Friday, November 19, 2010

A Brief Examination of Swift’s Best-known Works

1. “THE BAITLEOFTHE BOOKS” (1704)
The Dispute between the Ancients and the Moderns
The Battle of the Books had its origin in the controversy regarding the relative superiority of ancient and modem learning, in which Sir William Temple had taken part. The controversy ha, now lost its interest but the merit of the work lies in its satirical power.
The satire is certainly an attack on pedantry, in which it is argued that invention may be weakened by excessive learning. There were two tops to the hill Parnassus, the highest and largest of which had been from time immemorial in the possession of the ancients, while the other was held by the modems. The modems desired to bring about a reduction in the height of the position held by the ancients. The ancients replied that the better course would for the modems be to raise their own side of the hill. To such a step, the ancients would not only agree but would largely contribute. However, the negotiations between the two sides came to nothing, and there was a great battle. But, first, we are told the story of the bee and the spider.
The Story of the Bee and the Spider
A bee had become entangled in a spider's web. The two insects quarrelled, and Aesop was summoned for arbitration. The bee, who is to be regarded as symbolizing the ancients, went straight to nature, gathering its support from the flowers of the field and the garden, without doing any damage to them. The spider, who symbolizes the modems, boasted of not being obliged to any other creature but of drawing and spinning out all from himself. Thus Swift seems to be saying that the modems had produced nothing but wrangling and satire, partaking of the nature of the spider’s poison. The ancients ranging through every comer of nature had, on the other hand, produced honey and wax and furnished mankind with “the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light”.
The Issue Left Undecided
In the great battle between the books that follows, the modems appeal for help to the malignant deity called Criticism who had dwelt in a den at the top of snowy mountains where there were spoils of numberless half-devoured volumes. With her were Ignorance, Pride, Opinion, Noise and Impudence, Dullness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-manners. She (that is, the deity called Criticism) could change herself “into an octavo compass”, when she was indistinguishable in shape and dress from, “the divine Bentley”, the most deformed of all the modems. The story ends abruptly with the meeting of Bentley and Wotton with Boyle who transfixes the pair with his lance. The issue of the battle is left undecided. Nor should we imagine that Swift held too seriously the views on the subject of the controversy expressed in this fragment. The piece was largely inspired by Swift's desire to assist his patron (Sir William Temple); but, besides being a brilliant attack on his opponents, it abounds in satire of a more general nature.
2. “A TALE OF A TUB” (1704)
I
The Story of Three Brothers Representing Three Sects of Christianity
A Tale of a Tub was written in 1696 but published with The Battle of the Boob in 1704. A considerable portion of this work is occupied by an account of the quarrels of the churches, told in the story of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack who represent the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans and the Puritans respectively, of the coat bequeathed to them by their father whose will, explaining the proper mode of wearing it, they first interpreted each in his own way and then after many ingenious evasions of it, locked up in a strong box; and of their subsequent quarrels concerning the will and its significance. Throughout, the brothers act in accordance with the doctrine that beings which the world calls “clothes” are, in reality, rational creatures or men, and that, in short, we see nothing but the clothes and hear nothing but them.
Swift’s Defence of Himself against an Accusation
The manner in which Swift deals with religious questions in this book led to suspicions as to the genuineness of his Christianity––a suggestion which Swift regarded as a great wrong to him. He said that he had attacked only Peter (who insisted, in turn, being called “Mr. Peter”, “Father Peter”, and “Lord Peter”) and Jack (who gave the name of zeal to his hatred of Peter and was much annoyed by Martin’s patience), and that he had not made any reflections on Martin. What he satirized was not religion but the abuse of religion. This defence of himself by Swift is not very convincing. Although we need not doubt Swift’s orthodoxy, we cannot help feeling that a sceptic would read this book with greater pleasure than a believer. The contempt poured on Roman Catholics and dissenters is often in very bad taste, and touches upon doctrines and beliefs which an earnest member of the Church of England would think it dangerous to ridicule. Such attacks on important doctrines may easily be treated as attacks on Christianity itself.
