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Outlines of English and American Literature
Jonathan Swift
by Long, William J.

In the history of literature Swift occupies a large place as the most powerful of English satirists; that is, writers who search out the faults of society in order to hold them up to ridicule. To most readers, however, he is known as the author of Gulliver's Travels, a book which young people still read with pleasure, as they read Robinson Crusoe or any other story of adventure. In the fate of that book, which was intended to scourge humanity but which has become a source of innocent entertainment, is a commentary on the colossal failure of Swift's ambition.


Little need be recorded of Swift's life beyond the few facts which help us to understand his satires. He was born in Dublin, of English parents, and was so "bantered by fortune" that he was compelled to spend the greater part of his life in Ireland, a country which he detested. He was very poor, very proud; and even in youth he railed at a mocking fate which compelled him to accept aid from others. For his education he was dependent on a relative, who helped him grudgingly. After leaving Trinity College, Dublin, the only employment he could find was with another relative, Sir William Temple, a retired statesman, who hired Swift as a secretary and treated him as a servant. Galled by his position and by his feeling of superiority (for he was a man of physical and mental power, who longed to be a master of great affairs) he took orders in the Anglican Church; but the only appointment he could obtain was in a village buried, as he said, in a forsaken district of Ireland. There his bitterness overflowed in A Tale of a Tub and a few pamphlets of such satiric power that certain political leaders recognized Swift's value and summoned him to their assistance.

Swift in London

To understand his success in London one must remember the times. Politics were rampant; the city was the battleground of Whigs and Tories, whose best weapon was the printed pamphlet that justified one party by heaping abuse or ridicule on the other. Swift was a master of satire, and he was soon the most feared author in England. He seems to have had no fixed principles, for he was ready to join the Tories when that party came into power and to turn his literary cannon on the Whigs, whom he had recently supported. In truth, he despised both parties; his chief object was to win for himself the masterful position in Church or state for which, he believed, his talents had fitted him.

For several years Swift was the literary champion of the victorious Tories; then, when his keen eye detected signs of tottering in the party, he asked for his reward. He obtained, not the great bishopric which he expected, but an appointment as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. Small and bitter fruit this seemed to Swift, after his years of service, but even so, it was given grudgingly. [Footnote: Swift's pride and arrogance with his official superiors worked against him. Also he had published A Tale of a Tub, a coarse satire against the churches, which scandalized the queen and her ministers, who could have given him preferment. Thackeray says, "I think the Bishops who advised Queen Anne not to appoint the author of the Tale of a Tub to a Bishopric gave perfectly good advice."]

Life in Ireland

When the Tories went out of power Swift's political occupation was gone. The last thirty years of his life were spent largely in Dublin. There in a living grave, as he regarded it, the scorn which he had hitherto felt for individuals or institutions widened until it included humanity. Such is the meaning of his Gulliver's Travels. His only pleasure during these years was to expose the gullibility of men, and a hundred good stories are current of his practical jokes,--such as his getting rid of a crowd which had gathered to watch an eclipse by sending a solemn messenger to announce that, by the Dean's orders, the eclipse was postponed till the next day. A brain disease fastened upon him gradually, and his last years were passed in a state of alternate stupor or madness from which death was a blessed deliverance.

Works of Swift

The poems of Swift, though they show undoubted power (every smallest thing he wrote bears that stamp), may be passed over with the comment of his relative Dryden, who wrote: "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet." The criticism was right, but thereafter Swift jeered at Dryden's poetry. We may pass over also the Battle of the Books, the Drapier's Letters and a score more of satires and lampoons. Of all these minor works the Bickerstaff Papers, which record Swift's practical joke on the astrologers, are most amusing. [Footnote: Almanacs were at that time published by pretender astrologers, who read fortunes or made predictions from the stars. Against the most famous of these quacks, Partridge by name, Swift leveled his "Predictions for the year 1708, by Isaac Bickerstaff." Among the predictions of coming events was this trifle: that Partridge was doomed to die on March 29 following, about eleven o'clock at night, of a raging fever. On March 30 appeared, in the newspapers, a letter giving the details of Partridge's death, and then a pamphlet called "An Elegy of Mr. Partridge." Presently Partridge, who could not see the joke, made London laugh by his frantic attempts to prove that he was alive. Then appeared an elaborate "Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff," which proved by the infallible stars that Partridge was dead, and that the astrologer now in his place was an impostor. This joke was copied twenty-five years later by Franklin in his Poor Richard's Almanac.]

Gulliver's Travels

Swift's fame now rests largely upon his Gulliver's Travels, which appeared in 1726 under the title, "Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon and then a Captain of Several Ships." In the first voyage we are taken to Lilliput, a country inhabited by human beings about six inches tall, with minds in proportion. The capers of these midgets are a satire on human society, as seen through Swift's scornful eyes. In the second voyage we go to Brobdingnag, where the people are of gigantic stature, and by contrast we are reminded of the petty "human insects" whom Gulliver represents. The third voyage, to the Island of Laputa, is a burlesque of the scientists and philosophers of Swift's day. The fourth leads to the land of the Houyhnhnms, where intelligent horses are the ruling creatures, and humanity is represented by the Yahoos, a horribly degraded race, having the forms of men and the bestial habits of monkeys.

Such is the ferocious satire on the elegant society of Queen Anne's day. Fortunately for our peace of mind we can read the book for its grim humor and adventurous action, as we read any other good story. Indeed, it surprises most readers of Gulliver to be told that the work was intended to wreck our faith in humanity.

Quality of Swift

In all his satires Swift's power lies in his prose style--a convincing style, clear, graphic, straightforward--and in his marvelous ability to make every scene, however distant or grotesque, as natural as life itself. As Emerson said, he describes his characters as if for the police. His weakness is twofold: he has a fondness for coarse or malodorous references, and he is so beclouded in his own soul that he cannot see his fellows in a true light. In one of his early works he announced the purpose of all his writing:

  My hate, whose lash just Heaven has long decreed,
  Shall on a day make Sin and Folly bleed.

That was written at twenty-six, before he took orders in the Church. As a theological student it was certainly impressed upon the young man that Heaven keeps its own prerogatives, and that sin and folly have never been effectually reformed by lashing. But Swift had a scorn of all judgment except his own. As the eyes of fishes are so arranged that they see only their prey and their enemies, so Swift had eyes only for the vices of men and for the lash that scourges them. When he wrote, therefore, he was not an observer, or even a judge; he was a criminal lawyer prosecuting humanity on the charge of being a sham. A tendency to insanity may possibly account both for his spleen against others and for the self-tortures which made him, as Archbishop King said, "the most unhappy man on earth."

Journal to Stella

There is one oasis in the bitter desert of Swift's writings, namely, his Journal to Stella. While in the employ of Temple he was the daily companion of a young girl, Esther Johnson, who was an inmate of the same household. Her love for Swift was pure and constant; wherever he went she followed and lived near him, bringing a ray of sunshine into his life, in a spirit which reminds us of the sublime expression of another woman: "For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." She was probably married to Swift, but his pride kept him from openly acknowledging the union. While he was at London he wrote a private journal for Esther (Stella) in which he recorded his impressions of the men and women he met, and of the political battles in which he took part. That journal, filled with strange abbreviations to which only he and Stella had the key, can hardly be called literature, but it is of profound interest. It gives us glimpses of a woman who chose to live in the shadow; it shows the better side of Swift's nature, in contrast with his arrogance toward men and his brutal treatment of women; and finally, it often takes us behind the scenes of a stage on which was played a mixed comedy of politics and society.


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