Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel 
by John Stubbs.
Viking, 752 pp., £19.99, November 2016, 978 0 670 92205 5
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One​ of Jonathan Swift’s first published poems was a piece of 18 lines called ‘A Description of the Morning’. It was printed anonymously in an April 1709 edition of the Tatler, which in its original incarnation took an interest in literary criticism, history and philosophy as well as society gossip. Richard Steele, the magazine’s editor and a friend of Swift’s, puffed the poet and his work in an introduction. This new writer, he said, deserved to be read and admired because he had ‘run into a Way perfectly new, and describ’d Things exactly as they happen’.

An ability to describe things exactly as they happened was remarkable in the context of the kind of verse being produced at the time by London’s small army of poets and poetasters. The amateur ‘scribblers’ who fought for publication in the Tatler and elsewhere were fond of ‘Fantastical Descriptions’, as Steele called them, anodyne representations of pleasant pastoral scenes that looked as if they had come straight out of an annotated school text of Virgil’s Eclogues (as, often, they had). Their images of ‘nymphs’ and ‘groves’ were idyllic and generic; they bore a far stronger resemblance to one another than to anything you were likely to see out of the window. In his ‘Description of the Morning’, Swift took a well-known topos – the depiction of dawn and the new day – and described the sun’s early light revealing not bands of merry shepherds tripping blithely to the fields, but a young chimney-sweep preparing to remove the accumulated filth of coal fires; a maid creeping back to her own bed after a night spent in her master’s (filth, to Swift, of a not unrelated kind); and a handful of schoolboys dawdling with their satchels, reluctant to absorb the instruction that might afford them a way out of the poverty and grime. Swift uses the pastoral word ‘flock’ to describe the group of convicts released every night from prison on payment of a bribe to their jailer, before being shepherded back with the dawn to spend the day behind bars.

This way of looking at the world – the truth-telling, the commitment to particularity, the unswerving interest in the things most people would rather ignore – was held up by contemporary advocates as the essence of satire, and the thing it was best at. Satire scourged, exposed and illuminated: it was, depending on the metaphor you preferred, a physician’s tonic for the body politic, an extra-judicial arm of the law or, in a particularly popular image, a mirror held up to man’s conduct. (Swift proposed a subtle variation on the last of these, noting sardonically in his preface to The Battle of the Books that ‘satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.’) Satire stripped back, pared down and zoomed in. Where early 18th-century pastoral and epic poems offered escapism, satire kept both feet on the ground and laughed at pretension. Swift’s jailbirds and chimney-sweeps took the place of shepherds and milkmaids; in John Gay’s mock-pastoral The Shepherd’s Week, published a few years after ‘A Description of the Morning’, unpoetic swains and maids sing about turnips, potatoes and the intricacies of cheesemaking. The centrepiece of the second book of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad is a mock-epic games, featuring mud-slinging contests and competitions to see who can piss the highest. Satire could be profoundly unlikeable (as contemporary detractors and an army of hostile Victorian critics made clear), and could be felt to tell the truth to an almost perverse degree; but it could at least be relied on to show the world as it was.

Yet 18th-century satirists weren’t – or weren’t just – literal-minded observers of human folly, political polemicists or would-be moral reformers. If they had been, it would be more difficult than it customarily is to say why Gulliver’s Travels features on English Literature syllabuses and, say, the anonymous 1766 moral and political treatise The New Economy of Human Life (‘Part I. Of the Imperfections and Folly of Man Considered as a Relative and Social Being’) usually doesn’t. What distinguishes 18th-century satire in general and Swift’s satire in particular is the way it uses fiction. Fiction, here, doesn’t have to mean anything as grand or sustained as the narrative of Gulliver’s journey or the allegory of the three brothers in A Tale of a Tub; it is often something as small as an exaggeration, an imaginative metaphor or a comic diminution. Sometimes it involves using a dramatic persona, such as when Swift adopts the shockingly reasonable voice of his Modest Proposer to suggest breeding peasant children for food; or looking at the world through a magnifying glass, altering the relative sizes of things to produce vertiginous shifts of perspective. (To magnify something in the early 18th century meant praising it as well as enlarging it to the sight: both senses are at work in Pope’s admiring description in The Dunciad of Swift’s ability to ‘magnify Mankind’ by his satire, where the delicate suggestion is that whether man deserves magnification depends on how well he survives being examined close-up.) Swift’s satire was fabulous as well as honest, a distorting magnifying glass as well as a mirror. It was the expression, as John Stubbs argues in his vivid and sympathetic new biography, of both sides of his deeply divided personality – the place where the authoritarian cleric came face to face with the ‘daring cultural bandit’.

