In praise of Jonathan Swift: A prolific writer and moralist with ferocious wit
As a festival celebrates the satirist’s 350th birthday, Fintan O’Toole and those taking part pay tribute
Who was Swift? A fierce Irish patriot, who was depressed by being born Irish. A priest, with questionable faith ... Swift is a man of many contradictions, talents and surprises. Photograph: DeAgostini/Getty Images, National Portrait Gallery London
Swift is the preeminent master of the many modes of irony in the English language. But his dazzling literary skills should not blind us to his greatness as a moralist. The savage indignation that lacerated his heart also tore to shreds the idea that the established order of things is reasoned, God-given and inevitable. He destabilises everything, makes everything relative and provisional. Gulliver sees the world first from the perspective of a giant, then from that of a tiny homunculus. He is almighty, then a mere plaything. And his English imperial assumptions, the civilisation he boasts of, is stripped of all its pretensions when the king of Brobdingnag is disgusted by its violence and folly. All the self-regard of aristocrats, politicians, clerics and well-meaning modest proposers crumbles when Swift shifts perspectives and we see it in a new, harsh but vividly illuminating light. It is no wonder that the system had its revenge, twisting Swift, even while he was still alive, into a misanthrope, a pervert, a lunatic whose great critique of society and morality was the effusion of a sick mind. Something of that calumny clings to his memory still. It is long since time that we should see him for what he was: one of the greatest enemies that tyrannical pomposity and self-righteous inhumanity have ever had.
Andrew Smith is head of education for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and co-founder of the Jonathan Swift Festival.
On November 30th, 2017, we celebrate the 350th birthday of Jonathan Swift. But who was he? A fierce Irish patriot, who was depressed by being born Irish. A priest, with questionable faith. A man best known for his pastime, a rebel who was part of the establishment. Swift is a man of many contradictions, talents and surprises.
He is undoubtedly best known as author of Gulliver’s Travels. First published in 1726 it has never been out of print since. It was a massive success and initially printing couldn’t keep up with demand. It has since be reimagined by different generations and was recently voted by the Guardian newspaper as the third most popular novel of all time.
Swift was a prolific writer, his masterpiece of satire, A Modest Proposal reveals his wicked sense of humour. He sarcastically proposes that the poorest families in society should consider selling their one-year-old children to the rich so that they can be eaten. He methodically details how this system can benefit all of society. Swift perfectly understood the value of shock, sarcasm or comedy as tools in his literary arsenal. James Joyce later described him as the greatest satirist in the English language.
Swift also aimed his ferocious wit at the establishment. Writing under the pseudonym MB Drapier, he successfully campaigned against the introduction of a devalued currency to Ireland, later earning him the freedom of the city. At a time when political argument was often advanced through the speed and power of verbal wit, Swift was a king of the one liners. On politics: “Burn everything English... except their coal”. On religion: “Ireland has enough religion to make it hate, but not enough to make it love”, and frivolous government spending: “Now’s here’s a proof of Irish sense/Here Irish wit is seen / When nothing’s left that’s worth defence/We build a Magazine.”
His chosen vocation, is arguably, what he is least known for. As Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral he reached the pinnacle of his career in the church. He thought Dublin, his city of birth, was a cultural backwater. He was far too outspoken for his own good in terms of his professional advancement. His personal faith in God was called into question upon news of his appointment. “Look down St Patrick, look we pray, On thine own Church and Steeple; Convert thy Dean on this great Day, Or else God help the People”. Nevertheless, Swift preached every fourth Sunday at St Patrick’s to large crowds. A copy of a sermon he preached is today on display and is entitled “A sermon upon sleeping in church”.
Swift was without a doubt eccentric for his day. He was fanatical about cleanliness and keeping fit. A man ahead of his time. His detractors used his unusual behaviour as proof of his madness. Swift, of course, had the final say: “He gave the little wealth he had, To build a house for fools and mad; And show’d by one satiric touch, No nation wanted it so much.” His will stated that all his personal wealth should go toward founding St Patrick’s Hospital, the first to imagine the humane treatment of those with mental illness.
Many pilgrims, from all over the world today flock to a medieval cathedral to pay their homage to one of Ireland’s greatest cultural exports. Ironically his profile within Ireland is often lost within the proliferation of Irish writing talent. However, the greats who came later understood that they were standing on the shoulders of a literary giant.
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveller; he
Served human liberty.
– WB Yeats
Since the first edition of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (Gulliver’s Travels) was published in 1726, people have been arguing about whether it is travel literature, fable or satire. To be honest, I don’t much care. What matters most is that it conveys a journey in a gripping, entertaining and insightful way – something that travel writing fails all too often to achieve, and perhaps the same was true 300 years ago, as Swift has Lemuel Gulliver say: “I thought we were already over-stocked with books of travels: that nothing could now pass which was not extraordinary; wherein I doubted some authors less consulted truth, than their own vanity.”
The book offers an ideal model with which to challenge the introspection, laziness and lack of acuity of so much travel literature. It manages to constantly surprise at the oddness of other cultures and the insights we can glean from them: from how the Brobdingnag civilisation of giants looks upon our paltry human society to the vicious internecine schisms that can arise over such inconsequential matters as whether one cracks an egg on the larger or smaller end.
Yet, the reason I return to it is not so much for the Indiana-Jones-like exploits, but the almost alien-like observations of the foibles and petty vanities of human beings, and the hints the book offers at more utopian alternatives. For me, it is as much a satirical exploration of politics, colonialism and the human condition as a travel book.
