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
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.