Entertaining Digressions in the Book
But A Tale of a Tub is far more than an account of the wrangles of the churches. It is also a skilful and merciless dissection of the whole of human nature. In addition to the satire on vanity and pride, on pedantry and on the quest for fame in the introductory dedication to Somers and the dedication to Prince Posterity, there is an attack on bad writing which is continued, again and again, throughout the book. In conclusion, Swift observed that he was trying an experiment very frequent among modem authors, which was to write upon nothing. The work contains entertaining digressions, in one of which the author satirizes critics. In former times, it had been held that critics were persons who framed rules by which careful writers might judge the productions of the learned and form a sound estimate of the sublime and the contemptible. At other times, a “critic” had meant the restorer of ancient learning from the dust of manuscripts. But the third and noblest sort was the “true critic” who had bestowed many benefits on the world. A true critic was the discoverer and collector of the faults of writers. The custom of authors was to point out with great pains their own excellences and other men's defects. The modem way of using books was either to learn their titles and then boast of acquaintance with them, or to get a thorough insight into the indexes. To enter the palace of learning at the great gate took much time. Therefore, men with little time and little ceremony use the back door. In another digression Swift treats of the origin, use, and importance of madness in a commonwealth. He defines happiness as “a perpetual possession of being well deceived”. The serene and peaceful state is to be a fool among knaves. Delusion is necessary for peace of mind. Elsewhere, Swift confesses to a longing for fame, a blessing which usually comes only after death.
The Other Merits of the Book
In wit and brilliancy of thought, Swift never surpassed A Tale of a Tub; and the style is as nearly perfect as it could well be. Swift here allows himself more colour than is to be found in his later writings. In spite of discursiveness and lack of dramatic interest, the book remains the greatest of English satires.
II
Religion Made to Look Ludicrous
A Tale of a Tub relates the story of three sons, Peter, Martin, and Jack, representing respectively the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Protestant dissenters who have each been left by their father the legacy of a coat with specific instructions as to how to wear and look after it. The author then proceeds to give an ironic history of the development of Christianity by means of accounts of the various ways in which each brother behaves with respect to his coat and also in other matters. The device of translating developments in theology and in ritual into a parody of the purely physical accompaniments of such things struck deeper than Swift intended because once religion is discussed in such ludicrous terms it is impossible to restrict the destructive satire to the abuses of what Swift considered Popish superstition on the one hand and dissenting fanaticism on the other: religion itself becomes ludicrous, and equated with its most external and trivial trimmings. So long as Swift keeps to abuses, such as the deliberate addition by the brothers of ornaments, expressly forbidden in their father’s will, the satire is specific and limited. But even in these cases, Swift by his tone reduces all religious belief to something arbitrary and trivial. It was all very well for him to protest in the “Apology” which he prefixed to this book: “Why should any clergyman of our church be angry to see the follies of fanaticism and superstition exposed, though in the most ridiculous manner; since that is perhaps the most probable way to cure them, or at least to hinder them from further spreading?” If differences in the interpretation of Christianity are reduced to this level, then Christianity itself is reduced.
The Weakness in Swift’s Argument
The satire in A Tale of a Tub is often ingenious and brilliant, but only a sceptic or agnostic could fully relish all of it. One of Swift’s favourite satiric devices is to insist that there is no difference between the sign or symbol of a thing and the thing itself. Thus he writes:
’Tis true, indeed, that these animals, which are vulgarly called suits of clothes, or dresses, do, according to certain compositions, receive different appellations. If one of them be trimmed up with a gold chain and a red gown, and a white rod, and a great horse, it is called a Lord-Mayor; if certain ermines and furs be placed in a certain position, we style them a Judge; and so an apt conjunction of lawn and black satin we entitle a Bishop.
This is certainly an effective way of puncturing human pride (and human pride was always one of Swift's main targets); but if one insists that there is no reality at all behind any of the symbols and rituals employed by human beings, the implication cannot be confined to a satire of bad beliefs or practices or defective institutions or of anything less than the total nature of man. Swift spoke in the name of reason against pride and fanaticism; at the same time he was a stout supporter of the Church of England and opposed a too tolerant treatment of dissenters. But exactly the same tools with which he destroyed the position of those with whom he disagreed could have been, and indeed were, used by him against his own. Pure unalloyed reason could not have justified the Anglican position as the only tenable Christian position for an Englishman. It is Peter and Jack who are attacked in A Tale of a Tub; but Martin is really equally vulnerable.
