Born of English parents in Dublin, Ireland, in 1667, Jonathan Swift lived in a time of unprecedented political and intellectual change, and his career and writing bear the marks of these momentous changes. Although his professional life centered on the Church of England, it was his brilliance as a writer that brought him, briefly, into the center of power as chief publicist for the Tory regime. With the dissolution of the Harley regime, however, Swift was "exiled" back to Ireland, where he spent the remaining decades of his life as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
He had, early in life, imbibed such a strong hatred to hypocrisy, that he fell into the opposite extreme. . .
-- Thomas Sheridan (Life of Jonathan Swift)
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is generally acknowledged as the finest satirical writer in the English language, and it is no exaggeration to say, as Harold Bloom does, that he is likely the most "savage and merciless satirist" as well. Although Swift is best known for his longest and most ambitious work, the allegorical fiction Gulliver's Travels, shorter works such as A Modest Proposal and A Tale of a Tub, among other important pieces collected here, are no less accomplished and in some ways more revealing of his satirical genius. The surprising, sometimes perverse humor and stinging mockery, the complex stylistic interplay of rhetoric, argument, and meaning, and the superb ironic control displayed throughout these pieces are the hallmarks not only of a master satirist, but of a skilled controversialist and public spirit, someone intensely concerned with engaging pressing issues and affecting his audience in certain ways. The art of satire has rarely provoked more controversy and had such lasting effect.
Born of English parents in Dublin, Ireland, in 1667, Jonathan Swift lived in a time of unprecedented political and intellectual change. Liberal democracy, the scientific revolution, and the British Empire were all built on foundations laid during this period, and Swift's career and writing bear the marks of these momentous changes. His family was well connected in the Anglo-Irish settler circles that ruled Ireland during this period, and he received elementary and secondary training atthe elite Kilkenny School, followed by Trinity College, Dublin, where he received his B.A. in 1686. Aspiring above his provincial station as an Irish native, Swift sought fame and power in London, shifting his political alliances according to a complicated mix of personal opportunism and iconoclastic principle. Although his professional life centered on the Church of England, where he was ordained a priest and aspired to be a bishop, it was his brilliance as a writer and controversialist that brought him, briefly, into the center of power as chief publicist for the Tory regime of Robert Harley (1710-1714). With the dissolution of the Harley regime, however, Swift was "exiled" back to Ireland, where he spent the remaining decades of his life as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.
Swift's writing career began in the 1690s, following his departure from Ireland amid the civil unrest unleashed by the Glorious Revolution (1688-89). Through a family connection, he found employment as secretary in the household of Whig party leader Sir William Temple, where he was based for nearly a decade. During this time he took his M.A. at Oxford and was ordained a priest of the Church of England in 1695. Although he held several clerical positions in Ireland after 1695, he traveled frequently to England on church business and spent significant time in Temple's vast library. By the late 1690s, he was at work on his first and possibly his greatest satirical masterpiece, A Tale of a Tub.
Although deeply conservative by the emerging liberal standards of his day, Swift was in many ways the most radical stylist and polemicist of his generation, and he suffered professionally as a result. Many of his most important works, including Gulliver's Travels and A Tale of a Tub, appeared anonymously or pseudonymously, although often to little effect in shielding him. Later in life, Swift took up his pen with particular force for the cause of Ireland, his birthplace, against English commercial policies. This culminated in A Modest Proposal, the darkest of all his satires and one that has secured his place in the annals of Irish patriotism. Although for this and other interventions Swift stood among the most important and widely read controversialists of his day, ultimately his satire remains as politically unclassifiable as it is stylistically recognizable. At heart Swift was a consistent, unsparing skeptic toward the "modern" spirit of his time, with its own brand of religious enthusiasm for rational system-building and scientific dominion over human nature and the natural world. If, as Henry Fielding noted, "the satirist is to be regarded as our physician, not our enemy," satire was, for Swift, a method finely tuned to the moral purpose of, as he put it, "dissect[ing] the carcass of human nature"-exposing the delusive assumptions and contradictions, and the potential destructiveness, of voiding the "nature" from human nature by an unfounded faith in self-reliant intellectual progress.
