Pox and the City: the complex life of Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Bate reviews <em>Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World</em> by Leo Damrosch and explores the world behind works like <i>A Modest Proposal</i> and <i>Gulliver's Travels</i>.

Detail from a lithograph by Edward Bawden.
Detail from a lithograph by Edward Bawden from the Folio Society edition of Gulliver's Travels.
Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World 
Leo Damrosch
Yale University Press, 512pp, £25

Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defines a novel as “a small tale, generally of love”. It was when Johnson was writing, in the mid-18th century, that the novel emerged as the dominant form of prose literature. Thanks especially to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, coming of age and falling in love became the defining characteristics of the genre, which Fanny Burney and Jane Austen would then bring to perfection.

A generation earlier, the most widely read works of “modern” prose fiction were John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. All three of these titles became household names (The Pilgrim’s Progress remained the most reprinted book in English, other than the Bible, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries). All three share with Shakespeare the special distinction of having been rewritten and simplified as tales for children. Even today, people who never pick up a book will have heard of Crusoe’s island and of Gulliver among the little people. The words Lilliput and Yahoo have taken on lives of their own.

Although the three books share some of the characteristics of novel and romance – adventurous journeys, an array of memorable characters, the growth towards self-knowledge on the part of the protagonist – none of them is a tale of love, and all of them have a further agenda. In Bunyan’s case, the real subject matter is the Christian life; in Defoe’s it is the distinctively Protestant virtues of thrift and self-reliance. 

What about Swift? Gulliver’s Travels can be read in many different ways: as local satire (on particular political circumstances and scientific fashions), as parody of the kind of pseudo-realistic travel narrative represented by Crusoe, as mockery of utopian visions, as the misanthropic ravings of a furious old man. Three hundred years on, scholars and students still debate whether or not Swift the narrator is directing his irony against Gulliver or the talking horses known as Houyhnhnms (all you need to do is whinny). Or both. The fact the name Gulliver contains the word “gull” – someone who is easily deceived – is a starting point.

We cannot begin to give decent answers to the questions raised by Gulliver’s Travels without a sense of its place in Jonathan Swift’s long and complicated life, which lasted from 1667 (probably) to 1745 (by which time he had already written his own epitaph, the magnificently self-knowing and wittily self-deprecatory Verses on the Death of Dr Swift). The Harvard professor Leo Damrosch’s new biography is to be warmly welcomed. Up until now, the serious student of Swift has had to rely on Irvin Ehrenpreis’s three-volume epic treatment, completed half a century ago. As Damrosch shows in a crisp and exemplary prologue, Ehrenpreis, for all his command of minutiae, was unnecessarily dismissive of certain items of contemporary gossip about Swift and over-confident in his psychoanalytic interpretations.

There are sharp critical insights in David Nokes’s more recent Jonathan Swift, a Hypocrite Reversed, but it is one of those biographies with the air of being written by someone who dislikes his subject. Damrosch has all the virtues of both these predecessors and none of their vices. He writes elegantly, has exactly the right mix of empathy and detachment, and is admirably open-minded in his approach to complex evidence – some of it the product of very new scholarship. A reviewer never likes to say so, because it is such a gift to the publisher for the cover of the paperback, but in this instance it has to be said: this will be the definitive life of Swift for years to come.

As is always the case in a cradle-to-grave narrative of over 500 pages in length, there are inevitably moments when the reader’s attention lags and the detail of dates and acquaintances, pamphlets and controversies, seems excessive. But overall Damrosch’s pacing is admirable. Without forcing the reader’s hand, he lets us work out for ourselves the nature of the primary forces that shaped the personality and the career of Jonathan Swift.

There is the question of Ireland, to start with. Swift’s father was an Englishman with some good connections but, being a younger son, he was packed off to Dublin. Damrosch deals judiciously with some of the mysteries around the young Jonathan’s early years: a nurse taking him across the sea to Whitehaven, persistent rumours that he was really the illegitimate son of some great man. Scattered among Swift’s writings, especially his letters, are memories rich in biographical atmosphere. Thus of his schooldays at Kilkenny College: “the delicious holidays, the Saturday afternoon, and the charming custards in a blind alley ... the Confinement ten hours a day to nouns and verbs [ie Latin lessons], the terror of the rod, the bloody noses and broken shins”.

