Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises: Polite Conversation, Directions to Servants and Other Works, by Jonathan Swift
A Swift mind buzzing with excruciating puns, hoary hoaxes and brilliant bagatelles
PARODIES, HOAXES, MOCK TREATISES POLITE CONVERSATION, DIRECTIONS TO SERVANTS AND OTHER WORKS
Cambridge University Press
Dublin was until recently an 18th-century city. When Patrick Kavanagh strode or shambled, depending on the hour, into McDaids, his first salutation was usually the Swiftian, “What’s news?” He would have been delighted by some of the wicked notes sounded in this most recent volume of the Cambridge edition of the works of Jonathan Swift, gathered under the playful subtitle Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises, followed by Polite Conversation, Directions to Servants and Other Works. Swift at play, in other words, under the ludic banner of what the French call la bagatelle.
It is surprising how infantile Swift could choose to be. One approaches a title like A History of Poetry by the Great Dane on reverent tiptoe, as though late for class. But it seems to have been meant as an April Fool for his friend Thomas Sheridan in Cavan, whose verses he had praised in agricultural terms, because “the worst of them like a barn door did shine”.
So we learn that poetry begins with somebody called CHAW Sr, followed “In Queen Elizabeth’s Reign” by a certain “Di-SPENCER of good Verses”, as if he were an apothecary. And the earnest reader is informed that “a little before her Death, we attempted to deal in Tragedy, and began to SHAKE-SPEARS . . .”
Later, “After the Restauration Poets became very Numerous, the Chief whose fame is louder than a MILL.TONE . . .” And then Swift “must observe, that Poets in those Days lov’d Retirement so much, that sometimes they liv’d in Dens, One of them in a DRY.DEN . . .”
But we are informed that “Upon the Revolution Poetry seem’d to decline” yet a “Mr. Montague affected to be a Patron of Wit, and his House was the Poets HALL . . .”
I can hardly say no to that, but Swift’s send-up of literary scholarship becomes tediously juvenile, a kind of maddening marginalia scrawled while your professor rambles on. At my school in Armagh, there was a bust of Shakespeare with a schoolboy ditty scribbled underneath, “I am a Poet / My Long Hair doth show it”, which is about the level. If this is not lunatic enough, we should consider the Discourse where “I can make it manifest to all impartial readers, that our language . . . was originally the same with those of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans . . . For it is plain, from Homer, that the Trojans spoke Greek as well as the Grecians.”
And he proceeds to a series of derivations, each more extravagant than the last. Hector, for example, “had destroyed so many of the Greeks, by hacking and tearing them, that his soldiers, when they saw him fighting, would cry out, ‘Now the enemy will be hackt, now he will be tore.’ ”
The author nobly rejects the notion that Ajax, “the next Grecian general to Achilles”, derives his name from A Jakes.
Instead, “This Hero is known to have been an intemperate liver . . . conversing with camp-strollers, he had got pains in his bones, which he pretended . . . were only Age-aches.” And not even the ladies are spared, as when “Hector fell in love . . . and the father’s name was Andrew Mackay”, hence Andromache. And the Immortals are targets as well, like the god of War who “when he was angry . . . would cry, ‘Kiss my a-se . . . ” later abbreviated to “Mars”.
But in a competition as to which Swiftian derivation is most absurd, perhaps Alexander the Great wins. He “was very fond of eggs roasted in hot ashes. As soon as his cooks heard he was come home to dinner or supper, they called aloud to their under-officers, All eggs under the Grate”.