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Swift’s Sting

Jonathan Swift

by A. L. Rowse
Scribner’s, 240 pp., $8.95

The challenge of Gulliver’s Travels is of a playful fantasy that lures one into nightmare, of a nightmare from which one awakes to find it truth. Swift charms us with Gulliver’s wild tales and gives us a sense of tolerant superiority both to the storyteller and to the people he talks about. At unpredictable moments the pygmies or giants commit some atrocity, or Gulliver himself disturbs us with his moral lapses. But the ugly moment passes like a sprinkle of rain, and we are back in the sunshine land of fairy tales.

Then the atrocities mount, and we suddenly recognize in the unspeakable bestiality of the court of Lilliput the normal conduct of civilized nations. For example, the Emperor wishes to blind and starve to death the amiable colossus who has preserved his own government. Gulliver manages to escape; yet his comment is scarcely triumphant. After a paragraph of bitter but ingenious ironies on the subject of a despot’s mercy, he says, “If I had then known the nature of princes and ministers, which I have since observed in many other courts,…I should with great alacrity and readiness have submitted to so easy a punishment.”

The turn of phrase is Swiftian. The sentiment runs contrary to what one expects from the cool language. The inner meaning is gracefully reserved for the sudden stab of the last six words—a sting in the tail of a serpentine sentence. And that meaning is frightful in its implications. A lady once asked Samuel Johnson whether he thought no man was naturally good. “No, madam, no more than a wolf,” he replied. The lady started and said, “This is worse than Swift.” But it was only as good as Swift.

A.L. Rowse, in a new book on Swift, seldom connects meaning with method, as I have just tried to do. He recommends many of the literary works and indicates what attitudes or arguments they convey. He considers the historical occasions that they sprang from and their effect on Swift’s audience. But he seldom analyzes the way the works are put together, or the special literary techniques that gave Swift his power.

Rowse tells us truly that a knowledge of history—especially of social history—is peculiarly useful for understanding what Swift wrote. At the same time we all know Swift’s rare ability to escape from the limitations of his class and age. “Climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping” is a maxim that fits the Bicentennial elections as nicely as the politics of England under Queen Anne.

So—if we look back at the passage quoted above—it is true that the Lilliputian emperor’s treatment of Gulliver reflects the policy of King George I toward Swift’s friends and patrons. Like Gulliver, the English statesmen who ended the exhausting War of the Spanish Succession were ruined for their pains. It is true as well that during the controversy over the peace treaties, Swift had a price put on his head (equivalent to $25,000 or more in our money) as the anonymous author of an offensive pamphlet; and so he could feel menaced like Gulliver. Of course, such information adds point to the account of Lilliput.

Yet the Swiftian element—the stark insight embodied in a carefully sprung irony—hardly calls for historical background. On the contrary, I think Swift would have said that if we did not easily recognize, in the Lilliputian courtiers, the great leaders of the greatest nations of our own era, he would have failed.

Of course, before one can grasp the meaning of some of Swift’s most dazzling works, one needs a bit of historical orientation; and in A Tale of a Tub or The Battle of the Books one must have a number of terms and issues defined if one is to navigate the rapids of Swift’s satire. But besides Gulliver there are A Modest Proposal, An Argument against Abolishing Christianity, a number of essays and sermons, the jokes on the astrologer Partridge, and many poems which demand only a few introductory remarks to launch a reader on the main currents of Swift’s comic or moral energy.

Rowse tries to brighten the historical element in his work by drawing parallels between the eighteenth century and the twentieth. Such parallels abound. But the part of our century that Rowse fixes on is 1938-1944, and the hero he admires most is Churchill. Unfortunately, the more one enlarges the parallel between the Second World War and the War of the Spanish Succession, the more one diminishes Swift’s stature. For the English war leaders under Queen Anne, the role of Hitler was played by the King of France, and the role of Churchill by his own ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough. Swift and his friends preferred the French to the Dutch (who had fought alongside the English); they wished to end the war when Marlborough tried to continue it; and the duke himself was a prominent object of Swift’s satire.