Brilliant Digressions
Some of the most brilliant parts of A Tale of a Tub are the digressions in which Swift carried on his war against the pride and emptiness of modem scholars and the wicked folly of “religious enthusiasm”. The digressions concerning the origin, the use, and importance of madness in a common­wealth is particularly revealing. Madness is humorously attributed to the rising of certain vapours from lower parts of the body into the brain. It is this kind of madness which has been responsible for “the greatest actions that have been performed in the world, under the influence of single men, which are the establishment of new empires by conquest, the advance and progress of new schemes in philosophy, and the contriving as well as the propagating of new religions”. The collection of vapours in the brain disturbs human reason, and then fancy takes control and common sense is turned out.
Delusion and Reality
“Cant and vision”, Swift goes on to say, “are to the ear and eye the same that tickling is to the touch”. It is a significant collocation. The entertainments and pleasures which men value most in life “are such as dupe and play the wag with the senses”. Proof of this is found in the fact that "happiness is a perpetual possession of being well deceived". Delusion is stronger than things as they appear “in the glass of nature”. Credulity is better than curiosity, and superficial acceptance of the surface of things better than “that pretended philosophy which enters into the depth of things and then comes gravely back with information and discoveries, that in the inside they are good for nothing”.
A Satire on Those Who Are Content with the Surface of Things
Swift ironically informs us that we should be content with what we can know by sight and touch only, and ignore reason which comes “officiously with tools or cutting, and opening, and mangling, and piercing, offering to demonstrate that they are not of the same consistence quite through”. Let us therefore be content with the outside. “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” Swift is here attacking the human tendency to be deceived by the surface of things, by mere clothes and decorations. His method is to suggest that this is wholly desirable, for the use of reason to go below the surface may reveal unpleasant things: “Yesterday I ordered the carcass of a beau to be stripped in my presence, when we were all amazed to find so many unsuspected faults under one suit of clothes. Then I laid open his brain, his heart, and his spleen; but I plainly perceived at every operation that the farther we proceeded, we found the defects increase upon us in number and bulk; from all which, I justly formed this conclusion to myself that whatever philosopher or projector can find out an art to solder and patch up the flaws and imperfections of nature, will deserve much better of mankind and teach us a more useful science than so much in present esteem, of widening and exposing them.” The man who is content to enjoy the surface of things gets the cream of nature, leaving the sour elements and the dregs for philosophy and reason to drink. This is the sublime point of felicity “called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.”
Swift’s Dilemma, the Dilemma of the Age of Reason
This is certainly brilliant satire of a savage kind. But Swift's contrast between the happily deceived fool who is content to know the surface of things and the rational man who uses his reason to inquire what lies below the surface has already been weakened by the earlier contrast between reason on the one hand and imagination, vision, enthusiasm, and fancy on the other. The reason that is perpetually suspicious of imagination is surely prevented from going very far below the superficial surface of things. Swift was irritated by his fellow-men because he believed in reason. He believed that man was, if not a rational creature in all his doings, at least rationis capax (capable of reason), and it was therefore all the more tragic that man should allow his fancy to get the better of his reason. This attitude ultimately reduces the sphere of reason to something so narrow that it is incapable of really achieving anything. The exaltation of reason easily turns into anti­intellectualism which finds its fullest expression in Gulliver’s Travels. In that book, the Brobdingnagians are obliquely praised for knowing only morality, history, poetry, and mathematics and being incapable of apprehending the least notion of “ideas, entities, abstractions and transcendentals”, while the noble Houyhnhnms cannot believe that a member of their species can take any pleasure in Gulliver’s company (though it is an undeniable fact that one of them does) because “such a practice was not agreeable to reason or nature, or a thing ever heard of before among them”. Indeed, there is an inescapable dilemma in the thinking of Swift and his time. If belief in reason and nature means a belief in the common sense of mankind, then what the common sense of mankind believes is reasonable and natural and true. Anything new must be wrong. But most men are fools and knaves, according to Swift, and so the common sense of mankind, which he also believed in as an ultimate criterion, in fact leads to folly and knavery. Again, reason teaches us to be suspicious of imagination, of vision, of enthusiasm; we must therefore stick to those simple rational truths that the calm application of common sense discovers. At the same time we must go below the surface and not be deceived by the mere appearance of things. Sometimes reason seems to lead to a simple empiricism: we must allow no knowledge that we cannot immediately test by our own experience. At other times a simple empiricism leads to delusion, for things are not as they seem and we must probe deeper to get at reality. We must beware of all abstractions, generalizations, and transcendental ideas; yet this advice is given in the name of “reason and nature” which are themselves abstract general ideas, not to mention Swift’s position as a devout member of the Church of England whose theology certainly could not deny the transcendental. Brilliant in its play of irony as A Tale of a Tub is, it demonstrates some of the intellectual and moral dilemmas of the Age of Reason more clearly than any other piece of writing of that time.
