From the archive: Frank Kermode on Jonathan Swift

Compared with Swift’s ferocious wit, Private Eye is primitive stuff.

In 1731, the Irish-born satirist, pamphleteer and clergyman Jonathan Swift finished his Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, writing to his friend, the Scriblerian poet John Gay, “I have been several months writing near five hundred lines on a pleasant subject, only to tell what my friends and enemies will say on me after I am dead.” Gay died in 1732; Swift two years later.

In one of his many Books in General essays for the NSFrank Kermode confronts the notion that Swift’s challenging rhetorical imagination was a product of growing insanity, particularly in the final part of Gulliver’s Travels (that of the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms). To confuse his dementophobia with his unsettling imagination, would be to underestimate the satirist’s strengths.

Today is the anniversary of Swift’s birth in Dublin. The city retained a psychiatric institution, founded in his name (a public toilet too), symbolic of his difficult relationship with Ireland. He attempted to provoke an insurrection against English rule with his Drapier’s Letters, but ultimately failed to change the mindset of his Anglo-Irish peers. He seems, in elegising himself, to have known pretty well how the conversation would run on:

“He knew an hundred pleasant Stories,
With all the Turns of Whigs and Tories:
Was chearful to his dying Day,
And Friends would let him have his Way.

“He gave the little Wealth he had,
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satiric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much

Jonathan the First by Frank Kermode

Swift, I suppose, is one of the few authors about whom professional and common readers continue to concur. In his own day Addison called him ‘the greatest Wit of the Nation’, and this judgment still holds for most people, including Mr Muggeridge, who used Swift recently in these pages as a touchstone for the ‘New Satire’. He decided that the marked superiority of Jonathan the First over the young men of Beyond the Fringe derived from his advantageous view of mankind as a race of odious little vermin, and from his living in an age when it was still not ridiculous to have beliefs. Nobody, he added, ever called Swift ‘sick’ (true, but they call him ‘mad’). Mr Muggeridge's Swift is not unfamiliar, but he is largely mythical; and if we are really having a revival of wit and satire we probably ought to try and get a more realistic view of the classic figure.

It is thus a piece of good fortune that Irving Ehrenpreis's big critical biography of Swift has just got under way. The present volume is the first of a projected three, and covers the ground from Swift's birth up to the death of Sir William Temple in 1699, when Swift was 32. It has therefore to deal with some old puzzles — Swift's ancestry, his kidnapping as a child, his academic record. Some pseudo-puzzles (such as the hypothesis that Swift was a natural son of Temple's) are properly ignored. Many myths about Swift's life are due simply to misunderstanding of his work. The relationship with Temple was difficult enough in reality for the young author; he was very dependent but also very devoted, and he was deeply affected by Temple's remarkable intellect. On such matters, and on Swift's final disappointment, Ehrenpreis is sensible and sensitive. So also on his subject's sex-life, which attracts so much curiosity; at this stage anyway it seems that apart from avoiding both marriage and fornication Swift was normal. The major writing of this early period is A Tale of a Tub, that monstrous work of genius; it will probably always be a prime instance of the great book which can never be made accessible, but Ehrenpreis writes of it with skill and clarity. Stella makes only a brief appearance, Vanessa is as yet unheard of. The years of Swift's political influence and his Scriblerus friendships, the retreat to Ireland, are still to come.

Such books as this one and Kathleen Williams's admirable Jonathan Swift will surely disperse some of the common errors about the satirist, though the wilder biographers and Aldous Huxley's potent and misleading essay have a strong hold. The truth is that with the exception of Jonson (in a few places) and Pope, no English satirist has ever operated at the imaginative and intellectual level of Swift; and this makes great demands on the sanity and mental agility of his readers. What he believed in is, of course, relevant, because the effect of what he does depends a good deal on ironical deviation from a norm of common sense (which is by no means constant from age to age or man to man). This deviation is under very complicated rhetorical control, and we can be tricked by it, like the bishop who suspected that not everything in Gulliver's Travels was true: the more so because later writers offer nothing so exercising as these ironies.

