Christopher Ricks

  • Swift: The Man, His Works and the Age: Vol III. Dean Swift by Irvin Ehrenpreis
    Methuen, 1066 pp, 40.00, December 1983, ISBN 0 416 85400 1
  • Swift’s Tory Politics by F.P. Lock
    Duckworth, 189 pp, £18.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 7156 1755 9
  • Jonathan Swift: Political Writer by J.A. Downie
    Routledge, 391 pp, £25.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9645 3
  • The Character of Swift’s Satire edited by Claude Rawson
    Associated University Presses, 343 pp, £22.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 87413 209 6

The life of Swift by Irvin Ehrenpreis is a great act of consonance. But one reviewer has deprecated the fact that Ehrenpreis does not write with Swift’s genius. So the first thing to say is that Ehrenpreis, though he has the great good sense never to emulate the supreme Swiftian manner, does nevertheless command the steely style which T.S. Eliot praised. Deploring the symptoms of decay in the wording of the preface to the Revised Prayer Book, Eliot concluded: ‘And there was once a Dean (of St Patrick’s) who formed the purest, the most supple, the most useful type of English prose style.’ (Eliot’s parenthesis is a tacit rebuke to metropolitan and national vanity.)

Ehrenpreis’s judgments are better than judicious: they vibrate, as do all the best Augustan antitheses, with a succinct indignation at how cruelly unbalanced is the world which their balanced phrases contain. ‘Ireland was ruined by a policy which added the burdens of a kingdom to the disabilities of a colony.’ (It is the scrannel sequence ‘policy ... disabilities ... colony’ which keeps this on edge.) ‘Without British backing, Swift’s class could not survive. With British backing they could only survive.’ This has the clenched exactitude of pincer-jaws, and is entirely right not only for the plight of Ireland and of Swift’s class but also for Swift himself, again and again his own pincer-movement.

Such a siege of contraries is variously recorded by Ehrenpreis:

But one cannot treat a man as perfect who has refused to acknowledge a monarch, and then treat as perfect the monarch whom he has rejected.

In other words, the young Swift did passably well in college, but not so well as the septuagenarian Swift could have wished.

Frequently, he gave offence to begin with, for fear of receiving it to end with.

But if she had behaved herself with less caution at this point, Swift would probably have expressed himself with more.

After two hundred and fifty years one can still understand the remorseless grinding in Swift of the brake of pride upon the wheels of vanity.

Before he saw England again, the fame, power, advancement and exhilaration he craved would all be his, to the point of suffocation. Every good thing but serenity lay in ambush.

But the most important good thing did come. Swift’s triumph was to arrive at something which might look like this old grinding story but which felt completely different, the contrariety at last a happy concurrence: ‘No enemy could prove he was the Drapier, and no friend would deny it.’

The most useful type of English prose style has here its especially consonant uses. There is Ehrenpreis’s summary of the basic plot when Irish resistance to Wood’s Half-pence was at first overruled: ‘With these words the royal ministers upheld the claim of a foreign whore to an English bribe against the protests of a subject nation.’ What is so good about such economical anger is not any fatuous hyperbole that Swift himself would have been proud to write it, but that Swift would have been proud to read it. ‘When a scream is loud enough, it will carry even across the Irish Sea’: Ehrenpreis’s style has carried across from the 18th century, and is conducive to the lethal truth. ‘King George may be said to have helped by maintaining a level of unpopularity conducive to uprisings.’ ‘His peculiar talent was simply to voice unchanging principles, a sort of indolence which often passes for integrity.’ Such sentences execute Swift’s own principles of unindolent integrity.

A.E. Housman, who had his Swiftian side, said of the average man: ‘His opinions are determined not by his reason – “the bulk of mankind” says Swift “is as well qualified for flying as for thinking,” – but by his passions; and the faintest of all human passions is the love of truth.’ But this passion is not faint in Swift’s fullest and best biographer. He writes without violence or zealotry, aware that – in Swift’s words again –‘violent zeal for truth hath an hundred to one odds to be either petulancy, ambition, or pride.’ Ehrenpreis himself reverses the move which he shows to govern Swift’s persuasiveness. ‘Swift always acts the part of a cool man who has, against his nature, been provoked to heat’; his biographer writes as a heated man who has, against his nature, been disciplined to coolness. The terms in which he praises a fellow scholar (James Woolley) have to take the risk of seeming to wish to be transferred home, as indeed would be deserved: ‘The whole essay is a model of rigorous but imaginative scholarship.’ It has been easy for people to be snide about Ehrenpreis’s having taken more than twenty years to complete this biography. Having not myself ever completed a work of scholarship on such a scale, and indeed not having ever been close to anyone who has, I suspect in some reviewers a whiff of sour grapeshot. But it must have been with ruefulness that Ehrenpreis in his mid-sixties set down now his praise of Swift’s energies, ‘unabated half-way through his seventh decade’, or proffered a Johnsonian reflection on the delayed Swift-Pope Miscellanies: ‘But it is in the nature of such enterprises to be clogged by unforeseeable obstacles.’