3. “GULLNER'STRAVELS” (1726)
The Origin of the Book and Its Great Popularity
Gulliver’s Travels is the most famous of all Swift's works. The origin of the book has been traced to the celebrated Scriblerus Club which came into existence in the last months of Queen Anne’s reign when Swift joined with Arbuthnot, Pope, Gay, and other members in a scheme to ridicule all false tastes in learning. According to Pope, Swift took the first hints for Gulliver’s Travels from the Memoirs of Scriblerus, but the connection of Swift's book with the original scheme is very slight and appears chiefly in the third part of Gulliver’s book. Gulliver’s Travels, though finished in 1725, was published anonymously at the end of October, 1726, and within a month the book was in everybody’s hands.
Satire on Current English Politics in Part I
In Part I of the book, Gulliver describes his shipwreck in Lilliput where the people are just six inches in height. The Emperor of Lilliput believes himself to be the delight and terror of the universe; but the whole thing appears absurd to Gulliver who is twelve times as tall as any Lilliputian. In the account of the two parties in the country, distinguished by the use of high heels and low heels, Swift satirizes the English political parties, and the intrigues which centred around the Prince of Wales. Swift also makes fun of religious feuds in his account of the problem which is dividing the people. The problem is: “Should eggs be broken at the big end or the little end?” This part is full of references to current English politics, but the satire is tree from bitterness.
The Scornful Comments of the Brobdingnagian King in Part II
In Part II, containing an account of the voyage to Brobdingnag, Swift’s contempt for mankind is emphasized. Gulliver now finds himself a dwarf among people who are sixty feet in height. The King, who regards Europe as if it were an ant-hill, says; “How contemptible a thing was human grandeur which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects” as Gulliver; and Gulliver himself, after living among a great race distinguished for calmness and common sense, could not but feel tempted to laugh at the strutting and bowing of English lords and ladies as much as the King laughed at him. The King could not understand the meaning of the “secrets of State”, because he believed that the government of a country should be run according to principles of common sense, reason, justice, and lenity. Finally, the King observes: “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. But Gulliver points out to the reader that allowances must be made for a King living apart from the rest of the world.
Satire on Theoretical Intellectuals in Part III
Part III of the book is a satire chiefly on philosophers, projectors, and inventors, men who live in the air, divorced from the realities of life. If it be objected that these attacks on the learned people were unfair, it must be remembered that England had recently gone through the experience of the South Sea Bubble, when no project was too absurd to be brought before the public. Unfortunately, Swift does not properly distinguish between pretenders to learning and those who were genuinely entitled to respect. In the Island of Sorcerers, Gulliver is able to summon famous men of ancient times and question them, with the result that he finds the world to have been misled by prostitute writers to attribute the greatest exploits in war to cowards, the wisest counsels to fools, sincerity to flatterers, piety to atheists. Gulliver sees, too, by looking at an old yeoman, how the race had gradually deteriorated through vice and corruption. In another country called Luggnagg, Gulliver finds that the race of Struldbrugs or immortals, so far from being happy, is the most miserable of all, condemned to endure an endless dotage.
Satire on Mankind in General in Part IV
In Part IV of the book, the voyage to the country of Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos, Swift’s satire is of the bitterest. Gulliver is now in a country where the horses are possessed of reason and are the governing class, while the Yahoos, though having the shape of human beings, are brutal beasts, without reason and without conscience. In trying to convince the Houyhnhnms that he is not a Yahoo, Gulliver is made to show how little removed a man is from the brute. Gulliver’s account of wars among human beings produces only disgust in the master Houyhnhnm. The satire on law and lawyers, and on the lust for gold is emphasized by praise of the virtues of the Houyhnhnms and of their learning. The Houyhnhnms are governed only by reason; and love and courtship are unknown to them. Gulliver does not wish to leave this country for whose rulers he has developed the greatest respect. When he does return home after leaving this country, his family fills him with such disgust that he swoons when his wife embraces and kisses him. But what annoys him most is to see human beings filled with pride, a vice wholly unknown to the Houyhnhnms.
