Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift; drawing by David Levine

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 Swift is to be compared with these writers, since quality, scope, and imaginative power are in question. But there is another sense, equally persistent, in which Swift’s art is alien to that of his peers. The impression left by Murry’s book is that Swift was a genius, in Emerson’s term a “representative man,” but the nature of that genius is never really defined. The recognition of Swift’s art is not accompanied by a sustaining sense of the values embodied in his life and work.

Indeed, Swift’s words on the page often depend for their force upon the values they deny and the possibilities they defeat. The situation is outlandish. We find in Swift’s writings, as F.R. Leavis has argued, “probably the most remarkable expression of negative feelings and attitudes that literature can offer—the spectacle of creative powers (the paradoxical description seems right) exhibited consistently in negation and rejection.” It would be a task of great moment to qualify this argument, or if necessary, to verify it. It would be an equally valuable task to establish a relation, in Swift, between the life and the work. In theory, this should be possible, but in practice such a relation is entertained as a matter of trust. It is not certain that a minute narrative of the life can tell us precisely what we want to know, if the questions are proposed by the nature of the work. Swift appears to be, in many relevant respects, a special case, alien to accepted notions of the creative imagination; alien also to accepted correlations of life and work.

Mr. Ehrenpreis has chosen to confront these problems without recourse to legend or mythology. He is devoted to fact, convinced of its implicative power. A nice sense of order is the only sign that in consulting the requirements of his narrative he has also pleased himself. His first volume ended with Swift leaving Moor Park after the death of Sir William Temple in 1699. The second volume ends, like Murry’s Chapter XVII, in 1714, after the Fall. The immediate difference between the two biographers is that Mr. Ehrenpreis gives a much richer background; he renders “the age” more vividly in its personages, Oxford, Bolingbroke, Steele, Addison, Archbishop King, Pembroke, Wharton, Molyneux, Petty, Burnet, and the other figures who touched Swift’s life in one degree or another. Mr. Ehrenpreis has also been able to take account of a more exacting body of scholarship, including Louis Landa’s Swift and the Church of Ireland, an important work for the purposes of this second volume. Mr. Ehrenpreis’s own part of this scholarship is of course fundamental.


The tone of the new book is that of patient research; bright ideas are not welcome, especially if they have only their brightness to commend them. Mr. Ehrenpreis’s account of Varina, for instance, is much more judicious than Murry’s. Of Swift’s letters to her, he says:

Evidently, the hectic tone of these appeals made a serenade which Varina did not often hear from him, and which arose in part from Swift’s very sense of their hollowness. She was a good listener (“your pity opened the first way to my misfortune”); but if she had behaved herself with less caution at this point, Swift would probably have expressed himself with more.

This is typically perceptive. Mr. Ehrenpreis allows the experience to count, but he does not exaggerate its significance. Similarly, while he thinks of Temple as Swift’s spiritual father, he does not force the image beyond a reasonable mark. He is determined to let the facts speak for themselves, even if they cannot tell us everything we need to know. So Mr. Ehrenpreis’s biography is the most exact and therefore the most authoritative life of Swift ever written. It is something, indeed, to write a book of this quality.

But I am not sure that Mr. Ehrenpreis solves every problem. Of course his work is still incomplete, but—to be specific—he has not yet shown a direct relation at any point between action and style. He deals with each work as it comes in a natural sequence, but he does not demonstrate any correlation of life and style. This is a delicate matter. In Linguistics and Literary History Leo Spitzer has a long essay on Diderot; the starting point is the critic’s recognition of a certain pattern, a typical rhythm, in Diderot’s sentences. Trusting his inner ear, Spitzer concludes that Diderot’s style is disclosed in that rhythm. Rhythm, style, and personality are continuous. Spitzer then looked in Diderot’s life for events or sequences which somehow corresponded to the particular rhythm. In L’oeil vivant Jean Starobinski begins each study with the recognition of a certain pattern or gesture in the work; then he looks for correlative evidence in the life. Starobinski’s study of Rousseau is one of the most elaborate attempts to establish the correspondence of work and life by starting with the work and looking for circumstantial evidence in the life. A powerful sense of style guides the search. The method is dangerous, because it depends upon an infallible ear and, equally, upon an infallible sense of the relation between a rhythm of style and a rhythm of action. It is impossible to be sure that the correspondence is genuine. But the prizes are glorious when won: intimacy, depth, in Eliot’s phrase, “the complete consort dancing together.”

