Underrated: Jonathan Swift

 © Ellie Foreman-Peck

What is the greatest and most universally loved book ever written in Ireland  wilder than Wilde, more shocking than Shaw, more experimental than Joyce, more disillusioned than Beckett, more humane than Heaney? 

The book is, of course, Gulliver’s Travels. Its author wrote his own Latin epitaph,  best translated by another Anglo-Irishman, Yeats: “Swift has sailed into his rest;/Savage indignation there/ Cannot lacerate his breast.” Jonathan Swift’s indignation against the follies of mankind was indeed so extreme that he has been savaged himself ever since, by critics who have seen his works as misanthropic and misogynist, the revenge of an embittered man thwarted in his poetical, political and ecclesiastical ambitions. Swift was so scandalous on every level — from the gruesome irony of A Modest Proposal to the scatological reductio ad absurdum of all that polite society held dear in The Lady’s Dressing Room — that his exile from literary London to the Deanery of St Patrick’s, Dublin, has been posthumously extended: hence his present neglect in our schools and universities. David Womersley’s definitive new edition of Gulliver’s Travels, the latest of 18 volumes of Swift’s works published by Cambridge University Press, is thus a major step towards his academic rehabilitation and even vindication.

Yet not only the English-speaking peoples, but the whole civilised world has embraced Gulliver’s Travels since its first publication in 1726. The fact that many who have not read it wrongly suppose it to be a children’s book, and that children do indeed enjoy at any rate the first two parts, reveals its author’s genius. Adapted and bowdlerised more than almost any other literary classic, Gulliver has survived and, though countless modern writers, whether of magical realism or teenage fantasy fiction, owe Swift an unconscious debt, the original still surpasses all imitations.

Why, then, have critics declined to follow Captain Lemuel Gulliver on his adventures in Lilliput and Brobdingnag? Samuel Johnson set the tone with his mean-spirited Life of Swift and his disparaging comment to Boswell: “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.” Yet the young Johnson had not disdained to entitle his satirical parliamentary sketches for the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1738-44 “State of Affairs in Lilliput”, thus demonstrating that within 20 years of its appearance Gulliver’s Travels was required reading. On their tour of the Hebrides, Boswell recorded Johnson’s conversation with a “sensible clever woman”, Lady MacLeod, who asked if no man was naturally good. “No, madam, no more than a wolf,” he replied. “Nor no woman, sir?” Boswell interpolated. “No, sir.” Lady Mac-Leod: “This is worse than Swift.” Her startled aside is revealing, both of Swift’s reputation and of his influence on Johnson.

And so it has been ever since. The great Whig critics, such as Jeffrey and Macaulay, were repelled by Swift’s love of the morbid, the bawdy and the grotesque and by a cultural pessimism they saw as reactionary. Later critics were similarly harsh, with the partial exception of George Orwell. In his essay of 1946, Orwell denounces “a world-view which only just passes the test of sanity”, yet also declares: “If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver’s Travels among them.” He treats Swift primarily as a polemicist, and his satire as merely a tool of his political ideology (“Tory anarchism”), but this is surely the wrong way round. Swift, like Orwell, changed his mind about politics; this did not diminish the quality of their writing. Indeed, the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would be inconceivable without Gulliver’s Travels.

Why has Gulliver’s Travels such a universal appeal? The supposed author is a ship’s surgeon, not a savant writing for the savvy. Along with the usual apparatus, Womersley’s edition includes “long notes” which are really short essays on aspects of the book. One of these quotes his publisher, George Faulkner, on Swift’s practice of having read aloud his works with two servants present, “which, if they did not comprehend, he would alter and amend until they understood it perfectly well, and then would say, This will do; for I write to the Vulgar, more than to the Learned.” How many other writers take such pains to make themselves clear?

A charge made against Gulliver is that it is a clever persiflage of Queen Anne’s day, but limited to its own time and place. Swift replied to one such critic, his French translator the Abbé Desfontaines, that “an author who writes for only one town, one province, one kingdom, or one age is completely despicable. But those who admire Mr Gulliver say, on the contrary, that his writings will last as long as our language, because they are not based on certain fashions and ways of speaking and thinking, but on faults and follies which are fixed in human nature.” The Dean spoke more truly than the Abbé.

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