There is nothing like this in, say, Juvenal, with his compound of gloomy ferocity and republican nostalgia, nor in the Elizabethan satirists roughly reprehending women, doctors, lawyers, fashions, the gay life. And you hardly look for it in vaudeville or pasquinade, Beyond the Fringe or Private Eye, which are by comparison primitive. The rhetorical range is so limited that an establishment audience can feel socially superior, knowing itself to be out of range. This explains Mr Muggeridge's observation that nobody minds being assaulted by the Fringe men; for all their cleverness they lack the means really to get at anybody. What they do is not so much satire as primitive satura (‘a disjointed series of action-songs and musical sketches’). When Jonathan the First was in agony about senility, or about the fate of the superfluous Irish, he thought up the Struldbruggs or wrote A Modest Proposal; but Jonathan the Second, when moved by life in a geriatric ward, writes reportage of unmixed sobriety, not seeing this as a matter for irony because he does not see irony as a serious intellectual instrument. As to the ‘sick’ humorists, they also belong to a phase of satire far less highly organized than Swift’s; Jonson puts them in his plays, and they are the ‘mad conceited men’ of minor Elizabethan verse. The Duke in As You Like It tells Jaques that in professing to ‘cleanse the foul body of the infected world’ he is merely disgorging his own ‘embossed sores’.

Swift would have liked the Fringe; he spent hundreds of hours writing ‘bagatelles’ himself, and might have taken particularly to the sermon, the most Swiftian piece in the show, with its absurd text, the whining low-church manner, the attempt to be colloquially up to date, the omission of all reference to the deity, and the ill-chosen illustration of the man vomiting on the mountain. A good bagatelle; but when Swift got to work on preachers he wrote not bagatelles but The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, where the Puritan enthusiast is literally full of wind, and whines because the movement of the spirit, carrying the pox, has broken down his nose — the whole joke carried out by rhetorical and linguistic virtuosity so extreme as to attract the charges of madness and pathological obscenity.

That Swift should be thought of in this way, or as a ‘life-hater’, is only another instance of the truth of his saying, ‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the Dunces are all in a confederacy against him.’ His own fear of madness, often cited in evidence, seems to have been no more than an unlucky consequence of his misunderstanding the symptoms of labyrinthitis. The gross verses of which so much is made amount to a few pages out of the three Oxford volumes; and they go beyond bounds because, in the writer's opinion, enthusiastically worshipful attitudes to women may be corrected by these means. The only Irish pamphlet that is at all funny is An Examination of Certain Abuses, and this has a characteristic scatological element; but the dirt has a point:

Every Person who walks the Streets [of Dublin] must needs observe the immense number of human Excrements at the Doors and Steps of waste Houses, and at the Sides of every dead Wall; for which the disaffected Party have assigned a very false and malicious Cause. They would have it, that these Heaps were laid there privately by British Fundaments, to make the World believe, that our Irish Vulgar do daily eat and drink; and consequently, that the Clamour of Poverty among us, must be false, proceeding only from Jacobites and Papists.

Here the actual dirt is merely incidental to an argument only apparently puerile, and to a double attack on Irish physical and English political dirt. The contempt for Jacobites and Papists hinted at is one which Swift shared; here is a minor instance of the fluctuation of tone to be got from an author with steady beliefs and an oblique habit of mind.

For Mr Muggeridge is right about Swift's having beliefs, though wrong about his quest for ‘an elusive perfection’. He believed that Christianity was mysterious and should remain so; that High Church Anglicanism best represented it; that men had an obligation to behave as reasonably as their nature allowed (which is not very reasonably, since the love of life and the means of propagation are natural but unreasonable); that good government, like religion, was a matter of the rational employment of human self-interest. He thought that the specialized use of intellect in the modern sciences was an abuse, leading to the neglect of human self-cultivation and the substitution of a crazy vogue for measurement and dissection (an opinion which derives some colour from the activities of the Royal Society and those of his Dublin teachers). Just as Deistic intellectualism and Puritan enthusiasm endangered religion, so learning divorced from its proper object would extinguish civility, even if its exponent was Bentley. He thought of men as fallen, and likely to fall further if they did not defend the walls of civility against the armies of Dulness. He believed (and this is a doctrine valuable to satire) that moral was reflected in linguistic decay; hence his fanatical interest in the inanities of polite conversation and in slang, which reminds one of Jonson's characters being made to vomit their neologisms on the stage. These were not Utopian opinions. Swift was practical enough; he sought peace, political stability, personal liberty in a world which threatened them constantly, not because it was absurd but because it was natural. You chose a civil life rather than a nasty, brutish and short one. The differences between his high satire and our own are, then, not to be explained by his idealism or the specially hideous state of our world, but more simply, by his serious use of a lost skill. Swift rarely said anything straight. It is surely remarkable that when he saw the safety of Ireland as depending upon immediate and direct action he wrote the Drapier Letters: the famous, revered Dean puts on the mask of a linen draper who stands to lose by the debased coinage, and compares the value of the new halfpennies with that of ‘three Pins out of my Sleeve’.

