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.’

But Thackeray removed the issue from morality by consigning it to nature and narrating Swift’s life in the readiest available style for such a transformation. The life became a melodrama fulfilled in dire images which pointed to a flaw in nature even when a psychological vocabulary was enforced upon it. Swift became the Heathcliff of an age regularly presented in more civic terms:

He was always alone – alone and gnashing in the darkness, except when Stella’s sweet smile came and shone upon him. When that went, silence and utter night closed over him. An immense genius: an awful downfall and ruin. So great a man he seems to me, that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling.

It required only a further push to remove Swift from history to myth, and to dissolve psychological explanations in a typology that had no need of them – a push provided by Yeats in ‘The Tables of the Law’ and The Words upon the Window-Pane, and by Joyce in Ulysses: ‘The hundred-headed rabble of the cathedral close. A hater of his kind ran from them to the wood of madness, his mane foaming in the moon, his eyeballs stars, Houyhnhnm, horsenostrilled.’

What, too, of Varina, Stella and Vanessa? Varina (Jane Waring) is simple enough. As a young man, Swift wanted to marry her. She hesitated, and Swift’s pride refused her the concession of a second chance. Stella (Esther Johnson) provided him with smiles and company, but he was never passionate about her. Vanessa (Hester Vanhomrigh) was a more tempestuous woman, and she drove him far beyond himself. But the progress of these entanglements is still not clear. I think Swift married Stella secretly in 1716, and that Vanessa discovered the secret and taxed him with it. But there is not enough evidence, unless melodrama is what we have in view.

David Nokes’s book is splendid. He has had the advantage of several formidable biographies of Swift which have set out the risks and possibilities. Nigel Dennis’s Jonathan Swift: A Short Character has always seemed to me a brilliantly assured book, but it hasn’t enough detail. John Middleton Murry’s book is still vivid, but it’s a quirky performance, enamoured of a few lurid ideas. Irvin Ehrenpreis’s biography is assumed to be definitive, and I agree that the ascertainable facts are rigorously displayed. But it is an unexciting work. Ehrenpreis’s plan was to eliminate the fables and legends which had attached themselves to Swift’s name. In the Preface to his first volume he said, with perhaps premature satisfaction: ‘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.’ In the event, Ehrenpreis’s scruple issued in a book few readers will choose to read twice. There is some evidence that he got tired of writing it. The first volume was published in 1962, the second in 1967, the third and last in 1983. Between the second and third, Ehrenpreis turned his liveliest attention to modern American poetry, and postponed the biography. The last volume reads as a task grimly completed. Not that it would necessarily have been improved by retaining the legends: but Ehrenpreis hasn’t convinced me that Swift was fully disclosed in his published works, his correspondence, and the little we know of his intimate relations. There is a remainder still hidden; he didn’t coincide with any of the forms in which we see him.

There is no new evidence in Nokes’s biography, but his sense of Swift’s life and work strikes me as far more telling than Ehrenpreis’s. He seems more inward with the man, without claiming to be. I find his account of Stella and Vanessa, for instance, entirely convincing. He maintains that Swift’s relation to Vanessa was indeed ‘sexual, in that it was characterised by an awareness, sometimes anxious, sometimes coy, of sexuality by both parties’. Had Vanessa been Swift’s mistress – which she probably wasn’t – and Stella his wife, the relation to Vanessa ‘could not have had a more furtive, guilty, adulterous flavour; it would merely have been a more conventional form of infidelity.’ Swift’s relation to Stella, however, ‘was not sexual, whether or not they were married’. Stella ‘occupied the posts respectively of pupil, friend, confidant, housekeeper and nurse, and was indeed “the best pattern of true friendship”’. But Swift didn’t feel any passion for her. She was a symbol to him of every virtue, and satisfied every desire in him except the desire for Vanessa.

Nokes is excellent on these matters, and perceptive – though I don’t think he would claim to be strikingly original – on Swift’s writings. But he keeps coming back, as he should, to the man who was provoked into writing them. He emphasises Swift’s friendships, as cogent evidence that he couldn’t have been a monster: think of the diverse affections he inspired in Pope, Addison, Bolingbroke, Thomas Sheridan, Delany, Arbuthnot, Gay, many other men and at least a few women. In the end, Nokes praises Swift’s ‘essential honesty and humanity that made him prefer to seem a monster rather than a hypocrite’. It’s still not clear to me why he is supposed to have had to live between such appalling alternatives, but Nokes has persuaded me that Swift saw the matter in those dreadful terms.