Jonathan Swift, the eighteenth century satirist and poet, here a spirit called up in a séance. The ghost of Swift resembles the man at a more or less recognizable point in his life, during old age but before his descent into madness. In his two dialogues with the spirit forms of the women whom he loved, the satirist’s wry cynicism has turned to bitterness and paranoia. In countering Vanessa’s passionate offer of marriage, he describes his own “disease of the blood” and the more general malaise of a debased humanity. Swift is caught at that point in his late life where intellectual arrogance is waging a losing struggle with the social chaos that he believes is about to engulf him. His ghostly encounter with Stella, whose poem provides the “words” of the title, represents, however, a brief recurrence of the younger Swift, capable of redemption through intellectual grace and courage.
John Corbet, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, a specialist in Swift’s life and work. Corbet’s initial skepticism about contact with the spirit world dissolves as the play progresses; the ghostly colloquies between Swift and Vanessa and between Swift and Stella convince him that he has discovered the “mystery” behind Swift’s celibacy. Although the revelation affords Corbet a measure of intellectual exaltation for its own sake, he also clearly views the discovery as a stepping-stone in his own scholarly advancement. To an extent, Corbet also serves as provider of literary background. His historical and critical asides to Dr. Trench and to Mrs. Henderson supply the audience with facts about Swift’s life and his relationships with Vanessa and Stella, insights crucial to an understanding of the play.
Dr. Trench, an elderly scholar, president of the Dublin Spiritualists’ Association. Trench serves as the play’s moral and intellectual pivot; like Corbet, he is an intellectual, a man of reason. He also has become convinced of more ghostly realities, enabling him to glimpse the boundary between...
(The entire section is 870 words.)