Ireland was the great test of this habit of obliquity; when we think of Swift's ‘savage indignation’ we should remember not Celia's dressing-room or the Yahoos but Ireland in his time, reduced by neglect and exploitation to ‘universal poverty and desolation’. The whole terrible story is told in a new book by Oliver Ferguson. Swift became the Irish patriot not because he was ‘dropped’ in Ireland and spent many years there, rather unwillingly, but because he ‘served human liberty’. The Irish drove him almost to despair by their fecklessness in misery; he needed all his efforts to ‘subdue his Indignation’ and preserve that ironic obliquity. Yet in A Modest Proposal, perhaps the highest point of English satire, he speaks still as the honest, well-meaning, corrupt bourgeois, disinterestedly proposing the slaughter of Irish children for food as a final instance of the true saying that ‘people are the riches of a nation’. The force of this pamphlet no doubt derives from the loving persistence with which Swift elaborates the hateful argument; it may sound a little mad, if you can mistake a severe imaginative exercise for mania. This mistake has made the last book of Gulliver's Travels the most misunderstood of the English classics. People who think Swift was steadily getting madder as he wrote are surprised to discover that Book IV was not written last; but they continue to get it wrong because they identify Swift with Gulliver, which is like saying Swift wanted to cook the Irish children. He was not, as he himself said, trying to ‘disclaim the human name and face’ in favour of ‘the horse's countenance divine’. What he does is to present a diagrammatic ‘rational animal’ — a race of talking horses who go naked, use no money, never lie, do not mourn the dead, use sex only for propagation, and so on. Beside them he places a man with ‘a small pittance of reason’, who foolishly aspires to the passionless society in which he finds himself, pondering his own similarity to the Yahoos, who are human animals without reason or civility. Gulliver's mistake, clearly indicated by the sorrel nag and Don Pedro, is to undervalue the merits of his own society by this impossible comparison. As in Book II, Swift loses no chance of satire at the expense of human institutions and pretensions; but basically the scale of the book is human, and a longing for civilized human society informs it, rather than a barren lust of rational perfection.

The above piece was uncovered during ongoing research for The New Statesman Century, available August, 2013.

An illustration (circa 1730) from Gulliver's Travels. Image: Getty.

Frank Kermode (1919-2010) was a literary critic who wrote essays and reviews for the New Statesman in the 1970s and 80s.

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Paul Nash: the modernity of ancient landscapes

Famous for his eerie First World War paintings, a new exhibition reminds us why Paul Nash was the greatest British artist of the first half of the 20th century.

In 1932 The Studio magazine printed a series of articles under the title: “What is Wrong with Modern Painting?” Internationalism, it claimed, was one ailment, with invidious Continental styles such as cubism and surrealism causing British art to lose its “native flavour”. “The Pernicious Influence of Words” was another, with “art jargon” and talk of “abstraction” helping to alienate and distance the public. What was to be done? Simple, the magazine pronounced: “A truce must be called to the post-war phase of ‘experiment’.”

For Paul Nash (1889-1946), the pre-eminent painter of the First World War, the Studio articles were a provocation. “In so many words we are being asked to ­abandon all research, all experiment; to close our eyes to the vital art of other lands – in short to be British,” he wrote. He also put it another way, in slightly less tetchy terms: “Whether it is possible to ‘Go Modern’ and to still ‘Be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today.”

Nash’s paintings – and his photographs, woodcuts, writings and book illustrations for the likes of Robert Graves, T E Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon – were proof that there was no intrinsic incompatibility between Britishness and European modernism. Indeed, what his work showed was that the avant-garde was a means of reinvigorating the British landscape tradition. There was everything personal about his art but nothing insular; Nash may have been, in the eyes of many, heir to the mystic pastoralism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer – and may have returned repeatedly to such heart-of-England subjects as Iron Age Dorset and Oxfordshire, the Sussex Downs, Romney Marsh, and the fields and orchards of Buckinghamshire – but he treated them with a sensibility that had a strongly European component.

How Nash managed to “Go Modern” and still “Be British” is the underlying theme of Tate Britain’s magnificent and comprehensive retrospective, which contains about 160
works. Nash the artist of two world wars is necessarily here, but the focus of the exhibition lies in his non-martial work. Nevertheless, it was the wars that defined him.

Nash had trained in London at the Slade School of Art as a member of an extraordinary generation that the professor of drawing Henry Tonks dubbed a “Crisis of Brilliance”. (On meeting Tonks, Nash recalled, “It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, was likely to derive much benefit.”) Among his peers were the greatest of the future war artists – Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C R W Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Yet it was Nash – who lasted only a year at the Slade – who outpaced them.

