It is generally conceded that Jonathan Swift is the greatest satirist among English-language writers, possibly the most brilliant ironist and acerb wit in any language. The force of his satiric barbs has rendered him controversial, however, and many critics have retaliated against his potent quill by claiming that Swift is reckless, uncontrolled, spiteful, insensate, heathenish, and insane. Such rash responses merely demonstrate the powerful effects of his writing.
Swift is not an overt lampooner, diatribe-monger, or name-caller. Curiously, he never utilizes the direct approach; he almost always speaks through a defective mouthpiece, a flawed, self-incriminating persona who forges a case against himself. Indeed, Swift is to be remembered as a grand satiric mimic, finely shaping and generating the voices of knaves and fools alike (the “modern” hack writer in A Tale of a Tub, the ignorant serving-woman Frances Harris, the idiot astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff, the callous and mathematical Modest Proposer, the proud but demented simpleton Lemuel Gulliver).
Swift’s ear for clichés and inflections of dullness is almost perfect, and authors such as Herbert Read (in English Prose Style, 1928) have hailed Swift as the inevitable and clear master of “pure prose” style. Swift is, without doubt, the major satirist in prose, yet he is also a first-rate light poet (in the manner of Horace and the coarser Samuel “Hudibras” Butler), and, if anything, his reputation as a poet is rising. Furthermore, Swift wrote political pamphlets with ruthless force, and his prose in sermons, letters, and treatises is virile and direct. Finally, Swift should not be forgotten as wit and jester. He invented a child-language when corresponding with Stella, wrote mock-Latin sayings, devised wicked epigrams, created paraphrases of Vergil and Ovid, and could even toy with versifying when devising invitations to dinner. In a word, Swift is the all-around expert in English in straightforwardexposition—especially when it is bent to provoke savage mockery and the jeu d’esprit.