On Jonathan Swift's Poetry

Jonathan Swift arrives on our bookshelves in disguise, and for most readers he stays that way. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a book for children, a tale of wonder and adventure, with shipwrecks and talking animals, worthy to stand with Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick, which are also children’s books. Generations of teachers and librarians have given Lemuel Gulliver their imprimatur of wholesomeness. Let’s remind them of the scene in Lilliput when the emperor commands Gulliver to stand in a field with his legs wide apart while the emperor’s army rides through the giant’s arch:
His Majesty gave Orders, upon pain of Death, that every Soldier in his March should observe the strictest Decency with regard to my Person; which, however, could not prevent some of the younger Officers from turning up their Eyes as they passed under me. And, to confess the Truth, my Breeches were at that time in so ill a Condition, that they afforded some Opportunities for Laughter and Admiration.
That may stand as my favorite phrase in Swift, the arch-coiner of memorable phrases: “Laughter and Admiration”—rooted, of course, in exhibitionism, voyeurism, and a joyous sense of smutty-mindedness. Because of such bawdy, Gulliver’s Travels is surely among the most frequently bowdlerized of classics, and most readers probably have never read Gulliver’s description of a Brobdinagian woman’s breast as she nurses:
It stood prominent six Foot, and could not be less than sixteen in Circumference. The Nipple was about half the Bigness of my Head, and the Hue both of that and the Dug so varified with Spots, Pimples, and Freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous.
Beyond Gulliver’s Travels, what do common readers know of Swift’s work? “A Modest Proposal,” perhaps, and the venturesome may have dabbled in A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. But who reads Journal to Stella or The Drapier’s Letters, the latter credited by one of Swift’s contemporaries with “breathing into [the Irish] something of his own lofty and defiant spirit.” Swift was a pamphleteer of genius, a savage polemicist and satirical master of the plain style. He told a correspondent in a letter penned in 1719: “Proper words in proper places, make the true definitions of a style.” Listen to the rhythm of those words, and know the poet.

No, in the popular mind Swift remains a one-book author, and even ambitious readers may be unaware he wrote poetry. Scholars have identified roughly 280 poems in English and a handful in Latin. Like most of Swift’s work, nearly all were published anonymously for reasons both prudent and pathological. Even so great a critic as Samuel Johnson, in The Lives of the English Poets, devotes only two paragraphs to the poems and blandly says they are “often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety.” At least Johnson got the humorous part right.

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