Jonathan Swift arrives on our bookshelves in disguise, and for most readers he stays that way. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a book for children, a tale of wonder and adventure, with shipwrecks and talking animals, worthy to stand with Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick, which are also children’s books. Generations of teachers and librarians have given Lemuel Gulliver their imprimatur of wholesomeness. Let’s remind them of the scene in Lilliput when the emperor commands Gulliver to stand in a field with his legs wide apart while the emperor’s army rides through the giant’s arch:
His Majesty gave Orders, upon pain of Death, that every Soldier in his March should observe the strictest Decency with regard to my Person; which, however, could not prevent some of the younger Officers from turning up their Eyes as they passed under me. And, to confess the Truth, my Breeches were at that time in so ill a Condition, that they afforded some Opportunities for Laughter and Admiration.
That may stand as my favorite phrase in Swift, the arch-coiner of memorable phrases: “Laughter and Admiration”—rooted, of course, in exhibitionism, voyeurism, and a joyous sense of smutty-mindedness. Because of such bawdy, Gulliver’s Travels is surely among the most frequently bowdlerized of classics, and most readers probably have never read Gulliver’s description of a Brobdinagian woman’s breast as she nurses:
It stood prominent six Foot, and could not be less than sixteen in Circumference. The Nipple was about half the Bigness of my Head, and the Hue both of that and the Dug so varified with Spots, Pimples, and Freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous.
Beyond Gulliver’s Travels, what do common readers know of Swift’s work? “A Modest Proposal,” perhaps, and the venturesome may have dabbled in A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. But who reads Journal to Stella or The Drapier’s Letters, the latter credited by one of Swift’s contemporaries with “breathing into [the Irish] something of his own lofty and defiant spirit.” Swift was a pamphleteer of genius, a savage polemicist and satirical master of the plain style. He told a correspondent in a letter penned in 1719: “Proper words in proper places, make the true definitions of a style.” Listen to the rhythm of those words, and know the poet.
No, in the popular mind Swift remains a one-book author, and even ambitious readers may be unaware he wrote poetry. Scholars have identified roughly 280 poems in English and a handful in Latin. Like most of Swift’s work, nearly all were published anonymously for reasons both prudent and pathological. Even so great a critic as Samuel Johnson, in The Lives of the English Poets, devotes only two paragraphs to the poems and blandly says they are “often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety.” At least Johnson got the humorous part right.
Swift’s early verse is written in the high Pindaric manner of Abraham Cowley with occasional leavening dollops of Dryden (Swift’s second cousin). It’s formal, creaky stuff, most of it grindingly conventional, but attentive readers will enjoy passages of wild inspiration. “Ode to the King,” his first known poem, was written around 1690, the year Swift turned 23. A brief sample, referring to France’s Louis XIV, will suffice:
That restless tyrant, who of late
Is grown so impudently great.
That tennis-ball of fate . . .
A wonderful phrase, “tennis-ball of fate,” suggesting the foppish passivity of French royalty, and indicative of Swift’s genius for deploying hilariously bathetic metaphors. A few lines later, still dogging the French, we get an early taste of the cloaca-minded Swift yet to blossom:
Took its first growth and birth
From the worst excrements of earth;
Stay but a little while and down again ’twill come,
And end as it began, in vapour, stink, and scum.
I encourage the uninitiated to read Swift’s poems for the sheer fun of it and not get distracted by obsessive allusion tracking. That can come later if the experience of reading the poems proves rewarding, and the reader has the stomach for formal verse devoted to often unpleasant matters. I can’t think of another poet, not even his great friend Pope, who makes invective and smut so amusing. Because Swift often writes topical verse, and because many of the names and controversies he addresses may be unfamiliar to a reader who is not an eighteenth-century specialist, I suggest he find an intelligently annotated edition. My recommendation is Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems, edited by Pat Rogers and published in paperback by Penguin; it is out of print but not difficult to find. Rogers helpfully supplies information on what he calls “points of linguistic usage – meaning, pronunciation, punning effects, and so on.” Referring to the poem cited above, for instance, Rogers notes that the phrase “your fond enemy” will be misunderstood by the modern reader unless he knows “fond” here means “foolish.”
