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.’

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