The personal history of Swift cannot be avoided. We know more about him than we do about many of his contemporaries, we feel him as a man far more: Defoe, Addison, Congreve, even Pope, are shadowy figures compared to him. It is not merely that they have left no documents comparable to the Journal to Stella; or that he was a man of affairs as well as a man of letters — so, even more, was Addison. We feel that it is somehow the consequence of his having been a much more dynamic personality than writers — even the very greatest — are wont to be. Thackeray's famous verdict: 'So great a man he seems to me, that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling' corresponds to our sense and sentiment.
To attempt, therefore, to judge him by his pure literary achievement, or even to judge his writings themselves as things that exist per se, seems always faintly irrelevant. One is continually conscious in them of a deliberate self-repression, and of an immense energy applied to the task of holding himself in leash. Whereas with a Shakespeare, a Chaucer or even a Dickens or a Conrad, we feel that their works do completely reveal them, with Swift our abiding impression is that the essential personality of the man is somewhat outside his work — lurking, at best, inscrutably on the edge of them. It is so with the greatest of them. Where is the author of A Tale of a Tub? Where is the author of Gulliver?
Swift is forever assuming a mask: not only formally as in that large portion of his work which purports to be written by some fictitious character — the Bedlamite, Bickerstaff, Du Baudrier, Captain Gulliver, the Drapier — but he constantly writes from somewhere off centre. In relatively few of his writings can we say with any confidence: 'ipse dixit'. Such concealment, it is true, is to some degree technical; it can be explained as a mechanism to facilitate the exaggerations, the distortions, the multiplicity of slants, which are congenial, and probably essential, to the comic vision, and as having its prototype in the poker face (deliberately cultivated by Swift) which proffers some wild enormity as sober fact.
But in Swift it is more than this. one senses an underlying and less variable persona as a necessity of tolerable existence: a deliberately adopted means of escape from an emotional nature that threatened to overwhelm him. Tender, generous, passionate, and perhaps also malade de l'ideal — these elements were to him so many sources of weakness that had to be stopped at all costs in one who would battle with the world. The picture of him left by Vanessa:
"Sometimes you strike me with that prodigious awe, I tremble with fear; at other times a charming compassion shines through your countenance which revives my soul."
is convincing to one well read in his works. He stood incessantly on guard against his affections and emotions which menaced the citadel of his rationality and would sweep him from the rock of his self-control. He suffered his tenderness to play chiefly in the form of protectiveness towards those less well armoured than himself. He was responsive to integrity, revolted by injustice, and outraged by what he felt to be the basic irrationality of human existence. Of its animal substrate he came to feel a morbid horror.
Swift's reputation among his friends was that of 'a man of mirth'. To Fielding, who was no bad judge, he was 'the greatest master of humour that ever wrote'. Those contemporary verdicts have been overshadowed by a later sense of the gloom and savagery that invaded his writing. The emphasis has shifted, and the picture has been unduly darkened: It is not so much that the truth lies between, as that Swift's comic genius worked on two levels of intensity which are manifest, at the outset, in the contrast, between A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. On the one level is a universal derision and a ruthless exposure of the human condition, an attitude in which there is acceptance of nothing; on the other level there is a pragmatic acceptance of the necessity of passing life within the common forms, of averting one's eyes from the abyss, or the heights for that matter, and being a reasonable man. At this level his humour is genial and sometimes beautifully urbane. And, speaking roughly, it is on this level that his genius mainly functioned in the long interval between his two major works, A Tale of a Tub (1697) and Gulliver (1721-5). There is an astonishingly rich variety in his minor works during the early part of this period. In verse alone, 'Mrs Francis Harris's Petition' 'Baucis and Philemon', 'A Description of the Morning', and 'A City Shower' each open a new vein. In prose there is Isaac Bickerstaff's Predictions and the Argument against Abolishing Christianity, and the innumerable diverting divagations of his more serious pamphlets. Though some of the savour of his more audacious jokes is dulled by time, anyone who cares to steep himself in the exciting political history of Queen Anne's reign will find they live again. And all the while he was perfecting the instrument of his superb polemical prose.
