire. The king is unconvinced that England is a model state because he understands human nature well enough to doubt the truth of Gulliver's assertions. Attempting to impress the king with the power and technology of England, Gulliver brags about the use of gunpowder, prompting the King's horror and disgust. Gulliver's pride suffers repeated assaults until he is accidentally lost by his owners, rescued, and then returned to England.
Part III describes Gulliver's varied adventures among people of ordinary size but of diverse intellectual excesses. Gulliver visits a floating island on which the inhabitants think only abstractly and are oblivious to common sense and affection. He visits the Academy of Logado, Swift's parody of the Royal Society, where nasty and pointless experiments in applied science are pursued by modern enthusiasts. He then travels to lands where some people never die and where the dead can be called back for conversations. The general objects of Swift's criticism in this book include a wide range of intellectual fads that he found absurd.
Part IV portrays a dystopia, or the opposite of a utopia. Gulliver believes he has found a perfect place, because the evils of Houyhnhnm Land are concealed beneath a surface of uniform rationality and benevolence. Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses who tell no lies and commit no sins. But they keep as slaves the race of Yahoos, creatures who display all the worst traits of humanity--lust, dirtiness, greed, gluttony, and rage. Repelled by the Yahoos, Gulliver rejects his own human nature and emulates Houyhnhnmhood. But he cannot be integrated into Houyhnhnm society; he is feared and rejected and finally sent away by a society unable to adjust to or tolerate a deviant, rational Yahoo. After returning to Europe, Gulliver remains unreconciled, hating humanity and longing for the false ideal of Houyhnhnmland.
Through the four parts of his travels, Gulliver's character has deteriorated from that of a mild and sensible ordinary Englishman of good intentions to that of a mad and irascible misanthrope. His perceptions of the world have become biased and distorted toward the negative. Gulliver reflects Swift's fear that the whole tendency of modern philosophy and science is to diminish the individual's moral awareness and to subvert traditional moral values.
A Modest Proposal
Written in 1729, this essay epitomizes the pamphlets Swift wrote in support of the Irish against economic exploitation by England. In it a mild and reasonable-sounding projector (proposer of public improvements) makes the ironic suggestion that the Irish, who are driven to poverty and despair by economic burdens, be encouraged to market their own infants as gourmet meats for the rich. The outrageous proposal, treated with dead-pan seriousness, contains an implicit and unrelenting condemnation of absentee landlords and irresponsible officials. Swift includes a list of practical suggestions for helping the poor, but the projector, his persona, rejects all these as unlikely to be tried. This is one of the best examples of sustained irony in English prose.
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|Author:||McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.|
|Publication:||English Literature to 1785|
|Article Type:||Reference Source|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1992|
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