Swift wrote during the eighteenth-century "Augustan Age" in British literature, known especially for its refined stylistic qualities, its deep engagement with classical literary forms and techniques, and its argumentative public spirit. An ambitious, well-known controversialist and publicist throughout a literary career spanning four decades, Swift was ultimately denied high professional appointment in the Church of England, where he had sought fame and power above his station as a native of Ireland. From 1714 until his death, Swift lived in Ireland in what he felt was an exile. Toward the end of his life, Swift experienced frequent attacks of dizziness, likely suffering from what modern medicine calls Me?niere's syndrome, and by 1742 his mental state had deteriorated to the point where associates placed his affairs under legal guardianship. This situation fueled rumors of madness his less inventive critics frequently exploited to explain away his difficult attitudes and style. In 1710, Swift began writing actively in support of the conservative Tory government of Robert Harley, and he was appointed editor of the main pro-government newspaper The Examiner. Although he considered himself a "balance-of-powers" liberal in the Old Whig tradition of the Glorious Revolution, Swift had grown disenchanted with Whig politics over attempts within the party to repeal the Test Act, which barred Presbyterians, Catholics, and others opposed to the Church of England from holding public office. Swift's one abiding institutional loyalty throughout his life was to the Church of England, and it was arguably this loyalty that shaped his political allegiances and the political goals of many of his writings.
Allying with the pro-Church Tories was something of a personal triumph for Swift as well, however, giving him access to the London audience and power base he had long craved but never attained under Whig patronage. With John Gay, Alexander Pope, and other Augustan luminaries, Swift formed the Scriblerus Club during this period, a kind of Tory united literary front to undertake collective works that would expose cultural degradation at the hands of modern pedants and "scribblers." As George Levine suggests, three of the greatest works of eighteenth-century literature, Gay's A Beggar's Opera (1728), Pope's burlesque verse masterpiece The Dunciad (1728), and Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), likely had their genesis in the Scriblerus Club.
Swift's time at the center of power was short-lived, however. In 1713, he was appointed Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, and the following year, when the Harley government was dissolved, he returned to Ireland permanently. Swiftly partly attributed his Irish "demotion" to royal hostility fueled by lingering suspicions of irreligion in A Tale of a Tub, first published nearly ten years earlier. In any case, his long-nurtured ambition for high preferment in the Church of England went unrequited by Tories and Whigs alike. Swift's sense of exile was surely part of the backdrop to the remarkable patriotic campaign he later began against English policies in Ireland.
Swift's career as a literary controversialist was launched in 1704, with the anonymous publication of a miscellany volume containing A Full and True Account of the Battezl Fought last Friday, Between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James's Library, A Tale of a Tub, and A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit etc. Although many consider this volume to be Swift's most brilliant work, in fact it haunted him throughout his career. The prefatory "Apology" to A Tale of a Tub was in fact written after the original publication to address accusations of anarchy and irreligion aroused by the book.
The Battle of the Books was Swift's entry into an aristocratic pamphlet war that erupted in the 1690s concerning the value of ancient versus modern learning. As contemporary scholarship has shown, this conflict was essentially between two types of criticism-an older literary humanism or cultural "letters" tradition, associated with the Renaissance and its revival of classical wisdom, and an emerging "scientific" criticism emphasizing texts and philology, rather than ideas and sentiments, as the starting point for scholarship. Swift's account of the battle was written in defense of his patron William Temple at the provocation of several "moderns," including Richard Bentley, Keeper of the Royal Library. Bentley had demonstrated that the ancient texts put forward by Temple in his 1690 essay "On Ancient and Modern Learning" (Phalaris' Epistles and Aesop's Fables) were in fact forgeries, or the product of later editors, thus reducing Temple's defense of the "ancients" to absurdity. Rejecting this textual focus as a gratuitous display of useless learning, Swift presents an Aesopian fable of his own, comparing the scholarly moderns to a lordly spider, "which feeding and engendering on itself. . .produces nothing at last but flybane and a cobweb." He contrasts this to the humanistic bumblebee, whose "universal range. . .brings home honey and wax."
While written during the same period, A Tale of a Tub is a far more original and independent work-perhaps even the "most powerful prose work in the language," as Bloom claims. It is also the first major expression of Swift's central preoccupation with the "New Philosophy" of his day-centered in the Royal Society and other highly positioned rationalist circles. Just as Temple's opponents said he had "treated with Contempt" the "Inventions and Discoveries of the present Age, especially by Men of Gresham" (where the Royal Society was based), Swift believed this philosophical vanguard threatened humanity with ruin by subsuming religious tradition and human nature in the mechanical framework of modern science. Isaac Newton had been appointed president of the Royal Society in 1703, marking an important intellectual turning point and greatly amplifying the changes Swift perceived.
