A Latent Romanticism in the Greatest Writer of the Classical Age
Swift is the greatest writer of the classical age by the force of his genius. His work owes an exceptionally broad scope to the freedom and penetration of its thought.He carries the rational criticism of values to a point where it threatens and undermines the very reasons for living. Lucidity and the search for balance in his case are therefore suffused with an intellectual emotion, concentrated and intense, which at times cannot be distinguished from an impassioned bitterness, and the expression of which, despite the restraint of irony and humour, possess a pathetic vehemence. Attaining thus to the utmost limits of satire, he leaves the normal, simple plane of a literature of reason; the stifled, repressed voices of sensibility and instinct, which reality in its baseness and cruelty afflicts with many wounds, supply the subdued accompaniment of soul-stirring chords to the clear accents of the intellect. Beyond the spirit of classicism, of which he is the supreme mouthpiece, one perceives in him the latent powers of a virtual Romanticism; and further still, the boldly humble solutions of the most modern wisdom.
Swift’s Demand for Truth, Destructive of All Deceitful Illusions
Swift’s practical adhesion to moral or social beliefs is to all appearances a sincere act, and one which compels our respect. The moral figure of Swift is that of an eager demand for truth that destroys one by one all deceitful illusions, and of the suffering which accompanies that destruction. This demand has been carried very far in all directions.
His Preference for the Observance of the Golden Mean
As a church dignitary, mixed up in the controversies which separated the Anglicans from the dissenting sects, and within Anglicanism itself set several tendencies at variance with each other, Swift had to take a side. He wrote numerous religious treatises, besides doctrinal sermons, sensible and calm in tone. He acquitted himself scrupulously of the duties of his charge as the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in
. He practised his religion with more hidden regularity than apparent zeal. He recommends a judicious form of piety. Extremes repel him. His preferences lie in the observance of a golden mean. To follow the religion of the majority of one’s compatriots just as to obey the political constitution of one’s country, is in Swift’s opinion to act as a well-behaved man. He rails against the arguments of the Catholics, the strife and the fanaticism of the various sects; his nature leads him to embrace a doctrine of average reason. But he rebels with all his energy against the ambitions and rational attempt of Deism. And in his reaction against the looseness of morals, he goes to the extent of eulogising, not without a suspicion of irony, the benefits accruing from a purely exterior and social submission to the attitude of belief, for hypocrisy is, after all, better than cynicism. Dublin
The Bitterness Resulting from a Long Series of Disappointments
Despite the conformity of his declarations and principles, Swift aroused a deep and secret unrest in the minds of those in power during his time, the patrons of Church and State. Queen Anne, above all a devout churchwoman, refused to recognize his political services in a fitting way. Although he was a favourite of a minister, he did not obtain the office of a bishop which he believed he could expect. At the critical moments in his life, an unkind destiny always seemed to baffle his desires. It was with the bitterness of a long series of disappointments that he withdrew from court intrigues. His great works, those in which his genius is laid bare, terrified or scandalized all orthodoxies. In A Tale of a Tub, his religious thought shows a movement of pitiless negation. In the preface which he wrote for this work, he is indignant that he should be classed among the Deists by superficial readers. To us of today, the error appears quite natural.
The Protest of a Free Mind against Conventional Lies
Swift is of the view that all religious organizations are built up on half- conscious acts of cowardice, and the surrender of the highest aspirations of faith. He thinks that the very ardour which exalts the most enthusiastic of believers––the Quakers, the Ranters, and those Huguenots, refugees from France, who at this time are making a public show of their convulsions-is bound up with the confused fermentations of animality. The Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit no doubt admits, in passing, that prophetic inspiration can be an immediate gift from the Godhead; but everything encourages the conjecture that this is a purely formal reserve; for an over-zealous spirit in religion is traced back to the appetites alone of the flesh. The spirit of this treatise, under its form of concentrated irony, is that of a modem study of the pathology of mystic states. And with the taste for sound, even if bitter, truth, there is mingled the keen and secret joy of a moral revenge, the protest of a free mind against conventional lies, even if these lies be sacred.
The Attack on Certain Forms of Intellectual Ambition
Swift treats the works of reason with no better respect. The Battle of the Books is fired by an anger still aimed at a special object––at certain forms of intellectual ambition and error. Pedantry, false erudition, rabid controversies, are connected with the thesis of the “modems”, the insolent, mean enemies of the glory of the ancients. The despiser of Phalaris, Bentley––who yet was not wrong––is over-whelmed with classical contumely; the verve of this pamphlet, full as it is of allusions to the images and devices of the epic, is another example of the fertility at this time of the mock-heroic theme.