Swift was born in November 1667 in a little lane in the middle of Dublin, close to the castle. He was descended on both sides from recent colonial settlers. His mother, Abigail, came from a Leicestershire family; his father, Jonathan, whom he never knew, had moved to Dublin from Herefordshire to work as a lawyer and died in March or April of the year Swift was born, just ‘in time to save his mother’s credit’, as Swift said later. Stubbs makes much of the religious and political coming together in the union of the Swifts with Abigail’s family, the Erickes – a meeting of High Anglican Royalists and Nonconformist Cromwellians that seemed to stage in miniature the larger sectarian conflicts that came to define Swift’s professional and intellectual life. When Swift was just a year old, he was taken by his wet nurse (whether kidnapped or with the agreement of his mother isn’t known) across the Irish Sea to Whitehaven, where he remained for a couple of years out of touch with his relations in Dublin. He was brought back at the age of three, already able to spell and read the Bible. In later years, ashamed of his Irish birth, Swift liked to tell an inverted version of this story, claiming he had been born in England and smuggled across to Ireland in a ‘bandbox’. At six, he was sent away from Dublin to board at Kilkenny College, a tough schooling that was heavy on Latin and beatings. At 14 – by no means unusually young for the time – he was enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, where he did well in Greek and Latin and badly in philosophy, and barely squeaked through with a degree (awarded ‘by special grace’) five years later.

Little is known about these early years, and much of what we do know comes from Swift’s own sketch of his life, written at some years’ distance and not always with total dedication to the facts. What he recounts should be read, in any case, in the light of his general feelings on the subject of literary biography: as he explains in the preface to A Tale of a Tub, knowing that an author composed a certain piece of writing ‘in bed in a garret’, or that another piece was ‘begun, continued, and ended, under a long course of physic, and a great want of money’, may not tell you much worth knowing about the writing itself. Leo Damrosch’s biography from 2013 acknowledges the problem and skirts around those periods of Swift’s life where speculation would have to play a considerable part in filling in the blanks.* Stubbs, by contrast, uses the piecemeal nature of the record as the basis for discussions of everything from the educational Puritan ‘godly books’ Swift might possibly have read as a child, to Charles I’s imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight (Sir William Temple, Swift’s patron, briefly toured there in 1648 as a young man). Sometimes, the awareness of gaps and things missing leads to provocative conjectures: might the odd absence of lavish interiors and luxurious things in the world of Swift’s writing, despite the degree to which he was surrounded by them from his time with the Temples onwards, indicate a pull to ‘the scene below stairs’, most fully realised in his Directions to Servants years later? At other points, the speculation feels strained, as when Stubbs suggests that the lack of positive depictions of infancy in Swift’s writing may be related to a cultural memory of the Civil War, and to the descriptions he read of brutal child murders committed during the Irish rebellion of 1641: ‘Infancy for Swift connoted nightmare.’