This is the appropriate place to issue a readerly caveat, one Swift himself included in his preface to The Battle of the Books (1704):
Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.
Swift is a comedian but not merely a comedian. When he makes us laugh, the laughter sometimes catches in our throats. The more attentive we are to his syntax and tone, his fine-tuned balancing of ironies, the more uncomfortable we become. His humor detonates abruptly but a second detonation is time-released, minutes or years later, and readers are not immune to the shock waves. He laughs at our hapless, prideful humanity in a manner distinctly Irish, and the laughter leeches imperceptibly into feelings of guilt and self-loathing. The best of Swift’s popular biographers, Victoria Glendenning, writes:
He is extremely “nice” in the eighteenth-century sense. He is not always “nice” in our sense of lovable and pleasant. He is a disturbing person. He provokes admiration and fear and pity. All I can assure you is that in keeping company with Jonathan Swift you are not wasting your time.
Swift’s first great poem is “A Description of a City Shower,” written in 1710. It begins innocently enough, in properly classical imitation of Vergil’s Georgics:
Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a show’r:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.
Swift’s target is not Vergil, the pastoral myth or Roman ideals of civilization. Rather, he is fashioning a mock pastoral, treating the filth and chaos of eighteenth-century London as though the setting were bucolic. A rain storm in the city turns apocalyptic. Swift loves composing catalogs – they amused him, as did any human effort at inclusiveness—and his final stanza is a tour-de-force of accelerating horrors:
Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What streets they sailed from, by the sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives, with rapid force
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluent join at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the Conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.
Swift revels in this flood of urban disgust. Offal and excrement are for him what nightingales are for Keats. His work, like Marianne Moore’s minus the wonder and admiration, teems with animals, though seldom the cute and pretty sort – wood lice, flies, worms, pigs, spiders, monkeys, maggots. When puppies and kitties show up in one of Swift’s poems, you can be certain they have drowned. This sort of thing is not every reader’s cup of eighteenth-century tea. Some of Swift’s contemporaries, hardly a squeamish bunch by twenty-first-century standards, complained of his obsessive wallow in filth and lewdness, his sheer nastiness, and the Victorians largely pretended he never existed (Thackeray rightly judged Gulliver’s Travels “filthy in thought, furious, raging, and obscene”). A modern critic, V. S. Pritchett, acknowledges such charges but suggests a readerly rapprochement with Swift:
Swift’s words arrive on the page with the regular tap of a day’s rain, monotonously clear, and positive in its sting; but they shut us into our own house, and it is not until we, too, have reached this point of bitter claustrophobia, it is not until we think of all that we have lost by having to sit inside, that the spell begins to work.
Read him, in other words, on his own terms. Don’t wish he were another sort of writer. More than most great writers, Swift requires of his readers an adjustment of sensibility and rigorous self-honesty. It’s not enough to laugh at him or turn away in disgust, or scorn him as misanthropic, misogynistic and reactionary. Each of these accusations contains an incomplete truth, and Swift dares us to dismiss him for the sake of prophylaxis. It’s at precisely that point we persevere, and the peculiar “spell” mentioned by Pritchett begins to work. Swift’s poems have the energizing stringency of smelling salts.
For Swift, the problem with creation is always humanity. The world is ordered and each creature knows and respects its place in the grand design—except man. In Pope’s phrase, the “great Anarch!” forever threatens the divinely arranged balance. In 1733, Swift wrote “On Poetry: A Rapsody [sic],” a bitterly tongue-in-cheek instruction manual for aspiring critics and poets (“Then hear an old experienced Sinner / Instructing thus a young Beginner.”) that may remind readers of Pope’s Dunciad but in a harsher key and more condensed. If young poets persist in pretentious folly, so does all the species:
Brutes find out where their Talents lie:
A Bear will not attempt to fly;
A founder’d Horse will oft debate,
Before he tries a five-barr’d Gate;
A Dog by instinct turns aside,
Who sees the Ditch too deep and wide.