Swift’s Targets in “Gulliver’s Travels”
Gulliver’s Travels singularly broadens the indictment of the very effort by which the human mind claims to know and to understand. Philosophy appears in the light of an ambitious jargon; metaphysics, of a mystification; while theory, that sterile activity, shackles the efficient play of practice in all domains and in a hundred and one different ways. This satiric realism is given free scope in the painting of the illusory
. The fever of financial speculation, of rational inquiry, and of mechanical progress is presented as the agitated ardour of over-heated brains in which are unceasingly hatched all kinds of projects and inventions, and preposterous chimeras. kingdom of Laputa
No Trust in Science
Swift does not seem to put any trust in science, either in its present or in its future. He derides equally the erudite inferences of Bentley and
’s theory of gravitation; these hypotheses are, according to him, the playthings of thought; fashion upholds them, and then they pass away. He joylessly witnesses, in the first flush of the modem age, the awakening of the mental unrest which will produce the scientific conquest of the world; his attention, turned towards the past, is above all aware of the innumerable failures of scholastic charlatanry, The modems, according to him, have added nothing which really matters to the sound reasoning of the ancients. Newton
A Dark Picture of Political Institutions in “Gulliver’s Travels”
Swift paints a dark picture of political institutions and manners. His experience had shown him the hidden springs of power, and the part played by corruption and intrigue. He writes on the side of the opposition during the despised administration of Sir Robert Walpole. Elsewhere, in his didactic treatises, he shows himself aware of the necessity for a strong authority, supported by the prestige of religion, and in its turn supporting the spiritual hierarchy. Although he has nothing about him of the uncompromising Tory, he is an advocate of order. But Gulliver’s Travels throws the light of superior and destructive irony upon the smallness of the means, the vanity of the motives, the illusion of the catchwords , through which kings retained thrones and magistrates their offices; and from one end of society to the other the fearful influence of man upon man is exercised. It is not only the English political life of his time which he thus dissects. The monarchy itself, the paraphernalia that surround it, the courts and courtiers, the debating assemblies, the struggles of parties, the wiles of the favourites of both sexes-everything upon which, in fact, rested the contemporary administration of
Europe-is fiercely attacked by this corrosive satire.
A Depressing Picture of Mankind in “Gulliver’s Travels”
To serve the needs of his allegory, Swift carries us from the country of the dwarfs to that of the giants; in the former, everything is a grotesque and despicable parody of that human reality which is invested by convention with great prestige; in the latter, it is the human reality which reveals itself, directly, as ridiculous and infinitely small. But Brobdingnag and its patriarchal manners are not an ideal seriously proposed to man; this fancy vanishes as soon as one grasps its thin texture; it is only invented to show us better our littleness and to crush us under a sense of our miseries. Mankind cuts a sorry and ugly figure in both Lilliput and Brobdingnag.
The Philosophical Horses and the Yahoos
In order to realize even a slight idea of a noble existence, Swift seems to think that one must forsake the human species. Animal life may supply us with figures of reasonable beings. In the land of the philosophical horses, we at last come upon something which in the countries known to us we have looked for in vain. Our civilization, when explained to these wise quadrupeds, is not understood by them because our perversity surpasses all understanding. And in the lower depths of their civilized society, the ignoble race of two-footed monsters (the Yahoos) drags itself along. If we look at this ignoble race without prejudice, we shall recognize ourselves in the Yahoos. What we call bestiality is the very attribute of man.
Difficult to Understand Swift’s Mind
With relentless cruelty, Swift drives our thought back towards the sordidness of physical existence. It is difficult to decide whether this attitude provides evidence of the morbid tendencies in Swift’s nature or whether it shows the need for the whole truth, a realism of mind, an ironic lesson of the moralist aimed at the vanities of mankind, or the lucid, voluntary pessimism of a mind that is firmly and coolly Christian.
One element in Swift’s attitude dominates all others: pessimism. Swift does not pass judgment upon the universe or upon the world of man in the absolutely negative way which is the mark of philosophic pessimism. His mind mistrusts general affirmations, and at the same time his status as a priest does not permit him to pronounce one of those explicit words of despair which Christian faith disapproves. Yet he is intellectually hostile to what exists; his emotions have a much larger share in his judgments when he condemns than when he accepts reality. His verdict on life is of the psychological and moral order. It bears upon the quality of men in themselves, and upon the use they make of the occasions to act which society offers.
Personal Frustration at the Root of His Pessimism
According to Swift, it is in the souls that the evil lies; from the souls it radiates over all the relations of human beings with one another. This pessimism is so clearly coloured by individual experience that one may see in it the generalized after-effect of the shocks felt by the sensibility, or more precisely by the ambition of Swift; it is so personal in its expression that one is tempted to find in it the painful consciousness of an impaired physical and mental health, the reflection of inner sufferings which have ended by ruining the balance of his mind.
