Was Swift a monster?

Denis Donoghue

  • Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed by David Nokes
    Oxford, 427 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 19 812834 7

The main problem for David Nokes or for any other biographer of Swift is that the agenda has already been prescribed. Within a few years of Swift’s death in 1745, questions were raised which are still the standard issues. What kind of man wrote the fourth Voyage of Gulliver’s Travels? Did his imagination give him away? ‘In painting Yahoos he becomes one himself,’ according to the Earl of Orrery’s Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr Jonathan Swift (1752). ‘Being born amongst men and, of consequence, piqued by many and peevish at more, he has blasphemed a nature a little lower than that of angels and assumed by far higher than they,’ according to Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759). In short, was Swift a monster, as Samuel Johnson nearly said: ‘The greatest difficulty that occurs, in analysing his character, is to discover by what depravity of intellect he took delight in revolving ideas from which almost every other mind shrinks with disgust.’ Sixty years after Johnson, Thackeray still revolved the same motif. As for the moral of Gulliver’s Travels, he said: ‘I think it horrible, shameful, unmanly, blasphemous; and giant and great as this Dean is, I say we should hoot him.’

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