Mr. Ehrenpreis trusts the conventional method; starting with the life, he presents the work as one of life’s manifestations. Perhaps he does not sufficiently allow for the dark places of the imagination, where experience is transformed beyond rational redemption. A more pressing difficulty is that the historical event may not be a sufficiently precise context for the work. Many of Swift’s works are in fact the direct products of event and imagination; in the Drapier’s Letters, for instance, the continuity of history and style is clear. But it is not clear that the occasion can fully explain A Tale of a Tub, though it may be glossed with notes on contemporary matters. Here the biographical method soon exhausts its possibilities, leaving us with the feeling that the gap between life and work is incorrigible. I cannot see any solution to the problem, if we approach it from this direction.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ehrenpreis’s critical observations are excellent. I quarrel with him only when he assumes that we find out what Swift really thought by turning upside down what he ostensibly said. Mr. Ehrenpreis speaks of Swift’s impersonations, meaning that on these occasions “the hidden comedian mimics the official priest.” Swift’s entire career is described as “the partnership of a clown and a preacher.” But the partnership is not consistent. There are many works, even apart from the Sermons, in which the preacher’s voice is dominant from beginning to end. There are other works in which the partnership which obtains is very odd. The Project for the Advancement of Religion and the Reformation of Manners is all preacher, but in the Argument against Abolishing Christianity the relation between preacher and clown is extremely complicated. To resolve the problem in that case Mr. Ehrenpreis has to divide Swift again; the pastor is now attended by a libertine. At all costs Swift must be exonerated from the charge of hypocrisy.


But I would argue for an easier explanation; in this work Swift is concerned with public order, not with private conscience. Public life is the center of his circle; private conscience is a secondary matter, unless it palpably affects the public question. At one point Mr. Ehrenpreis is embarrassed by a passage he quotes from the Argument; it seems to be a clear case of hypocrisy. But it is entirely compatible with Swift’s impassioned concern for the public forms in which order is embodied. “I believe it is often with religion as with love; which by much dissembling, at last grows real.” I cannot see any way of reading this except by assuming that Swift believed it to be true. There is no irony, for once. If a reader deplores the sentiment, he must put up with it.

Indeed, this predicament is more frequent in Swift’s works than we have allowed. Taking a hint from Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, readers have assumed that his irony is consistent and pervasive. It is not. Most of Swift’s works are not ironic at all. Even in the demonstrably ironic works, like Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub, the irony is not a continuous thread. Modern readers are unwilling to admit this, perhaps because we have been schooled to demand stricter requirements in literary form than Swift was prepared to obey. We have to learn how to read loose writers like Swift, Burton, and Erasmus, without expecting them to act like James and Flaubert.

Mr. Dennis’s book is designed as a Brief Life, and it proposes a picture of the man rather than a detailed biography. The main lines of the picture depend upon Swift’s sense of the personal and moral significance of his grandfather’s life. In the Civil War the Rev. Thomas Swift, vicar of Goodrich in Herefordshire, was a Royalist hero, grossly abused and outlawed by the local County Committee. Mr. Dennis argues that the slant of Jonathan Swift’s life “is the line that carries him back to Goodrich.” Good and evil were distinguished largely in the historical terms inherited from Thomas Swift’s life and character. The evidence for Mr. Dennis’s case is slight. It is true that Swift went far out of his way to visit Goodrich in 1727, making a detour from Chester to London. There is vigorous praise of his grandfather’s courage in Swift’s Letter on the Sacramental Test and the Fragment of Autobiography. Some of Mr. Dennis’s analogies are extremely suggestive, but they are hardly strong enough to show a determining pattern of feeling in Swift operating throughout his life. If the pattern was so well established, it is hard to see how Swift could feel so warmly for Oxford, the direct descendant of the Puritan lord of Brampton Bryan, the scene of Thomas Swift’s suffering.

