Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel

Jonathan Swift lived from 1667 to 1745, dying just short of his seventy-eighth birthday. By then words had deserted the Dean of St.Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. “His memory had been clouding for years,” John Stubbs writes in his capacious new biography, “and he lost the ability to find names.” Swift’s last words, reportedly to a servant, were “I am a fool.” A fitting observation — clear, succinct, unsparing — from “the greatest of English prose satirists” as Ricardo Quintana called him in an introduction to the Modern Library edition of Gulliver’s Travels and Other Writings.

It is for the imagined voyage of Lemuel Gulliver to Lilliput and beyond, of course, that Swift is best known. Though “A Modest Proposal” is more often quoted; this is the 1729 report in which a fictional bureaucrat explains how the surplus children of Ireland could be farmed for English diners: “A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends, and when the Family dines alone, the fore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish.” Like his compatriot Oscar Wilde, (how he would hate that comparison), Swift is a font of quotes. For example:

“He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.”
“…after the first Bottle he is no disagreeable Companion.”
“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”
“It is worse to need friends, than not to have them.”

Such lines conjure up one Swift, the gimlet-eyed curmudgeon, while other writings reveal the misogynist, the egoist, the lover, the avenger. All of which materialize in Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, John Stubbs’s vigorous rendering of the Irish Anglican cleric who became the champion of an island that he detested and of a people whom he largely despised. “By the 1730s he was a hero and talisman in Dublin,” Stubbs writes, “known commonly as ‘the Patriot’ while styling himself ‘the king of the mob.’ “But this radicalism, Stubbs emphasizes, “stemmed from…an extremely authoritarian, conservative outlook” according to which England’s chief crime was not its colonization of Ireland but its exploitation of the kingdom.

This crucial distinction leads us into one political maze: There are many others. Swift, after all, lived in an empire that was convulsed by war and unrest, roiled by the Popish Plot and the Williamite succession, and much given to hanging, drawing and quartering. He jousted with battling Whigs and Tories, was a skillful courtier, an intimate of monarchs, a tormenter of the powerful. In addition, Swift’s antecedents had been indelibly scarred by the brutality of the English Civil Wars. This is familiar ground for Stubbs (previously the author of Donne: The Reformed Soul and Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War) and his pithily elegant style makes it relatively easy going, even for the general reader. There may be a few detours too many — into the thickets of diocesan enmities, for example – but Stubbs enlivens his diligent narrative with occasionally startling portraits and images. Citing the perils of eighteenth-century childbirth, for instance, he writes that Swift’s mother “faced the trial of the midwife’s finger, as it searched her womb for a weak spot to tear the epidermis with a sharpened nail or thimble, and so speed up the birth.” Then there is Queen Anne on whom “seventeen pregnancies – all resulting in miscarriages or young deaths – took a heavy toll” and whose “anxieties grew in proportion to her corpulence and fragility.” Indeed, women are central here, particularly the two with whom Swift was most intimate: Esther Johnson, his “Stella,” and Esther Vanhomrigh, his “Vanessa.” Scholars have for decades speculated on the relationships that inspired some of Swift’s most playful and most passionate writing and Stubbs acknowledges the various opinions but wisely avoids embellishing them. When Swift writes to Esther Johnson “I wish my cold hand was in the warmest place,” this biographer leaves it at that.

Stubbs does, however, return throughout the book to Swift the “near-abandoned, half-orphaned child” who at the age of three could read, at the age of six mastered Latin declensions and who later recalled his schooling as “Confinement ten hours’ a day, to nouns and Verbs, the terror of the Rod, the bloody Noses, and broken Shins.” The wounded child begets the sardonic genius? Stubbs knows better than to reduce his subject to such a cliché. He even concedes that Swift “ridiculed the idea of understanding writers through biography… the sort of approach recommended by idiotic ‘moderns.’ ” No theory, certainly, can explain Swift — and at the end of this biography the reader may conclude that no one volume can contain him. There is simply too much there. The politics and religion (often interchangeable); the afflictions of the body, heart and mind; the enduring friendships with Alexander Pope, John Dryden (a distant cousin), John Gay, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison; the idea of England; the reality of Ireland. And all the words, even the last. For Swift, of course, wrote his own epitaph:

“Here lies the body
Of Jonathan Swift, S.T.D.,
Dean of this cathedral,
Where wild indignation
No more
Can tear his heart.
Go, traveller
And be like him, if you can,
Vigorous to his utmost
As liberty’s avenger.”