And then the crucial relationship with Sir William Temple. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Roman Catholic faction focused itself on Ireland. Many Anglo-Irish Protestants such as the young Swift, who was at the time studying at Trinity College, Dublin, accordingly decamped to England. Soon Swift found himself a secretarial position with Temple, a gentleman of the Epicurean tendency in philosophy who sequestered himself on a fine rural estate called Moor Park near Farnham in Surrey. It was there that Swift met “Stella”, the young woman whom he would love and perhaps marry (even his closest friends remained unsure as to whether a secret marriage had taken place), and there that he wrote his first major work, A Tale of a Tub, a satire on the rival sects of Catholics, Anglicans and extreme Protestants.

Swift’s letters to his intelligent and mysterious but frequently sick young female confidante were gathered and published two generations after his death. Though the chosen title, A Journal to Stella, is misleading, they reveal him at his most tender and witty. 

The intimate voice, far from both the cool detachment and the fierce indignation of his published writings, is well represented by Damrosch’s quotations: 

I dined today with Patty Rolt at my cousin Leach’s, with a pox in the City. He is a printer, and prints the Postman, oh ho, and is my cousin, God knows how, and he married Mrs Baby Ayres of Leicester.

Pox and the City, along with excrement and the ladies, are among the themes of many of Swift’s best poems, which Ehrenpreis read in the spirit of Freud (much tutting about anal retentiveness), whereas Damrosch approaches them more fruitfully and generously in that of C S Lewis, who wrote of Swift and his friend Alexander Pope that “their love of filth is, in my opinion, much better understood by schoolboys than by psychoanalysts: if there us something sinister in it, there is also an element of high-spirited rowdiness”. 

Damrosch’s Swift emerges as both Londoner and Dubliner, as friend and friendly critic, much more than as bitter satirist and twisted misanthropist. This is a man who, when dean of St Patrick’s, Dublin, prefers a compact movable pulpit on wheels to “the remote and massive one at the east end of the cathedral” because it brings him closer to his congregation.

Lucid explanations are given of the political circumstances during the latter part of the reign of Queen Anne, when Swift moved in the same coffee-house and magazine circles as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, playing the role of Tory antagonist to their Whig urbanity; and then of the publication in Dublin a decade later of Drapier’s Letters, which made him a national hero in Ireland and give justice to the claim that he was the authentic father of a tradition of distinctively Irish writing in English that extends to Yeats and Heaney. It was Yeats who translated the lines at the heart of Swift’s Latin epitaph into English: “He has gone where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no more.” And it was Yeats who gave voice to what has been the thought of so many other Irish writers, from Shaw to Beckett: “Swift haunts me; he is always just around the next corner.”

So, after all this, what does Damrosch make of Gulliver’s Travels? It is perhaps the only disappointment of this biography that his treatment is on the thin side. One senses the author is a little exhausted by the time he reaches the famous book, or that he has taught it to so many generations of students and read so many critical essays about it that he has nothing new to say. Readers will have to go elsewhere for explanations of how the third book grew out of Swift’s hostility to the materialist experimenters of the Royal Society (trying to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers) and how the fourth is best understood in the context of a satirical tradition extending back to Lucian in Greek antiquity.

But Gulliver can look after himself. The shade of his creator should smile upon the Harvard professor, if only because this book is written in prose of true Swiftian lucidity. When we come to the late masterpiece, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick” (by eating them), the reader is left in no doubt that this brief pamphlet is the greatest short satire in the English language. 

Damrosch transported me back to a school classroom where my brilliant English teacher presented us with an anthology of short essays that placed “A Modest Proposal” beside Hazlitt’s “The Fight” and Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”. Swift, Hazlitt, Orwell: I, for one, can say that they were the trinity who taught me how to write.

Jonathan Bate is provost of Worcester College, Oxford. His books include “The Genius of Shakespeare” (Picador, £9.99)