A Tale of a Tub was certainly the most striking and disturbing contemporary satire on the new learning. Although a publishing success, it was attacked by establishment and dissenting figures alike. Samuel Clarke, one of the leading Newtonians among Anglican divines, launched the first public attack in 1705, citing A Tale as the work of a "Profane and Debauched Deist," meaning someone who thinks God acts through natural processes rather than divine intervention, as held in the Bible and church teaching. In fact, Swift was anything but a Deist. His own Argument Against Abolishing Christianity from the same period (1708), although meticulously inlaid with ironic misdirections, was an unmistakable defense of the established church against Dissenters, Deists, and their Whig supporters. Moreover, John Toland, the controversial early Deist, is plainly attacked in A Tale of a Tub, where he is partly personified in the character of Jack. Clarke's misguided criticism gives us an idea, however, of the political confusion Swift's satirical methods caused. It also sheds light on the "leveling" persuasion Swift held toward virtually all the modernizing elements of his day, whether within or outside the established church and political system.
Even as the "Apology" published with later editions of A Tale sought to refurbish the religious standing of its author, Swift's Tritical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind (1707) can be read as a kind of restatement of the satirical essence of A Tale, shorn of stylistic impediments in its juxtaposition of ancient wisdom with the "opinions of philosophers" that "have scattered through the world as many plagues of the mind as Pandora's box did those of the body." The hallmark of A Tale, in contrast, is a remarkable complexity and opacity of style, where speaker, narrative, genre, rhetoric, tone, and reference are consciously and purposefully deployed, but without clear boundaries as to authorial intent: at every turn the satire and the thing satirized are blurred or doubled back on each other to deflect easy interpretation; and yet, despite this stylistic refraction of meaning, the critical force remains-interpreted differently by different people. As Swift himself famously put it in the preface to The Battle of the Books, "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." Where Clarke saw Swift as a Deist, the Deists are in fact one of the main targets of A Tale.
Although not unlike the work of other satirists of this period in its exposure of abuses of religion, learning, and language, A Tale cuts much deeper in its philosophical anxiety and moral purpose. As Kenneth Craven asserts in his important contemporary study, "Swift's minority voice sees the modern world as having been constructed empirically of new sensibilities at the expense of immeasurable values and priceless standards." This "reductive process," in Swift's eyes, "had skewed scientific information to fit the optimistic parameters of its own myth, effectively burying other knowledge systems." Another contemporary critic, Frank Boyle, sees Swift's religious allegory of the three brothers and their coats, the narrative heart of A Tale, as a prop for exposing the "New Philosophy" as a methodological amalgam of historical heresies and emerging corruptions-combining gnosticism, alchemy, Roman Catholicism, and radical Protestant dissent. "This history culminates," Boyle says, "in the ridicule in A Tale of A Tub of the intellectual basis of the most formidable of all modern works, Newton's Principia." Closely related to the Tale, the finely drawn Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit etc. satirizes the speculative and charismatic aspects of the new learning. For Swift, the new scientific "virtuosi" are part of a long history of "inspired" but misguided heretical movements, a worthy heir to the classic orthodox calumny linking religious dissent with sexual libertinism and "community of women."
A Tale's anti-modernism lies at the heart of Swift's satirical imagination, and he would return to these themes in Gulliver's Travels. But the interval between Swift's return to Ireland in 1714 and the spectacular success of Travels by the late 1720s was highlighted mainly by his remarkable patriotic pamphlet campaign against English commercial policies. Beginning in 1720, this campaign was Swift's greatest effort as a publicist and perhaps his most enduring political contribution.
In 1724, Swift wrote a series of letters under the name of "M. B. Drapier" (meaning "drape maker") in direct appeal to the Irish people. Drapier's Letters sought to arouse popular opposition to the Whig government's grant of a currency patent to English iron merchant William Wood, allowing him to introduce a specified volume of copper coins into Ireland. Swift and other patriotic leaders saw Wood's patent as a government attempt to, effectually, impose a debased currency on Ireland, with the goal of undermining its monetary system and national wealth.
