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

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 17:16


Book Title:


Jonathan Swift

Cambridge University Press

Guideline Price:

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”.

Even Flann O’Brien in his Cruiskeen Lawn might have blanched before that one.

Not surprisingly, this volume includes A Modest Defence of Punning, which Swift, with typical outrageous whimsy, connects to “the French word Punaise,” signifying “a little stinking Insect that gets into the Skin . . .” But the most considerable item in this compilation is certainly A Treatise on Polite Conversation.

Swift reveals his method: “I always kept a large Table-Book in my Pocket; and as soon as I left the Company, I immediately entered the choicest Expressions . . . .” No wonder Samuel Johnson described Polite Conversation and Directions to Servants as “evidence of ‘a mind incessantly attentive, and, when it was not employed upon great things, busy with minute occurrences . . .’ ” Certainly Swift’s delight in fatuous dinner-table pronouncements prefigures the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet.

But the result of Polite Conversation is less like fiction than an abortive attempt at theatre. Consider the dramatis personae: Lord Sparkish, “a foppish or showy young man”; Lord and Lady Smart; Sir John Linger, “who arrives late”; Mr Neverout “of countenance”, who is always bickering with Miss Notable; and Lady Answerall, who is “ready to answer anything or anyone”.

Then there is the vivacity of the language. Lady Smart predictably demands, “pray what News, Mr. Neverout?” But he is obsessed with the coming of Miss Notable: “I gad she’s very handsome, and has Wit at Will.” Yet the old Colonel is having none of this: “Why, every one as they like; as the good Woman said, when she kiss’d her Cow.”

Such Hibernian-English phrases abound here, even from the fetching Miss Notable, who admonishes her insistent suitor, Mr Neverout, “Pray keep your Breath to cool your Porridge.”

Sometimes the wisecracks fail or pale, but they show how deep the roots of Anglo-Irish drama are, anticipating the wittier lines of Wilde, Shaw and Beckett. Perhaps the only way Polite Conversation could be staged would be like later Beckett, with a pitiless light flickering from face to face as the self-absorbed characters prattle, stiff as statues in their starched finery. And perhaps with old-fashioned thespian voices from the Gate Theatre of Lord Longford, someone like Aidan Grennell. Such a project would be an intriguing challenge for a daring producer.

Then there is Directions to Servants with its “Directions to the House-Maid” which brings us back to the other, more dingy side of the 18th century: “Never empty the Chamber-pots until they are quite full. If that happens in the Night, empty them in to the Street . . .” This is the origin, surely, of the polite practice of placing the lady on the inside of the footpath, where she would be protected from falling slops?

I have not dealt with the Bickerstaff papers, but this is a very comprehensive work of scholarship and, while I have dealt mainly with the more scabrous passages, the editor is to be congratulated on her assiduity.

She has erected a monument to Swift’s “extraordinarily creative obsession with the trivial, the vulgar and the silly”, although she may not always understand some of the more subversive Irish undertones in his work.

John Montague’s New Collected Poems was published last year by the Gallery Press.