Swift urged preachers to ‘recover that simplicity which in every thing of value ought chiefly to be followed’, and he spoke again of that simplicity ‘without which no human performance can arrive to any great perfection’. Ehrenpreis’s human performance combines a complicated variety of circumstances with unforced simplicity. This last volume is characterised by the convergence of many simplicities, none of which was without struggle for Swift to achieve or for Ehrenpreis to record but each of which has an uncluttered cogency.

There is the simplicity of Swift’s pattern in love: always a woman much younger than he, not physically strong, fatherless, to whom he could be at once a teacher and a father – while spectrally a husband and a lover. There is the pattern of Swift’s relations with older men who could provide him, even if only temporarily, with those fatherly protections and assurances which as a child (born after his father died) he had never known. And there is the answering pattern of Swift’s relations with younger men, who moved him to fatherliness, so that he – who was always too proud to be a really deft protégé – could yet be a protector. To these personal simplicities, which are fascinating in being at once addictive repetitions and ever-fresh people, there are added the penetrating simplicities of Swift’s political self.

Yet what gives tension to the story and its simplicities is the diverse irony of Swift’s temperament and circumstances, so that the world of Swift is always single and double. Ehrenpreis is nowhere more disciplinedly imaginative than when retailing the countless ironies within which the supreme ironist lived. There are the large ironies of preferment within the Church of Ireland, or rather the Church of England in Ireland, with clerics averting their eyes from the ladders by which they themselves ascended. ‘Like Swift, the archbishop seldom looked behind the probity of his own rhetoric to observe that he was delivering a judgment on all English immigration into Ireland, and that his own family would have stayed in Britain if not driven by the same kind of greed.’ There is the irony of this Church’s need to maximise its effortfulness at converting the Catholics while minimising its effectiveness: ‘The notorious fact was that the conversion of the natives could not be allowed to succeed; for if it did, it would annihilate those lucrative advantages on which the Anglo-colonial families built their solid comforts.’ What saves Ehrenpreis from any plump superiority is his facing the fact that, though it was Swift who created so many of the terms in which Irish nationalism and therefore American nationalism could cry out against colonialism, there is no way in which the Americans can escape exactly the same tu quoque from which Swift’s Ireland winced. Apologies to the Irish must entail at least apologies to the Iroquois.

There are other political ironies: for instance, that this most passionate of humanitarians should be the one whose position is most opposed to much modern liberal humanitarianism. Swift knew that those to whom evil is done do evil in return. ‘To say the truth, there is not a more undeserving vicious race of human kind than the bulk of those who are reduced to beggary, even in this beggarly country.’ To say such things would be intolerable if ‘undeserving’ made a claim to end the matter. But ‘Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.’ Swift’s honour and dignity set out, in Ehrenpreis’s words, ‘to relieve the poor – not because they deserved help but because they needed it.’

It is a large part of the case that Ehrenpreis makes for Swift’s greatness (‘Vicarious indignation is perhaps Swift’s finest passion – the voicing of anguish over the oppression of people weaker than himself’) that the word ‘weaker’ can accommodate Swift’s severe unceasing judgments on the moral, spiritual and political weaknesses of the Irish, those corruptions which were in collusion with British brutality. Ehrenpreis, though often a moving and touching biographer, is not a sentimental one, and in this, too, he is consonant with Swift’s cool-headed large-hearted encompassing. ‘You should think and deal with every man as a villain, without calling him so, or flying from him, or valuing him less.’ It has the lucidity and at the end the mystery of a Blakean proverb of hell, though for Swift these fires were purgatorial.

The ironies always involved pain, but not simply that, and Ehrenpreis’s account of them makes clear how it could be that Swift in old age ‘had troubles enough, but was not always troubled’. Thus Swift’s philanthropies have their irony, but only a misanthropist would take a narrow pleasure in this since the upshot is Swift’s magnanimity: ‘Of all the ironies in Swift’s unconventional career, few seem sharper than the fact that while the bulk of these philanthropies were in progress, he remained himself miserably unsure of his fate.’ Perhaps the greatest of such benign ironies, the reversal not of tragedy but of comedy, is that of Swift in the company of the great men of his day, which Ehrenpreis is moved to note with calm delight:

By joining himself openly and intimately to the first minister of Great Britain, and addressing him with conspicuous ease, Swift felt he could guarantee his own immortality; but he only guaranteed Oxford’s. The whole of Swift’s high life is permeated by this irony. He was repeatedly bored by the great; he found their hospitality exhausting; he missed the summer joys of his country parish. Yet he endured all the strain not merely for the pleasures involved, or the hope of advancing his career, but for the fame such friendships conferred. And now they all crowd like a levee in the footnotes to his letters.

Sometimes the irony finds its happiness in that a good motive was alive in the unfortunate circumstance, as when Ehrenpreis suggests that Sir William Temple’s not making provision for the career of his young protégé was more fatherly than the reverse: ‘If he had indeed any fatherly feelings for Swift, they would have worked in the wrong direction. Not only would he have wished to hold onto the young man’s company, but the memory of his son’s fate [he drowned himself after a diplomatic debacle] would have made protective measures appear kinder than efforts to give Swift independence.’ The relation there of ‘protective’ to ‘independence’ is itself an acute insight into the paradoxes of the protégé relation. ‘In the wrong direction’ and ‘independence’ point to the frequency of such reversals in Swift; in his dealings with Esther Johnson and Mrs Dingley, even while ‘establishing for himself a fantasy family in which he might act father, brother, lover or husband as he chose’, Swift ‘was also reversing the old relationship which once made him dependent upon two women’.

Reversing is the habit of Swift the hypocrite renversé, and reversals are alive in the poems and in Ehrenpreis’s critical accounts of them. ‘The comic shock is not the lure that persuades us to accept the sober lesson. On the contrary, in these poems, the pose of moralist is an excuse for a comic shock.’ ‘On the contrary’: it is appropriate that Ehrenpreis himself should then calmly and confidently reverse the usual claim for biography, while making it altogether clear that his is no less stringent a claim:

While I thus associate the character of Swift with the design or argument of his great book, I do not imply that one must familiarise oneself with his life in order to appreciate the work. Quite the contrary. Read by itself, Gulliver’s Travels will yield up something like the meanings I have expounded. But the reader who cannot accept them must square his rejection with the biographical data.

The biographical data in this last volume include the evidence of how greatly Swift in his old age enjoyed companionship and conversation; the grounds for confidence that to the end Swift remained fundamentally rational and self-possessed (which is exactly the adjudication which the present daemonic sentimentality least likes the thought of); and the humanity of Swift’s final sympathy with the common people.

The filial and the paternal in Swift, in his life and work, make Ehrenpreis write with particular wisdom and affection. But if there had to be plucked from this magisterial work one aspect of our enlarged understanding of this greatly be-lived writer, it might start from the word ‘magisterial’ itself. Magister, a master.

Swift’s powers as an educator – of individuals, of a class, of a nation – have always been acknowledged but have never been traced with such keenness as here. Of the young Hetty Johnson, Ehrenpreis says: ‘She had black, black hair and the enchanting gift of docility.’ The word ‘docility’ has gone hideously downhill, and the word ‘teachable’ has never risen above the unfeeling. The biographer can but do his best with such words. Ehrenpreis can be dry about the endless propensity in Swift to need young ladies whom he could educate. ‘Stella, in other words, had gone through the curriculum laid down in “A Letter to a Very Young Lady” and had emerged with first-class honours.’ But this is no sneer; Ehrenpreis, an honourable professor, is not cadgingly crying down his line of work. He is aware that education is not the be-all and end-all, but it is at least a begin-all, of life. Much in this biography about ‘the parental, pedagogical teasing which he always enjoyed with the young and fair’ does itself have an enchanting gift of teasing. That so many of Swift’s young women met an early death is what lends to such teasing the sober pathos which makes Swift the man so touching a presence in these pages.

The last word of Ehrenpreis’s first volume, Mr Swift and His Contemporaries, was ‘doom’; of his second, Dr Swift, ‘hope’; and of the last, Dean Swift, ‘legends’. This circles back to the prefatory page of the first volume:

I have been less concerned to add than to eliminate fables; and those readers who look for my views on a long train of legendary Swiftiana will search in vain. Here, neither Swift nor Stella is made a bastard; Swift does not say, ‘My uncle gave me the education of a dog’; Dryden does not say, ‘Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet’; and Temple does not seat Swift and Stella at the servants’ table.

The first ending, or stock-taking, with the word ‘doom’ was not simply melancholy since it intimated Swift’s resilience and large educability: ‘It was to be his lesson for the next ten years that genius, charm and integrity, all together, could not exempt him from the common doom.’ Ehrenpreis’s Swift is profoundly implicated in the common doom, and just as the biographer insists that Swift’s urgings were profound commonplaces, so the character and predicaments of Swift himself are here extraordinary in nothing but the articulate energy with which Swift felt and voiced them. Denis Donoghue has complained that Ehrenpreis, in presenting Swift as more ordinary, has made him less interesting and less intelligent. But since complementarily the power and powers of Swift are sensed on every page, there is something at once moving and salutary about the pressing admission that we of the common doom are conversely not exempt from the Swiftian one – though granted so little of his wit and conscience, of his fierceness and tenderness. It is because there has never been a less banal man than Swift that there is so much challenging exhilaration in his endless involvement in the ordinary, the common. ‘What makes the story ironical is that Swift looked for eminence without foreseeing how it would alter him’: and what makes this story come home is that what Swift suffered titanically most of us are merely vexed by. ‘Swift kept insisting to the archbishop and the ladies that he desired no gratitude, and in the same breath he choked with spite because he had received no gratitude.’ The same breath is ours. The epic quality of Swift’s life is in the way in which so often there might rise up the epic formula ‘to compare great things with small’, with our own lives as the small (not trivial) thing. It does the opposite of lessen the interest of Swift the genius that among the things to be said of him too are such commonplaces as that he was ‘a man who had never been able to live with women or without them’. ‘The common doom’ was his element, and it was a mercy that he was not exempt from it. Reversedly yet similarly, the ‘hope’ that ended the next volume was at once negated and paradoxically positive: ‘Swift’s peculiar gift was for seeing as much as he did without deserting the ideals that are normally destroyed by such a vision. His deepest humour depends on his appreciation of this paradox; for he was the first to confess that experience gave him no ground for hope.’ Ehrenpreis shows, with loving detail and stringent inquiry, just how much should be adduced to give body to this paradox. The biography itself thereby comes to partake of this peculiar gift. For Ehrenpreis is able to see as much as he does of Swift without deserting the ideals (of awe, respect, and love for such genius) that are normally destroyed by such a vision. Swift, for instance, is repeatedly shown to have a huge talent for self-deception; to be crucially insensitive to people and to issues; to reduce history to psychology; and to misrepresent himself, his deeds and their reception. Yet the vision of Swift’s greatness is not destroyed by Ehrenpreis’s seeing so much and making us see it. We feel of Swift’s fissures and failures that we too must face them – and that one way of not facing them would be to allow them to destroy the vision which alone can explain why more than two hundred years after his death Swift still deserves and demands such attention.

Ehrenpreis earns, by his patient fidelity to both scholarship and Swift, the controlled anger with which he finally comes to rest upon the word ‘legends’. Such anger has to be heard against the deep sadness of the pages which precede it, where Ehrenpreis’s prose has a transparency which makes the word ‘prose’ too self-conscious. ‘The great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way,’ said Matthew Arnold, and such is the great art of biography.

One day in mid-March, as Swift sat in his chair, he reached towards a knife. But Mrs Ridgeway moved it away from him. He shrugged his shoulders, rocked himself, and said, ‘I am what I am, I am what I am.’ Some minutes later he repeated the words twice or three times. About a fortnight afterwards, he tried to speak to his servant, whom he sometimes called by name. Not finding words to tell what he meant, he showed some uneasiness and said, ‘I am a fool’ – his last recorded words.

It is only after so doing right by Swift, through to his death at 78, that Ehrenpreis arrives at deploring those who have done wrong by him. Some of these were men of genius – Swift’s equals as Ehrenpreis nowhere claims to be, and yet unequal to Ehrenpreis in respect for Swift. ‘But Birch knew Samuel Johnson, who delighted in his anecdotes and had already made a lapidary inscription of the lie that “Swift expires a driv’ler and a show.” Scholarship cannot hope to rival the dramatic narratives that Johnson and Scott have embedded in English literary culture. But it can offer materials to those who would rather come near Swift himself than be entertained with fascinating legends.’ Ehrenpreis’s dedication to Swift of half a lifetime ought to make it impossible for people, with a clear conscience, to go on seeing Swift as a legendary figure upon a lettered coin, made strangely comfortable for us by being (in the words of Geoffrey Hill about a coin of Offa) ‘cushioned on a legend’.

Not exactly eclipsed by Ehrenpreis’s biography, but necessarily rather occluded by it, are three recent books on Swift. F.P. Lock’s Swift’s Tory Politics draws ‘freely’ on Ehrenpreis’s first two volumes, but in its last sentence settles for an antithesis the ease of which provokes uneasiness: ‘By temperament and conviction he was conservative and authoritarian; an accident of history made him a patron and champion of liberty.’ J.A. Downie’s Jonathan Swift: Political Writer expresses its gratitude to Ehrenpreis, for the books and for conversation; it thinks more highly than he does of Swift as a political thinker, without discounting the pressures of sheer contingency all his life. Claude Rawson has revised his ‘Focus’ collection of pieces on Swift (1971) as The Character of Swift’s Satire: ten essays on many aspects of Swift’s life and work, with the contributors including Ian Watt, Pat Rogers, and Ehrenpreis (on Swift’s letters).