January 16, 2018

The Gifts of Jonathan Swift

In the 1700s, most London gentlemen made a daily visit to their coffee house, but not for coffee. These were places to read, bet and gossip; clubby, sexist places (women took tea at India houses) where a man could receive sensitive letters, exchange confidences and network his way to power. If you were a "wit" -- or, like Jonathan Swift in 1703, had hopes of being one -- you would want a chair at Button's coffee-house, where the famous Joseph Addison was star, and star-maker.

Alexander Pope famously defined "true wit" as "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Swift would later add a caution:
    All human race would fain be wits, And millions miss, for one that hits.
This was the voice of experience. In 1703 Swift was an unknown clergyman, newly arrived from Ireland, and his first attempts missed so badly with the wags at Button's that they nicknamed him "the mad parson." They could not then have known that Swift had come to London to sell his manuscript of A Tale of a Tub, a satire that became the talk of the town when it was published a year later.

Satire is wit with teeth, and moral purpose. In A Tale of a Tub, Swift took a large bite out of organized religion and thereafter, despite his many attempts to move up, his church career would never get beyond the Deanship of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. But as wit, raconteur and satirist, his reputation, and his list of targets, continued to grow. His years in Ireland led to a contempt for British indifference to the starving Irish peasantry; in A Modest Proposal he suggested eating instead of starving their babies and, along with the ghoulish logic, gave many recipes for doing so. In poems such as "The Lady's Dressing Room," and "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going To Bed," Swift takes a cool, often four-lettered, squint at starry-eyed Romance.

Gulliver's Travels is darker and wider in scope, Swift's magnum sourness. His fantastic itinerary first confounds, then defeats Gulliver's very, very Englishness. There are endless wars over whether eggs should be opened at the big end or little end; there are giant breasts and small minds and Yahoos of every size; there is an Academy of Projectors, where scientists labour to recover food from human waste, or sunlight from cucumbers, while the population starves; there is a gradual realization that England is worse than any of this. When Gulliver finally finds reason and refuge in a civilization of horses, there is a tirade of relief: was neither physician to destroy my body, nor lawyer to ruin my fortune; no informer to watch my words and actions, or forge accusations against me for hire; here were no gibers, censurers, backbiters, pickpockets, highwaymen, housebreakers, attorneys, bawds, buffoons, gamesters, politicians, wits, splenetics, tedious talkers, controvertists, ravishers, murderers, robbers, virtuosoes; cheating shop-keepers or mechanics;... no fops, bullies, drunkards, strolling whores, or poxes; no ranting, lewd, expensive wives; no stupid, proud pedants; no importunate, over-bearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing companions; no scoundrels raised from the dust upon the merit of their vices, or nobility thrown into it on account of their virtues; no lords, fiddlers, judges, or dancing-masters.
When Gulliver's Travels was published in 1726, Swift became "the darling of the populace." Swift himself pooh-poohed fame and the fickle tastes of the reading public: "I have often observed with singular pleasure that a fly driven from a honey-pot, will immediately, and with very good appetite, alight and finish his meal on an excrement."

Swift has been explained as a misanthrope and a misogynist. The Freudian-minded have a lot to say about his scatology and his sex life. Many of his fellow churchmen thought him a godless embarrassment. A friend thought him a "hypocrite reversed," finding gold beneath his veneer of insults and deadpan mockery.

Before his death, on Oct. 19, 1745, Swift made sure that he too would get a last word in, by penning his own epitaph. It reads, in part, "Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift...where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart."

Words aside, there were many deeds of charity, including a will which gave his entire estate for the founding of "an hospital... for idiots and lunatics." The mentally ill of his day were certainly in desperate need, but Swift's final gesture could not have been without irony.

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