Swift’s Sting

Jonathan Swift

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

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift; drawing by David Levine

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…

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