Jonathan Swift, A Critical Biography
Swift, The Man, His Works, and the Age. Volume Two: Dr. Swift
Protean Shape: A Study in 18th. Century Vocabulary and Usage
Middleton Murry’s book was published in London in 1954. The new American printing leaves the English text unchanged. Nigel Dennis’s book is a “short character” of Swift, a picture. Irvin Ehrenpreis’s biography of Swift is planned as a major work in three dense volumes; the first volume was published in 1962, the third is still to come. Protean Shape is a study of Augustan vocabulary and usage, and it is particularly concerned with the mobility of words in the eighteenth century.
Murry’s book is interesting, but somewhat archaic. Fifteen years ago it was still common to think of Swift as a legendary figure, so readers welcomed legends as cordially as facts. Reliable or not, the stories testified to an aura surrounding the man as myth surrounds history. Alexander Pope might be disclosed by facts, works and days, life and times, but a more Gothic scenario was required for Swift. Murry did not think of biography as romance, but he did not discourage the facts from assuming, from time to time, a romantic character. His account of Swift’s early love of Jane Waring is a case in point. The fact that “Varina” rejected Swift is offered as the answer to several problems; it explains why Swift did not marry Stella, why he committed himself to “ambition and the larger world,” why he never allowed domestic metaphors to prevail. This would be illuminating, indeed, if it were true, but there is no evidence that Swift’s life was determined by an early pattern of humiliation. The idea is too neat, too readily available. Besides, Swift settled his score with Varina so imperiously that the episode could hardly have lodged in his mind as a defeat.
It is my impression that Murry made so much of this incident because he had not achieved that critical intimacy with Swift which, in other books, he achieved with Keats, Lawrence, and Shakespeare. So he turned to ideas as a substitute for the intuitive sense of a writer’s nature. But there is one place in the biography of Swift where Murry’s imaginative sympathy is beautifully revealed. In Chapter XVII his narrative of the death of Queen Anne, the fall of Oxford, and Swift’s withdrawal to the little scene of Dublin is extraordinarily eloquent, written with a powerful sense of Swift’s feeling in the summer of 1714. There are no ideas in that chapter. Elsewhere, the narrative is lively, always attractive, but somewhat external. It is hard to feel any deep relation between this book and the governing concerns of Murry’s life; there is little evidence that he was compelled to write the life of Swift as he was compelled to write Son of Woman.
There is also a critical problem, since Murry’s aim is a “critical biography.” Swift is a great writer, but it is difficult to demonstrate his greatness convincingly in a context defined by Shakespeare, Keats, or Tolstoy. There is a sense in which …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.