The “Journal to Stella”
And yet, Swift has not been always the victim of this bitterness; at least not to the same degree. Both his intimate life and his literary life betray moments of animation, of expansiveness, almost of gaiety. It is when he comes out of himself, out of his concentrated and solitary meditation that his thought appears to relax. At the time when he was wholly engrossed in political strife, from 1710 to 1714, Swift was carried onward by the tide of action. The Journal to Stella is a collection of letters in which he jots down familiarly the story of his life for the girl to whom he was attached by an affection which has always remained mysterious. The Journal is one of the most attractive documents of its kind. It is full of effusions in which we perceive the note of a strange temperament, somewhat sickly, but a note full of playfulness and tender puerilities. Whether it be the bustle of public affairs, or sentiment, which at a particular moment occupies Swift more, something is lifting him above that aggressive reflection which was clearly noticeable in A Tale of a Tub.
Swift as a Champion of Irish Causes
His Distinctive Characteristics as a Writer
In many subjects, his fertile talent as a polemist* was able to expose clearly and coolly the ideas of a lively and original but balanced judgment. There was in Swift a literary critic, a political writer, and a theorist of the rights of the Church. But his work as a whole is recognizable by the most dominant characteristics of his genius. He is above all great by virtue of his allegorical invention as applied to satire, by his humour and irony, and by the marvellous ease and precision of his style.
Irony, Allegory, Verve, Ingenuity, Concrete Invention
Irony and allegory are, in Swift, fused into one. What is unique, is the suggestive power which results from the play of his symbolical imagination; and the interest here lies in the manner in which his mind loads the symbols with a meaning enormously rich and insulting. The apologues* on which are founded A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books have nothing original about them. Likewise, Gulliver’s Travels is first of all a novel of adventure and a story of wonder, and as such is of no more value than many others. But the working out of those data is with Swift incomparable. The verve, the ingenuity, the concrete inventiol1, which embroider the general themes in these books with numerous variations, give to the least detail an irresistible eloquence, and store it with a world of allusions. These qualities also render the supernatural acceptable and normal. Such are the elements of an art which Swift carries to the highest degree.
A Humorist As Well as an Ironist
It has been customary to treat Swift as a master of irony, because his mockery does not have that kindly after-taste which is generally regarded as the distinctive mark of the humorist. But while his effects are very often more in the nature of irony (which depicts the ideal, and pretends to believe that it is real), they are also very often enlivened by humour (which depicts the real, and pretends to believe that it is ideal). The working of transposition, which is common to them, brings these two literary kinds very close together, and it becomes difficult to distinguish their boundaries. Swift likes to hover playfully over these boundaries, and to pass from one domain to the other. He is no less a master in one than in the other. He handles humour in a superior manner because he is keenly alive to all the reactions which the real sets up in our emotion or in our intelligence and he knows how to evoke it in all its crude force. He can efface himself entirely behind the facts which he presents to us, thus enhancing their eloquence with his impassivity. The best-known piece in this category is the practical, commercial proposal to utilize the flesh of Irish children as butcher’s meat. This piece has all the precision of an estimate and the calm of a financial statement.
The Problem of His Personality
A morbid element may have existed in his thinking. His personality is a problem which has not yet been fully solved. This personality certainly contained both grief and instability, and a deep trouble which finally led to madness. But this anguish and this unrest were dominated by the force of an extraordinary lucid intellect and of a will which knew how to govern passion even when it delivered itself up to it. Upon a temperament which possessed all the germs of moral incertitude and which no doubt, in the following century would have developed into an ardent Romanticism, Swift built up a work that was wholly classical in its form. The inner tension reveals itself only in the compactness of the expression, in the number of the intentions, in the restrained violence of some effects. Everything is clear in this style, despite the use made of allusion; everything in it seems sound, normal, and self-controlled. It is only in some familiar effusions, such as the Journal to Stella, that we find the signs of an oddity in the manner of writing which is at times disquieting. Everywhere else the language is that of reason itself, and in no way abstract and dry.
Swift is the master of the concrete world; he knows how to utilize this concrete world; and here again he is the humorist. He knows how to employ the racy word, sometimes the coarse word; he frankly violates the proprieties or veils the realism of his subjects with ironic periphrases. But the concrete facts of experience, as well as the ideas, the sentiments, and the shades of meaning find expression in the most simple, vigorous and straightforward prose. Each word is in its place, quite naturally; the most fitting word is always chosen, without effort, through a spontaneous instinct. A great variety of tone is achieved by means of a flexible adaptation of the language to the theme. He passes with the greatest ease, from the most naive exposition to the pseudo-epic style, and from the weightiest discussion to the freest pleasantry.