His visceral, stylised and unflinching images of trench landscapes on the Western Front, culminating in the shattered trees and churned mud of the painting We Are Making a New World (1918), brought him to prominence (the brooding, red-brown sky that bathes above the scene with such a sinister light reappeared 26 years later in his near-abstract aerial painting Battle of Germany). Nash was no good at painting the human figure, so instead, as he later said, “I have tried to paint trees as though they were human ­beings.” His war pictures are full of splintered stumps.

In 1917, at Ypres, Nash fell into a trench, broke a rib and was invalided home. Days later his regiment was all but wiped out. He returned to France later in the year a changed man, a sense of guilt in his heart and all ­naivety gone. It was from the front that he sent a letter – a philippic, really – home to his wife, Margaret, that is more than a raging description of his feelings: it also serves as a commentary on his paintings.


No pen or drawing can convey this country . . . Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.


He returned from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder and his asthmatic lungs irreparably damaged by gas: the effects were to kill him, aged 57, less than a year after the end of the Second World War.

In the interwar years, Nash’s art was marked by an interest in interpenetrations and borders: of land and sea, dream and reality, night and day, man-made and natural, interior and exterior, organic and architectural. As an official war artist during the Second World War, attached to the air ministry (which didn’t really want a modernist), he remained in England and added German warplanes to his list. He repeatedly painted the incongruity of quintessential British landscapes pocked by the wrecks of downed enemy planes: a Messerschmitt ­being winched out of its crash site in Windsor Great Park, half a bomber resting in a wood, a fractured fighter in a cornfield lit by a blazing setting sun.

The most celebrated of Nash’s military-bucolic paintings is Totes Meer (“Dead Sea”) (1941), showing Cowley Dump near Oxford, where the remains of crashed planes were
piled on one another. He depicts the tangled wings and fuselages as a grey-green metal tide, washing up ineffectually against an ­adamantine Britain. He wanted the picture to be reproduced on postcards to be dropped over Germany, though it never was. In this aeronautical graveyard he painted, he saw the fate of the “hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores”. He felt that the battle being waged was one from the Norse sagas and that the aeroplanes were not machines but incarnations of evil: a watercolour from 1940, Wrecked German Plane in Flames, was subtitled Death of the Dragon.

Back in 1925 Nash had started the bleakest of the paintings he produced at Dymchurch, on the coast of the Romney Marshes. He had moved there in 1921 to aid recuperation after a series of collapses brought on by depression and shell shock. His seaside was a haunting, stark place: the waves held back by the angular sea wall (on which he would walk at midnight with Margaret) suggested the trenches and no-man’s land, and in Winter Sea he painted the water as a mass of metallic shards in a green the colour of putrefaction. It is an image of utter desolation.

With Totes Meer he reprised the composition, substituting the broken aircraft for the water. Here, though, there is just a hint of life; a white bird (an owl? a seagull?) flies over and away from the wreckage like a ­departing spirit. According to Kenneth Clark this Götterdämmerung was “the best war picture so far I think”. His statement no longer needs the “so far”.

Nash’s anthropomorphised warplanes are also extensions of his particular brand of surrealism. He was less interested in the radical politics or the focus on the unconscious that fascinated the French practitioners, and more in the evocative potential of objets trouvés shown in imagined environments. “How often then do we encounter strange objects in unlikely association and hear tantalising phrases which seem full of meaning,” he wondered. His paintings, he said, were “gropings” towards uncovering that meaning. However metaphysical his intimations, he grounded his explorations in the landscape: “I find I still need partially organic features to make my fixed conceptual image. I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration.”

In 1936 Nash was on the organising committee for the “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London: “I did not find surrealism, surrealism found me,” he wrote. The show introduced the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and others to a startled British public. Some 23,000 visitors came to the exhibition: the luckiest ones saw Salvador Dalí delivering a lecture while dressed in a deep-sea diver’s suit and holding two wolfhounds on leads. The poet David Gascoyne had to rescue him, with a pair of pliers, when he began to suffocate.

Three years before the surrealism exhibition, Nash had co-founded the short-lived Unit One group with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth, Edward Burra and the critic Herbert Read. Their aim was to promote modern art in general: “to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture and architecture”. It was a brief that encompassed both abstraction
and surrealism. Nash believed unequivocally that modern art was in a precarious position and needed championing.