This is markedly different from the prose of A Tale of a Tub, in which he gave full rein to the first great flight of his comic Pegasus. That has an unbridled opulence of invention, which he afterwards eschewed, perhaps thinking it too dangerous to his prospects to be indulged. Because of the many varieties of manner it is not easy to choose a characteristic specimen from this 'wild work', as Dr Johnson called it; but perhaps the two following, both with hints of personal experience, may indicate something of the range of style and thought:
"And whereas the mind of a man, when he gives the spur and bridle to his thoughts, doth never stop, but naturally sallies out into both extremes, of high and low, of good and evil, his first flight of fancy commonly transports him to ideas of what is most perfect, finished, and exalted; till, having soared out of his own reach and sight, not well perceiving how near the frontiers of height and depth border upon each other; with the same course and wing, he falls down plumb into the lowest bottom of things, like one who travels the east into the west, or like a straight line drawn by its own length, into a circle. Whether a tincture of malice in our natures makes us fond of furnishing every bright idea with its reverse, or whether reason, reflecting on the sum of things, can, like the sun, serve only to enlighten one half of the globe, leaving the other half by necessity under shade and darkness; or, whether fancy, flying up to the imagination of what is highest and best, becomes overshot, and spent, and weary, and suddenly falls, like a dead bird of paradise, to the ground; or whether, after all these metaphysical conjectures, I have not entirely missed the true reason; the proposition, however, which has stood me in so much circumstance, is altogether true; that, as the most uncivilised parts of mankind have some way or other climbed up to the conception of a God, so they have seldom forgot to provide their fears with ghastly notions, which, instead of better, have served them pretty tolerably for a devil."
That is from the Excecursus on Aeolism, or the doctrine of inspiration by wind. The following is from one of the Bedlamite author's frequent eulogies of his own 'divine treatise':
"Now it is not well enough considered, to what accidents and occasions the world is indebted for the greatest part of those noble writings, which hourly start up to entertain it. If it were not for a rainy day, a drunken vigil, a fit of the spleen, a course of physic, a sleepy Sunday, an ill run at dice, a long tailor's bill, a beggar's purse, a factious head, a hot sun, costive diet, want of books, and a just contempt of learning — out of these events, I say, and some others too long to recite (especially a prudent neglect of taking brimstone inwardly) I doubt, the number of authors and of writings would dwindle away to a degree most woeful to behold. To confirm this opinion, hear the words of the famous Troglodyte philosopher: 'Tis certain', (said he) 'some grains of folly are of course annexed as part of the composition of human nature, only the choice is left to us, whether we please to wear them inlaid or embossed, and we need not go very far to seek how that is usually determined, when we remember it is with human faculties as with liquors, the lightest will ever be on top."
The Troglodyte philosopher is Swift himself, and the ironic reference is to a sandy cave in the grounds of Moor Park in which he used to seek the poetic inspiration of which he is now derisive.
This in a dozen years becomes the much more sternly controlled prose of The Examiner, which is like a perfectly reasonable, perfectly modulated conversation, with always a smiling hint of strength in reserve. The opening page of his first Examiner is entirely characteristic:
"It is a practice I have generally followed, to converse with equal freedom with the deserving men of both parties; and it was never without some contempt, that I have observed persons wholly out of employment [i.e. without government office], affect to do otherwise: I doubted whether any man could owe so much to the side he was of, though he were retained by it; but without some great point of interest, either in possession or prospect, I thought it was the mark of a low and narrow spirit.
It is hard that for some weeks past, I have been forced, in my own defence, to follow a proceeding that I have so much condemned in others. But several of my acquaintance, among the declining party, are grown so insufferably peevish and splenetic, profess such violent apprehensions for the public [i.e. the 'res publica'], and represent the state of things in such formidable ideas, that I find myself disposed to share in their afflictions, although I know them to be groundless and imaginary, or, which is worse, purely affected. To offer them comfort one by one would not only be an endless, but a disobliging task. Some of them, I am convinced, would be less melancholy, if there were more occasion. I shall therefore, instead of hearkening to further complaints, employ some part of this paper for the future, in letting such men see, that their natural or acquired fears are ill-grounded, and their artificial ones as ill-intended."
The economy and vigour of this prose is perfect, the just-submerged humour delightful; and how suavely deceptive is the sudden thrust he gives the alarmist Whigs in 'Some of them, I am convinced, would be less melancholy, if there were more occasion'! To think that writing of this quality had a positive political effect is to realize how transitory were the conditions under which Swift became a power in English politics. Certainly the Drapier's Letters' show that he could have adapted himself to conditions more analogous to those of a democracy; but, remarkable as they are, they have not the sustained perfection of the Examiners, or of Swift's political writings as a whole from 1708 to the death of the Queen.