Manchán Magan hosts What Would Swift Say in the Irish Writers Centre at 2pm on November 25th
The Very Revd Dean William Morton is Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Composed by himself, and engraved on Kilkenny marble not far from where he is buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the epitaph of Jonathan Swift expresses an invitation to its reader more commanding and more relevant than at any other time since he was born 350 years ago on 30 November. “Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, of this Cathedral Church, Dean, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Traveller, go, and imitate if you can his strenuous vindication of human liberty.”
Dean Swift’s words are a clarion call to successive generations to find that liberty, or release, for victims of poverty and need – as he so clearly did during his time as Dean – when his love for the individual contrasted sharply with an abiding distrust of authorities and institutions which were synonymous with injustice. Christianity for Swift was expressed in love of God and love of neighbour. He was far ahead of his time in his humanitarian response by building a charity school and almshouse, donating a third of his annual income to the poor, and, his crowning achievement, founding a mental hospital.
If he were alive today, Swift would be appalled at poverty and homelessness, and the degree to which people are so seriously and adversely affected through drug addiction, alcoholism, gang violence, and other crime. His desire would be, above all, for Church and society to labour tirelessly by putting the Gospel of Christ into practice, thus emulating the example of “this earnest and dedicated champion of liberty”, and finding liberation for those enslaved by social deprivation and other problems of the human condition.
Prof Daniel Carey is director of the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland Galway
Much is made, inevitably, of Swift as a satirist, but what kind is he? Certainly not the sort who recalls us to our senses and improves us in the process by pointing out norms we have neglected. Swift’s strategy is to strip away the norms and leave us stranded. I think of him as a trap-door satirist in that sense. How does this work? In Swift’s best satirical works in prose he adopts the voice of a narrator or authority of some kind – think of Gulliver, for example, or the ingenious “projector” who offers A Modest Proposal (1729). At first we rely on them for guidance and assume nothing is amiss. They seem reasonable enough. Gradually, however, we begin to lose confidence. The narrator appears more and more dubious, unaware of his own extremity. But by then the trap has been sprung: we have no way back or out of the closed circle created up by Swift. By the time Gulliver has completed his fourth voyage, he no longer identifies even with his own humanity and has switched his allegiance to horses, who, meanwhile reject him as representative of an inferior species. The exponent of A Modest Proposal, meanwhile – ever the improver – has become convinced that the solution to Irish overpopulation is to fricassee infants and serve them for dinner. Yet tracking down the precise moment when these figures cross the line is not as easy as it seems. Swift does not so much instruct as unsettle. His satire is corrosive not corrective.
Prof Daniel Carey is taking part in The Swift Symposium in St Patrick’s Cathedral at 2.15pm on November 25th.
People who know Swift’s works often forget how shocking many of them are at first reading. Gulliver’s Travels is not just a clever story that appeals to children of all ages but a searing criticism of human pride and self-deception: we should be jolted out of our complacency when we hear the giant king of Brobdingnag describe humans as “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. Equally, Catholics who believe in transubstantiation and Presbyterians who accept the doctrine of predestination must be horrified at the scornful derision Swift pours on their dearly-held beliefs in A Tale of a Tub.
Many of Swift’s scatalogical poems have outraged readers over the years, but the most shocking text of all is A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or the country and for making them beneficial to the public. The reasonable, urbane writer “proposes” a simple solution - to fatten the children of the poor and sell them as food for the rich. No gentleman, wrote Swift’s “proposer”, could object to paying ten shillings for “the carcass of a good, fat child’.
We should not allow our familiarity with Swift’s texts to allow us to forget how horrifying they are. Swift was profoundly distressed at the self-deception and pride that allows us to pretend that all is well with the world. Readers of his work should be sufficiently shaken to set about self-reformation.
Prof Andrew Carpenter hosts A Modest Proposal at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum at 6pm on November 25th.
for Tony Curtis
Not to the colony for artists
not to the walled university
but to the demented asylum
I'll go when the moon is up
in the day sky, I'll go
and snatch a song from a stranger's mouth.
They have been speaking so long
in riddles, they teach you
the heart for a child breaking,
the heart breaking for a child
is nothing more than a shift
of light on a slate roof
after rain, and the elderberry's
purpling shade is as much
as you'll know of grieving.
They have been speaking so long
in riddles the world believes at last
in enigma, the earth understands
her beguiling work —
leaf, stone, wave.
To the demented asylum I'll go
for succour from a stranger's mouth:
leaf crown you
wave repeat you
stone secure your grave
Jonathan Swift was a man who definitely enjoyed his food, and food is often mentioned in his writings. He gives his advice on cooking and eating fish when he says: “They say that every fish should swim thrice. First it should swim in the sea… then it should swim in butter, and at last it should swim in claret.” One little verse by him suggests his interest in both food and women: “This is every cook’s opinion/No savoury dish without an onion/But lest your kissing should be spoiled/Your onions must be fully boiled”, while on the topic of alcohol he offered: “Better belly burst than good liquor be lost.”
Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about the sort of delicious meals Swift enjoyed, because in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a Dublin woman called Hannah Alexander wrote a long recipe book – more than 40,000 words of text, plus an index – recording the delicious meals savoured by Dubliners lucky enough to be able to afford the many local and exotic ingredients available at the time. Hannah lived on Ship Street, beside Dublin Castle, and was a neighbour of Jonathan Swift. Her children were the same age as him, and the family was known to him. Hannah’s book was finally published in 2014. To me, it’s just wonderful that, with the help of chef Mary Farrell, in 2017 Hannah is providing him with a birthday dinner, in the cathedral that was at the heart of the area where they both lived.
Writer and folklorist Dr Deirdre Nuttall hosts Swift’s Food: A Meal from the 17th Century in St Patrick’s Cathedral at 7pm on November 26th.
The Jonathan Swift Festival starts on November 23rd and features evenings with Paul Howard, Glen Hansard and his friends, Manchán Magan and many others. jonathanswiftfestival.ie