His Unit One works are among his least appealing, partly because of their rather dry formal aspect and their pallid palette. The Tate displays half a dozen of these pictures among a cluster of works by fellow group members: together, they appear as they were intended to, an uncompromising gathering that amounts to a manifesto of radical art. They make no effort to appeal to the viewer: little wonder the group held just one exhibition. Despite belonging in this forward-looking milieu, however, Nash refused to become a theoretical painter, confessing himself “far too interested in the character of landscape ever to abandon painting after Nature”. Whatever form future art might take, he believed, “it will be a subjective art” – and landscape, which underpinned all his art, offered him the subjectivity nothing else could. The countryside was animated by the presence of the genius loci, and his pictures are attempts to identify and capture that spirit of place – if not necessarily to understand it.

What he felt at Iron Age sites such as Wittenham Clumps, Maiden Castle or the White Horse of Uffington were the emanations of “old gods long forgotten”. A painting such as Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) invokes those old gods: a still life of chalk cliffs, a red sun, a mirror, floating spheres
and a hawk (Margaret Nash placed a statue of Horus, the Egyptian hawk god and guardian of the soul on its journey to the afterlife, on her husband’s grave). The objects are endlessly interpretable symbols of spirits, and the borders between real and unreal realms; together they offered, he said, the “suggestion of a super-reality”.

In the 1930s Nash produced a great many paintings showing random objects such as stones, chair legs and megaliths in half-imagined landscape settings. Such items, he believed, were elements of an equation that would be solved only when he put them together and revealed their true selves:


Sometimes one may find a pair [of stones] almost side by side. Inseparable complements, in true relation. Yet, lying there in the grass never finding each other until I found them that afternoon on the Sussex Downs . . . That problem was not then solved, but so soon as my stones came into my hands their equation was solved and they were united forever.


While his assemblages had much to do with the influence of his artist lover, Eileen Agar, Nash found that by putting objects together, “Nature became endowed for me with new life . . . The landscape, too, seemed now possessed of a different animation.” These pictures, showing a keen awareness of de Chirico’s work, also allowed him to combine the formal painterly elements of abstraction, surrealism and landscape.

Certain motifs – a twisted tree trunk pulled from the River Rother (“like a very fine Henry Moore”) which he exhibited on a plinth at the 1936 surrealism exhibition, or a felled tree, an architectural fragment that he likened to a “monster” – were for him living “personages” that stimulated the imagination and set in motion “a process of what I can only describe as inward dilation of the eyes” through which “I could increase my actual vision”.

Nowhere is the effect of this inward ­dilation more obvious than in the series he painted in 1943 and 1944, showing what Nash called “a landscape of the imagination” but which was, in fact, the view of the Wittenham Clumps from the house of his friend Hilda Harrisson on Boars Hill, near Oxford. The tree-topped hills are shown under an equinox moon that perfectly recalls Samuel Palmer.

Here, in the middle of the war, during the “Little Blitz”, with Nash’s chest infection becoming increasingly debilitating, the countryside is at a tipping point, too – day and night are of equal length. The trees are coming into leaf so these are March landscapes, and winter therefore is receding; these pictures symbolise hope. The war might still go either way, into the dark or the light, but these ancient hills have seen invaders come and go and battles fought, yet the rhythms of nature reassert themselves regardless of man. No invader, however malign, can subvert the seasons.

The pictures segue from chilly moonlit blues to rich ochres, russets and greens under a red sun – a transition from cold to warmth. The careful experiments of his Unit One pictures and the precise compositions of found objects are gone. These landscapes are composed of loose and unblended patches of paint, the clustered trees look like mushrooms, and the result is something both profound and euphoric. Nash did not explain the pictures, other than to note that: “There are places, just as there are people and objects . . . whose relationship of parts creates a mystery.” The Queen Mother bought Landscape of the Vernal Equinox when the paint can barely have dried. She recalled returning to it again and again, unsure of quite why it drew her. Her daughters were rather less perceptive critics. “Poor Mummy’s gone mad,” they said. “Just look what she’s brought back.”

Nash lived out his last months in a state of “reclusive melancholy”; increasingly enfeebled, he would joke, “Knees up Mother Brown, feet up Mr Nash.” His heart eventually gave up. Nash’s subsequent reputation has been built on his emotive pastorals, with the feeling that his formal experiments were somehow half-hearted or an aberration. What the Tate’s superb survey proves is that they represent the true Nash every bit as much as his pure landscapes do, and that an artist did not need to be a neo-Romantic to believe in his creed that “to find, you must be able to perceive”. The exhibition proves, too, that the Queen Mother wasn’t mad.

“Paul Nash” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 5 March 2017.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage