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Lines on the Birthday of Dr Swift

Monday, 27 November, 2017
Jonathan Swift
‘Jonathan Swift’, by Charles Jervas, 1710.

It is my birthday this week. People have already started celebrating. Because for the last 350 years I have been vexing the world, they still gather to talk about me, to talk about my books. They write books about my books. One of my younger fellow-countrymen once said that he was writing ‘To keep the critics busy for three hundred years’. This is what I have done.

I have played a number of tricks on my readers, of course. They have read my texts, not always sure whether they were serious or ironical, thinking that they were parodies but not always sure parodies of what. Sometimes it seems simple. My ‘Meditation upon a Broom Stick’ was sometimes referred to as being ‘According to The Style and Manner of the Honourable Robert Boyle’s Meditations’. It mocks Boyle’s famous meditations, or it mocks perhaps the infatuation of Lady Berkeley for Boyle’s meditations. It tells us that a broom-stick is a tree turned upside-down, the Branches on the Earth, and the Root in the Air, the perfect companion to Man, this topsy-turvy Creature (his Animal Faculties perpetually mounted on his Rational; his Head where his Heels should be, groveling on the Earth). The joke may also be on the reader, who, like the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, fails to recognise his own picture.

Sometimes the jokes are more complex. I remember when poor Partridge, the astrologer, was being particularly irritating with his views on the relation between Church and State. I created the persona of Bickerstaff, parodied the form of the prediction, to attack him of course but also to dismiss the practice of almanacs. He tried to fight back but couldn’t; I predicted his death and confirmed it. He stood defeated. The problem is of course that, when I wanted to be serious, no one was quite sure whether I was, or not. For instance, I was determined to correct, improve and ascertain the English tongue; but some people argued that I could not possibly be putting forward such a project, having made fun of projectors throughout my writings.

Most of the time they could see that I was indulging in irony, but then they were ensnared, and could not dismiss my writings as simple fun. Because I force my readers to consider all the implications of my literary schemes. Take my modest proposal to Prevent the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick. It’s a wonderful plan, one that, as my new persona tried to explain, is based on scientific evidence, as communicated by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance: a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food. The children of needy people could therefore be sold to the Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom, to provide delicious nourishment. I computed that Dublin would take off, annually, about Twenty Thousand Carcasses; and the rest of the Kingdom the remaining Eighty Thousand. Had it been implemented, this scheme could have solved the problems of Ireland, reduced the numbers of Papists, brought money to the poorer part of the population, improved the activity in taverns, etc. Of course, I had nothing to gain by this scheme, for I had no Children, by which I could propose to get a single Penny; and my supposed wife, Esther Johnson, being past Child-bearing.

In A Tale of a Tub, I changed my voice again, adopting the persona of a modern to attack the moderns. This is one of my favourite devices, I am the enemy within. I use the other’s speech and I turn it inside out. No one quite knows, of course, with the Tale, what’s happening. It is a political tale. It is a religious tale. It is a tale about learning, which takes a stand in the battle of the books, which I also described, as it was happening, in St. James's Library. It is an encyclopaedic text, with its myriad references, including to fictional texts, and perhaps the shortest encyclopaedia ever. There was even room for a digression in praise of digressions.

‘The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver’, by James Gillray, 1803.

But then everybody’s favourite is Gulliver. The book of course is called Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World and penned by Lemuel Gulliver, who has perhaps become even more famous than me. Isn’t it odd that this book, which my friend Alexander thought I had made as bitter a pill for the public as possible, has also become one of the most widely read of children’s books? Of course children tend to read only the first two books, probably like Samuel Johnson who, apparently, said: ‘When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do the rest.’ They watch the cartoon by Dave and Max Fleischer (1939) or the more mediocre recent film versions, they read countless adaptations. And as I write, the novelist Jonathan Coe is publishing a book for children whose model is Gulliver’s Travels: The Broken Mirror. My book of course is a bitter satire, a mirror in which we see everyone’s face reflected but our own. Perhaps this is why it still is so successful. Political factions among the little men, Gulliver’s fascination for war, the illusions of modern science which have taken hold of the projectors, not to mention Gulliver’s desire to negate his human passions and to become the model of rationality embodied by Houyhnhnms, all point in one direction: the stables, where man’s dreams and aspirations end up, where Gulliver is left to converse with his horses.

‘Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms’, by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769.

I have written so much more—poetry of course, I have preached sermons as Dean of St Patrick, in Dublin, I have published political tracts, I have engaged in fake and real correspondences. There is not a single literary endeavour where I haven’t left my mark. And I have often used these writings to engage with the condition of the Irish, to remind the London government of their unfair policies towards Ireland (remember ‘the Wood’s halfpence’?). But I believe that people in Ireland have continued to see me as the great defender of Irish liberties, as one of the shapers of Irish identity. I was hoping this might be the case, when I wrote my own obituary in verse:

He gave what little Wealth he had
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew'd by one satyric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much:
That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor,
I wish it soon may have a Better.

– Alexis Tadié