The Misanthropic Tendency of Swift
The satire in Part IV is, indeed, terrible and fierce. All that can be said in reply to those who condemn Swift for writing it is that it was the result of disappointment, wounded pride, growing ill-health, and sorrow caused by the sickness of Stella whom he loved best in the world. However, it is wrong to say that the denunciation of the human race in Part IV is baseless and unconvincing. It is true that Swift gives us a one-sided picture of the human race, and that there is some exaggeration in this portrayal. But there is a sound basis for the denunciation. Swift certainly shows himself to be a cynic or a misanthrope, but those with any prolonged observation of the behaviour of human beings and a close contact with them will agree that there is more of evil and wickedness in human nature than goodness.
4. “JOURNAL TO STELLA” (1766, 1768)
A Record of Events and Its Allusions to Persons
Of Swift's correspondence, by far the most interesting is that with Esther Johnson. This part of his correspondence subsequently became known as the Journal to Stella. These journal-letters were published in 1766 and 1768. The Journal to Stella affords the most intimate picture of Swift that is available to the reader, while at the same time it is a historical document of the greatest value. It throws much light on the relations between Swift and Esther, and it brings vividly before us Swift's fears and hopes during the two years and a half (1710-1713) covered by the letters. His style, always simple and straightforward, is never more so than in this most intimate correspondence. He mentions casually the detailed incidents of his life and alludes to the people he met. He never describes anyone at length, but constantly sums up in a sentence the main characteristics of the man or, at least, his estimate of the man’s character. Bolingbroke is the “thorough rake”; Oxford is the “pure trifler”; Marlborough is “as covetous as hell and as ambitious as a prince of it”; Congreve “now nearly blind”; “the lovable Arbuthnot”; Steele, “who hardly ever keeps an appointment”; Queen Anne “who finds very little to say to those around her”; Mrs. Masham and other ladies of the court –– of all these we are permitted a glance which seems to furnish us with a real knowledge of them.
Miscellaneous Information
Day by day, we are told of party intrigues and of promises held out to Swift. “The Tories daily tell me I may make my fortune in please”, he noted in 1710, “but I do not understand them, or rather I do understand them”. A few weeks later, he writes:
“To say the truth, the present ministry have a difficult task and want me. Perhaps they may be as grateful as others; but, according to the best judgment 1 have, they are pursuing the true interest of the public and therefore I am glad to contribute what is in my power.”
Complaints of High Expenses
Swift’s financial troubles constantly come to light in these letters. “People have so left town”, he says, “that I am at a loss for a dinner. It cost me eighteen pence in coach-hire before I could find a place to dine in.” When he first went to London, he took rooms at eight shiI1ings a week: “Plaguy dear, but I spend nothing for eating, never go to a tavern, and very seldom in a coach.” In another place he says: “This rain ruins me in coach hire”. How much exaggeration there is in these protests against expenditure, it is not easy to say. The Journal abounds in arrogant references to great ladies and others, but the arrogance is partly affected and partly the result of a fear of being patronized.
His Style
Swift’s style almost represents perfection. Clear, pointed, precise, he seems to have had no difficulty in finding words to express exactly the impression which he wishes to convey. His sentences are not always grammatically correct, but they come home to the reader like the words of a great orator or advocate, with convincing force. He realizes so clearly what he describes that the reader becomes necessarily interested and feels impressed. There are no tricks of style, no recurring phrases; no ornaments, no studied effects; the object is attained without apparent effort, with an outward gravity masking the underlying satire or cynicism, and an apparent calmness concealing bitter invective. There is never any doubt of his earnestness, whatever may be the mockery on the surface. He had no sympathy for the metaphysical and the speculative.
His Merits and Deficiencies
Swift was a master satirist, and his irony was deadly. He was the greatest among the writers of his time if we judge them by the standard of sheer power of mind. Yet, with some few exceptions, his works are not now widely read. Order, rule, sobriety-these are the principles he placed before himself when he wrote, and they form the basis of his views on life, politics, and religion. Sincerity is never wanting, though it may be cloaked with humour. But we look in vain for lofty ideals, or for the prophetic touch which has marked the greatest of English writers. That which is spiritual was strangely absent in Swift. He castigates folly and evil; but he seems to have had no hope for the world. He is too often found scorning the pettiness of his fellow­-creatures, as in Lilliput; or describing with disgust the coarseness of human nature, as in Brobdingnag. Satire and denunciation alone are unsatisfying; and Swift must therefore take his place lower than the great creative writers.

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