Plenty of Pinching

John Mullan

  • Jonathan Swift by Victoria Glendinning
    Hutchinson, 324 pp, £20.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 09 179196 0

Jonathan Swift’s last formal composition, before he slipped into the dementia that swallowed him for the last five years of his life, was his own epitaph. In May 1740 he made his will, fastidiously apportioning his property and specifying arrangements for his interment. He stipulated that he be buried ‘as privately as possible, and at Twelve o’clock at Night’ in the great aisle of Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, where he had been Dean since 1714. A tablet of black marble was to be fixed to the wall ‘with the following Inscription in large Letters, deeply cut, and strongly gilded’:


‘Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where savage indignation can no longer tear his heart. Go, traveller, and imitate if you can one who strove with all his might to champion liberty.’

Swift’s claim to his rest from ‘savage indignation’ was also, characteristically, a literary allusion. In his First Satire, Juvenal splenetically explains why he finds himself writing satire at all. He stands in the streets of Rome, he says, and watches the monsters of vice that pass by. His gorge rises and he just has to write about it: ‘si natura negat, facit indignatio versum.’ ‘Though nature forbids, indignation makes the verse.’ Satire is forced into being by the pressure of the times. The satirist’s anger – for which, in later ages, Juvenal became a representative – makes silence impossible. It is strange to find ‘sæva indignatio’ on Swift’s memorial tablet, a tablet that notably does not contain any mention of the usual Christian consolations – any hope of salvation or another life beyond this one. It is strange because Swift had distanced the satirical writings from his own feelings: they were written in the voices of personae whose attitudes and beliefs had been chosen precisely because they were not, apparently, his own, and published anonymously or pseudonymously. Gulliver is the most famous, but there are many others: sometimes evidently foolish, sometimes worryingly lucid; self-righteous or ‘humble’; piously outraged or alarmingly dispassionate. None of them speaks for Swift. Readers have often imagined the author’s fury or disgust or horror, but without actually hearing his voice. And yet, at the end, he seemed to declare that the satire came from his own wounded heart.

Victoria Glendinning is not the first to take this epitaph as an explanation not only of Swift’s satirical impulses, but also of some kind of deep disturbance within his personality. ‘Swift is immoderate, a man of intense responses, provoked to towering rage: sæva indignatio,’ she writes in the concluding chapter of her biography. ‘There is uncontrollable anger in him, originating in some early outrage one cannot precisely determine.’ Her idea about ‘some early outrage’ is a reflex of the 20th-century biographer, but she shares with memoirists of the 18th century her sense that a terrible anger produced Swift’s satire and dominated, perhaps maddened the man. He died under the care of guardians appointed by an Irish Commission of Lunacy, the commissioners having decided, three years earlier, that he ‘hath for these nine months past been gradually failing in his memory and understanding, and of such unsound mind ... that he is incapable of transacting any business, or managing, conducting, or taking care either of his estate or person’. From the beginning, those who have written about Swift have been tempted to see his final, vacant madness as the last, inevitable stage of ‘indignatio’.

Swift’s first biographer was Laetitia Pilkington, whose Memoirs (1748-54) include – if we believe them at all – our most intimate glimpses of his character and his oddities. When Pilkington thought of Swift’s last years she thought of his own fictional creatures, the lamentably immortal Struldbruggs, who teach the narrator of the desirability of death in Gulliver’s Travels. ‘In talking they forget the common Appellation of Things, and the Names of Persons, and even of those who are their nearest Friends and Relations. For the same Reason they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their Memory will not serve to carry them from the Beginning of a Sentence to the End.’ Instead of being sources of wisdom, as Gulliver first imagines, these endlessly ageing beings are objects of horror and disgust. Their inventor, in Pilkington’s account, foresaw his own fate. What he satirised, he was duly made to suffer: ‘when he fell on Infirmities ... he was punished with them all in a remarkable manner; he lived to be a Struldbrugg, helpless as a Child, and unable to assist himself.’

Pilkington had been a pet of Swift’s and had received from him harsh treatment that she took for affection: sardonic put-downs, peremptory instructions and plenty of pinching. ‘The Dean’, as she always calls him, showed her his poems and letters and instructed her in literature, though he was ‘a very rough sort of a Tutor’. In the early stages of his madness this roughness became violence and, apparently, he beat her. Still revering him, she found an explanation that is echoed in later accounts. ‘I believe too much Learning had turn’d his Head, or too deep a Search into the Secrets of Nature.’ She wrote this in exoneration, but others would tell the story of Swift’s last years in a hostile spirit. Indeed, in the biography that followed Pilkington’s, the Earl of Orrery’s Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr Jonathan Swift (1752), the biographer found a nasty satisfaction in ‘the ways of Providence’ when he turned to the satirist’s decay: ‘this great genius, this mighty wit, who seemed to scoff, and scorn at all mankind, lived not only to be an example to punish his own pride, and to terrify ours, but underwent some of the greatest miseries to which human nature is liable.’

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