Animated Paradox

Swift: The Man, his Works, and the Age Vol. III, Dean Swift

by Irvin Ehrenpreis
Harvard University Press, 1,066 pp., $35.00

Even in an age of outsize literary biographies, Irvin Ehrenpreis’s life of Jonathan Swift counts as a superdreadnought. The first two volumes occupied more than a thousand pages, exclusive of apparatus; the third, which has now appeared, almost equals in size the previous two. This is by no means a record, but it’s impressive. Swift’s life was long, rich, and extraordinarily complicated; it spanned seventy-eight years of turbulent history in the growth of two nations, stretching across the reigns of six monarchs, and saw the transformation of England from a distant island kingdom barely recovering from the effects of an indecisive civil war to the first power of Europe.

Born under Charles II (1667), Swift lived halfway through the reign of George II, dying in 1745. During much of this time, he was actively involved in public affairs, some of great historical importance, some less significant, but almost all complex. There is remarkably little stuffing in Professor Ehrenpreis’s enormous volumes; what used to be called “laundry lists” are remarkably absent, and so are a great many fanciful, picturesque, but extremely dubious legends that grew up around the dean’s memory in the centuries after his death. The biography is a product of indefatigable industry, careful discrimination, and a crisp, impartial judgment that resists all temptations to uninformative hero worship. Ehrenpreis’s three volumes merit a place on the shelves between David Masson’s monolithic Life of John Milton and the great thicket of biographical timber that has grown up around Doctor Johnson. They are a monumental achievement, an ultimate resource, and an accomplishment that on this scale will never have to be undertaken again. Yet, as in all books, there are better parts and worse, some to be accepted without much question and others where revisionary criticism seems likely to flourish.

The range of materials covered is formidable, and there can be no complaint of foreshortening or omission. The big events of Volume I, which takes us up to about 1699, were Swift’s association with Sir William Temple and the complex composition (though not the publication) of A Tale of a Tub. The highlight of the second volume (1699–1714) was the final period, during which Swift was a confidential intimate of Harley, Bolingbroke, and the Tory government of Queen Anne’s last four years. The first main episode of Volume III is the publication of the Drapier’s Letters (1724–1725), in which Swift, taking as his occasion the proposed issue of some small copper coins for use in Ireland, voiced the indignation of the entire indigenous population at the systematic exploitation of Ireland in England’s interests. The second is the publication of Gulliver’s Travels, 1726. This universal masterpiece is much less closely tied to current events than most of Swift’s writings; it combines in a unique way his sense of detachment from the accepted forms of common life with the delight in play and foolery which was one of his chief resources against that alienation.

Around these five focal events cluster hundreds of lesser…

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