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Swift's 'As Sure as God's in Gloc'ster' and the assurance of the Moderns.

Jonathan Swift's Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. includes 18 lines (lines 281-98) reflecting adversely on Thomas Woolston (1670-1733), the clergyman and freethinker who questioned Christ's miracles in a series of Discourses (1727-29) and Defences (1729-30). The lines were omitted from the poem by Dr William King for the London edition published in 1739, but restored by Swift in Faulkner's Dublin edition of the same year. By the time the poem appeared, Woolston had long since died in King's Bench prison for his blasphemy, but as he wrote the lines in 1731 Swift apparently believed that Woolston 'hath been rewarded with a Pension' for his tracts, and was being mentioned as a candidate for a bishopric.

Whatever part personal envy may have played in Swift's rancour toward Woolston, the poet was annoyed by the freethinker's practice of finding explanations in nature - especially in recent, topical events - for Christian miracles recorded in scripture. His annoyance at Woolston's self-assurance is apparent in the phrase 'as sure as God's in Gloc'ster' in line 293:

He shews, as sure as God's in Gloc'ster That Jesus was a Grand Imposter: That all his Miracles were Cheats, Perform'd as Juglers do their Feats:(1)

Pat Rogers has shown that the phrase 'as sure as God's in Gloucestershire' was proverbial, but his explanation for Swift's choice of this proverb - that it may allude to Woolston's candidacy for the bishopric of Gloucestershire, which did not fall vacant until 1733 - seems a stretch.(2) An alternative gloss for the line is that it may allude to the recent controversy occasioned by reports of a clergyman in Gloucestershire who had his tongue cut out by rogues, but who was said to be still able to speak. Believers took this event as substantiation of the fifth-century reports of miracles through which Christian martyrs were able to refute the heresy of Arianism though they had their tongues cut out, while sceptics pointed out that the reports were based on hearsay evidence, and the Gloucestershire clergyman's tongue had not been cut out radicitus, but only amputated at the tip. Swift's line then reflects on the assurance with which modern evidence is brought forward to refute ancient authorities.

If that is the case, Swift's pique may have been based on an anonymous pamphlet that was written not by Woolston, but by Samuel Rolleston, a clergyman and antiquary whose Inquiry into the Miracle Said to have been wrought in the Fifth Century upon some orthodox Christians, in confirmation of the Doctrine of the Trinity, who continued to speak clearly and distinctly, after their Tongues had been cut out by order of Hunneric, an Arian, King of the Vandals had been published in 1730, the year before Swift composed his Verses. In his tract, Rolleston conducts a systematic review of the evidence substantiating the miracle, including the recent incident of the Gloucestershire clergyman, and finds it not to be credible; but in a subsequent letter to Dr William Ward, Rolleston admits that he recently discussed the case with another clergyman, one personally acquainted with the minister in question, who assured Rolleston that the amputation was indeed radicitus.(3) Rolleston does not retract his opposition to doctrine based on miracles, but in a concession that would have gratified Swift, he wishes that 'I had so particular an account of the affair before, but I was afraid of being too inquisitive.'(4)

GEOFFREY M. SILL Rutgers University

1 Harold Williams (ed.), The Poems of Jonathan Swift (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1958), II, 564.

2 Pat Rogers (ed.), Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 853.

3 The history of the controversy and the text of Rolleston's letter are in my article, 'On Speaking Without Tongues: Samuel Rolleston's Inquiry into the Miracle', English Language Notes, xxxi ( 1993), 34-40.

4 Rolleston to William Ward, 3 June 1730, British Library Add. MSS 6211, fos 101-102.
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Author:Sill, Geoffrey
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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