Swift entered the Temple household in 1689, the year the Glorious Revolution settlement was enshrined in a Bill of Rights and William and Mary arrived from the Netherlands to take the throne. Through a family connection he was appointed secretary to Sir William, a well-known writer, former diplomat and privy councillor under Charles II. At Moor Park, the Temples’ country seat near Farnham in Surrey, he was kept busy managing Sir William’s accounts, writing his letters and representing him on official business at court; he also came into contact with Temple’s friends and admirers in high places, including the king, who according to Samuel Johnson is supposed to have taught the young secretary how to eat asparagus in the ‘Dutch’ fashion (whatever that may have been). He started writing poetry – tricky Pindaric odes in praise of statesmen he admired, through which he discovered that he wasn’t cut out for straightforward panegyric (‘I cannot write anything easy to be understood though it were but in praise of an Old Shoe,’ he told his cousin). And he met the person who would become his longest-lived, closest and most mysterious confidant. Esther ‘Stella’ Johnson was eight or nine years old when Swift arrived at Moor Park, the daughter of Temple’s housekeeper and (officially) her deceased husband, a merchant; various clues suggest she was Temple’s own illegitimate child. Finding her bright, witty and opinionated, Swift appointed himself her tutor, passing on his French, Latin and Greek and showing her how to ‘point out all the errors of Hobbes’ on government and religion.

Swift’s first period of employment at Moor Park ended in 1695, when he was ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church of Ireland and endured a miserable first year in the job at Kilroot, a parish near Carrickfergus in County Antrim a long way from Dublin. Most of the people there were Presbyterian; there was only a smattering of Anglican gentry nearby to attend his church. Poverty was all around: farm labourers, squeezed by their landowners, lived in wattle and daub cottages ‘commonly no bigger than an overgrown pigstye’, as one observer put it. Stubbs is surely right that for Swift the peasant hut in the Irish countryside became a ‘stock idea of near-total deprivation’, an image he would come back to again and again in his writings on the rural poor. During his time in Antrim he met and courted an Anglican clergyman’s daughter, Jane Waring, who turned him down when he made the one formal proposal of his life. When the opportunity arose to return to Moor Park in the spring of 1696, he left Kilroot as soon as he could and didn’t take up another church post until after Temple’s death three years later – first accompanying the Earl of Berkeley, Lord Justice of Ireland, to Dublin as his domestic chaplain in 1699, and in 1700 accepting the living of the parish of Laracor in County Meath, half a day’s ride north of Dublin. This was a period of great disappointment and bitterness in his professional life, as time and again he was passed over for the more prestigious offices he felt his intellect and experience deserved. His chief consolation was the pleasure he took from his continuing friendship with Stella, now twenty and ‘looked upon’, as he wrote later with his usual unsparing precision, ‘as one of the most beautiful, graceful and agreeable young women in London – only a little too fat’. In the summer of 1701 he persuaded her to move to Dublin to be nearer to him, striving to make respectable what looked to many like an indecent arrangement by insisting that she lived independently with a female friend and chaperone. She never became his wife (unless clandestinely), and Swift was always adamant that their intimacy stopped at friendship; but whatever the true nature of the association she seems to have been, as Stubbs argues, the ‘nearest to a wife that he could bear’.

That year​ he accompanied Berkeley to London. War was looming over the question of the Spanish royal succession, as the ailing king reformed the Grand Alliance of England, the Dutch Republic and Austria to combat the threat of a Bourbon claim led by Louis XIV. Departing from the Tory leanings that accompanied his High Church convictions, Swift produced his first political tract in support of the ascendant Whigs, attacking the impeachment of Lords Somers and Halifax. He turned to the Whigs in spite of the fact that they were the chief proponents of a war he would prefer not to happen; in spite of their backing of a bloated fiscal-military state and credit apparatus he hated; and their admiration for a man (the swaggering Duke of Marlborough, who led the Grand Alliance to victory at Blenheim in 1704) he loathed as he did few others. As a strict Anglican, he feared the Whigs’ inclination to repeal the Test Act, the statute of 1673 that required all candidates for public office to swear an oath of allegiance to the established church. Nevertheless he stuck with them, hoping for a professional preferment that never came, making trips back and forth to his parishes in Meath, and building close friendships with the great literary Whigs of the day, Steele and Joseph Addison. He even dedicated A Tale of a Tub – written several years previously at Moor Park, but only published in 1704 – to Lord Somers. By the end of the decade he had got no further with his career in the church, but his reputation as a writer and wit was rising. A Tale of a Tub was controversial but none could fail to admire its cleverness; and his pamphlet Predictions for the Year 1708, written in the persona of an astrologer named Isaac Bickerstaff, made an April Fool’s splash by solemnly foretelling the death of almanac-writer John Partridge – much to the confusion of Partridge himself, who was forced into the unusual position of having to prove he wasn’t dead.