Drapier's plain style and unadorned policy explanations could not be less Augustan, or for that matter less Swiftean, in their direct attempt to "conscientize" the Irish masses-to use Paolo Freire's term for a pedagogical process that aims to mobilize the poor by facilitating popular comprehension of oppressive structures. The letters' political appeal was modeled on a longstanding tradition of popular sovereignty Swift knew well from his classical studies. Indeed, the initials M. B. likely stood for Marcus Brutus, the Roman republican assassin. The letters provoked public demonstrations and petition campaigns, and a government reward for the author's identity went unclaimed-even though everyone knew the author was Swift. These rebellious events led the English Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, to finally withdraw the patent-a textbook example of the adage that the "pen is mightier than the sword."
Drapier's Letters also reveal a vein of deep human sympathy rarely seen in Swift's work. The opening of the fourth letter, addressed "To the Whole People of Ireland," cites the analogy of Esau, who "came fainting from the field at the point to die," causing him to sell his birthright for a mess of potage. Like Esau, the Irish have been weakened in claiming their liberty and rights by extreme hardship. There is hope, however, if the unvarnished truth, like "cordials. . .applied to their weak constitutions," is heard above the din of government rumors and lies, the "last howls of a dog dissected alive." Swift's sympathy for the Irish poor also galvanized his most famous short satire and arguably his darkest, A Modest Proposal (1729). Assuming the voice of a learned "projector"-what we would call a technocrat-Swift lays out, in painstaking methodical garb, a plan for introducing child cannibalism as the only feasible commercial policy left for Ireland, with its endemic hunger and poverty. The backdrop to this masterpiece of ironic tone was Swift's own 1720 Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, which urged a boycott of English imports and was condemned for sedition. Failing this kind of unified social effort, the only commercial policy finally left for Ireland, A Modest Proposal imperturbably argued a decade later, is to commodify her plentiful stock of children as gourmet food. Swift turns colonial economics on its head by dignifying that chief maxim of political economy-"people are the riches of a nation"-with its most literal application.
It is no wonder Swift was wary of his audience right from the beginning, dedicating A Tale of a Tub to "His Royal Highness, Prince Posterity." Among his last works, the poem A Character, Panegyric, and Description of the Legion Club (1736)-a bizarre prophetic indictment of the Dublin Parliament-is perhaps indicative of the degree of alienation he came to experience over the course of his diverse but always volatile career. Although he had defenders in his own time and has many enthusiasts besides Bloom in ours, few great writers have been subjected to the kind of critical abuse Swift suffered from his contemporaries on forward, well into the nineteenth century. In one of the first official blows after Swift's death, the Earl of Orrery set the tone by plainly calling Swift a misanthrope who "ridiculed human nature itself." The nineteenth-century Whig historian Thomas Macaulay wrote that Swift had "a heart burning with hatred against the whole human race," and the Victorian novelist Thackeray condemned his "gibbering shrieks and gnashing imprecations against mankind." Setting aside the moralistic tone of earlier criticism, the preeminent twentieth-century critic F. R. Leavis famously ascribed Swift's satirical genius to "the power of vanity," taking a strong cue from his contentious biography.
But Swift's satirical genius cannot be guilty of such moralistic and biographical indictments; otherwise, what would be the point of satire? The posterity Swift hoped would vindicate him has seen the point better than his contemporaries did, although not under circumstances Swift himself would have liked. A modernist and avant-garde progenitor above all the great Augustan stylists, it is notable that Swift's surest champions often celebrate those aspects of his work most despised by his fiercest enemies. His influence can be felt in the multivalent narratives and allegorical systems of later prose masters such as Herman Melville and James Joyce, in the existential absurdism of Samuel Beckett, and in the Surrealists' psychological attack on bourgeois culture. It is surely a very Swiftean irony that this Church of England man and doubter of all things new eventually became a leading icon of modernist counterculture. Swift was placed at the head of Andre Breton's seminal Anthologie de l'Humour Noir, leading the way, as the "ve?ritable intiateur," for the likes of Sade, Poe, Baudelaire, and Dali. He was also a formative influence on the psychedelic revolution's greatest prose innovator, William S. Burroughs, of Naked Lunch fame. Perhaps Swift would have agreed that such surprising influence shows the important truth that great satire knows no boundaries.
Lewis C. Daly is a senior research fellow of the Democracy Collaborative of the University of Maryland. He holds a Ph.D. in early modern English literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo.