Swift, the Man, His Works, and the Age
Samuel Johnson shared and to a great extent encouraged the eighteenth century fascination for biography—a fascination that, needless to say, continues to the present—but he was particularly concerned that such important works might be written badly. In his Rambler essay number 60, he notes that “biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance.” Despite his general warnings about the difficulties of writing a pleasing and instructive biography, Johnson undoubtedly would find much to applaud in Irvin Ehrenpreis’ life of Jonathan Swift, now complete in three long volumes. Ehrenpreis is in almost all ways an ideal biographer, and his patient, longstanding dedication to his subject, his comprehensive knowledge of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century history and politics, and his objective assimilation of old and new materials on Swift make his biography as definitive as could be.
Ideally, of course, the life should be read in its entirety. Volume 1, Mr. Swift and His Contemporaries (1962), is the shortest and most accessible part, focusing on Swift’s childhood, education, and crucial relationship with Sir William Temple, for whom he acted as a secretary. All of this provides useful background to Swift’s first major work, A Tale of a Tub, begun perhaps in 1696 though not published until 1704. Volume 2, Dr. Swift (1967), may strike many readers as the most impenetrable. Nearly three times as long as the first volume, it details at great length Swift’s immersion into political pamphleteering and attempts to explain the causes behind his complicated and confusing relationships with the political rivals Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and with the two somewhat mysterious women of his later life, Esther Johnson (Stella) and Esther Van-homrigh (Vanessa). Ehrenpreis argues persuasively that Swift’s writings during this time amply display his rhetorical brilliance and characteristic satiric techniques, but many modern readers have not read even the best of these works, such as The Conduct of the Allies (1711), enormously popular when it was published, and may have a great deal of difficulty with the nuances of party politics that attracted so much of Swift’s attention and energy during this time.
Volume 3, covering the years 1714 to 1745, presents a figure that modern readers are somewhat familiar with already and find particularly interesting: Dean Swift the Irish patriot, fully matured prose stylist and poet, and celebrated author of such enduring classics as Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and A Modest Proposal (1729). Although these are indeed the years of Swift’s greatest triumphs, the story told herein is by no means a happy one. The volume begins not by celebrating Swift’s appointment as dean of Saint Patrick’s, Dublin, but rather by picturing his political disenfranchisement. Ironically, years of work for the Tories led only to a post that meant exile from London, the political and cultural capital, and any hopes for future advancement were ended by the death of Queen Anne, the assumption of power by the Whigs, and the subsequent impeachment of the friends Swift hoped the most from, Bolingbroke and Oxford. Ehrenpreis goes on to show in great detail how Swift quickly adjusted his interests and threw himself wholeheartedly into Irish political affairs, sometimes managing to play a significant role in the fate of his country. Despite the phenomenal success of The Drapier’s Letters (1724-1725), though, in mobilizing the Irish people against a particularly ill-conceived plan by an English speculator that would have flooded the country with worthless coins, Swift was frustrated to the end of his days by his inability to have any real impact on the major problems facing Ireland: poverty, religious divisiveness, and political and economic subjugation to an oppressive English regime. Swift wrote brilliantly about each of these problems but was powerless to effect a solution.
These years were filled with personal as well as political tensions and disappointments. Although Ehrenpreis does not use rigid psychoanalytic formulas, as some previous critics and biographers of Swift have done, one of the recurrent themes in this volume is his attempt to explain the dynamics of Swift’s peculiar relationships with the women he named Stella and Vanessa. Both of these women supported Swift in crucial ways: Ehrenpreis notes that Stella’s “abiding affection, in sickness and in health, was the solace of his life,” and then suggests, somewhat more speculatively, that Swift’s teasing, intimate yet distant treatment of the much younger Vanessa fulfilled his “wish to escape from sexuality without losing its thrills.” These relationships, however, were certainly as disquieting as they were satisfying. Ehrenpreis at one point compares Vanessa and Swift to Dido and Aeneas, and this proves to be more than a playful allusion. In the first of the three major death scenes that provide a kind of substructure for the volume, Ehrenpreis dramatizes the...
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