When the Whigs’ credit ran out in 1710, the new Tory-led ministry seized on Swift’s talents. Suddenly he found himself the man of the moment. Robert Harley, the chancellor of the exchequer, employed him to write anonymously for the Examiner, a newspaper that spearheaded the government’s causes and attacked its enemies. Formally, Swift had switched sides and crossed party lines, but privately he had held Tory ideas about the authority of the Church of England and the supremacy of landowning power his entire life, and his new position as Harley’s propagandist was merely the public assumption of a politics that was natural to him. ‘He was putting on, rather than changing, his coat,’ Stubbs writes. One of his most extraordinary coups while at the Examiner was the discrediting by degrees of Britain’s national hero Marlborough. In a series of maddeningly reasonable articles, Swift wondered how long the public would be content to fill Marlborough’s personal coffers with their taxes and the bodies of their sons. Attacking the greatest military leader England had ever known was a delicate task and took some guts on Swift’s part, but it contributed to Marlborough’s fall: he was formally dismissed on charges of having profited illegally from the war after a vote in Parliament in December 1711.

Being part of the Harley ministry was a dangerous business in the last years of the war. Harley himself narrowly avoided death at the hands of a penknife-wielding Frenchman in the middle of Whitehall in 1711. (Not that attempted assassinations weren’t glamorous in their way: Henry St John, Harley’s ambitious secretary of state, was so jealous of the outpouring of admiration the wounded chancellor received that he tried to claim the attack had really been meant for him.) Swift, whose identity as the invidious pen behind the Examiner was by now an open secret, became increasingly nervous of walking alone in the streets of London at night. During a routine meeting in 1712, he and Harley were delivered a mysterious box containing a mechanism which, if touched, would fire a loaded pistol. Acting now as the ministry’s chief bomb-disposal expert as well as its propagandist, Swift defused the device. The promptness of his action – ‘a measure’, as Stubbs suggests, ‘of how long he had been living on his nerves’ – belied how exhausted he was by the intensity of his ministerial work, and how continually unwell he was. He was suffering not only from the usual bouts of vertigo and deafness (Ménière’s disease, though Swift put it down to eating too much fruit), but also with agonising pains in one shoulder. When, at last, in the spring of 1713 he was offered the position of dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, he took it. Returning to Ireland was an unappealing prospect, but it had private consolations: it meant being reconciled with Stella after years of exchanging frustrated letters across the Irish Sea; and it offered escape from an increasingly delicate relationship he had built up with another young woman half his age, Esther ‘Vanessa’ Vanhomrigh, who had fallen for him hard after a chance meeting in a coaching inn near London.

The political writings Swift produced in the following decades were contributions to public conversations, but they were also private exercises in narrative control, sustained irony and the construction of a dramatic persona. In 1722, a British manufacturer called William Wood had been given a royal patent to mint copper coins in halfpence and farthings for use as Irish currency. The coins were widely believed to be of inferior quality to those already in circulation, and the cynical view was that they were intended to depress the Irish economy to the benefit of the British one. Between 1724 and 1725, Swift responded by publishing a series of letters under the pseudonym of ‘M.B. Drapier’, an imaginary Dublin shopkeeper. The adoption of a persona was both practical and whimsical: it was designed to shield him from political repercussions but also to make room for playfulness. The first letter, addressed to the ‘Shop-Keepers, Tradesmen, Farmers, and Common-People of Ireland’, has passages of authoritarian hectoring that it’s hard to believe Swift didn’t enjoy, as the Drapier warns his readers of ‘the manifest destruction before your eyes, if you do not behave yourselves as you ought’.

