Dean of Satire

A writer's many masks

Detail from portrait of Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas
Detail from portrait of Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas


Jonathan Swift: His Life and His Work, by Leo Damrosch, Yale University Press, 539 pp., $35

The final years of the 17th century and the early years of the 18th were turbulent times in England. The fate of the crown itself seemed to be in the balance, as did those of other institutions, Parliament and the Church of England. Yet, oddly, this period is also known as the Augustan Age of English literature—oddly, because the label connotes classical balance and proportion. And indeed such qualities are to be found in the period’s architecture as well as in the heroic couplets of its most accomplished poet, Alexander Pope. But expressions of neoclassical order were hard won, and for an idea of the challenges and complications of this decisive period in the evolution of the British polity, the life and works of Jonathan Swift are a very good place to start. Swift is not just the author of Gulliver’s Travels, though that most original and very alarming treatise on human nature would have been enough to make his name. He was also the author of a good deal of commentary, much of it bitingly satirical, on the manners and methods of the public scene in which he himself was immersed, partly in hopes of preferment. The fact that when these hopes were dashed he turned out to be an Irish patriot is only one of the many paradoxes of a career and a personality in which balance, order, establishment, and affiliation were problematic categories.

Swift was born in Ireland in 1667 and educated there. As a live-in secretary to the English writer and diplomat Sir William Temple, he failed to find advancement and eventually took holy orders. But his time in the Temple household did reward him with the acquaintance of young Hester Johnson, arguably the most important woman in his life despite a 14 years’ difference in their ages: Swift’s letters to her were collected and published as Journal to Stella (1710–13). Involvement in the politics of clerical relations between England and Ireland led to Swift’s association with powerful figures in the public life of both countries, and for many years, he divided his time between Dublin and London. In the teens of the 18th century, he rose to prominence in Tory circles and made close acquaintance with the leading writers of the day—Pope, John Gay, William Congreve, as well as his adversary Daniel Defoe. His friendship with Esther Vanhomrigh, whom he called Vanessa, the second most important woman in his life, and like Stella, many years his junior, also flourished at this time.

Swift’s expectations of a Church career, already damaged by Queen Anne’s objections to his Tale of a Tub (1704), were eclipsed by the queen’s death and the Tories’ fall from power in 1714. He returned to Ireland, where the previous year he had been installed as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. This position he occupied until his dementiahaunted death in 1745 (he had long suffered from vertigo due to Ménière’s disease). Dublin saw his finest hours, notably the triumphant exposure of a currency scandal in the Drapier’s Letters (1724), though Swift was not quite the exponent of nascent “Irish national consciousness” that Leo Damrosch claims. One of Swift’s most devastating satires, A Modest Proposal (1729), notoriously suggested that the children of the poor would make excellent eating for the better-off, effectively condemning both classes of Irish society.

A strong churchman who was (as he said) “not the gravest of divines”; a charitable pastor who had no great love of the poor; a devoted companion of two women who also wrote scatological poetry about female bodies; a London insider who never quite belonged; a votary of power and a skeptic regarding mankind’s aims and aptitudes; a traditionalist the forms of whose thought are unnervingly modern in their anti-idealizing energies—the list of contraries that Swift contained seems inexhaustible. And perhaps contained is the mot juste, given the instabilities of the day. In many ways, Swift’s significance stems less from how his works exemplify balance and good order than from their sense of the consequences of disorder and imbalance. It’s as if Swift was so much a man of his age that he saw through its surfaces and transience into murkier depths of failure, cupidity, and impotence. As Damrosch’s many predecessors in the field attest, Swift is an irresistible biographical subject.

swiftIn contrast to Irvin Ehrenpreis, whose three-volume Swift biography (1962–83) is considered the gold standard, Damrosch happily pursues “daring speculations about [Swift’s] family and his relationships that differ radically from the official story.” The idea of an official story is a peculiar one, especially in a scholarly context, but perhaps it helps Damrosch to present an alternative private Swift who is not only a “man of masks” but a man of masks demanding removal. The alternative is vitiated by such accompanying phrases as “there is no solid evidence for that” and “far-fetched, unquestionably, but worth considering.” Many of Swift’s works were published pseudonymously. He delighted in language games and coded messages. Many of his works rely for their effect on not being taken at face value. But those practices do not necessarily permit a biographer to ascribe Swift’s paternity to Sir William Temple (a speculation that rehashes that made by the Irish playwright Denis Johnston more than 50 years ago) or for asserting that Sir William was Stella’s father. Damrosch also assumes that Swift and Stella were married, another not entirely supportable assumption. Such excursions into the unknowable are ultimately less interesting than the challenging openness of what Swift has to say, and perhaps more attention might have been given to masks in relation to outspokenness.

When the focus changes to Swift’s public life, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World forgoes its speculative inclinations and gives a well-paced but somewhat unexceptional account of the dean’s activities, the state of England, life in the capital, and the various turns of the wheel of political fortune. For his treatment of 18th-century London’s social and cultural life, Damrosch relies on the large volume of recent scholarship, but it is somewhat surprising to find that Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James the Second (1848) is one of his main historical sources. In contrast, his treatment of Swift’s Ireland seems narrow and thin. Yet conditions in Ireland and Swift’s own standing there arguably form the most productive of his contraries. Ireland was the source of the reputation that “Fair LIBERTY was all his cry,” and even if he wittily undercut it by (typically) expressing it through the voice of the anonymous speaker of“Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,”that reputation has endured, a memorial to and reminder of the public virtue and private necessity of bringing to light what most cannot face.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University.


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