But Man we find the only Creature
Who, led by Folly, combats Nature.
Swift’s most notorious exercise in scatology, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” written in 1732, was also his most popular poem with the public during his lifetime, often reproduced as a pamphlet and reprinted in newspapers in both England and Ireland. The setting reminds us of Belinda with her “Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux” in Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” (1712). Strephon is investigating the dressing room of his “goddess,” Celia, after she has spent five hours at her toilette:
And first a dirty Smock appear’d,
Beneath the Arm-pits well besmear’d.
Strephon, the Rogue, display’d it wide,
And turn’d it round on every Side.
On such a Point few Words are best,
and Strephon bids us guess the rest;
But swears how damnably the Men lie,
In calling Celia sweet and cleanly.
Now listen while he next produces,
The various Combs for various Uses,
Fill’d up with Dirt so closely fixt,
Brush could force a way betwixt.
A Paste of Composition rare,
Sweat, Dandriff, Powder, Lead and Hair . . .
Swift devotes 144 octosyllabic lines to Strephon’s inventory. His growing sense of disgust mirrors the reader’s. We’re put in the position of an audience watching a horror movie, knowing an axe-wielding maniac waits on the other side of the door the hero is about to open. When Strephon spies a “reeking chest,” he lifts the lid and the contents:
Send up an excremental Smell
To taint the Parts from whence they fell.
The Pettycoats and Gown perfume,
Which waft a Stink round every Room.
Some poets might have concluded the poem with those lines, but not Swift. He continues:
“Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
The proximity of “amorous” and “shits!” is more disturbing than the final word alone. Strephon’s reaction is more powerful and damning than mere squeamishness. To eighteenth-century readers, long before the advent of efficiently modern sewer systems and the germ theory of disease, shit was a daily sight in the streets of London. They learned to ignore it, at least most of the time. D. H. Lawrence, hardly a paragon of feminism, good humor, and mental health, wrote of Swift’s poem: “He couldn’t even see how much worse it would be if Celia didn’t shit.” Typically, Lawrence misses the point. While Swift’s contemporaries were able to compartmentalize their minds and arrange shit-choked streets in hygienic boxes off to the side, the poet could not. For him, the compartment walls were transparent and he couldn’t stop staring at the noisome mess.
Swift’s was a profoundly conservative nature, though not in the modern, strictly political sense. He abhorred chaos, messiness, humanity’s will to entropy. The harshest, funniest satires have always been composed by conservatives—think of Juvenal, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. Shit, even in its properly disposed “reeking chest,” behind the closed door of a lady’s dressing room, represents human disorder, but Strephon/Swift can’t resist opening the lid. One of Swift’s best contemporary critics, Geoffrey Hill, in his essay “Jonathan Swift: The Poetry of `Reaction,’” understands and applauds these contradictory impulses:
In Swift a sense of tradition and community is challenged by a strong feeling for the anarchic and the predatory. A necessary qualification is that the appeal of Community exists not as a fine Platonic idea but as something soberly lived, taken into the daily pattern of conduct and work.
Precisely. No reader would wish to confine himself exclusively to Swift’s uncompromising and elegantly written verse. To read him at length is bruising, but in the same essay Hill reminds us that Swift was drawn in his poetry to “the anarchic” because it was “a kindling of creative delight.” Chaos fueled him and sometimes overwhelmed him. The best-judged verdict on this infinitely difficult man was written by another Irishman, William Butler Yeats, who translated from the Latin Swift’s self-composed epitaph:
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveler; he
Served human liberty.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Bellevue, Washington, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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