There are also moments of compelling silliness and self-indulgence, where Swift goes above and beyond what’s strictly required by the political question. Explaining the concept of hyperinflation, the Drapier comes up with a run of images of debased coinage:

If a ’squire has a mind to come to town to buy clothes and wine and spices … he must bring with him five or six horses loaden with sacks as the farmers bring their corn; and when his lady comes in her coach to our shops, it must be followed by a car loaden with Mr. wood’s money … But what the bankers will do I cannot tell. For I am assured, that some great bankers keep by them forty thousand pounds in ready cash to answer all payments, which sum, in Mr. wood’s money, would require twelve hundred horses to carry it.

Why, according to Swift, Wood’s coins should be boycotted is made clear enough by the first example of the squire dragging sacks of money with him to town. To go on in the same way – to keep producing instances as if the point weren’t obvious – might be thought a mockery of common intelligence, and it lays Swift open to a charge of indulging in hyperbole (‘twelve hundred horses’) when the actual situation is bad enough. But here, as in Gulliver, size matters, and one of the things Swift is doing by piling up examples and scenarios like this is staging a miniature version of hyperinflation’s crazy accretions. Each illustration has a little less intrinsic value, a little less explanatory power than the last, and the depreciation of meaning in Swift’s exaggerations helps to show what’s going on with economic devaluation in the real world. There are, of course, conventional rhetorical reasons for giving three examples instead of one but it’s hard to dispense with the idea that Swift’s satire is doing more than that, playing a delicate game that in some sense goes against the rough grain of the Drapier enterprise.

Swift claimed in Verses on the Death of Dr Swift that irony was what he had been ‘born to introduce’, and had ‘Refin’d it first, and show’d its use’ (this, like most of the claims in the slippery Verses, is as sly as it is serious). He liked irony because it could represent delusion: it enabled him to look at the world in two ways, an honest one and a mad or inhumane one, and to show the latter in all its ugliness. Sometimes, on the subject of Ireland, he didn’t always trust his readers to see the madness as it ought to be seen, and so spelled it out. In A Short View of the State of Ireland, he breaks off in the middle of an ironic vision of Ireland as a land of plenty – replete with ‘thriving numerous plantations’, an ‘abundance of country seats’ and ‘shops full of goods’ – to lapse into gloomy candour: ‘My heart is too heavy to continue this irony longer.’ The idea that irony might be something you can only do with a lighter heart, or a lighter touch, rings true, and doesn’t fit the usual picture of Swift scribbling his satires in a fit of misanthropic rage. One of the most obscene things about A Modest Proposal is its delicacy – the time and attention lavished on the little things, the precision, the finickiness. It matters to the Proposer that ‘a little pepper or salt’ should be used if a family is to save up some of its child meat for boiling rather than eating it fresh. It matters to him whether butchers present children ready carved, or whether customers might prefer to take them home alive and ‘dress them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs’. And not all of it is just pedantry. The Proposer’s arguments have an internal logic, reflected in the careful numbering of Swift’s paragraphs, and there’s even a civilising note of humour in his remark about how young children are capable of learning to steal early. Madness may be inchoate, but the means it finds to express itself often aren’t, and one of Swift’s aims is to pinpoint the difference between good sense and something that appears to be good sense by the precision and discrimination with which it’s articulated. His satire asks the question about Enlightenment rationality no one wants to ask: if its intellectual methods can be co-opted to advocate so compellingly for savagery, how can we justify condemning the savagery without looking critically at reason too?

