Other literary forms

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Jonathan Swift’s oeuvre includes a large and important body of verse, best assembled in The Poems of Jonathan Swift (1937, 1958), edited by Harold Williams. His letters may be found in The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift (1963-1965), also edited by Williams. Outstanding among a variety of political writings are Swift’s contributions to The Examiner (1710-1711), the treatise called The Conduct of the Allies and of the Late Ministry, in Beginning and Carrying on the Present War (1711), and the important The Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland (1735).

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His prose writings have been published together in The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift (1939-1968), a fourteen-volume collection edited by Herbert Davis.

Achievements

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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.

Other literary forms

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Jonathan Swift’s major satires in prose are A Tale of a Tub (1704) and Gulliver’s Travels (originally titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships, 1726); both are included in the most useful general collection, The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift (1939-1968; 14 volumes.; Herbert Davis, editor); but “A Tale of a Tub” to Which Is Added “The Battle of the Books” and the “Mechanical Operation of the Spirit” (1958, A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith, editors) is also notable. Swift is also master of the short satiric treatise, as evidenced by Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708; first published as An Argument to Prove That the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, Be Attended with Some Inconveniences and Perhaps Not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby) and A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public (1729; known as A Modest Proposal). Noteworthy as well are his comical satires in prose, best exemplified by the “Bickerstaff” pamphlets against Partridge the Almanac-Maker (such as Predictions for the Year 1708, 1708; The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions, 1708; and A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., 1709). Swift’s major political diatribes are included in The Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland (1935); other notable political writings include his contributions to The Examiner (1710-1711); and the treatise termed The Conduct of the Allies and of the Late Ministry, in Beginning and Carrying on the Present War (1711). The letters are assembled in The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift (5 volumes.; 1963-1965, Harold Williams, editor). Equally interesting is his chatty and informal Journal to Stella (1766, 1768).

Achievements

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By common consent, Jonathan Swift is perhaps the greatest satirist who ever lived. His prose creation A Tale of a Tub is clearly one of the densest and richest satires ever composed. His terse mock-treatise A Modest Proposal is considered the most brilliant short prose satire in the English language. The long pseudonarrative of his later years, Gulliver’s Travels, is acknowledged to be his masterpiece.

For this very mastery, Swift was in his time considerably dreaded and feared. In his case, the pen was mightier than the sword, and politicians trembled and dunces quavered at his power. In many instances, his satire could instantly shade into invective, and Swift wrote many powerful tirades against individuals whom he openly named, reducing them to impotence by powerful mockery and public scorn. At one time, he was the most important political writer for the ruling Tory party; his essays, projects, and analyses were a potent force in the halls of government.

However, all was not terror, violence, and indecorum. In addition to his nasty side—his “serious air”—he could, as Alexander Pope acknowledged, praising him in The Dunciad (1728-1743), take his rightful place as a great comedian; he could “laugh and shake in Rab’lais’ easy chair.” Swift was terribly potent precisely because he could be so terribly funny. He was an absolute master at writing little idiotic mock-solemn invitations to dinner, in composing poetry in pig Latin, in donning masks and voices and assuming the roles of others. He will be remembered as the imitator of the voices of dunces: the perplexed but grandly complacent “Modern” hack writer of A Tale of a Tub; the utterly self-satisfied Isaac Bickerstaff (the Astrologer who could See Into and Predict the Future); the ceaselessly chattering poor female servant, Frances Harris; the quintessential public-defender M. B.; the “Patriot” Drapier; and the tautological and ever-to-be-befooled Lemuel Gulliver.

Finally, Swift was a poet of considerable skill. He deprecated his verse; he preferred throughout his career the jog-trot of the octosyllabic line, deliberately avoiding the heroic couplet that was in his day the reigning poetic form. He chose to treat “low” topics and paltry occasions in his verse, and he was ever fond of coarseness: Many of his poems take up nearly unmentionable topics—particularly excrement. For such reasons, Swift was for long not taken seriously as a poet; the staid Victorians, for example, found in him nothing of the Arnoldian “high seriousness” and grim cheerfulness that heralded and endorsed progress. However, there has been a renewed interest in Swift’s poetry, and in this realm too, Jonathan Swift is coming to occupy his rightful—and rightfully very high—place.

Discussion Topics

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Jonathan Swift claims that “his satire points at no defect/ But what all mortals may correct,” but do any of his characters ever correct their defects?

In a letter to Alexander Pope, Swift proclaimed himself a misanthropist. Was he?

Is Gulliver’s Travels in part a satire on travel literature?

Is a conservative viewpoint essential to a satirist as successful as Swift?

Is Swift too conservative to be convincing in The Battle of the Books?

Aside from heartless English landlords, whom is Swift satirizing in A Modest Proposal?

Is logic itself one of the targets of Swift’s satire in A Modest Proposal?

Bibliography

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Ehrenpreis, Irvin. Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962-1983. A monumental biography that rejects long-held myths, provides much new information about Swift and his works and relates him to the intellectual and political currents of his age.

Fox, Christopher, and Brenda Tooley, eds. Walking Naboth’s Vineyard: New Studies of Swift. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. The introduction discusses Swift and Irish studies, and the subsequent essays all consider aspects of Swift as an Irish writer. Individual essays have notes, but there is no bibliography.

Glendinning, Victoria. Jonathan Swift: A Portrait. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) Glendinning illuminates this proud and intractable man. She investigates the main events and relationships of Swift’s life, providing a portrait set in a tapestry of controversy and paradox.

Hunting, Robert. Jonathan Swift. Boston: Twayne, 1989. While primarily useful as a source for biographical information, this volume does contain much insightful, if general, analysis of Swift’s art. One chapter is devoted to Gulliver’s Travels. Includes chronology, notes and references, bibliography, and index.

Nokes, David. Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985. Draws heavily on Swift’s writings, offering a good introduction for the general reader seeking information about his life and works. Nokes views Swift as a conservative humanist.

Palmieri, Frank, ed. Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. Divided into sections on Swift’s life and writings, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of a Tub and eighteenth century literature, and his poetry and nonfiction prose. Includes index but no bibliography.

Quintana, Ricardo. The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift. 1936. Reprint. London: Oxford University Press, 1953. One of the standards of Swift criticism, concentrating on the public Swift. Examines his political activities and writings, tracing the intellectual sources of his thought. Includes synopses of his major works and provides historical background. Reprint contains additional notes and an updated bibliography.

Rawson, Claude. The Character of Swift’s Satire: A Revised Focus. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983. Presents eleven essays by Swift scholars, including John Traugatt’s excellent reading of A Tale of a Tub, Irvin Ehrenpreis on Swift as a letter writer, and F. P. Lock on Swift’s role in the political affairs of Queen Anne’s reign.

Real, Hermann J., and Heinz J. Vienken, eds. Proceedings of the First Münster Symposium on Jonathan Swift. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1985. Includes twenty-four essays on all aspects of Swift’s work, each preceded by an abstract. Includes index.

Swift, Jonathan. The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift. Edited by David Woolley. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. A collection of letters by Swift that offer insight into his life and work. Includes bibliographical references.

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