But even if Mr. Dennis’s conjecture is doubtful, his character of Swift is remarkably attractive. I think he is right, for instance, in deriving Swift’s religious attitudes from his sense of the absolute separation of God and man. Berkeley believed in the absolute nature of this separation, and argued accordingly, but I have never seen this article brought out so clearly in its bearing on Swift. Mr. Dennis is also perceptive in showing the quotidian equivalent of the separation in the figure of Swift as Teacher; in one sense the relation between teacher and pupil is intimate, but in another it involves absolute separation. Much of Swift’s life can certainly be construed in this way, rewardingly, as Mr. Dennis is the first to show. The book ends with another example of his perception, a magnificent juxtaposition of Swift and Defoe.

These books are biographies, narratives; they are not primarily concerned with criticism. But at one point Mr. Ehrenpreis makes an especially fruitful observation about Swift’s style. Swift’s metaphors and conceits, he says, “easily expand themselves into the longer narrative devices with an allegorical tendency”; in fact, “it is the analogies that prompt the narrative rather than the reverse, because Swift has slight skill with plots.” This observation might be developed, for it is important. Many of the problems in reading Swift arise from the seemingly unadjusted claims of plot and figure. Readers who assume that the meaning of a work resides in its large development, let us say its plot, are often bewildered to find that in this respect Swift is extremely casual. Often the style seems to consult the possibilities of a figure, or of a single word, rather than the large-scale demands of plot or narrative coherence. A passage from one of the Examiner essays (May 3, 1711) is a fair example. Swift is attacking the Whigs as the War Party:

A Dog loves to turn round often; yet after certain Revolutions, he lies down to Rest: But Heads, under the Dominion of the Moon, are for perpetual Changes, and perpetual Revolutions; like the Girl at Bartholomew-Fair, who gets a Penny by turning round a hundred Times, with Swords in her Hands.

By trading on the double meaning of “revolution” Swift ascribes to the Whigs a riot of qualities which would otherwise have to be enforced one by one: lunacy, perversity, corruption, venality, and greed. Their wits are turned, they are mad. This is not an argument, one point does not lead to another; instead, wealth, insanity, and war are brought together in a single image. The passage stays in the mind as a grotesque figure, the girl at the Fair, swords flying in crazy circles. Presumably Marlborough is the next turn. Swift does nothing by consecutive argument which he can do by a single image. The effect here is to give the Tories the reputation of reason, conscience, purpose, stability, modesty, and so forth. In the next paragraph Swift applies the same pressure to another ready word:

To conclude, the Whigs have a natural Faculty of bringing in Pretenders, and will therefore probably endeavour to bring in the great One at last: How many Pretenders to Wit, Honour, Nobility, Politicks, have they brought in these last twenty Years? In short, they have been sometimes able to procure a Majority of Pretenders in Parliament; and wanted nothing to render the Work compleat, except a Pretender at their Head.

In Protean Shape Professor Tucker observes that Dr. Johnson defined to pretend as to put in a claim truly or falsely. The word might be used in a neutral sense, as Swift used it in the Preface to the History of the Four Last Years of the Queen: “Therefore, as I pretend to write with the utmost impartiality the following History….” There is no irony. Already, however, the other meaning was asserting itself. “It is seldom used without a shade of censure,” Johnson says. Historically, as Professor Tucker remarks:

Pretenders are those who lay claims to the thrones—and to those who actually occupy them, such claims must be false. The Gentleman’s Magazine (1788) says that Pretender is the term used in Parliamentary language, but notes that Mr. Boswell did not think it a gentlemanly expression. Obviously no Jacobite could.

Clearly, the way to make pretender a bad word was to set it in ill company. The Whigs have the best right to the capitalized Pretender since they have sponsored so many pretenders, lower case. It was indisputable that the Whigs sometimes commanded a majority in Parliament; if these men could be called pretenders, only an easy cadence of increase and demand was required to give them the old Pretender as King. The end of the cadence is implicit in its beginning. Swift is accusing the Whigs of a “style,” the rhythm of aggrandisement; the Stuart Pretender is the climax of this rhythm as “the great One” is the climax to many little ones conceived in the same bad spirit. Once the gesture is started, it is impossible to hold it back.

This Issue

January 16, 1969