Swift spent much of his writing life exposing false reason and unreason, pointing out the incoherence or emptiness at the centre of what pretended to be cleverness. In the Kingdom of Brobdingnag during the second leg of his travels, Gulliver becomes the butt of the joke for failing to understand why the king bases his understanding of governance on ‘narrow’ principles of ‘common Sense and Reason’, where he favours the complex sophistry of modern European political science. (The king’s proposal for improving the lives of the common people of the land – ‘make two Ears of Corn, or two Blades of Grass to grow upon a Spot of Ground where only one grew before’ – is a touchingly simple answer to Ireland’s economic woes and provides a steer as to what Swift would do differently, were he in charge.) The convoluted digressions, difficult proofs and recondite allusions in A Tale of a Tub are parodies of classical and ecclesiastical scholarship, and provided Sterne with a model for his mocking inventories of Enlightenment learning in Tristram Shandy (‘Our knowledge physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, enigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical and obstetrical’, as Tristram puts it). For the benefit of those who might miss the joke, Swift takes care to distinguish in the conclusion to the Tale between his own prose and that of the growing army of soi-disant ‘profound writers’, who imagine that obscurity is the same thing as depth. ‘As to the business of being profound, it is with writers as with wells,’ he argues. ‘Often when there is nothing in the world at the bottom besides dryness and dirt, though it be but yard and half underground it shall pass, however, for wondrous deep, upon no wiser a reason than because it is wondrous dark.’

Stella died in January 1728 after a long illness. During the year or so beforehand, when she was slowly fading, Swift resolved many times to stay in England or go abroad to France to escape the awful prospect of being in Ireland at her bedside. He was too ill and too heartbroken to attend the funeral. After her death the fights he picked got bigger and his ironies progressively less tolerant. He exchanged prose for poetry, circulating sections of his writings clandestinely in manuscript rather than printing them in their entirety. In a number of instances – including the three major verse satires he wrote during the 1730s, Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, On Poetry: A Rhapsody and The Legion Club – the reasons for partial printing and manuscript circulation of excised lines were political (and justified: Walpole considered issuing a warrant for Swift’s arrest in 1734, an idea he only dropped when it became clear that the government would need an army of ten thousand men to get past the dean’s loyal Dubliners). Manuscript versions of On Poetry contain 36 lines that Swift didn’t dare include in the version he set up for publication, excoriating kings as savage beasts: ‘Think on kings: the name denotes/Hogs, asses, wolves, baboons, and goats.’ A sly parenthetical aside, ostensibly there to exclude George II from the general demolition job on kingship, does more than any positive criticism could to confirm his place in the bestial crew: ‘I mean all kings except our own.’

Swift was a better mock-flatterer than most poets could manage to be in earnest. He practised on Gulliver, having him deliver an obsequious speech to the Queen of Brobdingnag in which, among other things, she is extolled as ‘the Darling of the World’ and ‘the Phoenix of Creation’ (Gulliver has only just met her). On Poetry has a comparison between the short-lived tributes paid to Louis XIV before the Spanish wars and the (supposedly) warranted praise lavished on George:

Yet what the world refused to Lewis,
Applied to George, exactly true is.
‘Exactly true’? invidious poet!
’Tis fifty thousand times below it!

Things that are ‘exactly true’, as Swift well knew, don’t belong in feminine rhymes. ‘Lewis/true is’ and ‘poet/below it’ offer up praise of George that looks every bit as unstable and provincial as the admiration heaped on Louis before the losses of Blenheim and Ramillies. The calculus of flattery (‘fifty thousand times below it!’) is a comically nuts-and-bolts way of going about things, and somehow ‘fifty thousand’ is a bit of a let-down, hovering on purpose just short of the metonym for ‘infinitely’ it might be taken to be; it also serves as a reminder that a monarch’s favour has its price, and is bought in cash. The lines are ‘invidious’ to the core, but not quite in the way they pretend, and they are every bit as vicious and brave as comparable passages in Pope’s mock-panegyric Epistle to Augustus.

