- Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs
Viking, 752 pp, £19.99, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 670 92205 5
One of Jonathan Swift’s first published poems was a piece of 18 lines called ‘A Description of the Morning’. It was printed anonymously in an April 1709 edition of the Tatler, which in its original incarnation took an interest in literary criticism, history and philosophy as well as society gossip. Richard Steele, the magazine’s editor and a friend of Swift’s, puffed the poet and his work in an introduction. This new writer, he said, deserved to be read and admired because he had ‘run into a Way perfectly new, and describ’d Things exactly as they happen’.
An ability to describe things exactly as they happened was remarkable in the context of the kind of verse being produced at the time by London’s small army of poets and poetasters. The amateur ‘scribblers’ who fought for publication in the Tatler and elsewhere were fond of ‘Fantastical Descriptions’, as Steele called them, anodyne representations of pleasant pastoral scenes that looked as if they had come straight out of an annotated school text of Virgil’s Eclogues (as, often, they had). Their images of ‘nymphs’ and ‘groves’ were idyllic and generic; they bore a far stronger resemblance to one another than to anything you were likely to see out of the window. In his ‘Description of the Morning’, Swift took a well-known topos – the depiction of dawn and the new day – and described the sun’s early light revealing not bands of merry shepherds tripping blithely to the fields, but a young chimney-sweep preparing to remove the accumulated filth of coal fires; a maid creeping back to her own bed after a night spent in her master’s (filth, to Swift, of a not unrelated kind); and a handful of schoolboys dawdling with their satchels, reluctant to absorb the instruction that might afford them a way out of the poverty and grime. Swift uses the pastoral word ‘flock’ to describe the group of convicts released every night from prison on payment of a bribe to their jailer, before being shepherded back with the dawn to spend the day behind bars.
This way of looking at the world – the truth-telling, the commitment to particularity, the unswerving interest in the things most people would rather ignore – was held up by contemporary advocates as the essence of satire, and the thing it was best at. Satire scourged, exposed and illuminated: it was, depending on the metaphor you preferred, a physician’s tonic for the body politic, an extra-judicial arm of the law or, in a particularly popular image, a mirror held up to man’s conduct. (Swift proposed a subtle variation on the last of these, noting sardonically in his preface to The Battle of the Books that ‘satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.’) Satire stripped back, pared down and zoomed in. Where early 18th-century pastoral and epic poems offered escapism, satire kept both feet on the ground and laughed at pretension. Swift’s jailbirds and chimney-sweeps took the place of shepherds and milkmaids; in John Gay’s mock-pastoral The Shepherd’s Week, published a few years after ‘A Description of the Morning’, unpoetic swains and maids sing about turnips, potatoes and the intricacies of cheesemaking. The centrepiece of the second book of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad is a mock-epic games, featuring mud-slinging contests and competitions to see who can piss the highest. Satire could be profoundly unlikeable (as contemporary detractors and an army of hostile Victorian critics made clear), and could be felt to tell the truth to an almost perverse degree; but it could at least be relied on to show the world as it was.
Yet 18th-century satirists weren’t – or weren’t just – literal-minded observers of human folly, political polemicists or would-be moral reformers. If they had been, it would be more difficult than it customarily is to say why Gulliver’s Travels features on English Literature syllabuses and, say, the anonymous 1766 moral and political treatise The New Economy of Human Life (‘Part I. Of the Imperfections and Folly of Man Considered as a Relative and Social Being’) usually doesn’t. What distinguishes 18th-century satire in general and Swift’s satire in particular is the way it uses fiction. Fiction, here, doesn’t have to mean anything as grand or sustained as the narrative of Gulliver’s journey or the allegory of the three brothers in A Tale of a Tub; it is often something as small as an exaggeration, an imaginative metaphor or a comic diminution. Sometimes it involves using a dramatic persona, such as when Swift adopts the shockingly reasonable voice of his Modest Proposer to suggest breeding peasant children for food; or looking at the world through a magnifying glass, altering the relative sizes of things to produce vertiginous shifts of perspective. (To magnify something in the early 18th century meant praising it as well as enlarging it to the sight: both senses are at work in Pope’s admiring description in The Dunciad of Swift’s ability to ‘magnify Mankind’ by his satire, where the delicate suggestion is that whether man deserves magnification depends on how well he survives being examined close-up.) Swift’s satire was fabulous as well as honest, a distorting magnifying glass as well as a mirror. It was the expression, as John Stubbs argues in his vivid and sympathetic new biography, of both sides of his deeply divided personality – the place where the authoritarian cleric came face to face with the ‘daring cultural bandit’.
Swift was born in November 1667 in a little lane in the middle of Dublin, close to the castle. He was descended on both sides from recent colonial settlers. His mother, Abigail, came from a Leicestershire family; his father, Jonathan, whom he never knew, had moved to Dublin from Herefordshire to work as a lawyer and died in March or April of the year Swift was born, just ‘in time to save his mother’s credit’, as Swift said later. Stubbs makes much of the religious and political coming together in the union of the Swifts with Abigail’s family, the Erickes – a meeting of High Anglican Royalists and Nonconformist Cromwellians that seemed to stage in miniature the larger sectarian conflicts that came to define Swift’s professional and intellectual life. When Swift was just a year old, he was taken by his wet nurse (whether kidnapped or with the agreement of his mother isn’t known) across the Irish Sea to Whitehaven, where he remained for a couple of years out of touch with his relations in Dublin. He was brought back at the age of three, already able to spell and read the Bible. In later years, ashamed of his Irish birth, Swift liked to tell an inverted version of this story, claiming he had been born in England and smuggled across to Ireland in a ‘bandbox’. At six, he was sent away from Dublin to board at Kilkenny College, a tough schooling that was heavy on Latin and beatings. At 14 – by no means unusually young for the time – he was enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, where he did well in Greek and Latin and badly in philosophy, and barely squeaked through with a degree (awarded ‘by special grace’) five years later.
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