Carry up your Coffee boldly

Thomas Keymer

  • Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch
    Yale, 573 pp, £25.00, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 16499 2
  • Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises: ‘Polite Conversation’, ‘Directions to Servants’ and Other Works by Jonathan Swift, edited by Valerie Rumbold
    Cambridge, 821 pp, £85.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 521 84326 3
  • Journal to Stella: Letters to Esther Johnson and Rebecca Dingley, 1710-13 by Jonathan Swift, edited by Abigail Williams
    Cambridge, 800 pp, £85.00, December 2013, ISBN 978 0 521 84166 5

Swift once said his favourite writer was La Rochefoucauld, ‘because I found my whole character in him.’ But what did he mean? Not, surely, that he personally resembled a Grand Siècle courtier who prided himself on – among other incongruous attributes – mild passions, virtuous sentiments and flawless social polish. If it was in La Rochefoucauld’s writing, such as the celebrated Maxims of 1665, that Swift found his own character, then where exactly? If anything unites this vast, discontinuous collection of moral reflections, it’s an emphasis on character as outward performance, not inward essence. No doubt Swift was drawn to La Rochefoucauld’s view of self-love as central to human nature, and when presenting one of his best-known poems as ‘occasioned’ by the Maxims, picked a passage so cynical that La Rochefoucauld had purged it from his definitive edition of 1678. The epigraph to ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’, Swift’s wry self-analysis of 1731, reads: ‘In the adversity of our best friends, we find something that doth not displease us.’ The poem goes on to identify Alexander Pope as his best friend.

Later epigrammatists could lighten the point with self-deflating comedy: ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,’ Gore Vidal said, channelling a similar joke by Oscar Wilde. But La Rochefoucauld is in grim earnest, and Swift plays the translation straight. He restores the comic deficit in the poem itself, a mock obituary projected into the voices of his friends and enemies. But he also makes clear that the maxim is there to implicate them, not him. Schadenfreude is the general human condition, not something peculiar to Swift, and about Swift himself the rest of the poem – a long one for him at almost five hundred lines – leaves us little the wiser. There’s no Prelude-like geology of selfhood here, just a medley of shallow impressions voiced by bored observers, such as the ladies who hear the news ‘in doleful Dumps,/“The Dean is Dead, (and what is trumps?).”’ Even when a less frivolous voice takes over to celebrate Swift the public-spirited satirist, the poem neatly subverts its surface propositions. The best example was not detected until the 20th century, at least not in print: ‘To steal a Hint was never known,/But what he writ, was all his own.’ A silent contradiction explodes this deadpan claim to literary originality: Swift lifted these words from the Restoration poet Sir John Denham’s praise of Abraham Cowley: ‘To him no author was unknown,/Yet what he wrote was all his own.’ As it happens, it was Cowley’s rhapsodic style Swift began his career by imitating, so that (he bragged to a cousin in 1692) ‘when I writt what pleases me I am Cowley to my self.’ These early poems, Leo Damrosch writes, ‘are truly awful’.

Early memoirists take us further with Swift’s character, but only so far. His godson Thomas Sheridan recalled that ‘he always appeared to the world in a mask, which he never took off but in the company of his most intimate friends.’ Yet this unmasking, such as it was, only seems to have confused things further. The most memorable assessments from those closest to Swift are cryptic or frankly agnostic. The Tory-Jacobite grandee Viscount Bolingbroke called him a ‘hypocrite renversé’, a formulation not fully explained by Sheridan’s gloss that it referred to Swift’s concealment of his charitable deeds. A younger relative called Deane Swift attempted a memoir, but admitted that he thought Swift’s character ‘so exceedingly strange, various and perplexed, that it can never be drawn up with any degree of accuracy’. His aim was to refute the account of yet another memoirist, the Earl of Orrery, who summed Swift up as ‘my hieroglyphic friend’.

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