Swift died at home in the deanery in October 1745, having been passive and almost speechless for three years following a series of strokes and an agonising attack of orbital cellulitis (his left eye swelled up ‘as large as an egg’, such that it ‘took five people to stop him from ripping out his eyes’). In the epitaph he composed for his tombstone, he pronounced himself a ‘strenuous champion of liberty’, returning to the words of the ‘impartial’ obituarist in the final section of Verses on the Death of Dr Swift: ‘Fair liberty was all his cry;/For her he stood prepared to die.’ He wanted to be remembered as an outsider turned insider turned outsider, the man who had come from small beginnings to know courts and politicians and then rejected them; he wanted it to be acknowledged, as he wrote in Verses, that for his troubles he had suffered ‘continual persecution’ at the hands of Walpole’s ministry and its slavish propagandists (forgetting, for the moment, that he had once been a hired pen himself); and he wanted to remind those who passed by his tomb in St Patrick’s that he had been a saviour of the common Irish people, though a common man himself.

For Stubbs, the ‘liberty’ in Swift’s epitaph is a satirist’s ‘liberty of speech’: ‘a liberty of chiding, deriding, cajoling, bridling, impersonating’, a liberty to speak out of turn and against the rules, a liberty to take liberties. This, in part, is what is meant; but it’s not all, and as a reading it doesn’t quite appreciate what is so distinctive about the epitaph’s claim, the note of ‘un-Swiftian grandeur’, in Claude Rawson’s phrase, that it hits, and the way that its commitment and seriousness seem not to be tempered much, or at all, by the usual recourses to sly restraint or defensive humour. The new tone goes unnoticed in Stubbs’s account because to his mind Swift went to his grave uncommitted: as a thoroughly ‘reluctant rebel’, pulled in different directions by private and public impulses, given to disavowing investments even as he made them, for ever holding something in reserve. This is, in the main, a sympathetic approach to the life, drawing out the remarkable processes of suppression that had been required to keep the ‘emotional deprivations’ Swift suffered in childhood and later life safely underground; and it is alive to ambiguity, never failing to take into account the self-undercutting that shadows even the most intolerant-looking of Swift’s intellectual positions. Pope wasn’t willing to joke about his own posterity, but Swift – always with an eye on the fundamental inadequacy of things – took great pleasure in imagining ladies assembled at cards, placidly mourning the news of his passing while keeping their eyes firmly on the game:

My female friends, whose tender hearts
Have better learned to act their parts,
Receive the news in doleful dumps,
‘The Dean is dead, (pray what is trumps?)’

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Vol. 39 No. 3 · 2 February 2017

Clare Bucknell mentions that the young Jonathan Swift was taught to eat asparagus in the ‘Dutch’ fashion at court, adding parenthetically: ‘whatever that may have been’ (LRB, 19 January). Is it not more than likely the ‘Dutch’ fashion refers not to the way the asparagus was eaten, but to the way the plant was cultivated by depriving it of natural light. This is a practice still common in northern Europe. It produces a white stalk with a yellowish tip much prized for its delicacy of flavour. We may live in hope that, post-Brexit, the dining tables of Britain will be spared such outlandish and unnatural practices.

Jeff Rodman

Vol. 39 No. 4 · 16 February 2017

Samuel Johnson in Lives of the Poets notes not that Swift learned how to eat asparagus, but how to ‘cut’ it in the ‘Dutch’ fashion (Letters, 2 February). The ‘fashion’ refers to cutting asparagus before it has grown above ground, when its head turns purple. The asparagus are harvested before dawn or after sunset. But it may nonetheless be the case that Swift also learned to eat asparagus the Dutch way, which was with a dip made from hard-boiled eggs and melted butter. After dipping the asparagus, one would have likely eaten – with a fork – only the head before discarding the stalk. The Dutch apparently did not think use of a knife while eating asparagus appropriate.

Andrew Black
Murray State University, Kentucky

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