A Devotional to Dean Swift

The great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born this day. My previous post on this literary hero of mine was a bit perfunctory, so today we lay down something slightly more elaborate.

Like most genuinely literate children I was exposed to Swift’s writings as a child in the form of abridged versions of his masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Certainly by my late teens I was reading the unabridged original, and I have re-read it periodically over the course of my life. The book was written in four parts. Most folks know only the first section, in which the hero, shipwrecked on an island of tiny people called the Lilliputians, seems a giant. This part seems a nod to Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (1534), in particular, the urination scene, which you of course won’t know at all if you’ve only read the children’s editions, and I hope learning about it will whet, if not wet, your appetite for the real McCoy. There have been several screen versions which tell the Lilliput leg of the tale. One by Georges Méliès in 1902; the Fleischer studios animated classic in 1939; a 1977 film with Richard Harris; a 1996 tv movie with Ted Danson; and the 2010 film with Jack Black, among them. Most people don’t know about Gulliver’s subsequent adventures. where he visits other lands such as Brobdingag, where the people are giants; a flying island called Laputa where the learned residents have a bad habit of killing their “inferiors” on the ground (the obvious inspiration for an episode on the original Star Trek); Glubbdubdrib, which is inhabited by the ghosts of famous people from history; Luggnagg, a land of eternally elderly people; and the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses, whom foreshadow Mr. Ed.

Most of you will know that Swift was not just a writer of charming fantasies; his works were satires. Only a handful of scholars get the entire gist of what he intended in his writings. To do that you have to drill down into the history of his times to assign the real life analogs of what he was poking fun of. For the more casual reader like me, who frankly read him only for enjoyment and inspiration, knowing what lies beneath is a process of slow accumulation over time. Swift is known as a “Whig in politics and a Tory in religion” and he was deeply involved in both. Swift was a clergyman in the Church of Ireland (the Irish branch of the Church of England, or Anglican Church. The American branch are the Episcopalians). At the peak of his career in the church, Swift was Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which is why he is known to some as “Dean Swift”. His education had been at Trinity College, Dublin and at Oxford. For a time he was secretary to diplomat Sir William Temple, who became his patron, and through whom he developed his political connections and involvement. Swift supported the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which installed William and Mary and deposed James II. But (much like Samuel Johnson) he was conservative in religion, and that later brought him closer to the Tory party. I find it interesting that Rabelais, too, was a man of a cloth. The fact should be only superficially confusing. These are thinkers who contemplate men and morality on a grand scale. I find it natural that their wisdom would find its expression in humor. It is a potent weapon against evil and injustice. (It may interest some to realize that the initials of Dean Swift, D.S., reversed, are S.D.)

The Roman satirists Horace and Juvenal were among Swift’s models as a an author and poet. Alexander Pope and John Gay (who wrote The Beggar’s Opera) were his close friends and associates and, with others, formalized that association as The Scriblerus Club in 1713. Swift’s early A Tale of a Tub (1704), which requires far too many footnotes for me to ever possibly enjoy, is what put him on the map and brought him into contact with these eminences. If you had excellent English teachers as I did, then you were introduced to his A Modest Proposal (1729) as a young person. It’s certainly one of the pieces of writing that attracted me to satire as a form. It came as a great shock to me as an adult to discover the extent to which, despite the sanction of time, criticism and scholarship, the great majority of people remain unattuned to the form’s strategies or centuries-old precedents. As a positive outcome of that, it retains its power to shock. As a negative outcome, it remains unpopular and misunderstood. And it just never gets any better.

I didn’t learn until recently that, through Dryden, I am distantly related to this giant (!) of English letters. I now revere him more than ever. In addition to his satirical writings, Swift also wrote serious political and religious tracts, poetry, and essays.