Even if the parallel were useful, Rowse’s hold on dates and facts is not so strong as to inspire confidence in his generalizations. He hops back and forth in time with so few hints of chronology that widely separated events seem to be happening at the same moment. He thinks The Publick Spirit of the Whigs is a pamphlet Swift attacked when it is one he wrote. If Swift does attack a deist named Woolston, Rowse thinks he is describing himself. Rowse declares that from 1714 to 1720 only Englishmen (and one Welshman) were appointed to Irish bishoprics, although at least five men born and educated in Ireland were appointed to Irish bishoprics during those years.

Rowse often gets the historical background right, but then he has trouble construing Swift’s language; for he cannot always understand or even recognize what Swift wrote. For example, he amuses us by showing that Swift did not follow his own advice as given in a sermon on self-knowledge; but Rowse fails to observe that Swift almost certainly did not write the sermon. In The Battle of the Books Swift glorifies two men, Sir William Temple and Charles Boyle; here Rowse mistakes Boyle for a target of Swift’s ridicule. Interpreting a verse riddle, Rowse decides that a person whose name is “backwards and forwards always the same” must be Lady Masham, although it obviously is Queen Anne (“Anna”).

Once Swift played a trick on his dearest friend, Esther Johnson. He wished her to share a dinner with Swift and some friends. So he wrote a clever letter pretending that she had already invited herself. Rowse takes this elaborate joke to be a straightforward reply to a real letter, and he imagines that the wine Swift promised (Margaux) is a French writer the two had been reading together!

One of the talents of a good historian should be that he knows where to look for contemporary illustrations of a biographical study. Excellent pictures do exist of scenes and persons that meant much to Swift. But even here Rowse has gone astray. For the cathedral of which Swift became Dean, he has chosen a view that Swift never saw, topping the tower with a spire erected after Swift’s death. For Swift himself, we are given one portrait of no authenticity, supposed to show him as an undergraduate. Then as if to compensate, we receive two nearly identical versions of the best-known portrait of Swift; and to one of these Rowse mysteriously assigns two quite different dates.

Of Swift’s most intimate women friends, “Stella” (Esther Johnson) and “Vanessa” (Hester Vanhomrigh), no picture is extant that has any claim to authenticity, apart from a poor, small print said to be of Stella. Rowse ignores this print but reproduces two dubious portraits of Stella and one of Vanessa. Not only does he omit any warning about these, but he also describes Vanessa in his text as if he had certain knowledge of her appearance when he is really depending on the utterly suspect painting.

A historian ought to be able to get names straight, but Rowse muddles those of the principal figures in his narrative. For several years Swift wrote to Esther Johnson a series of journal letters in which he often called her “Ppt” and himself “Pdfr.” An early editor disliked these codes; so he replaced “Ppt” with “Stella,” a name Swift only gave the lady after the period of the journal letters; and he replaced “Pdfr” with “Presto,” a name Swift never used for himself but which a friendly duchess once called him. Rowse goes out of his way to employ both these names incorrectly but often, as if to display his familiarity with the persons.

Apart from historical background, the topic on which Rowse would like to throw new light is Swift’s relations with women. Swift’s sexuality was unusual by most standards. But we know little about his private conduct except that he was, in an age replete with bachelors, almost certainly a bachelor. Judicious psychoanalysts have suggested that he feared physical intimacy with women. In praising women he admired, Swift regularly fastened on traits that he regarded as masculine. Reversing the rules of gallantry, he liked highborn ladies to make the first advances to him rather than wait for him to approach them. In some of his satires he associated women with filth. He also wrote coarse poems about the effect of female bowels and bladders on courtship and wedding nights.

At the same time Swift delighted in feminine society and loved deeply at least two women. Although he was a priest, he not only enjoyed certain kinds of risqué wit but cheerfully conversed with females (and males) who led scandalous lives. When he was twenty-four, his flirtation with a girl in Leicester brought down a sober inquiry from a reverend cousin of Swift’s. Before he was thirty, he tried to marry a girl in Belfast. From Swift’s treatment of Stella and Vanessa we may infer that he felt anxious about depending on any female but enjoyed keeping women he admired dependent on himself. He was probably under forty when he wrote, “What they do in Heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not we are told expressly; that they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.”

When Swift attached himself to young ladies, they tended to be frail, fatherless, and much his junior. So he could supply for them the father that he himself had lacked, and could raise a screen of paternal solicitude to hide (from himself) a more fundamental interest. “Friendship” is the strongest term he gave to his profound affection for Esther Johnson; and when he thought she was dying, he wrote to a man he trusted, “Dear Jim, pardon me, I know not what I am saying; but believe me that violent friendship is much more lasting, and as much engaging, as violent love.”

It would be easy to link Swift’s attitudes to the facts of his early life in Ireland. His English father made an imprudent marriage in Dublin at the age of twenty-four; he died before the son was born, and left so little property that the widow had to accept help from her brothers-in-law. She saw little of the boy because when he was tiny his nurse took him to England with her, keeping him there for two or three years; and a couple of years after his return, the boy was sent away (at the age of six) to a boarding school. But an elder sister remained with the mother, who settled herself in England while the boy stayed in Ireland. Swift’s fear of marriage, his ambivalence toward women, and his impulse to reject or control those whom he attracted do not seem bizarre against this record.

Rowse shows less desire to illuminate Swift’s odd sexuality than to drape it in hand-me-down garments. Without defining terms or accounting for manifestations, he simply tells us, from time to time, that Swift had “complexes,” or suffered from “complete sexual repression,” or was “straitlaced…in matters of sex,” or was “not too strongly sexed.” But then again we are told that Swift “flirted with young women, as was his way,” or was “normal enough sexually to propose marriage.”

Rowse is content to alternate such vagaries with gibes at Vanessa for being tiresome, or with quaint references to her “typical female unreason” and her “female demand for reassurance.” In some moods he thinks Swift may have married Stella; in others he does not.

If Swift’s sexual behavior starts so little insight, his religion starts less. As Swift was an Episcopal priest, one might wish a sympathetic biographer to evince some respect—if not admiration—for religious faith. But Rowse balances a conventional skepticism with some derivative oversimplifications.

Swift indicated in quiet ways that he had reservations about certain doctrines of Protestant Christianity. Neither did he think that the cultural heritage of a people should have no bearing on the kind of religion they were taught, or that the illiterate should be troubled with subtleties that occupied the learned. Like the typical Anglican of his generation, he thought faith and reason strengthened each other. He could not conceive of an honest religious faith that did not show itself in efforts to improve the condition of the weak and the needy. Yet he also thought that “corruptions are more natural to mankind than perfections,” and held an opinion of human depravity shared by most Christian moralists.

Swift sounds therefore neither like a mystic nor like an American fundamentalist. To conventional agnostics and skeptics this position seems opposed to genuine Christianity, which they often blur with sainthood or mysticism. So they classify Swift as standing outside the traditions of his church. Rowse on one page says Swift was “very little of a Christian.” On another page he echoes Middleton Murry and calls Swift a Manichaean. I wonder what Rowse would call Jeremy Taylor.

The least edifying line that Rowse follows is the reducing of Swift’s motives to blind self-interest and petty resentments. If Swift pleaded for measures to help the Church of Ireland, Rowse says the reason is merely that he was a clergyman (even though Swift’s proposals differed from those of many other clergymen). If Swift found fault with Dryden, the reason—says Rowse—is that Dryden had once found fault with Swift’s poems. It does not occur to Rowse that Swift’s desire to support religion might have drawn him into the priesthood to begin with; nor does Rowse realize that the story on which he founds his view of Swift’s dislike for Dryden is apocryphal.

This impulse to discover the lowest common motive drives Rowse so hard that he sometimes misreads perfectly clear evidence. For example, Swift once picked a quarrel with Lord Palmerston, a nephew of his old patron, Sir William Temple. The true reason was that Palmerston had earlier dismissed a protégé of Swift’s. Even though the exchange of letters brings out the circumstances explicitly, Rowse prefers to ignore them, and blames Swift’s anger on an “old complex” traceable to his difficult relations with Temple.

A book so misleading as this one can still charm readers if the author designs it with care, and writes with grace and wit. Rowse has shown that he can meet these standards when he takes pains. But his new volume carries all the marks of hasty composition. It is disjointed in shape, meandering in argument, filled out with long quotations, written in a breathless, often cumbersome style which confuses one by the sudden shifts in point of view, the vague reference of the pronouns, and the clumsiness of the syntax.

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