But Swift found the imposed restraint irksome. There is evidence in the Journal that he put more sheer hard work than is generally supposed into his writings championing the Tories and harrying the Whigs. It was not easy writing for him. And one feels that he had been more at his ease when he still felt free to blow both parties sky-high, as in the Argument against Abolishing Christianity. Fully to appreciate this, one must come to it with a fresh memory of the incessant Tory motion in Parliament that 'the Church is in danger'. Then the gorgeous joke of the following, 'among the inconveniences that may be caused' by the abolition of Christianity, appears in its true magnificence:
"Nor do I think it wholly groundless, or my fears altogether imaginary, that the abolishing of Christianity may perhaps bring the Church into danger, or at least put the Senate to the trouble of another securing vote. I desire I may not be mistaken; I am far from presuming to affirm or to think that the Church is in danger at present, or as things now stand, but we know not how soon it may be so when the Christian religion is repealed . . . Therefore, this may be intended as one political step toward altering the constitution of the Church established."
That is the irreverent comic fantasy in its sublime. The vision Swift conjures up of the Whig majority, having repealed the Christian religion solemnly voting that the Church is not in danger; and the spectacle of the High Church Tories digesting the implications of the idea that the abolition of Christianity might (or might not) really endanger the Church, are equally satisfying to the imagination.
It is this sort of thing from which Swift found it hard to refrain for long. To keep his comic genius from becoming universal in its irreverence, he had to run in blinkers. And even in his polished performances while he wears them, we are conscious of the destructive daimon in restraint. As the years go on the daimon becomes more savage and sombre.
Whatever the cause may have been — and disappointed ambition, emotional frustration, the increasing menace of an obscure disease threatening his sanity, a profound dismay at the actual conditions in the country from which he could not escape: all these may have played their part — the universal but high-spirited irreverence of A Tale of a Tub does gradually pass into something more formidable: a universal nausea and disgust of humanity. Though there is plenty of fun in the first two books of Gulliver's Travels, by the end of the work there is precious little left of homo sapiens in which he may take comfort, or on which he may base a hope. The sophisticated Yahoo is perhaps the most searing vision of man that the mirror of genius has ever presented to him. Nevertheless, the fourth book of Gulliver is more subtle than is generally perceived, and it may be that Swift allows to humanity, in the figure of Don Pedro, the Portuguese captain who rescues Gulliver, much the same possibility of redemption that Cordelia brings to King Lear.
More disquieting than the ruthless moral exposure of humanity, which is the substance of Gulliver, and which the contemporary mind may be more willing to admit than was that of a hundred years ago, is the physical nausea of mankind which haunts the end of this great book. For one cannot escape the suspicion that Swift's deliberate degradation of man (and particularly woman) beneath the animal had a pathological origin; and this suspicion is confirmed by the nature of some of his subsequent verses. As to the causes of this evident obsession we can only speculate, but it is possible that the root of the disturbance was Swift's violent renunciation of marriage after his abortive courtship of Varina. That Swift's public career began with an effort of emotional self-repression is hardly to be doubted, and that he imposed a similar effort upon the two women who were in love with him. Nature seems to have taken a grim revenge on this naturally passionate man. To attempt to imagine the full scope of that 'saeva indignatio' which tore at his heart fills one with pity, and with awe.
These are the effects of tragedy, said Aristotle; and to any sort of impartial contemplation, Swift inevitably takes on the status of a tragic hero. He is big to the imagination as no contemporary figure, in the world of letters or affairs, is big. A kind of Promethean defiance is for ever revealing itself in his attitudes, and the eagle plucks at his heart.
Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that Swift's religion was not genuine and deeply serious. It may be difficult for a modern mind to reconcile Swift's attitudes with a belief in the Christian God; but Swift's was not a modern mind. It was essentially prescientific; it took the existence of God for granted: and the Deism which was spreading rapidly in his day was utterly repugnant to it. Though he often spoke of religion simply as the sanction of morality, and as supplying the place of reason in the mass of humanity who were incapable of reason, we need to remember that his conception of reason was itself religious, and almost mystical. It was akin to the Platonic intuition of the Good, which conferred the power to follow it; or would do, but for the radical corruption of man's nature. Of that Swift was convinced. Thus the doctrine of original sin was compulsive to him And to one so persuaded of the precariousness of any order whatsoever in human affairs, an overwhelming idea of the divine omnipotence —
'the all-powerful God, the least motion of whose will can create or destroy the world'
is a phrase of one of his prayers — was a natural refuge. Perhaps it would be near the truth to say that his belief in the divine love took the form of a sense of the miraculous mercy of a mysterious and inscrutable God. But to suggest that it was not sincere is unwarrantable.
Swift is still a living influence in literature. The finest satire of modern times, George Orwell's Animal Farm, is plainly indebted both to the story of the Coat in A Tale of a Tub, and to the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver.
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